Word lists: a necessary evil or a great tool?
As students encounter new phrases and words they have not heard before, it might be a good idea to motivate the use of word lists. Yet, we do not want students to constantly translate or keep searching for words.
In this post I will answer the question if you should use word lists and if so, how.
Estimated time to read this article: 8 minutes
Why word lists might not be a good idea
Let's start with the obvious statement I posed in the title: Should you use word lists?
There are a lot of different ways to implement word lists in a lesson.
Some of the good, other ones maybe less so.
Keeping this in mind, what might be reasons NOT to use a word list?
1. Students translate words
Students have to understand the words and phrases they discuss both in their mother tongue as well as in the second language.
But we want them to primarily focus on the second language when we motivate them to speak in class.
The best way to get them to do this, is by making sure they start 'thinking' in English as soon as possible.
In other words: we do not want them to translate every single word while they work.
When word lists with translations are allowed, students might use those to constantly check how to say something, instead of automating the use of the English word.
2. Students lose their word lists
I might not be the most organised guy around, but students regularly surprise me with their attitude towards needed materials for a lesson.
"I forgot my dairy"
"I lost my notebook"
"I don't have a pen"
Anyhow, with this attitude it is no surprise students lose word lists constantly.
A way to organize this could be to have one notebook for all word lists.
But that assumes they bring that one notebook as well...
Key Take Away
Whenever you want to use word lists, make sure you think about 'how'.
Seriously, is that all?
I know, I know.
I played Devil's Advocate just now.
My point is: think about how to implement word lists.
Don't just assume students keep track of difficult words themselves.
Or assume the word list in the back of the book is sufficient (it is not!)
But think about how to use word lists in a way they actually support the learning process of students.
In other words: How can you use word lists effectively?
How to make effective word lists
Just as a precaution: remember I do not pretend to have all the answers.
I simply share my ideas, inspired by colleagues, teachers and scholars.
Having said that, there are (at least) two things to keep an eye on when working with word lists:
- 1Is the word list subject specific or cross-curricular?
- 2Do you want to use translations or explanations?
Subject specific vs. cross-curricular
To answer the first question: that is entirely up to you of course. It is just something to be aware of.
Personally I only use subject specific word lists. Simply because cross-curricular ones need a lot more organizing.
Yet, for students this might be a good way to organize things. Instead of multiple word lists, they might only need one.
Translations vs. explanations
The second question is more interesting in my opinion.
Translating is something I think should be limited as much as possible.
Students should start 'thinking' in the second language as soon as possible and stop translating everything constantly.
Of course they have to know what a word means when they first encounter it, but soon after they should be able to use it.
In context. In the second language.
So asking students to explain what a word means, or provide example sentences to be used with these words, is a great way to help them remember the word.
That is also the reason we use Cambridge Dictionaries at our school: English to English, not to Dutch.
Key Take Away
There is not one 'best' way of working with word lists, but you do have to think about its purpose.
Do you want to provide scaffolding?
Do you want students to be able to explain the words?
These questions influence the way you work with word lists.
Student or teacher generated word lists?
Another thing to keep in mind is who actually creates the word lists?
Teacher or student?
Actually, both are okay.
But (again) only if you think about the how and why.
In other words: in what situations is it better for a teacher to provide a word list?
This can be in various occasions like:
Just like there are good reasons to provide a teacher- generated word list, there are various reason to ask students to create their own.
Scaffolding with word lists
With scaffolding you provide structure to help students improve.
Word lists can be used as a scaffolding tool as well.
For example: students can be provided with a word bank of academic words they can/have to use in order to introduce CALP in the classroom (or at least to trigger the use of more 'advanced' language)
Another way of scaffolding is by providing word lists accompanied by tasks. The purpose of these word lists would be to lower the language barrier in order for students to be able to complete the subject related task that might be a challenge otherwise.
3 activities to implement word lists
Okay, enough ideas and theoretical knowledge, let's talk practical lesson ideas!
These three ways of using word lists are used at various moments in a lesson and are both student as well as teacher generated.
The brainstorm activity is ... well, a brainstorm activity.
You ask your students to write down everything they down related to a certain topic.
The main reason to do this is to activate prior knowledge, the brainstorms can also be used in a follow-up task.
Practical example: I write all of my blog posts after a brainstorm.
It was suggested in the CLIL Community students could even further enhance the brainstorms by adding adverbs, verbs, etc.
Mentioning these specific additions is again a form of scaffolding by the way.
This can be done at the beginning of a new lesson to see what students still remember, but also at the beginning of a new topic to see if anyone can link it to knowledge they already posses.
2. Scan the chapter/Scrambled word
Both favorites of mine: I use one of these activities whenever I start a new chapter.
Students scan the chapter for difficult words and write these down. Whenever I discuss these words during the lessons that follow, they have to complete the word lists.
Obviously, they forget this quite often. That is why I go back to this word list at the end of the chapter and ask students to complete it.
This is quite often a moment of realization for them: they notice the words they did not know before but do know now.
Another way to finish up at the end of the chapter might be providing a crossword puzzle with all of the difficult words that should have been in their word lists.
That way there are certainly motivated to figure them out!
Scrambled word works the same way, but instead of asking them to find new words, I actually make a list of the most important words of the chapter, scramble these and provide the students with the list.
They have to find the original words, and we discuss those afterwards obviously.
3. Guess the topic
This is like a backwards-brainstorm.
Instead of dropping the topic and asking students to come up with the related phrases, students receive a couple of words and have to guess the topic of that lesson.
This is a great way to scaffold the prior knowledge, they might not realize the topic is related to so many different things.
Word lists are not evil.
But, they should be used to support the use of the second language, not as a translation tool.
And by using them for scaffolding or during activities, they are no longer the passive word lists that can be found in the books (hopefully) or on Google Translate (because...seriously?)