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Engaging Learners in Vocabulary

  • Engaging Learners in Vocabulary

The following blog was written by Emily Albertsen, a faculty member at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement. Our blog series on the Bridge program continues this week. Earlier in the month, Dan Merryfield blogged about Front Loading Vocabulary.This week, Emily shares about an innovative way she engages learners with vocabulary development.

There are many components involved in learning a language and developing literacy, but learning vocabulary is one of the most important and often one of the most underrated.  I remember this from when I was a language learner – no matter how well I understood the grammar and how comfortable I felt with the situation, eventually I would run into problems if I didn’t know enough words.

Many of the learners in the Bridge Program have high oral skills but frequently lack the rich, deep vocabulary of their Canadian-born peers.  This is no surprise.  Canadian-born youth have been expanding their English vocabulary from their very first days.  I witness this daily with my own young children; my two-year-old son was singing a song yesterday that used the word “lurking,” a word that would challenge any of my learners.

Helping my learners create a powerful, expressive vocabulary is not always easy.  I have been using our laptops to engage the learners in as much of this process as I can.

Our first step is to choose the words.  I have recently experimented with letting the learners find the words themselves.  I hand out our weekly reading to them on Monday and let them read it through with a highlighter in hand.  They mark any word they have questions about and then from this pool we choose our twelve vocabulary words.  I like this approach because it challenges my assumptions about the words I think they don’t know and the words they actually don’t know.  I also encourage them to use context clues to decide which words they can figure out themselves.

Next, the learners get into pairs and pull out their laptops.  We divide up our list and they use a combination of Microsoft Word, Google images, online dictionaries, and conventional learner dictionaries to compile:

  • the part of speech
  • an image that illustrates the word
  • the definition in simple terms
  • an example sentence, written by the students, not copied

When they are finished, they email these to me and I project their documents onto our screen, one at a time.  We go through them together, discuss what they have come up with, and edit them if necessary.  They also copy the words, definitions, and example sentences into a chart, giving them a chance to practice their note-taking skills.

We recycle these words throughout the week; they can do a few vocabulary and writing exercises with them, they encounter them twice more as we study our weekly reading in depth, and they use them in their own writing.  The words also get turned into posters and posted on the wall of our classroom for easy reference.  On the last day of the week, we do a spelling and vocabulary test, and twice a semester they have a vocabulary exam.

This process has been pretty successful:

  • The vocabulary words are all related to our over-arching theme and can be used from week to week, building a connected vocabulary.
  • The words are encountered many times in many different ways.  This came as a surprise to my students in the beginning, but they have come to expect it: “Miss Emily, our vocabulary words are in this article!”
  • They are engaged in every step of this process, starting with choosing the words that matter to them.

Developing their vocabulary pays off again and again: their oral language becomes richer, their writing more sophisticated and precise, and their reading more engaged and comprehensive.

What do you do to build your learners' vocabulary?