Do’s and Don’ts for Using Vocabulary Lists

Recent conversations in my workshops and with my online PLN have me thinking a lot about the role of vocabulary lists in a communication-based classroom.  As I look back at my evolution in teaching for proficiency, my use of vocabulary lists has changed significantly. For years I introduced the vocabulary in the textbook by having my students repeat the words on the list and then complete textbook activities, most of which were not communicative in nature.  I then assessed my students’ memorization of this vocabulary in isolation through objective-style questions.

As I transitioned away from teaching from a textbook, the role of the vocabulary list changed, too. It became my responsibility to compile a list and share it with my students. Therefore, it was up to me to determine which words and structures my students would need to complete the communicative tasks that I had created for each unit. As you’ll notice from reading my posts, I have created various types of resources to scaffold communicative tasks for my students during the past few years.  For my novice students, I often created an illustrated list of key vocabulary items, as well as a list of sentence starters. In other cases, especially with my French 4/5 students, I never quite got around to creating the list–and my students acquired the vocabulary they needed to complete the communicative tasks anyway! So, based on my own experience, here’s my list of Do’s and Don’ts. What would you add?

Do’s and Don’ts for Using Vocabulary Lists

  1. DO wait until you have designed the unit to create the list.  It is only after you have selected your authentic resources, customized your NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Dos, created your communicative activities, designed your summative assessments, etc. that you will know what vocabulary your students will need.
  2. DO wait until your students have received lots of comprehensible input in which the vocabulary is embedded (via authentic resources and/or teacher talk) before providing the list.
  3. DO include sentence starters in which the vocabulary is embedded on your list (rather than just isolated words) to scaffold communicative tasks.
  4. DO provide space for your students to add their own personalized items to the list.
  5. DO create opportunities for students to focus on vocabulary in a communicative context. This Interactive Word Wall is one idea!
  6. DO provide opportunities for your students to practice their circumlocution skills.  This pair crossword activity is one of my students’ favorites! (Click here for the sample puzzle.)
  7. DO provide lots of opportunities for your students to use context clues to figure out the meanings of new words.  I like to give the students lots of practice for part V of the ACTFL Interpretive Template by typing sentences from an authentic resource and underlining the word whose meaning I think they can guess.  I provide multiple choice answers to scaffold this task for my novices.
  8. DO avoid straight L1-L2 translation when creating activities/review games in Quizlet/Kahoot/Gimkit/etc.
  9. DO avoid assessing your students’ memorization of vocabulary in isolation.  Instead, assess your students’ overall interpretive, interpersonal and presentational skills.
  10. DON’T be afraid to eliminate the list altogether, especially for Intermediate Mid-High students.  Your students will most likely learn the words they need by communicating about a topic throughout the unit.

Please share your Dos and Don’ts in the comments below!

17 thoughts on “Do’s and Don’ts for Using Vocabulary Lists

    1. madameshepard Post author

      Hi, Michelle! The kids give each other clues in the target language. No word bank is used. Let me know if you have any more questions!

      Reply
  1. Will Fritz

    LOVE the DO’s and DON’Ts. The hard part is convincing my students that they DO NOT need to memorize a list of words. Grammar is embedded/should be embedded in content, and ideally, will be acquired naturally through reading/listening/speaking. Will it be perfect in the beginning? I doubt it. As I love to point out to people, I never denied my son macaroni and cheese because is direct object wasn’t immediately after his verb. It’s a never-ending battle fighting high achieving/high performing students who want a list and a test to increase/improve their scores. Their next exam is going to include this little gem: “Why is ‘Is this going to be on the test?’ an inappropriate question to ask in this class?” As always, you’re one of my beacons…Je t’adore!

    Reply
  2. Monsieur Fritz

    LOVE the DO’s and DON’Ts. The hard part is convincing my students that they DO NOT need to memorize a list of words. Grammar is embedded/should be embedded in content, and ideally, will be acquired naturally through reading/listening/speaking. Will it be perfect in the beginning? I doubt it. As I love to point out to people, I never denied my son macaroni and cheese because is direct object wasn’t immediately after his verb. It’s a never-ending battle fighting high achieving/high performing students who want a list and a test to increase/improve their scores. Their next exam is going to include this little gem: “Why is ‘Is this going to be on the test?’ an inappropriate question to ask in this class?” As always, you’re one of my beacons…Je t’adore!

    Reply
  3. Traci Da Silva

    Salut,

    Do you mind giving more of an idea of how the pair crossword works? Do the students give each other clues in French to the meaning of the word? Have you done this with novice-level students?

    Merci!

    Reply
    1. madameshepard Post author

      Hi, Traci. I forgot to answer your second question! I have used this with novices, but used very concrete vocabulary, such as fruits and vegetables. I would also recommend giving them some sentence starters to help with the clues.

      Reply
  4. Denise Wagstaff

    How about this: ‪If using a list, DO give students some opportunity to take ownership of which words are most important for them to know.‬

    Reply
  5. Nicole

    This was so helpful to me as a pretty new teacher! I feel like I should have realized this before, but it makes so much more sense to make the vocab. list after choosing the authentic resources and designing the IPA.

    Reply
  6. Megan

    This year, I’m experimenting with not giving vocabulary lists to my classes straight away, like you’ve suggested. We do communicative activities in the three modes, then we play Quizlet Live eventually to get some vocab practice in. Some of my students have asked for it, but I leave an entire page of blank lines at the end of my packets, and I tell them they can create their list if they need one. It’s working so far. I’m most interested to see how it works with my novice students.

    Reply
  7. Sheila Conrad

    Could you explain an opposite example of #8? Would you suggest pictures opposite the L2? I have heard this more and more recently, but I’m wondering why. Do you know if there was a research study done that shows that L1-L2 translation is ineffective?

    Reply
    1. madameshepard Post author

      You ask a great question. I do not know of a research study on this topic. I prefer to treat vocabulary in a communicative context so I would suggest a question about a story or the content of an article/video and multiple choice answers (in the form of sentences.) This would provide the students with an opportunity to see the vocabulary in context and to review the thematic content. Although I have often introduced concrete vocab with pictures, even this practice was not recommended in the ACTFL publication High Leverage Teaching Practices.

      Reply
    2. madameshepard Post author

      Oops, I hit send without addressing your final question! Because I don’t assess vocabulary in isolation or with translation, it doesn’t make sense to me to practice those skills. Because my goals are communicative in nature (based on ACTFL Can-dos), I try to keep the focus on communication during the unit. I would love to hear from other readers about their practices!

      Reply

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