Part I - Vocabulary in the Classroom: Thoughts and Strategies on Acquisition and Assessment

Part I - Vocabulary in the Classroom: Thoughts and Strategies on Acquisition and Assessment

Welcome to this blog series! If you haven’t already, do navigate to the overview post which outlines what this blog series on vocabulary entails. On the other hand, if you are already in the know, let’s dive right in!

Vocabulary: Ramblings, Musings, and Questions

How does one learn vocabulary? What does it mean to learn vocabulary? Why do some learners pick up words faster than others? Why are we so obsessed with vocabulary lists? These are just some of the questions I had when first contemplating the topic. Along with ‘grammar,’ ‘fluency,’ ‘proficiency,’ and ‘comprehensible input,’ the term “vocabulary” sits at the top of many a language teacher’s lexical pyramid. Building vocabulary, for that matter, becomes a goal for both language teachers and learners alike. After all, it’s a lot easier to speak a language when you know more words in that language. Still, as we’ll see, the process for L1 acquisition of vocabulary and TL acquisition of vocabulary remain starkly different, particularly as learners increase in age.

Let’s clarify something: vocabulary growth in the L1 vs L2

It’s important to distinguish these marked contrasts between learning vocabulary in the L1 versus in the L2. This is purely anecdotal experience, but ‘building vocabulary’ in the L1 is a legit thing. The reason behind this fact is that we already have enough vocabulary to communicate in the real world. We can accomplish everything we need to do, but when we read and interact with more of our native language in, say, more academic or niche topics, we can gradually increase the amount of words we know. Even from playing video games as a kid (and still today) I remember learning words like “potion,” “elixir,” “alchemy,” “nemesis,” “ingot,” or “revive.” Did I need these words in my daily life as a ten year old? Outside of talking about the games I was playing (which, to be fair, was important to me and my friends), not really. Did the words that I knew in English increase because of this exposure though? Absolutely. Ergo, my vocabulary increased. Even consider the connotations of the compliment “Amy has a really big vocabulary.” Does Amy know thousands of more words than her average peer? No; that’s not what’s implied. The implication of a compliment like this is that Amy knows words that her average peer might not know, words that are more often found in higher levels of writing and reveal Amy’s tendency for reading and experimenting with the language she speaks.

The type of L1 vocabulary growth outlined above occurs word-by-word and (surprise, surprise!) through copious amounts of input. Needless to say, L2 vocabulary learning is markedly different. More often than not, and especially at the lower levels, students do not have the required vocabulary to communicate effectively and efficiently in the real world, hence can-do statements, which help foster a proficiency-oriented approach of what can students do with the language? versus how many words do they know?

Forgive my candor, but what it seems most teachers mean by asking the build vocabulary question is How can I get my students to learn 30-40 words in two weeks? The answer, as I have experienced as both a teacher and student, is that you don’t.

Let’s go back to thinking about learning vocabulary as an adult. For me, there are some words that I see today where I think, oh I’ve seen that but I just can’t remember what it means, and then, after repeated exposure, eventually I know what it means. With even more time, I can eventually incorporate it into my own speech. As mentioned though, these words are learned sparingly, and often one at a time, as opposed to the flood of words L2 learners have to handle. But if we can learn L1 vocabulary in small doses, who is to say we shouldn’t do the same in the L2?

How do we learn vocabulary in the target language?

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ll know that comprehensible input is an excellent starting point. CI allows teachers to, through repetition in communicative settings, establish a foundation of learner vocabulary, words and phrases that students will know, recognize, and can even produce on their own. But what happens when students go to produce that language, and, even after frequent exposure to a word multiple times, they can’t recall it? Most (myself included) would say that well, the students have not acquired that word yet. The question becomes then, what do we do to help students acquire it? Before looking at some examples, I want to talk about something commonly seen in language classrooms: isolating vocabulary.

