Something many learners struggle with once they reach basic conversational fluency is how to keep improving. They probably already have a grasp on the main grammar stuff, and have the vocabulary they need to make themselves understood and to understand others.
At this point, I usually shift focus to vocabulary and lexical patterns. Expanding the range of available lexis gives learners options, flexibility and greater specificity in language. However, just exposing learners to language isn’t enough. How many words and phrases do your learners ‘know’ but never use?
Here are a few rapid-fire vocabulary review activities to help move passive understanding to active use.
This is a simple activity based on the TV game show.
- Draw a long rectangle on the board and divide it into 9 squares.
- Learners choose 3 vowels and 6 consonants.
- They must make as many words as possible of four or more letters in 4 minutes (vary the time for age/ability).
- Learners must only use the letters in the boxes, but they can repeat letters.
- Bonus points are available for the individual or team with the longest words.
This is a useful warmer activity, as it forces learners to think of all possible combinations, without tying them to a particular theme or lexical set. The randomness of the letters helps them come up with words they wouldn’t usually use. The teacher’s role is essential here: learners are free to ask you to check spelling or word forms. This encourages greater creativity.
Backs to the board
This is a vocabulary classic. It is as simple or as complex as you make it, with very little prep required. Essentially, you split the learners into teams. Each team has a representative at the front of the class, sitting facing away from the board. The teacher writes an item of vocabulary on the board and the teams must describe it to their representative, without using the word itself. The first ones to correctly guess the word win a point.
Here are a couple of variations you could use.
Use specific language
Ensure you’re recycling the great language you’re feeding in. Use the lexis you’ve noticed that learners understand but don’t use. For example, if your class generally struggles with using linking phrases in essay writing, throw a couple into this activity before focusing on the day’s writing task.
For a tricky twist, and to get learners using more complex question structures, try using questions and answers. The teacher writes the answer on the board, and the teammates must ask their representative the question which elicits that answer. This could be as simple as writing a student’s name on the board (“What’s his name?”) To something much more complex. For more complex questions, you’ll need to guide learners with timelines or drawings to clarify.
Don’t worry if you can’t draw, it adds to the fun. One of my 7-year-old students declared to me on Wednesday – with a little help translating one or two words – “No offence, but you’re not so good at drawing”. He’s right, I’m not.
Only phrasal verbs
If you have a class that struggles with using the many, many phrasal verbs they’ve been exposed to, play the game with only phrasal verbs. I like to mix between having the phrasal verb on the board to guess, and having an alternative, usually latin-based synonym up there. This means learners have to switch between using the phrasal verbs to describe, and using synonyms for their representative to guess. This spreads the load more evenly among the group.
As you can see, the possibilities are basically endless!
Here again there are many versions, so have a play and find what suits your learners and their needs.
- Write a three letter word on the board, for example ‘cat’. Learners have to add or change one letter to make a new word, such as ‘cart’.
- Set a time limit for learners to create as many new words as possible in a time limit of two or three minutes.
You can make this more difficult by giving the learners the first word and the last word in a chain and challenging them to get from one to the other using the method above.
Similarly to the Countdown activity above, the seeming randomness of the word connection forces out words learners often neglect to use.
…but not the kind you’re thinking of!
- The teacher writes the word ‘wordsearch’ on the board.
- Learners must find as many words as possible of three letters or more.
- There are many many possibilities here, from the obvious – ‘word’ – to the more interesting – ‘ashore’ or ‘cashew’.
- Set a strict time limit. I wouldn’t go over four minutes.
Very much does what it says on the tin. Whether writing or discussing, it can be useful to have a temporary ban on some words. This will depend on your context and what is particularly overused by your learners.
I often write one or two words on the board which are banned for the duration of a particular activity. In my context, these are usually things like ‘beautiful’, ‘so-so’ and ‘according to me’. I am careful to stress that these are not words that need to be banned in general, but that occasionally I’d like to make sure that learners are pushing themselves to use their full vocabulary arsenal.
When error correcting, we tend to focus on, well, errors! However, I feel that we can help our learners so much more than just picking out their errors. It can be very useful to focus on language which is good, but…simple.
- The teacher writes a sentence or two on the board that they heard while monitoring a speaking section of the lesson.
- They inform learners that the sentences are correct, well done!
- However, the students are definitely capable of using more complex vocabulary and/or phrasing.
- Learners work in pairs to upgrade the sentence/s without changing the meaning.
- Feed back as a class and write up the options on the board. Learners can choose their favourite to make a note of.
Hopefully you found some of these ideas helpful! Let me know in the comments if you use any, or if you have your own tried and tested vocabulary building methods.