How to Teach Vocabulary by Word Associations to ESL Learners
Vocabulary With Word Associations
Vocabulary is one of the most difficult things for EFL and ESL students to learn. Why? The simple fact is that most learners are only searching for the equivalent of the unfamiliar English word in their native language. They are not associating a mental image of anything to go with the new vocabulary.
We acquire our native language through word associations. That is, we get mental pictures of concrete and abstract words through our senses which are associated with new words. For example, when we hear and see the word "sweet," we see, smell, and taste such things as cookies, candy, cake, and ice cream, completely getting the understanding of the meaning of "sweet." In this article, I will detail my experiences of teaching vocabulary by teaching word associations to EFL and ESL learners.
Process of Teaching Vocabulary by Word Associations
For more than six years, I taught my fifth and sixth grade EFL students new vocabulary with word associations. The students enjoyed my teaching and learning method, and I honestly believe they made more progress in learning, using, and retaining vocabulary than before. In all of my classes I taught vocabulary using the following sequence of steps:
1. Oral Presentation of New Words
Before the students even see the word, I say it to them numerous times. Then, I instruct my kids to listen and repeat the word after me. As they do this, I make sure that they are pronouncing the word correctly. While I am saying the word, I show the students a picture representing the meaning. If I don't have a picture or can't draw one on the board, I will dramatically act out the meaning.
2. Written Presentation of New Words
After my class can hear and pronounce the word reasonably well, I will introduce it in its written form. As the students see the word on the whiteboard, I have them repeat it after me two or three times or until the pronunciation is correct. If my kids are still unsure about the exact meaning of the word, I will try to explain it with simpler English words. If this fails, I will ask a student who knows the meaning of the word to provide the translation to the class in the students' native language. If no student can do this, I will tell the students to look up the meaning in their bilingual dictionaries. At this time, the students all should have copied the word and its meaning into their notebooks.
3. Using New Words With Associations
Explaining how to use new words with associations is the heart of my lesson. I am a firm believer that if you can't actively use a new word, it is not a part of your vocabulary. How do I do this? Let me give you some examples. First, let's consider the new word "tasty" which is being introduced to the students. After I explain in simpler English words that "tasty" means good to eat or delicious, I will ask the students to think of any words or things they know that are associated with "tasty." That is when students hear or see the word "tasty," what do they think of or see in their minds? Most students will offer words such as "French fries," "steak," "ice cream," and "fried chicken." For abstract words such as "ambitious," I include the associations of "best student in the class," "Bill Gates," "Microsoft," and "United States" as examples of people, companies, and countries that have worked extremely hard to achieve success. I also tell the students to think of other words to add to their lists of associations which they copy in the notebooks.
4. Testing the Use of New Words with Associations
I have made up exercises and tests to measure how well my students have learned how to use new words with associations. My favorite test or exercise has students match new vocabulary with its corresponding associations. For example, I might include the new words tasty, bitter, sweet, and vanilla in bold on one line, and have my students match these words with the following associations by writing the words in the blanks.
Medicine,coffee, and tea __________
Cake, ice cream, and cookies ______
French fries, steak, and cake _______
Seasoning, plant, and pudding ______
5. Using New Words in Sentences
If students have mastered the use of new words with associations, they should be ready to use words in sentences. To test students' ability to do this, I make up multiple-choice or matching exercises where students have to choose the correct word to use in a sentence. For instance, in testing the students' mastery of the words tasty, bitter, and sweet, I would use the following multiple-choice questions:
1. Cake, ice cream, and cookies all taste _________.
2. French fries, steak, and cake are all _______ food.
3. She thinks medicine, coffee, and tea are ________.
6. Making Sentences Using New Words
This is the final step in gaining mastery of the use of new vocabulary. After my students can correctly use new vocabulary in sentences, I will have them make sentences using the new words. For example, in making sentences with the newly acquired vocabulary of tasty, bitter, and sweet, the students should be able to at least generate sentences such as:
The cookies are sweet.
Medicine tastes bitter.
This steak is very tasty.
Teaching vocabulary with associations was very effective in my classroom, and most of my students enjoyed this teaching and learning experience. Unless students have a mental image of the word they are learning, they will never be able to acquire its meaning and use the word effectively in speaking and writing. In addition, as students increase their vocabulary, they must be aware of connotations as opposed to the denotations which they find in dictionaries.
Teaching Vocabulary by Word Associations
Teaching Vocabulary Through Word Associations
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© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn