When you’re preparing to teach a new student, it’s important to consider the learner’s intended use of the language. If a learner is studying a foreign language for fun or travel, they’ll likely be looking for vocabulary within the context of meeting new people, entertainment, locations and establishments, directions, food, etc. If, however, they are learning a language for work or study, the approach and lesson content should reflect that end goal. Even those just starting out on their learning journey will be looking for context- and situation-appropriate vocabulary and phrases – likely that they’re already seeing or hearing in an academic or business setting. This is why it’s important to do away with the idea that vocabulary fits into a level-specific box and that some words or phrases should be reserved for intermediate or advanced level learners.
While preparing lessons, you may have seen vocabulary presented in lengthy vocabulary lists and even come across the concept of vocabulary being divided into proficiency levels (certainly not here though!). This approach limits lower-level learners to lexical items for concrete ideas or physical objects while words for abstract ideas are found in higher-level lesson content. So, what are some rules of thumb when teaching vocabulary? Take a look below:
Teaching meaning can be tough sometimes, especially with more abstract lexical items. When you present language in a context, however, the context does half the work of teaching meaning. If you’re designing a lesson for your student, start out with your target grammar point and think of an appropriate context to deliver and discuss this grammar (ie. if you’re teaching the present progressive to your student who works as a sales rep, you might choose to teach in the context of clients he/she is selling to currently, or projects and sales that are currently on the go at the company). Choosing a context helps shed light on the vocabulary you’ll need to also teach (ie. sales, clients, timeline, deadline, sales goals, quarter, earnings, etc.). When vocabulary is presented in a context, students can use context clues to determine the meaning of a new lexical item which takes the pressure off you, the teacher, and encourages independent thought and learning. Teachers in this situation guide the learner by asking questions like “What do you think that word means?”, “Why did that person say (lexical item) in their email?”, “When do you think we can use (lexical item)?”, etc.
Let’s say you’ve decided to go with this context idea listed above but you don’t know much about sales lingo and don’t really know which words to include. Well, I’d suggest doing some Google searches to gather information on helpful sales terminology. Your search shouldn’t look like “sales vocabulary for ESL students” because the goal here is to find current terminology that is actually being used in the field, not just terms deemed appropriate for the EFL classroom. Not sure what your student does? Or what types of things they read/write/listen to for their job? Schedule in a little Q&A session to your next lesson. You can use The TEFL Lab’s handy tool called the Learner Needs Analysis to guide this conversation with your student and don’t forget to record your notes here. Don’t forget that you can always ask your learners to bring emails or reports they normally read or write (if they contain English) and ask them what they really need English for in their job.
When your student is speaking, evaluate if the words they are using are the ones you’d use in that particular context or if there are more appropriate ones to use. It doesn’t matter if you feel that the word they need is “more advanced”, if they need it, they need it. This is often trickier for teachers with more experience because you can become accustomed to understanding what your student means or wants to say and in turn, allowing these opportunities for more relevant lexical items to pass by. The key is to really listen to what your student is saying. Jot down some of the language they are using so that you can provide additional language shortly after the idea has been shared or you can do some after-class planning to come up with additional ideas for next class.
If you’re used to looking at vocabulary as level limited and in lists, you might be hesitant to bring “more advanced” vocabulary to your lower-level learners. We get it; teaching relevant, sometimes abstract or “complex” lexical items may seem a bit daunting. So besides your tried and true methods like showing an image, drawing and example or acting out the meaning (all great approaches for physical objects or actions), here are some tips for teaching abstract lexical items and functional language:
– Always be sure to teach vocabulary in a context (we can’t say that enough!), and more importantly perhaps, in a format that’s realistic and conducive to the target vocabulary.
If students are learning important phrases for emailing a colleague, you likely wouldn’t have your students listen to a podcast episode about the stock market or a short video about new technology and then ask them to write an email about it. Instead, deliver this content in an email – the ‘realer’ the better. You can find a lot of representative materials like this in The TEFL Lab lessons (even starting at A1!). Then ask your student to draft a similar email to a real person they communicate with, about a project or task they’d actually get in touch with this person about.
-Use existing knowledge, and synonyms and antonyms to guide learners to meaning.
When possible, connect new lexical items to previously learned concepts. You can also share synonyms and/or antonyms with your learners or encourage them to look some up. Making connections to previous knowledge is a great way to guide learners to more independent thinking and learning when they’re outside the classroom, trying to decipher the meaning of a new email as well.
-Cognates or translation can be such a helpful approach when teaching more abstract meaning as there often isn’t a way to express these lexical items with a drawing, action, or image. Translation has sometimes been looked down upon as the easy way out of teaching and while I wouldn’t suggest using translation when other techniques can be used, translation allows students to connect their L1 to newly acquired language, sometimes making it easier to remember.
For learners to really grasp the meaning and feel confident using new lexical items, they’ll need to experience the word or phrase in multiple formats and through a variety of skills. This means that students should hear the word, see it written, have practice saying it aloud in a complete sentence, understand its meaning (and have an opportunity to prove it!), and use it while speaking and/or writing. This exposure and use of new lexical items is key in solidifying the meaning and increasing learners’ confidence in their use of the word. Inviting students to practice new lexical items (or find new, relevant vocabulary) outside class is a great idea to expose them to more relevant vocabulary, especially when they know they are welcome to bring some of this new vocabulary to class to discuss with you. Invite them to read specific articles, social media posts, or online magazines for reading practice. Students can underline new words they find and use independent learning strategies (like using context clues, searching for synonyms, and even translating) to get the meaning. You can also encourage your learners to watch videos (short or long) with (or without) English subtitles to practice both listening and reading relevant, real-life vocabulary. For more listening practice, audiobooks, podcasts, and audio news clips relevant to their interests or work can be a rich source of useful vocabulary.
Relevant vocabulary doesn’t have to be reserved for your intermediate or advanced level learners. It should be approached from the perspective of respecting the language your learner needs for their professional life and environment. The broader your learners’ vocabulary, the better they can communicate in a practical way. As teachers, it’s our responsibility to provide our students with the tools they need in order to meet their goals, and giving them relevant vocabulary in class (yes, even as an A1 level learner) is one of the best ways we can do that.