Vocabulary is an important part of every lesson, regardless of which skill we are focusing on. Teaching vocabulary is a little different than teaching grammar, writing or other concept-based skills. In this article, my goal is to help you think about ways of more effectively incorporating vocabulary instruction into your planning and teaching. I will demonstrate three main principles;
1) Students will not be able to use most words until they have worked with them repeatedly and understand them deeply.
2) Students need to see new words in a variety of contexts.
3) Students need to reuse new vocabulary in subsequent classes if they are to remember it.
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How to Teach Vocabulary in Context
Let’s start by looking at a sequence that takes place in the introduction of new words in a lesson. Imagine that the lesson that you want to teach, in your grammar class, is on the comparative. To teach the comparative, you want to focus on a theme and you have chosen ‘finding an apartment to rent’. When choosing your content and activities, you’ll need to think about what words your students will need to know to be successful in the lesson. Most importantly, they’ll need to know adjectives which describe those apartments and which will help us compare them. You would assume, also, that they need to know some nouns related to apartments and apartment advertising.
It’s always challenging to know how much vocabulary we want to introduce to students in a single lesson. Part of the problem in making this decision arises from the fact that within a class there are always a variety of levels. Because of this, we need to do some form of what we call differentiated instruction. Here is a strategy you can use in your planning.
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How to Plan for Different Levels
When planning vocabulary to introduce through your lesson, draw a pyramid divided into thirds. On the bottom third of the pyramid would go the items or concepts (in this case, vocabulary) which you want every student in your class to be very comfortable with at the end of the lesson. In the middle third are the words and concepts that you expect at least 60% of the class to have successfully understood. In the top third, you want the words (or concepts) that likely only the higher level students will be able to digest. This is called planning for differentiated instruction; it attempts to address the ever-present dilemma of different skill levels within one class. You don’t need to actually put one of these pyramids into each of your lesson plans, but it’s useful to understand that you need to have vocabulary and concepts that will challenge students who are at different levels. So, for example, if you’re going to introduce 20 new words over the course of a lesson, you might want to focus more closely on about 15 of them. You may also want to hand out a chart, at the end of class, that provides extra, more advanced words that students can study on their own if they are up to the challenge. Higher level students do appreciate the opportunity to review words they’ve seen before, but they need to constantly be moving forward just as lower level students do, and this is one way to help them do that.