This article on the most effective activities for teaching vocabulary was stimulated by a recent talk I went to by Paul Nation, a vocabulary researcher at the University of Wellington.
Paul Nation suggested his top 10 strategies for teaching vocabulary. Some of the ideas I've used for many years, but some were new to me. I thought writing an article with his ideas of the best activities for teaching vocabulary would be useful.
The choice of the top 10 is his, but the comments and interpretations are mine. So here are the top ten activities for teaching vocabulary (they are not placed in any particular order):
"Extensive Reading from Suitable Texts"
Extensive reading is sometimes described as reading for pleasure. It can mean reading for fun, outside of the classroom. It can also simply mean reading a lot.
"Suitable texts," means books that are the right level for the students. If a book is too hard, few people will read it, and motivation to continue is important. Basically, the reader should understand over 90% of the text - preferably over 95% - in order for this to work.
Therefore, having access to a large supply of graded readers is essential. Original novels, even those written for children, are usually much too difficult. Recently I've been working with my university to choose and buy a few hundred graded readers. Next semester I'll be encouraging students to read for fun.
An important point when choosing to buy graded readers for your school - if you are lucky enough to be in that situation - is the type of reader to choose. For children, children's stories and fairy tales work quite well. For teenagers there is a lot of young adult fiction, and also a lot of genre fiction. Most adults also prefer to read genre fiction.
I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy when I was a teenager; and I still do now. Other popular genres include mystery, horror, comedy, adventure and romance. There are more: ask your students! They will let you know the type of things they would like to read.
I love reading classics as well, particularly Charles Dickens and George Elliot, but I recommend keeping the number of classics quite low. Most readers prefer to read their favorite genre. However, if your students are at a high level, then it would be very natural, and good, to include the classics as well.
The research that shows the value of extensive reading is extensive. It's not the purpose of this article to prove this point, but if you are interested, a little time searching online will uncover a lot of research on the benefits of extensive reading for you.
"Listening to Stories"
One of my favorite activities for teaching vocabulary is using stories in the classroom. Children love stories, but so do teenagers and adults - whatever they may tell you. Of course, you need to choose the right story for the age and interests of your students.
Stories about famous people of interest can work; so can historical stories, or jokes.
A good story can set up the following activity very well, as well as providing listening and vocabulary practice. Telling a story is a skill that can be learnt. However, it's also possible (and effective) - although not as much fun - to read a story aloud to the class. As with choosing texts for extensive reading, make sure the vocabulary level is correctly graded for the class.
"Learning from Word Cards"
This is an activity which has been criticized - wrongly - for not being effective; and criticized - rightly - for not teaching the context of the vocabulary. As Paul Nation explains in his book Learning Vocabulary in Another Language (Cambridge Applied Linguistics), it should be used as a part of a vocabulary teaching program; not as the only component.
Methods vary slightly, but it's best to keep it simple. Put the word to be learnt on one side of a blank card. Then put the translation or picture on the other. Students can then study them outside of the classroom. They can also test each other inside the class.
Again, I should stress, that all of these activities for teaching vocabulary, should be combined for the best results.
"Intensive Reading of Suitable Texts"
Intensive reading is when a text is read, often slowly, and a high level of understanding is aimed at; as opposed to extensive reading, where complete understanding is not so important.
The students read a text, and then do comprehension activities, often with the help of the teacher. This is a common type of activity, and it is frequently carried out in EFL classes. I plan to write an article devoted to intensive reading in the future.
"Quick Explanations from the Teacher"
This is one of the most established activities for teaching vocabulary, and little needs to be said. It works, but by itself, it's certainly not enough. When I began learning Spanish, I kept saying "if" in English because I didn't know how to say it in Spanish. My teacher quickly told me; "If in Spanish is si." I never forgot.
Simple explanations in English also give useful listening practice. As with my example, translations do work on occasions. However, it's important not to over rely on translation. Used too much, it will negatively affect the students' learning.
I hope you find these ideas on activities for teaching vocabulary to be useful. Part two of this article, and other related articles are listed here