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by Erica Fischer on Jan 26, 2015

How Do We Facilitate Vocabulary Instruction?

vor der lateinarbeit by rolohauck, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  rolohauck 

Last Thursday night, there was a full house for the weekly #langchat hour, and a “superspeedy” (@SraSpanglish) chat ensued! This time, participants discussed ways to facilitate vocabulary instruction. Langchatters talked about how to best select, introduce, and practice new vocabulary so that it sticks. They also brainstormed review methods that foster long-term vocabulary retention. Finally, they briefly commented on how to assess how much new vocabulary students have absorbed.

Thank you to everyone who joined us last week! We would also like to thank our team of moderators, Laura (@SraSpanglish), Cristy (@msfrenchteach), Sara-Elizabeth (@SECottrell), and Amy (@alenord), for leading a rapid-fire chat.

Question 1: (How) Do you select vocabulary for your students?

Participants began by reflecting on their methods for vocabulary selection. The majority of Langchatters agreed that vocabulary should be drawn from both thematic units and student interest. @MmeMinor wrote, “[The] thematic unit gives the skeleton, [while frequent], and more meaningful [vocabulary] fills it out.” Other instructors favored giving students full agency to self-select. For example, @AndyCrawfordTX said, “[We don’t] select *for* [students. We] have them self-select.” Additionally, some participants take student level into consideration when deciding how much vocabulary should be based on student interests. @axamcarnes wrote, “[Spanish] 1 [vocabulary is] primarily district curriculum [or] unit based. [Spanish] 3 [vocabulary comes from a combination] of [students] curating what they need for [a] task [and] some [terms that] I give them.” @sonrisadelcampo agreed that level matters, adding, “In my experience, the higher the [language] level, the less [vocabulary] ‘lists’ are needed.”

Question 2: How can we effectively introduce vocabulary?

Instructors next shared their favorite means for introducing new vocabulary. Some language teachers turn to technology as a useful resource. For example, @mundaysa wrote, “I like to show real websites and [students] say what they see, for example furniture [on an] IKEA website from Spain or Mexico.” MmeCarbonneau shared her favorite interactive applications, recommending “Quizlet, Zondle, Smartboard activities, Pear Deck, [and] Socrative [as resources] to make [students] interact with the [vocabulary] visually.” Other instructors turn to different forms of visuals for contextualized presentation of new vocabulary. As @sr_delaney noted, “[Visuals] are KEY to [students] understanding [without] using English.” @sonrisadelcampo suggested photographs, writing, “[If they’re] my photos [shared] along [with a] background story, that’s even better.” Alternatively, @magisterb480 recommended memes as another visual aid. No matter how you choose to present new vocabulary, participants agreed that contextualization is key. As one Langchatter noted, “The most effective way to introduce vocabulary is in context. For [example], look at a map of the zoo rather than a list of animals.”

Question 3: How much/what kinds of practice do learners need to really remember vocabulary?

To cite @alenord, “Use it or lose it.” Instructors emphasized the crucial role of repetition in long-term retention. @silvius_toda highlighted the importance of repetition in different contexts, writing, “[Students should be exposed to lots] of varied [repetitions] in meaningful contexts. [To] quote @rachelcinis, ‘[We] want repetitions [without] being repetitive.’” Participants suggested activities that situate vocabulary in different contexts. @MmeLohse recommended “[daily] practice within a creative framework, [in the form of skits], comic strips, poems, shared stories, etc.” @virgilalligator also mentioned story-telling or student visual creations as a form of vocabulary reinforcement. Alternatively, @mundaysa suggested a way to keep students thinking about vocabulary outside of the classroom: an Instagram challenge in which students try to find, snap pictures of, and post evidence of vocabulary. Additionally, Langchatters have discussed the importance of personalization many times before. Recognizing the value of personal engagement with class content, @LisaShepard2 recommended “[interpersonal activities] that enable [students] to use [vocabulary] to express personal meaning.” Others recognized that student’s emotional engagement can also promote retention. As @MmeLohse recognized, “Humor helps with memory as well. If words are presented in a funny context, sometimes they’re easier to retain.” Finally, @SenoritaBasom urged instructors to provide students with “[vocabulary practice] in as many modalities as possible!: [speaking], writing, reading, and listening.” @Luzgriselda offered one last important reminder: “[Vocabulary] builds up, and leads on to the next unit [or] problem. If [it] is isolated, [forget it]- GONE!”

Question 4: What review methods foster long-term memory of vocabulary?

Most Langchatters favored long-term use of vocabulary in a variety of contexts over explicit vocabulary review exercises. @IndwellingLang wrote, “I rarely ‘review.’ [I use the target language] naturally [and] understandably, use [a] wide variety of [authentic resources, and] talk lots about [students]. [The important] stuff sticks.” @MmeLohse also makes a point to recycle vocabulary in new contexts, and @LisaShepard2 suggested reading as a source of “natural [vocabulary] spiraling.” @SenoraWienhold summarized the views of many when she wrote, “[It] is not about reviewing or [playing] games with vocab but USING it that moves [students] toward long-term memory.”

In addition to repeated exposure through efforts on the part of the instructor, participants also recognized the value of student creations. As @profesorM observed, “When students create they remember.” @SenoritaBasom agreed, noting, “I find that when a student creates something original using the target vocabulary they are more likely to remember it.”

Question 5: How do we assess what vocabulary students have acquired?

In the last five minutes of the hour, Langchatters briefly commented on vocabulary assessment. There was hardly any mention of traditional vocabulary quizzes. Participants instead emphasized creative forms of expression that evidence vocabulary acquisition. For example, @SenoraWienhold suggested that instructors “have students show what they know with open ended prompts.” @espanolsrs also recommended spontaneous creative writing exercises as evidence of vocabulary retention: “I enjoy having them write something off top of their heads, or add [their] own ending to a story we’ve been working [with] in class.” Once again, student creations in all media where suggested. @MmeMinor encouraged instructors to “get [students] making, with speech, writing, drawing, [or] communicating with [each other].” Finally, @sonrisadelcampo wrote that instructors could engage in “[casual], natural conversations [with students]” in order to assess changes in their vocabulary.


Last week, #langchat participants reflected on ways to facilitate vocabulary instruction. They generally favored a mixture of student and instructor choice in vocabulary selection, and they encouraged introducing students to contextualized vocabulary. Instructors hammered home the importance of repetition of vocabulary in varied contexts, and they also recognized the value of student creations in helping to make vocabulary memorable. Finally, participants encouraged flexible and creative assessments to evaluate changes in students’ vocabulary.

Thank You!

Thank you to all of our participants for helping keep #langchat stong! In the words of @alenord, “All of your ideas are solid gold. You push me to be a better teacher every time you’re online!” You can find us on Twitter every Thursday night for the weekly chat. *Reminder*: In case you can’t join us at that time, now you can also #langchat on Saturday at 10 a.m. ET – Same questions, more chat time!

Due to space limitations, many tweets had to be omitted from this summary. To view the entire conversation, you can access the full transcript on our tweet archive. If you have a topic you’re eager to discuss, send in your ideas for future #langchats so that our weekly discussions can become as relevant and inclusive as possible!

Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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