A New Perspective on Teaching Vocab

For the past year and a half, I have been learning Portuguese.  This is not my second language, but it is the first language I have learned while simultaneously teaching.  Learning Portuguese is giving me some perspective on vocabulary instruction, something I have always found challenging to teach and assess authentically.  Which words do you teach? How do you teach them? How much should I “teach” the words versus simply providing exposure that allows students to become familiar with them?  What is the most effective way to differentiate vocabulary instruction?

As a reading, writing, and history teacher, and as someone who has worked with students reading many grades above and below level, I have found myself frequently reflecting on my vocabulary teaching practice and wondering if it is enough.  Yet, teachers are usually only with their students for a total of one year.  What sort of vocabulary and how much vocabulary should we actually expect to stick?

Learning Portuguese has not necessarily answered all these questions for me, but has allowed me to figure out some vocabulary learning techniques that work for me:

1. Spaced Repetition

2. Context

3. Total-Physical Response

  1. Spaced Repetition

Typically, I have to encounter a word a few times before I remember what it means, and then a few more times before I remember it.  Repeating a word and studying it are important, but it is important for me to study a word frequently in the beginning and less frequently at the end.  This is called spaced repetition and there are apps that teachers (and language learners) can use, such as Anki, that allow you to study a word very frequently in the beginning and in greater intervals the longer you have known it.

  1. Context

I will never forget the word mijar in Portuguese, and I only had to hear it once.  Because of the context in which I heard the word and its meaning (which, by the way, is “to piss”).  Context is a strong component of vocabulary building and when I learn a word in context, the more likely I am to remember and understand it.  I always pull the vocabulary from the content and readings we are studying in class in order to allow my students to build a strong vocabulary within the context of our topic for the quarter.

3.  Total-Physical Response

The TPRS method of language learning is completely immersive and prioritizes story-telling and body movements over route memorization.  Linking movements, sounds, and stories to vocabulary words further contextualizes words, allowing students to gradually apply them in new circumstances.  Also, its just plain fun!  Connecting body movements, dances, and silly stories invented by students to our vocabulary words helps students increase their understanding of the words and how they are used in speech and writing.

I would love to hear about what works for you in vocabulary instruction or language learning.


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