Isolating vocabulary

Every language teacher knows the organized design of a textbook vocabulary list. Words are divided into categories, whether by topic, by occupation, by part of speech, or any other identifier. Isolating words and phrases like this can help: students can see the meaning of the word or phrase in English and immediately know the meaning. For vocabulary that is easily categorized and carries a direct English equivalent, things like occupations, names of classes, food, places in a community, etc., this makes it nice and easy, and a long list can foster student choice in the language classroom. Unfortunately though, some instructors (and as a result, their students) tend to rely far too much on these lists. And with all of the questions and tips on building vocabulary, why do we still persist in isolating it? It’s amazing how many times I encourage students to use vocabulary apps for extra practice, but when it comes time to produce the language, the words are elusive. We’ll dive deeper into this when we look at the research in the next post, but for now, let’s shift to communicative contexts.

Communicative context

At least in my own classroom, what’s important is that students are seeing the vocabulary in a communicative context. What this means is that there is an expression of meaning involved, as opposed to just connecting Chinese words to their English equivalents. Even more, students are using the vocabulary to do something: there is a goal involved, some end product for students to achieve. Sometimes these are full-blown tasks; other times they are basic information gap activities. Let’s look at some examples of context-based vocabulary activities.

Activities for building and reinforcing vocabulary

Sequencing activities

Anything that involves students putting sentences in order to illustrate comprehension is a communicative-based activity. I like doing this after some type of input exposure like a story, and even pairing it with a dictation. Here’s what happens:

  1. Students hear a story in the target language.

  2. They are given a dictation, where they have to write / type what I say in the target language (sentences relating to the story).

  3. After writing out each sentence, students have to then organize the sentences, placing them in order of when they occurred in the story.

You can do this on Extempore as seen below.

Comprehensive Dictation

Sorting activities

Sorting is another excellent strategy for contextual vocabulary use. Sometimes I have students physically cut out words and put them on their desks, then they are given categories and are encouraged to sort the words according to their preference. For example, for a unit on food, we sort as follows:

  • Foods I like / don’t like

  • Chinese food / Western food

  • Foods I can make / can’t make

  • Foods I’ve tried before / haven’t tried

  • Foods our school has / doesn’t have

Here, students sort foods into "foods I can make" (left) and "foods I can't make" (right).
In this example, students sort classes according to what they take and don't take next year.

What’s great about sorting activities is that they provide a setting for meaningful repetition of words. Likewise, students can also rank items: favorite to least favorite, spiciest to least spicy, most expensive to cheapest, etc.

Sorting and ranking is easily done digitally too. Teachers can use tools like Google Slides (as seen above) or Jamboard and have students drag and drop items.

Along these lines, any type of categorizing of words makes for an excellent way to incorporate meaningful repetition (and a nice way to learn your students preferences, to boot). When you use thematic units, then, students will have words from similar categories, which makes sorting activities easy. Even something like parts of the body — rank which body part you would least want to lose. Professions? Rank by which pays the most. Places in a city? Sort by where you go and don’t go on the weekends. You get the idea. If you want to gamify this, try playing scattergories with your students.

Caption / comment contests

Provide a picture and have students come up with creative sentences for a caption or a comment. Then, have students vote on which they like the most.

“One minute news

Realistically, I could write a full blogpost about “one minute news,” a daily presentational speaking task I use in my classroom. For the sake of time, here’s the gist:

  • Students have a given topic to talk about, like classes, food, travelling, their families, hobbies, or social media.

  • Each student prepares a simple presentation on the topic, where they speak for 30 seconds to a minute.

  • After the presentation, use an app like Nearpod or PollEverywhere to host audience-posted questions for the speaker to answer. This allows for pre-task planning (where audience members have time to think about their question, type it out, then ask it) and for meaningful repetition. It also allows for students to get to know one another through a communicative activity.

  • Not only this, once students get comfortable asking basic questions (through repetition), you can then encourage them to challenge themselves and use new words or patterns that you are learning in class.

Interpersonal tasks

Surveys are a great way to practice ingrain into students certain target language question / response patterns. When put in a communicative context, they make for great language tasks. Have students figure out the response to a common question: What do their classmates like to do? Do students like x food or y food? What do you want to do after graduation? What do you think of the food at x restaurant?

