Teaching A Bunch Of Words In A Box

I went through my CELTA and learned about providing a context that allows students to deduce the meanings of new words. There’s also the spiel about genuine communication: don’t ask students to fill five minutes talking about a picture to demonstrate their competence, ask Student A to describe the picture only she can see to Student B; Student B listens and draws what he hears.

Then I opened two major task-based, communicative coursebooks to see vocabulary exercises like: check the meanings of the words in the box. Use your dictionary if you’re not sure.

Now again, I have a CELTA, not the more advanced DELTA or MA, but still I get the sense that looking up a list of words in a dictionary is not communicative, even though it is in a book claiming to be so. And this is a problem most practically because native speaker EFL teachers with training in the communicative approach are encouraged and expected to get their students talking and communicating. And using the book that the school has sold to the students, of course. But speaking!

Frequently those words in the box precede a text they will appear in, so finding – and heaven forbid creating – a text to serve as a context for students to infer the meanings is not a very balanced or practical way to go. Creating some sort of written matching exercise may help make it more student-centered than going through all the words “together” or giving a sentence for each yourself, but a written exercise is unlikely to get students as engaged as you’d like.

One way I’ve dealt with such exercises is with this vocabulary activity.

The faster (or at least enforced) pace and competitive element compels people to do something – explain or listen – rather than just passively read a definition or translation in a dictionary. Is a game enough to learn and retain the words? My intuition tells me probably not, but sometimes the point is to introduce the words so students can understand a text, and then use that text to practice reading skills or as a context for something else. The practical reality I have come across in a language school environment is that you don’t always have the time you need to cover the material that’s there.

I will admit that from time to time I have pangs of guilt that I am presenting myself as far more knowledgeable than I actually am; a recent link at TEFLtastic to research about learning words in lexical sets did in fact make me think twice about making this post which I have had nearly finished for some time now (really!) – and making reference to mindmaps later on.

While I’m sure there are many who have an understanding of all this far superior to mine, though, they are not the ones setting the agenda in language schools, at least not yet. In the meantime, EFL teachers do still have to cope, and I found that adding this activity – and the ones below – to my stockpile made things better. How much is learning connected to a positive experience in class, or being engaged in class? I don’t know if there is research on this, or if there is, if it can be easily applied in the same way in every case.

If you manage to deal with a good chunk of the box of words with a mindmap [if you can still feel okay about mindmaps, that is!] or by slipping them into questions that help clarify their meaning, you may be able to engage students a little more by getting them to order or group the words somehow. The main challenge I feel when confronted with this boring box of words is how to deal with them in a way that meets students’ expectations for something more than directing them to their dictionaries and is still somewhat communicative and student-centered.

Do you come across the ubiquitous boxes of vocab words, and if so, how do you deal with them?