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Making Vocabulary Activities that Stand Out | Nick Michelioudakis

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I have always felt that we teachers we are a bit like cooks – thinking about what we are going to serve our children the next day, worrying about how varied their diet is, the ingredients etc. Increasingly, however, I feel there is a problem with the way we approach our task: do we worry far too much about the nutritional value of our meals? The result is that our dishes are bland and our students go ‘Oh, not that again’. And what is our response? ‘But it’s good for you’.

In this short article, I would like to argue that if we have a sound knowledge of spices (psychological principles) we can select activities which are both nutritious and tasty – by which I mean useful and fun.

Activity 1: ‘Colour in the Passage’ Look at this activity. What could be wrong with it? The teacher has been teaching her class about adjectives (see the first paragraph) and now she has given them a consolidation activity where they have to fill in the gaps (see the second one).

‘One sunny day, my little puppy jumped onto our red couch and played with his fun new toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so lively and excited, so full of life. Soon, my playful puppy yawned. He was an exhausted puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his soft, round bed. Soon my sleepy puppy was snoring away’.

‘One ……… day, my ……… puppy jumped onto our ……… couch and played with his ……… new toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so ……… and ………, so full of life. Soon, my ……… puppy yawned. He was an ……… puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his ………, ……… bed. Soon my ……… puppy was snoring away’.

[ playful / sleepy / sunny / excited / round / fun / little / soft / exhausted / lively / red ]

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the activity is bad, but it’s just not interesting enough. You get all your vitamins, but you can just picture the expression on the students’ faces.

Now, what if we were to tweak it a little? What if we were to give students the paragraph without the adjectives OR the gaps and we asked them to add some colour to it (‘What is the puppy like?’ / ‘What is the bed like?’ / ‘How was the puppy feeling?’).

‘One day, my puppy jumped onto our couch and played with his toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so full of life. Soon, my puppy yawned. He was a puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his bed. Soon my puppy was snoring away’.

Students might then come up with something like this:

‘One day, my lovely puppy jumped onto our long, comfortable couch and played with his new, stuffed toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so excited and care-free, so happy and full of life. Soon, my cute puppy yawned. He was a young puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his cosy, warm bed. Soon my adorable little puppy was snoring away’.

Principle 1: The IKEA Effect. Why is the latter activity better than the previous one? The answer is that students are free to imagine the scene for themselves and to add something of themselves to the task. They are free to invest. Psychologists have discovered that when we work on something ourselves we endow it with special value; that’s why we so often think the salad we make is so much better than the fancy risotto someone else has prepared (though of course others may well disagree). Activities where students can contribute something or better still, make something themselves are likely to be better than ones where they simply manipulate language. The moral: get students to create things.

Activity 2 – ‘AQBL’:  Let us say that (for some reason best known to yourself) you have been teaching your students vocabulary related to cars, car engines, and car characteristics in general. To practice the vocabulary, you do a drill where students in pairs practice asking each other questions. You give them the second table, so they have to come up with the vocabulary themselves when constructing the questions.

Top Speed 230 km/h
Acceleration 7 sec (0-100)
Fuel Capacity 68 litres
Consumption 9 litres/100 km
Engine Output 180 HP
Boot Capacity 640 litres
Reliability Rating 7 / 10
Performance Rating 9 / 10
  …… km/h
   …… sec (0-100)
  …… litres
  …… litres/100 km
  …… HP
  …… litres
  ……  / 10
  ……  / 10

So the interaction might go like this (S1: Prospective Buyer / S2: Car Salesman):

S1: What is this car’s top speed?

S2: It’s 230 km/h.

S1: And what about its acceleration?

S2: It goes from 0 to 100 km/h in 7 seconds.

S1: I see. How much petrol does the tank hold?

S2: Its fuel capacity is 68 litres.

S1: Does it have a powerful engine? ….etc.

By now you know what my objection is going to be… But what if we were to tweak the activity a little? The new activity is called ‘Answer the Question Before Last [AQBL]’. When S1 asks a question, S2 says nothing; when S1 asks the second question, S2 answers the first one (!) etc. etc. For example:

S1: What is this car’s top speed?

S2: (…says nothing)

S1: And what about its acceleration?

S2: It’s 230 km/h.

S1: I see. How much petrol does the tank hold?

S2: It goes from 0 to 100 km/h in 7 seconds.

S1: Does it have a powerful engine?

S2: Its fuel capacity is 68 litres…. etc.

Principle 2: Incongruity. I am prepared to bet money that students are going to like the second activity far more than the first one. The principle behind it is that of ‘Incongruity’. Psychologists have discovered that when things unfold the way we expect them to, our brain switches to autopilot; we almost fall asleep, a bit like that puppy in the previous activity, and consequently, we learn very little. However, if something unexpected happens, then our brain goes ‘Ooops! What was this?’ and then we are wide awake, we pay attention and we remember things (no wonder advertisers love this idea!). To get your students to pay attention, break the script – get them to do something unexpected!

Five New Recipes for your Vocabulary Cookbook: So this is the idea behind my upcoming webinar. I hope to demonstrate five activities which both help our students learn vocabulary better and which stand out in some way. Each task will help illustrate a principle of Psychology which I believe is worth bearing in mind when cooking our Lesson Plans.

Here is an extra insight: How can you tell if your idea has worked? Well, how do you know if your dishes taste great? If the diners are licking their fingers, you know your food is good. Similarly, you know an activity is good if, when it is over, the students want to keep going.

 

 

Watch the recording


Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has travelled and given seminars and workshops in many countries all over the world.

He has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles in which he draws on insights from such disciplines as Marketing, Management and Social Psychology and which have appeared in numerous newsletters and magazines.

His areas of interest include Student Motivation, Learner Independence, Teaching one-to-one, and Humour.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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12 thoughts on “Making Vocabulary Activities that Stand Out | Nick Michelioudakis

  1. I read first activity which is fascinating which restructures traditional way of learning. Thanks indeed. I am excited about it.

  2. It is such an interesting topic with such a great professor !

  3. I like the idea of gamification. Turning a task into a game level is genius which students will find it interesting. Thanks, Nick!

  4. I find these ideas of making vocabulary activities more engaging so useful and practical. Thanks

  5. This is great – very intuitive. Challenging generic activities, infusing them with life.

    Can I ask how/where you learned to think in such ways? I’m a young ELT in Japan looking to grow. I don’t have my Master’s yet but am thinking to start one next year.

  6. Thank you so much for your kind words Stephen – it takes about 30 years… 🙂 [Only joking… 🙂 ]. OK – here are some tips: i) Join a Professional Association (TESOL / IATEFL); ii) Start creating a ‘bag of tricks’ – a collection of interesting / exciting games and activities [you need to have them somewhere in writing!]; iii) Find interesting colleagues: who are the best teachers in your school / area? Approach them directly and try to learn from them. Be an active apprentice! iv) Read ‘Peak’ by A. Ericsson (you will understand why when you have read it). The idea is to be active in your pursuit of excellence.

    • Nick, thank you very much for the tips. Very practical and immediately applicable :). I will start doing each of those things!

      I appreciate the summative aim, too, within each of these things – being active in my pursuit of excellence.

  7. Pingback: Making Vocabulary Activities that Stand Out | Nick Michelioudakis | Purland Training

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