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Anticipated Problems When Teaching English Vocabulary

Anticipated Problems When Teaching English Vocabulary | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Young children, even when they are learning their native tongue, learn the words before they learn how to apply them correctly and as a result, children often make mistakes in their grammar, however, even when they do, it is mostly the vocabulary or the order of the words which still provides a degree of context which makes the message they intend to convey understandably and thus susceptible to improvement. It is exactly because of this fact that in this essay, I would like to dive into teaching vocabulary.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Johnny B. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Some reflections and advice

About teaching vocabulary, I could say that the best way to teach any new set of words is to teach by doing/application. The first step I normally take is to activate previous knowledge, or at the very least inquire if the students possess any. To put it even more strongly, even before the fore mentioned step, I would like to know what my target group is. Am I dealing with 5-year-olds or are they adolescents? As this assignment does not specify what the target group is, I am put at a disadvantage in the sense that I am currently only able to provide general advice, comments or reflections. For instance, if students are asked to write a small essay about their future professions. That is, what would they like to become in the future, there is a real possibility that some of them might struggle to explain as to why they would like to become an insert profession here. It could be it is because of the lack of an available vocabulary. Simultaneously, a group of primary schoolers may not possess any pre-existing knowledge at all.

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Teaching vocabulary in primary school

I would like to get the more difficult part out of the way first, that is, the primary school level. Granted, this might seem easy at first glance but the younger children are. The more factors that come into play which might cause their distraction. Distractions will continue to play a role during later stages in life, but trying to teach a group of 5-year-olds a group of new words when in reality they are more preoccupied with their new Lego can be more daunting than it initially seems. That said, it does not necessarily have to provide an obstacle. For instance, if children are in a private setting where they are still surrounded by their toys, those toys might be able to act as props to teach new words. For instance, one can use a toy truck to teach its separate parts, or a toy house to teach them.

The setting changes when they are in a true classroom. Here, more than everything, the trick is to grab their attention with props, songs, and pictures. Grabbing (young) children's attention with the fore mentioned articles to teach vocabulary could almost be a prime directive in a classroom filled with (small) children. We live in a visual age, where countless media outlets are vying for attention, a teacher has to compete with all of those.

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People, in general, fare well when there is a certain element of structure in their lives. The younger children are, the more important this element of stability becomes. As such, the teacher/tutor/instructor must create that element of stability by making a list of words and set reasonable targets for a set of lessons. I have witnessed new teachers still create entire, meticulous lesson plans, whereas the oldest, most experienced teachers don't bother to do it at all anymore, as they have taught all of the various subjects more time than they either care to count or remember, and therefore are no longer in need to prepare anything, or very little,just a few notes.

Personally, whilst trying to refrain from judging which method works best, there are still a few cases in which I make notes. Either way, try to keep in mind that A: have a clear goal in your mind. B: the end justifies the means. If teaching vocabulary with props works with one group but doesn't work with another, try something else instead rather than rigidly sticking to set method of teaching.

Teaching vocabulary to teenagers

When it comes to adolescents, similar factors might come into play but in this case, toys are long gone by now and the activation of pre-existing knowledge can come into play. As I mentioned earlier, if one were to hand students an assignment whereby they are supposed to write an essay about their future profession, they might struggle to explain why they intend to become whatever it is they want to become. Here I would recommend encouraging them to use dictionaries. Granted, in this and age many people resort to Google translate when they are translating individual words and while that in itself doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, Google still fails to get the grammar right, a typical example of technology being simultaneously a tool as well as a burden, as it automatically presents the teacher with the task of correcting grammar instead of teaching the vocabulary which was the initial goal of the lesson.

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Hence, to repeat me: encourage the use of dictionaries and work out the grammar kinks later. Children, even adults don't always know actively know all the grammar rules, yet still, subconsciously parrot them. As such, I shall refrain from focussing on grammar here, as it falls outside of the scope of this essay. Again, as a rule of thumb: try to create a set lesson plan with set goals in mind. Inquire if there is pre-existing knowledge. Are students willing and able to talk about what it is that you intend to teach them? if they are, ask a little further but as soon as one notices that the conversation starts to stall, summarize and present your new goal/target and, if required, inform them of the motive behind the subject, what is its use?

Note: the latter depends on the level one is working with. The higher the level, the greater the need for motivation. After the goal has been introduced, let them read relevant texts about it and answer written questions. Later on, if and once they can do so, let them present and talk about the subject, thereby proving their mastery of something which was hitherto new to them.

Summarized and based on the experience I would provide the following advice

  • Identify the target group. How old are my children? Adapt one's lesson plan accordingly. Plan a structure but be careful not become the slave of your plan!
  • Identify level. This is not yet a major issue when it comes to young children, but the intelligence level of older students is a large factor when it comes to learning. So much so that it can and does form the basis of a bewildering amount of research, but suffice it to say that here again, the lesson plan should be adjusted to their level.
  • Set several clear goals for yourself and your students. Again, bear the level in mind. Hint try to keep it just outside of their comfort level. Do not make it unobtainable or unreachable, but they need to work (Hard? That's up to you!) for it to achieve their goal.
  • Remain flexible. If one set of teaching tactics works for one group but not for the other, try something else. D is not afraid to experiment and see what works. Let them read, let them write, let them listen or speak. The end justifies the means.
  • Keep it entertaining.D no be a clown but people learn better when they are having fun than when they are irritated and bored.

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