Thursday, April 23, 2015

5 Tips for Introducing and Reinforcing New Vocabulary

New vocabulary, new words... we are introducing them all the time in the foreign language classroom, whether our students have only had one month of instruction or years. How we go about exposing them to these new words makes the difference as to whether they will actually retain the vocabulary long term. And, our goal as language teachers is to stay in the target language as much as possible which means giving some thought and structure to each lesson to avoid translation whenever we are able. Nouns are by far the easiest in this category as they are typically concrete and tangible at the elementary/ beginner levels. Here are 5 tips/steps I follow every time I am introducing and reinforcing new words (and be sure to follow our blog for more posts coming soon about teaching vocabulary!):

1) Have a picture/illustration for every word. Nothing avoids translation like saying 'una manzana' and showing a picture of an apple. Collecting pictures from magazines, catalogs, printing out from online, purchasing flashcards or vocabulary manipulatives, or using plastic foods, animals, etc is an ongoing process that pays off dividends over and over again.
Kindergartener using food pictures for our picnic theme 

2) Provide the written word along with the picture. Even your youngest learners will start to make connections between the spoken and written word, building a sight vocabulary along the way. And, the trend across the country sees Kindergartners acquiring literacy skills in the general ed classroom, which means you will have some emerging readers already- tap into the cross-curricular potential! Those kiddos who are ready to read or have rudimentary literacy skills are going to apply them to the written word in Spanish, so exposing them reinforces vocabulary acquisition and gives another avenue toward learning. The more ways you can reinforce a word, the better!
Kindergartner matching number words to fish counting set

3) Pair the word with an action. This certainly works better with some words than others but research continuously shows kinesthetic movement reinforces vocabulary retention. Making these actions also provides a great visual prompt when a kiddo is struggling to remember a word.
2nd Grade students acting out 'va en globo'

4) Embed the word(s) in context. Rather than starting with words as individual items, introduce them in context, especially in a context supported by illustrations/pictures. This gives a larger frame for the words and surrounds it with additional vocabulary which can be used in subsequent activities.

from our printable minibook 'Javi come mucho'

5) Use simple questions to reinforce listening comprehension and foster speaking. Long ago I found a list of questions perfect for early production learners that start at the most basic level of comprehension demonstration and move toward production. I go through this list of questions with every vocabulary set I introduce, no matter the grade level. In order of simplicity they are:
-Is it ____? (an apple)- yes/no -students can either answer yes/no or indicate with thumbs up/thumbs down (or both!)
-Is it ______ or ______? (an apple or an orange)- you've embedded the answer in the question which provides linguistic support for the student and also reinforces listening skills- pay attention to the question my little friends!
-What is this? -Now a student needs to produce without support, which is much more difficult. Be sure your students have practiced the vocabulary sufficiently to be able to answer this question.
*The above question can be substituted for a 'fill in the blank' type activity, especially if you have introduced the words in context. If they are familiar with a simple phrase or sentence, start your sentence, pausing to allow your students to finish it with the desired word (in other words, filling in the blank verbally).

Lastly, a note about amount and type of vocabulary. Studies show the average student can learn and retain in short term memory about 5-7 vocabulary items in a sitting. Introducing a long list of words for students to learn/memorize is unrealistic and detrimental to the learning process. As well, words related to one another thematically are learned more easily than a list of unrelated ones. Related words trigger each other in the brain as they are linked cognitively as well as linguistically. So, 'apple' can trigger 'banana' because they are both fruits and the brain organizes them together, whereas 'apple' is unlikely to trigger 'sock' since they come from different categories. (For an incredible read on language acquisition, pick up Steven Pinker's 'The Language Instinct'!)

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