53. Vocabulary building exercises

Vocabulary building exercises are –and should be—the most important components of each, every, and all lessons. Whether the teacher teaches content area or English Language Development / English-As-A-Second Language lessons, there is a tremendous need to focus most, if not all, instructional activities on language development. Students can only demonstrate mastery of the content area concepts and skills through language, that is, by using the language of the content area. Thus, ALL lessons need to focus on language development.

According to the latest summary of research findings ("What Works," U.S. Government Printing Office, 19 , page ): "Children learn vocabulary better when the words they study are related to familiar experiences and to knowledge they already possess." This is what research tells us about the best way to develop vocabulary. Let’s analyze the meaning of this research finding.

First and foremost, a word is learned because the student or learner perceives the reality named by the word. For example, today I was helping pre-school children learn colors. The young man with whom I worked, would point to color cubes and say the name of any color. For a minute I thought the child was colorblind since he could not name the five or six color we were working with. To ascertain that the child was not colorblind, I gathered several cubes of each of five colors and asked him, without naming the colors, to point to two cubes that had the same color. He was able to perceived sameness of color and correctly matched two cubes of each of the five colors. With evidence the child could perceive color, we began working on naming the colors.

To introduce new words, students have to experience the reality the word names. When this reality becomes familiar through experience and through repeated exposure to the word that names the reality, vocabulary is acquired. The key element is "experience." The students must see, feel, touch, smell, taste, hear, and perceive what we are naming. Thus, teachers must provide, in ALL vocabulary development activities, a rich classroom environment with lots of visuals, realia, the "real" reality, drawings, posters, anything and everything students can see or experience through the senses. Even better, if possible, teachers can take students outside the classroom to experience the reality whose name the students are about to acquire in the "real" world.

When introducing pictures or realia of a new reality, teachers need to remember that students must BEGIN the vocabulary building activity with familiar perceptions of other realities they know that are related to the new reality. Here we need, then, to introduce the idea of MEANINGFUL CATEGORIES.

Let’s say I wish to introduce the vocabulary for fruits not commonly found in the American diet, like "cherimoya," "loquat," "guava," etc. To BEGIN my lesson, I review all fruits students can easily recognize and name. Students can name the pictures of fruits they commonly eat. AFTER I have reviewed the category "fruits" by naming known fruits already tasted and named --fruits that are familiar to the students--, then I introduce the realia, or the real fruits or pictures, of the new fruits we are about to learn. It will probably take approximately 70 exposures to the pictures and the names in meaningful situations –like tasting the fruits, or naming all the fruits the students know, or recalling and describing the recently introduced fruits, or grouping the fruits by shape or color, or taste -- before students remember, forever, the name of the new fruits, in other words, before the visual image and the name of each fruit go from the short-term memory to the long-term memory and are stored there.

The teacher can expedite the process of storing new information in the long-term memory by POSTING the new vocabulary words (and/or the pictures of the reality named by the words) in the classroom. Thus, students will always remember the names of the new fruits in terms of words they already know and are familiar with: the new names are added to the ones already posted. There is no better vocabulary building technique than posting in the classroom words that belong to the same meaning category. There are many MEANING categories like "parts of the body," "celestial bodies," "wild animals," "words that express movement," etc. Lists of some of the categories that teachers have posted in classrooms and have shared with me are provided at the end of this answer.

Posted MEANING categories offer another great advantage. When a student cannot remember how to spell a word, the student can very easily find the word by simply remembering the category to which the word belongs. No dictionary skills are required to find the spelling of words when these are grouped into meaningful categories. Grouping and posting words by meaningful categories helps ALL students. Students can very easily find new and old words just by remembering the category to which the word in question belongs.

CATEGORIES POSTED BY TEACHERS IN THEIR CLASSROOMS: The followings lists have been shared by classroom teachers all over the USA. Teachers, through pictures, realia, or using the "real" objects, helped students perceive, name, recognize, identify, label the objects or pictures. Then, they wrote the words in each list on the board or on chart paper. Other words in the categories were added as students encountered other visual representations belonging to the same categories. At the end of the lesson, teachers shared with their students the lists here presented.



For more in-depth information, classroom demonstrations, and "coaching" of new and/or experienced teachers, Dr. CARMEN SANCHEZ SADEK offers:

1. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
2. Cross Cultural Diversity - Multicultural Strategies
3. Effective Instruction for English Learners (L.E.P. students) Parts 1, 2, 3, 4
4. Promoting Academic Success in Language Minority Students
5. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
6. Oral Language / Literacy Skills / Higher Order Thinking Skills
7. 50/50 Dual Language Programs: design, planning and implementation
8. The Structure of English / The Structure of Spanish
9. Transition: Introduction to English Reading

Web Site Programs for Teachers: Numbers 1, 5, 7, 8, and 9.
Web Site Programs for
Paraprofessionals: Number 3.
Web Site Programs for
New Teachers:
Enhanced Cultural Sensitivity - The Challenge of Students Diversity
Identifying / Responding to Students' Language Needs
Phonemic Awareness: Teaching English phonics to L.E.P. students
Relationship Between Reading, Writing and Spelling
Improving Reading Performance -- Building Oral Language Skills)

Write and e-mail any additional questions you may have, and Dr. CARMEN SANCHEZ SADEK will establish with you, your school or district a Technical Assistance Service Contract. Dr. CARMEN SANCHEZ SADEK will answer all your questions promptly and to your satisfaction.


For information and credentials please click on the link below or contact directly:


Educational Consultant, Program Evaluator

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Certification (12/2006)

3113 Malcolm Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90034-3406

Phone and Fax: (310) 474-5605

E-mail:  csssadek@gte.net