Teaching English Vocabulary to Young Learners
2019-03-19 Mark Crocker Alumni Experiences
One of the pillars of the English language, vocabulary, could well be seen as an insurmountable challenge with no end for language learners, but it can actually be a rewarding one that opens up the very heart of the language.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Dawson N.
The challenge for young learners
With multiple, controversial estimates, putting the number of words a native English speaker knows from around 20,000 active vocabulary words and 40,000 passive vocabulary words up to 20,000/120,000 for highly educated speakers, and with some saying 5,000/20,000 words are needed for L2 language proficiency, this can seem an arduous and never-ending task for young EFL learners. Despite this, young learners are in a good position to absorb many words in certain activities, and the younger they are, the more receptive they are to certain games that may annoy adult learners with overuse. With special care from the teacher, unlocking vocabulary word-by-word can be a fun and rewarding experience for both parties.
How young learners pick up new vocabulary
First, a teacher should know the tricks and methods they can use to teach vocabulary. One of these is picking up new words in a language-immersion setting. While adults can and do still pick up new words by hearing them in native contexts, young learners with their developing brains are especially receptive to subconsciously picking up words as they are already doing this with their native language. The teacher will have to watch their vocabulary to keep it simple for the students to aid this process, but so long as the teacher is careful not to overload the students this can be an educational boon. Another method is through using their creative and physical sides to aid introduced vocabulary memorization. While adults and teenagers would be embarrassed to act out an elephant to remember the word “elephant”, really young learners love this.
Activities that young learners love
Activities can be done where students and the teacher act out the words to make the classroom livelier and help embed the words. This can be extended to creative activities like art projects, activating their creative sides. Language theories proclaim that activating these active and creative sides of the brain can assist in activating the linguistic side, aiding vocabulary memorization. In addition, songs and chants can also be used, keeping a fun atmosphere and turning memorizing words into a game. With all this said, it is important that the words the teacher introduces stick to a central theme, like sports, animals, etc. When the words are related, practice situations and activities can be implemented to help ingrain the vocabulary; when they are not, it will be hard to make practice sentences or connect them in the brain, turning the vocabulary learning akin to flashcard learning which young learners are not receptive to nor does it play to their strengths.
Understanding the limitations of young learners
To truly know a word, one has to be able to pronounce it, use it, spell it, and recognize it in both written and spoken formats. We could simplify this to considering a word’s audio component, written component, and correct usage. Between the first two, among young EFL learners, the audio component is the one that’s more quickly picked up and more important to know. Young EFL learners are very receptive to an active, lively classroom that exposes them to the words and practice situations, while they would get bored quickly with solitary working on written material and long homework more appropriate to older learners. In addition, their writing and reading skills are still developing, so one cannot expect a young learner to write and read as well as they can speak, at least compared to older and adult learners with longer attention spans and more refined literary skills.
Focusing on what’s important
Referencing the active and passive vocabulary above, 5 active vocabulary words are more useful than 20 passive ones, especially for young learners. In addition, in the starter and lower levels young EFL learners are at, correct pronunciation is very important; they need it for a solid standing for their future language learning. Overall, much of the focus of language learning in the classroom of young EFL learners will be more effectively given to the audio component of words. Reading, writing, and spelling are still very important skills to teach, however, if the students are going to naturally have a hard time writing five sentences in a row in their native language,they should not be expected to be better in English.
To reiterate, writing and reading are still skills equally important to speaking and listening, and the teacher should teach the words by showing the written form along with pronouncing it and have activities that practice the written aspect through word-picture recognition and the like. However, the main focus should be to ensure the students are able to pronounce it correctly, and not on drilling spelling etc. A good audio basis will give the young learners a strong foundation to build from with future focus on written work once their brains are more developed.
Also read: 11 Fun ESL Activities for Young Learners
Are you ready to teach English vocabulary to young learners?
Teaching vocabulary can be a long task that terrifies learners and teachers alike, but with well-crafted activities and careful consideration of all the factors that are important for young EFL learners, it can be an entertaining one that opens a whole new world to so many at a young age.
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