Thursday, July 19, 2007

Making vocabulary review fun

By Brian Grover

Refreshing target vocabulary hardly takes the fun out of langauge learning. Doing so goes to the very heart of what language learning is all about, activating language and turning language into experience. Flash cards and frequency lists? You're kidding, right?

Refreshing targets can be quite simple and enjoyable. Take for example the expression "pick up". Say that it was originally introduced in the context of a dialogue that included something like "I picked up malaria in Thailand." The target is going to be immediately refreshed, multiple times in the ensuing discussion wherein students compare notes on their own travels and any maladies that they may have "picked up" en route. Of course correction will be necessary to get usage right.

Invariably one or more students in the class is going to be sick at any given time. This is a great opportunity to refresh the target within 24 hours with something like "Yoshi, it looks like you've picked up cold". That can open up a whole other topic around stuff like folk remedies which naturally leads into stuff like household hints like using salt to get red wine out of the carpet and so on. Such topics are particularly useful when teaching phrasal expressions. You are not just refreshing the target vocabulary but you're connecting it to all of the necessary grammar and of course all of the realia student brings with them to the class.

And if you want to refresh it again a few days later there are some other obvious directions to go in like how do you get to and from school? "Oh, I see, your wife picks you up?"

If you need to refresh it a week later bring in some knickknack -- like an opium pipe -- that you may have "picked up" in Macau for example. There are about a dozen different directions you can go from here including souvenir buying and associated traditions, all about travelling and of course cool words and phrases students might have "picked up" in their travels. Or you could get into a discussion of about drug use and abuse in students' home countries versus the pot growing capital of the world, British Columbia, where the teaching happens to be going on. You might be surprised to find out that you can "pick up" marijuana in Shinjuku or Shibuya quite easily though it's also almost as easy to get "picked up" by the police in doing so.

Listen to the students as this is where the real learning takes place. I would hesitate to foist flash cards or vocabulary lists on my students as I consider them anathema to learning. By working target expressions into realistic discussion those targets connect in a very powerful way with the students' own experiences and are less likely to be forgotten within a day or two than arbitrarily mandated target vocabulary.

This approach can be used with any group false beginner and above.

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