Jan 29

Bang for your buck learning #2

my opinion
Teaching vocabulary in an appropriate way
Pre-teaching vocabulary before a reading or listening text in an English class seems like a really obvious thing to do. If they don't know the words, how can they understand the text? But it can be very problematic and this video will tell you why - and give you some alternatives!


I made a video a few months ago about not wasting time in class and I thought it would be a one-off, but another pet peeve wormed its way into my thoughts recently, so I thought I’d do another one. This time I’m having a grumble about pre-teaching vocabulary before a reading or listening text. Want to know what I think about this? Keep watching…

I’m Jo Gakonga. I’m a Language teacher, a teacher educator and a CELTA trainer and assessor and I’ve got a website at ELT-Training, so if what I have to say speaks to you, go check it out!

OK, I see this so often with trainee and novice teachers in class. They have a reading or a listening text that they want to use. They’re understandably and reasonably worried that the learners won’t understand all of the vocabulary, so they explain it all before they give the learners the text.

This does NOT usually produce a great learning outcome. Why not? Well, there are three main reasons.

The first and most important is that it tends to be very time consuming and very teacher centred – it’s often rather DULL. The second is that because the language isn’t in a context yet, it just seems to the learners to be fairly random words and so not hugely meaningful and the third is that the words that they don’t know are likely to be fairly low frequency and so they’re probably not very useful to learn.

Sometimes you DO need to pre-teach vocabulary. If the whole text is about aardvarks and they don’t know what one is, then showing a picture and giving them the word will be essential. Note that this is very quick! The other criterion for pre-teaching is if the word is in the task that they have to do. They can’t answer a question they don’t understand.

BUT, you say – don’t they need to understand the language. Well yes, but how about teaching it after the first gist reading, after they’ve seen the text. Then it’s in context and will probably be easier anyway.

Even when you do teach vocabulary that’s going to be problematic, consider WHY you’re teaching it and how much detail you need to go into. If you think it’s language that you want them to be able to use (to have productive knowledge of) then you do need to address the meaning thoroughly, the form, any issues about dependent prepositions, irregular verbs etc.

But if they just need to understand for the text and it’s not a word they’re likely to need very often, a rough idea of the meaning is enough – a picture of the aardvark WILL suffice!

Another idea when the words they don’t know are low frequency and not very useful is to use a glossary – either in English or a bi-lingual one – to help them. Why not? It’s quick and promotes some learner autonomy, too.

I’m NOT saying don’t use the language in reading and listening texts as a basis for teaching vocabulary. Texts are a great way to teach vocabulary and I’d really advise you to mine them for useful language after you’ve done the reading or listening tasks – I’ve even got a short course on my site to give you some ideas on how to do this.

BUT for your learners’ sakes -  don’t spend half of your lesson pre-teaching vocabulary- it’s just a waste of time.

OK rant over. As you were….Thanks for watching.

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