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Vocabulary for Basic Learners

  • Vocabulary for Basic Learners

The following blog post was written by Amber Whalen, a faculty member at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement. Amber recently planned and facilitated a VESL workshop on Vocabulary for Basic Learners.

Since 2005, VESL (the Volunteer ESL Tutor Training Project) has supported the professional development of volunteer ELL tutors throughout the city of Calgary. The project is funded by Calgary Learns and is the collaborative effort of three Calgary ELL service providers with long-standing volunteer programs: Bow Valley College, the Calgary Public Library, and the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. 

On one of the first snowy evenings of the season, I was really excited to see how many volunteers arrived for our time together to talk about vocabulary for basic learners.

We started out with an icebreaker and then discussed seven strategies for tutoring vocabulary and the importance of considering them. The next section of the workshop focused on activities used to build vocabulary - the good stuff, the stuff we can use! Even though it is not possible to completely divide skills up, we looked at activities in four areas: listening, speaking, reading and writing.

A few of the activities that we tried were:

Simple grid activity

The volunteers were introduced to a really wonderful yet simple grid activity that was shared with me by a colleague. Learners have small cut out pictures of the vocabulary words they are learning and a numbered grid. The tutor can call out the vocabulary word and the learner listens and puts the picture in the correct numbered box. You can use this also for speaking and repeat the activity where one learner is the caller and the others listen in groups.

Board games

In groups, we played a game using a board game template with flash cards to practice the vocabulary. This can be modified to suit the level of English the learners are at. For example, pick a card and say the word for beginners, or pick a card and say a sentence for higher level learners. There many other possibilities to using this blank board template.

PDF icon Board Game Template.pdf

Adapting activities

In between activities, in small groups, there were discussions about how the activity could be applicable to workshop participants tutorial sessions. We talked about how the activities could be adapted to suit higher levels of English learners by using words instead of pictures or increasing the number of words/pictures. We also talked about how an activity could be adapted for tutors that don't have access to a photocopier by using the whiteboard instead. For this workshop, we looked at activities within the theme of health. But once you have your favorite activities, you can simply substitute the vocabulary and use the activities again in a new theme!

Online resources

For the last few minutes of the workshop, we had a chance to talk about some online resources that are available. If you do not have time to create your own flashcards, you can design or use ones for free from either of these websites:

We covered a lot of ground in a few short hours. I am really appreciative of getting to work with such a wonderful group of dedicated tutors. 



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Val Baggaley

Interesting article, Amber. I like your ideas.