Once students have the answers to these questions, the more important step is then to do something with the data they’ve collected. Know what your classmates like to do? Plan a weekend excursion together. In the example below, to reinforce the question pattern 怎么样 (how is…?), intensifiers, and adjectives, I have students ask about food at a local restaurant. Once they are done, they then have to be restaurant critics, compiling the information and writing a restaurant review (presentational writing).

The image above lists foods (top row of chart) that students can ask their peers about. Peers can then respond by using an intensifier (very, really, so) and an adjective (tasty, spicy, salty) to respond.

What do all of these activities and strategies have in common? Students see and use the language in context, leading to meaningful repetition of words, phrases, sentences, and questions. No matter what students are doing, they are expressing meaning.

Ideas for assessing vocabulary — classroom-based practices

Above are some strategies on reinforcing vocabulary. What about assessing vocabulary? Recently, I’ve been talking with other teachers about methods for assessing vocabulary. What’s the best way to do it? Should it be input-based or output-based? How do we make sure students are ready? All of these questions, paradoxically, lead to me questioning the approach entirely. When it comes to assessing vocabulary, there’s a more important question we should be asking: should we even be assessing vocabulary? What is the purpose? I’ve been doing some DuoLingo recently and have acquired a smattering of Polish and Norwegian words; I could list out maybe a hundred for both languages combined. But using them, in actual context? Outside of really the sentences I’ve practically memorized (Jeg heter Grant! - My name is Grant (Norwegian); My mamy ciasteczka! - We have cookies! (Polish)), I'm at a loss. Assessing students' vocabulary by asking them to match words or write definitions shows exactly that: an ability to match words and provide L1 equivalents.

Instead of assessing vocabulary, we should be observing its growth among our students and working to understand vocabulary’s relationship with proficiency. When we take this more holistic approach, we integrate, not isolate, vocabulary, and we come away with a much clearer picture of our students’ levels. With this said, here are two practical classroom strategies for observing vocabulary growth and assessing overall proficiency.


I like freewrites because of their bare-bones nature, their simplicity, and their use as a reflection piece for students. Freewrites are simple: at the beginning of a unit, ask your students to write as much as they can about a certain topic, let’s say food. For best results, give your students a set amount of time, normally 5-10 minutes, and only provide guiding questions for students who really need that ‘push.’ Then, at the end of that food unit (say, 4-6 weeks later), do the exact same thing: have students write as much as they can about food in the target language. When they are done the end-of-unit freewrite, compare results between both writings. Upon reflection, as students see the increases in word count (or for my students, character count), unique words used, and sentence length, you and they both know that proficiency (and thus, vocabulary) has grown. Oh, and don’t let your students prepare for these: you want to see exactly how much they have acquired and retained at that given moment.

For more on using freewrites in your classroom and on Extempore, read our blog on them here.

Can-do statements

I hinted at this earlier by referencing looking at how students use the language. Can-do statements are excellent litmus tests for vocabulary growth. If students can do something with the language, they clearly have the vocabulary necessary to do it! Thus, the more can-dos a student can check off, the more vocabulary they have acquired. It’s odd that it's that simple, but this is why can-dos are a staple of the communicative language classroom.

When we look at teaching language from a communicative lens, we put can-do statements or real-world tasks front and center, and à la backwards-design, start from the goal and then see what we need.

  1. What do I want students to do with the language? What is the target task?

  2. What linguistic resources (vocabulary + grammar) do students need to complete this task?

  3. What in-class activities will best lead them to acquire these words in a communicative context?

Wrapping up

Phew. That was a lot! Vocabulary practice, learning, acquisition, and integration in the classroom comes in many forms, and we should look at it from different angles. So long as target words and language have context, our students will benefit.

These are the activities that I have found to work for me, based on my classroom practices and experiences. What are your thoughts? What vocabulary strategies are most effective for your students?

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