The broad range of topics typically covered in intermediate to advanced world language classes necessitates the acquisition of a large number of meaningful new terms by students. Teachers frequently struggle to incorporate vocabulary-building activities into their daily routines because of the time constraints students face and the virtually limitless number of relevant lexical items available to choose from. When we consider that, in order for vocabulary instruction to be effective, it must not only be explicit and engaging, but it must also be frequent—which means running up against those time constraints on a consistent basis—the problem becomes even more serious.
A vocabulary deck can be a useful tool for keeping a growing number of terms in learners’ lexical repertoire as their knowledge of the language grows. A deck is a resource that is simple to construct and that can be used in a variety of ways with little preparation time. The activities listed below allow teachers to naturally promote students’ vocabulary acquisition by drawing on a variety of language skills—listening, speaking, reading, and writing—at the same time, in a consistent manner.
CONSTRUCTION OF A VOCABULARY DECK
In each print or audio text that we cover in my classes, I choose a few keywords that are particularly important for students to be familiar with. At any given time, I add no more than five to eight new terms—early in a course, there may be more new words than that in a single text, but emphasising too many new terms at once may overwhelm most learners.
The terms I choose are frequently associated with formal contexts, and they may appear frequently in the authentic materials that students deal with in class, regardless of the topic—terms such as to carry out, achievement, scarce, on average, and findings, for example—and they may appear frequently in the authentic materials that students deal with in class. It is possible that a term is unique to a particular field; in these cases, I try to engage students by asking them to imagine that they are experts in that field (biology or technology or art, for example) who are about travel to a country where the target language is spoken. They must choose and learn vocabulary that will be useful to them in carrying out their responsibilities in the target culture.
Cards with vocabulary from different languages around the world
Each word on a four-by-six-inch index card is written in large enough letters to be read from across the entire classroom using one of Anxo Otero’s vocabulary decks. As the year progresses, the deck of cards grows in size and is gradually purified of words that my students and I consider to be too simple. Nonetheless, it is beneficial to retain a certain number of unchallenging terms because they serve as reminders of what students already know and because they help to keep all students engaged.
4 ACTIVITIES FOR THE VOCABULARY DECK
1: Source retelling: I read aloud ideas from a source text that we’ve read and discussed in class, omitting keywords that students, working in groups, must guess. This is a more complicated exercise than it appears at first glance: The students’ background knowledge and listening skills will be called upon as they recall fairly complex content and mobilise their lexical knowledge, and they will be required to communicate in the target language when conferring with their peers.
As soon as the correct response is provided, I hold the card up in front of everyone to see it. The stakes are extremely low because students work in groups and anyone in the class has the ability to call out an answer. As an alternative, you can designate an official speaker for each group, which will serve as a point of reference. As a review activity at the end of class, I may ask one or two students to take on the role of the teacher, which has the added benefit of helping to build a cohesive and inclusive learning community among the students.
Second, students work in groups of three or four members to try to get their teammates to guess as many words from the deck as they can in 30 to 60 seconds by writing a sentence with a blank space where the keyword would normally be placed on a card. I occasionally allow students to skip one or two cards in order to reduce anxiety. Even though I keep score, some groups may become more engaged as a result, this is not always the case.
When I assign homework, I may ask students to create original sentences (as opposed to definitions), and I encourage them to look beyond the original context and explore the potential semantic range of each term. Suppose they learn a Spanish word such as nivel (level) from a text that deals with waste management. I might ask them to use the word in a sentence that deals with a completely different topic.
3. Whiteboard descriptions: In this activity, one or two students stand in front of the room while I project a word from the deck onto the whiteboard for the rest of the class to see. Writing definitions on their whiteboards, the group attempts to lead the standing student or students to guess the word or words in question.
This activity provides a valuable opportunity to assess written accuracy in a non-formal setting, especially if learners are instructed to use only one specific structure or tense throughout the activity. Because of these restrictions, both the students who must guess the word and those who write definitions are exposed to a particular language feature on a regular basis, which helps them to become more grammatically aware.
4. Vocabulary sweep-up: Students spread out all of the cards on a table or other large surface and then take 30- to 45-second turns picking them up after using the word on the card in a sentence that demonstrates that they understand what the word means. They use, or sweep up, as many words as they can in the time allotted to them during the competition. This activity can be carried out in groups, with each group working independently, or as a competition between groups.
In order to elicit spontaneous responses from students during this activity, I may call on them at random throughout the activity. If I do this, I am attempting to reduce students’ anxiety by making it clear that any inaccuracies are of little consequence as long as speakers are able to produce meaningful stretches of language during their presentations.
Observing which vocabulary words are the last to be swept up helps me determine which vocabulary words may require revision. In many cases, it is empowering for students to see how many words they are able to accumulate in a short period of time.