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!