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Making Vocabulary Activities that Stand Out | Nick Michelioudakis

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.


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Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Vocabulary learning strategies Q&A

Nick Michelioudakis has been a teacher, examiner and trainer for many years. His most recent webinar ‘Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Vocabulary Learning Strategies’ sparked an interesting dialogue on the ways students learn new words. Here are the answers to some of the questions from the webinar.

I would like to start by thanking everyone for attending the Webinars and for their positive comments at the end. If you would like to read an article based on these ideas that we discussed, here is the link: http://oxelt.gl/2zBMc58

OK, on to the other questions now, which I hope will help me raise one or two interesting points.

Where do students find these collocations in order to record them? Texts?

This is an important question and it is something I forgot to stress during the Webinar. It is useful if students first encounter the words in texts. In this way they can get all kinds of information, including (hopefully) a useful collocation.

If for whatever reason the text does not help much, students can use this amazing tool, SkELL, to look at examples from other authentic texts. As you can see from the screenshot, simply enter a word in a box and you get a number of sentences. This will help students immensely.

What are the rules for dividing sentences into chunks?

This is a hugely important question – and far too large an issue to cover here. As I see it, this is where the teacher’s knowledge of the language comes in. There are all kinds of ‘chunks’ out there and they differ in size, in how ‘fixed’ they are, and in their level of idiomaticity. The teacher must use their judgment to decide where to direct students’ attention, it could be a simple collocation (‘dress a wound’) or a whole phrase (‘let’s cut to the chase’), or something with a ‘movable’ part (‘reported a % increase’). The chunks you focus on will depend on frequency, coverage (whether they can be used in many contexts), students proficiency, and the needs of the syllabus.

What about using opposites to explain words?

There is nothing wrong with using opposites provided students really understand what the word used as an explanation means. For instance, if you want to explain the meaning of the word ‘cowardly’, there is nothing wrong with telling students that it means the opposite of ‘brave’. However, it is generally not a good idea to present two unknown words which happen to be antonyms in the same session (e.g. ‘generous’ – ‘stingy’) if students are unfamiliar with both, in case they mix them up.

What’s the difference between linking and anchoring? And which ones are just for revising?

The two techniques are very similar. However in ‘linking’, students start with a set of words, and then try to discover ways to connect two or more together. When students use ‘anchoring’, they start with a particular word, fix it in their mind, and then try to discover connections with other words themselves. If the starting word is ‘nostalgia’, they may come up with ‘memory’, ‘think back’, ‘miss someone’, ‘nostalgic song’, ‘pensive mood’, ‘sad’, ‘melancholy’ etc. They may even come up with personal associations which will only make sense to them.

How can we avoid the typical students’ question “how do I say …?”, starting from a word in their mother tongue?

Well, personally I am not sure we should be discouraging this. In fact, this is one of the strategies I mentioned in the Webinar (‘expanding’). As I see it, there is nothing wrong with allowing students to use their L1 as a springboard for discovery. It’s natural for students to reflect on their knowledge and say to themselves ‘OK – this is something I can say in the L1; how can I say it in English?’ What we do want to do though is encourage them to think in terms of sentences rather than single words. What I do if a student asks me ‘How do I say ‘άγκυρα’ (anchor) in English?’ is ask them to give me a sentence.


I really hope you found these techniques useful! If you get the chance to try them out, I would be interested to hear how the lesson went. Contact me via my email address: nickmi@ath.forthnet.gr.


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Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Vocabulary learning strategies

Vocabulary learning strategies

Nick Michelioudakis has worked as a teacher, examiner and trainer for many years. He has given talks in numerous countries and 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. He is particularly interested in student motivation and humour (he has his own YouTube channel – ‘Comedy for ELT’). You can visit his blog at www.michelioudakis.org.

It’s probably true to say that as teachers, we face the same problems the world over: 

  1. The students’ vocabulary is not what it should be;
  2. most students do note down vocabulary but fail to study it afterwards;
  3. most students record words like this ‘cast = ρίχνω’;
  4. when forced to study vocabulary, most students simply re-read their notes or rely on simple memorisation.

So how will this webinar help? Well, the idea is to offer some principles which will make vocabulary learning more effective. In addition, the talk will demonstrate ten very simple, very practical strategies which should help students practice on their own. Let me explain…

  • Principle 1: ‘Words are like Books’ (H. Puchta). This came as a revelation to me. Think: If you had 10,000 books in a pile on the floor, would you be able to find the one you wanted quickly and easily? The answer is of course, no.  So what do we do? We sort the books out on bookshelves of course – and these shelves are organised thematically.
  • Activity 1 – Grouping: You give your students 50 words (these could be 50 words from the students’ vocabulary notebooks!). You tell them to sort them out into different groups. How would they divide them up? What name would they give to each group? In doing so, students start to organise their vocabulary in mental ‘folders’, helping them to access the vocabulary quickly when they have to talk or write about a topic.
  • Principle 2: ‘Words are like Boats’ (H. Puchta). This is another striking metaphor. The idea is that if you have a boat and you just leave it there, it will just drift away. But of course, the same thing happens with words. Now, if we have a boat and we want it to stay put, we can tie it to a post; and if we have many boats we can just tie them all together. Ten or fifteen boats tied together will not drift away. Similarly, if we have a word and we want it to stay in our mind, we can ‘tie’ it to other words (or even to ideas).
  • Activity 2 – Linking: You give students some jumbled up words (preferably on the same topic) and you ask them to draw lines, literally linking words together. But they will also have to provide a justification (‘Lettuce goes with oil because you can find both of them in a salad’). Notice that in doing so, students also create a connection between these words and a third one (‘salad’).
  • Principle 3: ‘Words like being Married’. Perhaps the worst mistake our students make is that they record words in isolation. For instance they know what ‘test’ means, but when they try to use the word, they come up with things like ‘I wrote a test today’. This is why we need to encourage them to record collocations or whole phrases instead.
  • Activity 3 – Pairing: You give students some words and you ask them to find a partner for each. This is very important for verbs and adjectives. These particular words are desperate to ‘get married’. The reason is that they often do not mean much by themselves. It is crucial that students choose the right partners however; for me this means words which help convey the meaning of the original word. For instance, the right partner for the word ‘cast’ might be ‘a vote’; for the word ‘cunning’ it might be ‘Fox’.

Advantages: Did you notice something about these activities? That’s right. They are student and teacher friendly; i) they are extremely easy;  ii) they require no preparation;  iii) they require no extra materials;  iv) they can be adapted for all levels;  v) students can learn to do them on their own.

Not bad, all things considered… So there you have it: Three down, only seven to go! Hope to see you at the webinar.