None of my professors EVER told us to stop pre-teaching all the vocabulary, but I’m telling you to do just that. Here’s why. While I was getting my master’s in TESL in the early 2010s, the strategy of pre-teaching vocabulary words was all the rage. Perhaps it still is? This wasn’t something I had done much of in all my previous years of teaching ESL, but I didn’t want to be an “old dog.” So, eager to practice what I learned, I began pre-teaching vocabulary, and my students’ interest, engagement, and vocabulary retention dropped from the first day. That highly approved strategy turned me into the dreaded Sage on the Stage!
Now, in my not-so-fresh-faced eagerness, I probably dove into it too deeply when I KNOW that there just isn’t ONE method that words all the time for everyone. I’m not saying that you should never pre-teach vocabulary. Sometimes that is the best method, and it can undoubtedly be the fastest strategy. However, it’s not the be-all and end-all.
This is what I do instead of pre-teaching vocabulary.
- I write the theme on the board and invite my class to make guesses about what it means.
- Once they are at least in the ballpark for the meaning, I have them work in small groups or pairs to brainstorm words connected to that theme.
- Then they share their words with another group or pair.
- Finally, they have a few minutes to just talk about any connection they have to that topic.
Now their brains are awake, and the neurons are in a networking frenzy.
Is this the point where I allow them to use their dictionaries?
NO! That is the last resort! Next, I have them make lists of the words they don’t understand in a text. They do so in four columns: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and OTHER. They determine this by examining each word’s placement in the sentence as well as any suffixes. They also don’t do this alone—I am BIG on teamwork.
Now each group joins another group to share what they have and talk it through. I still haven’t “taught” anything yet. I’m walking around, listening, taking notes, and sometimes giving a little nudge in another direction.
Once they’ve exhausted their own resources (their brains), I show them images connected to the words. During this time, they blurt out whatever pops into their mind and continue talking to each other. If they haven’t reached a definition yet, I start telling little stories and giving examples. It’s only at the end of this that I will allow them to use a dictionary.
But this takes so much more time than pre-teaching vocabulary!
I hear you! It most certainly does, and that can drive you nuts if you keep thinking about how much you need to get done with them. It gets better! The more often you have them follow steps like mine, the better and faster they become. As their skills increase, they depend upon you less, freeing you up to do other things with them. Plus, you’re teaching them life skills!
Don’t give them a sandwich!
This process teaches students how to use their BEST resource—their brain. It also teaches them how to use another vital resource—each other. The more they can rely on themselves and each other, the less they will depend on you. They are learning HOW TO learn (while learning vocabulary). You’ve just taught them how to learn without a teacher holding their hands, which is a skill far more useful than making a sandwich.
You may not ALWAYS have time to follow the same steps I do, and that’s okay! Changing things up keeps the cobwebs out of the brain, and sometimes you’ll choose pre-teaching vocabulary because it IS faster in the short run. I’ll tell you this, though: it makes a very noticeable difference. I often got the same students I used to have in lower levels, and I always saw a HUGE difference in the students I had taught this way and their classmates who had had a different teacher that believed in always pre-teaching vocabulary. My former students were more resourceful and learned faster.
Pre-teaching vocabulary doesn’t activate their brain as much as structured discoveries.
Here’s the funny thing: I have had more than one student complain about having to think in my class, and I’ve had many of the same ones thank me for it later when they realize how much it helps them in their university classes.
Read more about vocabulary in adult ESL!
- 2 Powerful Techniques to Increase Student Engagement with Academic Vocabulary Part 1
- How to Increase Student Engagement with Academic Vocabulary Part 2: Using Videos
- Learning New Vocabulary: 3 Reasons Adult ESL Students Struggle
- Two Engaging Multi-Level Vocabulary Games for Adult ESL