Classroom vocab review

From conversations with other teachers, it seems as though the first thing any of else ever felt great at in the classroom was presenting vocabulary. It’s like a party game, and it’s fun to be good at it.

But, one of the things we all acknowledge we need to do better is vocabulary review. After you taught a bunch of vocab in this lesson, how do you bring it back in the next lesson?

I know I can improve in this, but here’s what I know now.

(Fair warning: At the end of this, I’m going to point you at a product I make. But all the advice I have between here and there is pretty good.)

Reduce the number of words you’re going to cover

You don’t have to review every single word that was presented. Maybe something super-specific came up in a conversation and it was useful to use the word once. But, you don’t have to make stress over every word.

Instead, pick a set number of words from each lesson that you’re going to review. This can be your executive decision as a teacher, or it can be something that the group agrees on. Towards the end of the class, you might say “we’re each going to pick a word that we think is worth reviewing.” (For smaller groups) or “What are the six most useful words that we learned today?”

Then, focus on those words.

Make a classroom dictionary

Print and hand out a classroom dictionary at the beginning of each lesson. Tell students to write down each new word that is taught in the classroom dictionary. Then, when you decide which words you are going to focus on, ask them to fill out the other fields for those words (the word in their language, and an example sentence that they might say).

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The classroom dictionary in action!

You don’t have to check that they did this all the time. But you have to check it more often than not. Partly because they will need help with the sentences, partly because some students will only do it if they know it will be checked. And, lastly, because some students need to let you know that they’re doing what you’ve asked of them.

(If the .PDF I have above doesn’t work for you — if your students don’t speak German, for example — make your own, use the generic version or doctor the OpenOffice file. For example, you should put your own header on it, so they know it’s from you.)

Keep track of the vocab

The students have their classroom dictionaries. After they take the vocab home and fill them in, a lot of them won’t have the structure or the discipline to do much more unless you tell them how or what.

So, I wound up making my own vocab record sheet.

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The vocab record sheet

In the vocabulary columns, I wrote the words we decided to learn. In the activity columns I wrote the activities I could think of (they’re coming up), and marked behind each word when I used that word in the activity.

That helped me to make sure that I was repeating vocabulary but in different ways.

Find ways to bring them back

I utterly failed at my attempts to bring the conversation back towards previously learned vocabulary in a free and flowing method. But, once you get over the idea that things don’t have to always feel like a conversation, there are a bunch of activities you can use to bring vocab back:

  • Definition matching. That’s exactly what you think it is. Just remember that you’ve writing definitions more like a party game than a definition (they know what these things are!)
  • Fill in the blank. You know this one too.
  • Translation matching. If you speak the students’ language, and your teaching philosophy allows for it, this is a great way to review vocab.
  • Memory. The classic language classroom game. Match vocab to its translation, or to a picture.
  • Sentence translation. For this, I’d write the vocab in a sentence in German and cut them into strips. The German for the vocab is underlined, so students know which word they have to, at a minimum, say. That would let me go for a laugh (“I will never get in a car with the person across from me. It doesn’t feel safe.”) or just get them to practice making sentences.
  • Envelope review. I’ve written about how envelope review works before. I wrote tasks like “What kind of car does the person on your left drive?” I cut them up, put them in an envelope, and passed them around. The person who drew that sentence had to ask the person on their left and report on it. If there was no problem using the word (nobody said “what is ‘car’ in German?”), that question does not go back into the envelope.
  • Crosswords. Use an online crossword generator and make crosswords.
  • Domino. Like memory, this is a matching game. Print up cards that include the words in English and their translations (or pictures). Students have to put them together like regular dominoes.

Automate it all

This is where I come to the part where I try to sell you on a product I’ve made.

I got so frustrated managing all of this, that I taught myself programming to make software that would automate all this. If you’re interested, give Dynamic-EFL.com a try. It works by letting you set up individual vocab lists for each group you teach and automates creating worksheets and some of the review activities mentioned above.

It’s worked well for me (obviously), and my students consistently thank me for the vocab review. Maybe it will work for you.

What do you think?

How do you do manage this? Have I overlooked any activities that you suggest for bringing vocabulary back? I’d love to have more in my toolbox.

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