Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

“How do you say __?” Extending beyond “the vocab list”



I’ll admit it. For every unit – a set of vocabulary. Used to ensure a basic set of words to discuss the topic.  My goal in this being that students have a common vocabulary with which to interact. But it’s the extra’s that are the key – the words that personalize the learning for the student – and expands their ability to express what they want to say.

Recent posts from Amy Lenord (@alenord) and others around”leaving the list’ behind – have challenged me to look not as much at the basic vocabulary but rather at how I deal with the requests for “What is the word for__? or “How do I use ____?”. And so a ‘shift’ for me  is happening – one that is enriching and empowering my students.

Teacher Shift – Attitude: Part of the move beyond the list does I think come when you are ‘comfortable’ with your program. Not only with ‘how’ it runs (PBL? TPRS?) but also where it is running to. It took me a while to come around to the idea of more choice. Not because I didn’t favour having a language vocabulary that is personal – but because I was still forming how the curriculum and the course would be delivered. I was so busy worrying about their ability to communicate – I forgot that this was the focus – and that it was my job to show them ‘how’ to communicate;  how to ensure their listener understands them, clarify or explain a word  or concept, adjust vocabulary as needed.  They could take it from there.

An example? My Grade 12’s regularly do a travel unit in which they ‘sell’ tours to various parts of Japan to their classmates. It can be tough to predict what vocabulary is needed in advance. This time, I asked them to add the words that they each needed that they felt were key to understanding their tour. Yes – we crowdsourced the vocabulary – the words stayed up on the board during the preparation time. Each day they spent a small amount of time (5 min) picking a word (or 2) off the board – telling their partner they didn’t understand – and playing out how to explain what the word meant.

Teacher Shift – Opportunity: Not only did my willingness to add vocabulary require a mental shift, it also required an opportunity shift. That is – I needed to provide students with the settings that allowed them to show/use the words that they needed to use.  Opportunities for personal expression – using the full range of vocabulary they have acquired had to be expanded. How did I allow them to show/use what they knew?

An example? For my first year students it has been as simple as adding a large empty box on their unit vocabulary sheet. I put a heading “Extras WE/I Want to Know:” on it. Whenever a phrase or word comes up in an incidental way in class I put it up for them and they are now recording it there.

For my more senior students it means a shift in how I ask them to show me what they understand. They can utilize any words at their disposal to complete the task at hand. Therefore it is becoming evident in the choice that I am allowing students. “Please show me that you understand the concept ___” means that students can use any vocabulary at their disposal – and are not limited to what is required. In class interaction the motto is “you can use it if you can explain it (or any other way you can share the meaning).”

The more I learn to step back, and empower my students to step up and use the language, the more that choice plays into the mix. I have learned that it is my job to coach and support – not constrict their language learning. It’s true that there are some times when students are not quite ready to take on a concept due to language ability. But if I ask my students to risk and try with a new language – why am I holding back their ability to express themselves?

I want to thank the #langchat community – especially those like Amy who regularly question, mentor and more importantly share their journey with us. It inspires teachers like me to strike off in new directions as well! More choice to come!


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  1. For review and extension of vocabulary, I like using concept maps on the board to organize thoughts and themes around a topic. It is open-ended and a chance to build dictionary-using skills. For example when students listened to a song about “Furusato” hometown and wrote about their own ideas, the concept map included vocabulary for locations, feelings, activities, descriptions, etc.
    What was that on-line vocabulary site that shows connections between words? I wonder if that works in Japanese also. Maybe something like Prezi that can visually show the relationships between words would also be useful.

  2. I have used them before as well – and they are a great way to expand personal vocabulary on various themes – this has been really useful I think in gathering vocabulary ‘for life’ rather than the ‘test’. I know that I am also really aware of all the extras now – there’s a great post here from Carrie Toth about rethinking vocabulary as well

  3. I’ve increasingly been using a very similar approach based on the DOGME method in EFL teaching (Teaching Unplugged by Thornbury/Meddings is great book about it). I really believe that we need to give our students the language THEY want to use and not the language we want them to use. See also my presentation with a colleague of mine at the UK Language World Conference in 2012 on this topic:

  4. Thanks for your comment Bertram… I will check out the presentation. Happy New Year,

  5. Thank you so much for this posting. Lee sensei! I really enjoy reading your blog. Yes, teaching extended vocabulary is always a challenging in my lessons…. However, vocabulary is so critical in Chinese language (esp. for reading comprehension in higher level later). Sometimes it could be overwhelming to students, if I do too much…. I like your approach of having students to take the ownership to decide what they need and get the venue to display! Xiexie!!

  6. Thanks for your comments! I face similar challenges in Japanese – we have two phonetic scripts but also begin to add in Chinese characters (kanji). There are 1800+ kanji needed to be considered fully literate – my students have learned about 300 by year 4! I like the idea of ‘base vocab’ for all and then they gather their extras – and also like the reality of ‘you can use it if you can explain it in the TL’ – it mirrors real life. 🙂

  7. I love having this conversation, but I want to add something into the mix here. Not providing a glossed list does not mean that we don’t establish the base vocabulary in other ways. Comprehensible input through my speaking or their reading a text is one way that we establish a common bank of vocabulary. Also, sometimes I give them the learning target or a task and ask them to decide what the words should be. Other times I use non-linguistic representations (photos, clipart, etc.) to be something they use to generate new vocabulary. I like to think of it as showing them the path to the words they need without my driving the vehicle down that path, and if they ask for a word I answer with it or allow them to look their own up. Any words my students generate I collect and turn into Quizlet flashcard sets they can study later. Our district rubrics reward students for using self-selected vocabulary and using vocabulary from multiple topics when they are assessed. I am really starting to see my level 1 students go above and beyond to learn worlds that are not just part of the agreed upon base. Our rubrics also require that our students (even in level 1) to string sentences together into longer sentences and use transition words, rejoinders and other things that personalize their language. They know now that they can’t maintain the grades they are used to if they don’t start producing more of this kind of language, so I am constantly challenged to give them more resources to pull from. I started scouring Quizlet for interesting sets of vocabulary flashcards and I ran into a set on Spanish names for junk foods, sports equipment and positions, and even Jelly Belly jelly bean flavors in Spanish. I then created an “Independent Study” page on my website and have started encouraging my students to check it out.

  8. I like all of your suggestions – in fact just today I started to add the ‘board’ words to Quizlet – they still have the basic items 🙂 but now any extras are put in with a * beside them. They know that these are extras they are welcome to use – but not mandatory! Next it’s on to more Quizlet cards I think…I’ll start searching!

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