Research Bites: The Cognitive Linguistic Approach to Teaching Phrasal Verbs


Over the past few days, I have been working my way through several articles on cognitive linguistics. In particular, I have been focusing on applied cognitive linguistics.and the way this discipline looks at phrasal verbs.  That is, how to take cognitive conceptualizations of phrasal verbs and apply those to instruction.

The basis for many applied cognitive linguistic approaches come from Lakoff and Johnson (1980), Tyler and Evans (2003), Kurtyka (2001), and Rudzka-Ostyn (2003). (Full disclosure: I have not read the former two references.)


Cognitive linguists argue that phrasal verbs are not as arbitrary as they might seem. Instead, they are grounded in perceptual experience, from which their metaphorical meanings extend. One common conceptualization of phrasal verbs is as interaction with a container (Kurtyka). For example, in the sentence “Please throw out some ideas,” the container is the place in which ideas are held (i.e. the mind). Out represents the movement from the inside of the container to the outsider. Throw also has an important role in establishing meaning, as it represents the manner by which the ideas leave the container. Together, they build semantic meaning that is quite clearly cognitively represented (Mahpeykar and Tyler, 2014). Most, if not all phrasal verbs can be described using a container. This container can be visualized as a simple box container, a mouth, a body, an area, etc.


Container conceptualizations of (7)a. Peter got on the bus. (8)a. Mother sent the boy out to buy something to eat. (9)a. After years of discipline and hard work he turned into a capable manager. (Kurtyka, 2001, p. 40).

Another way to conceptualize phrasal verbs is by thinking of them in terms of a landmark (LM) and trajector (TR). For example, in the sentence “He turned into a good student.”, “He” is the trajector, “good student” is the landmark, and this relationship is defined in terms of the phrasal verb turn into. Due to the abstract nature of the LM-TR conceptualization, the container metaphor seems to be much more common in the literature.

White (2012) looked at much of the previous research on cognitive linguistic approaches to phrasal verbs and designed an instructional approach, which they then tested in an EAP classroom. The following summary looks at the approach, the experiment, and the findings.

White, B. J. (2012). A conceptual approach to the instruction of phrasal verbs. The Modern Language Journal, 96(3), 419-438.

White reviews a number of articles on cognitive linguistics and phrasal verbs, basing their approach on a synthesis of ideas and focusing on the container, which they call “zone of activity”. White presents 5 stages of phrasal verb instruction, all grounded in previous research and theories. They argue that this approach enables “deeper encoding and longer retention” (p. 425).

  1. Orientation – This stage is meant to reorient students to phrasal verbs, teaching them that they are now random but rather meaning is formed through interaction between the verb and particle. This interaction occurs in the container, or what White refers to as a “zone of activity.”Using the sentence “Throw out the trash,” White explains that “The zone of activity in (3) can be interpreted as immediately surrounding the person holding the trash (i.e., the trashcan is outside of the zone)” (p. 423). In the more metaphorical sentence, “Now that my father is getting older, he put
    up his golf clubs,” White says “the clubs begin in the zone of activity because the father presumably played golf on a regular basis. They are then placed out of the zone; in a metaphorical sense, they are put up on an out-of-reach shelf” (p. 423).
  2. Collection – This stage requires students to “hunt” for phrasal verbs in various sources, building up a collection for analysis.
  3. Meaning Discussion – The third stage requires the creation of an “exploration worksheet” based on phrasal verbs in context selected from the student collection. Students discuss the meaning and then the teacher gives feedback and appropriate definitions of the verbs.
  4. Drawing – Students choose phrasal verbs to draw, incorporating the zone of activity/container imagery in order to explain how phrasal verbs are represented.
  5. Sharing – Finally, students share their drawings, explaining their representations of the phrasal verbs. White writes that this approach places emphasis on inferring meaning from figurative language rather than simple memorization
Author illustrations of phrasal verbs which include a zone of activity. (White, 2012, p. 424)

Author illustrations of phrasal verbs which include a zone of activity. (White, 2012, p. 424)

The Study

This instructional approach was tested in two university-level EAP courses taught by two different instructors. These courses had a combined population of 30 students. Students were given pre- and post- dialogue-based instructional tasks consisting of phrasal verbs with up, out, through, off, down, and in. For these tasks, students were required to explain the meaning of underlined phrasal verbs. A subsection of these tasks recycled up and out phrasal verbs in both the pre- and post- tasks and thus became pre- and posttests. The study was conducted over 7 weeks. Each week, students work through the 5 stages outlined above. Each exploration worksheet consisted of 4 phrasal verbs. Student feedback was also collected.

Results, Discussion, Adaptation

The average increase for all from pre- to post-task for all phrasal verbs was not significant. However, for the pre- and posttest up and out phrasal verbs, the increase was significant with a “modest” gain in scores (p. 429). Fourteen students improved, two remained the same, and six students’ scores fell. The analysis found examples of post-task explanations incorporating the new perspective and zones of activity, even if they did not lead to correct answers.

The author recommends adapting this approach by giving more conceptual information, focusing more on the particles, and giving more feedback on drawings – especially regarding the zone of activity. This can also be extended to not just phrasal verbs but prepositions in general (see Tyler, Mueller, and Ho, 2011).


As the author admits, this is not a “silver bullet” to learning phrasal verbs (p. 430). However, building mental models of representation in order to understand figurative language such as phrasal verbs is based on grounded cognitive linguistics theory. The challenge is to find instructional approaches that make these models salient to students while improving their ability to inference, hopefully in real-time. The research is relatively new in this area and it is hoped that more work is done to help find ways to better learn English’s complicated phrasal verb system.



Kurtyka, A. (2001). Teaching English phrasal verbs: A cognitive approach. In M. Putz, S. Niemeir, & R. Dirven (Eds). Applied Cognitive Linguistics II: Language Pedagogy (pp. 29-54). Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago/ London : University of Chicago Press

Mahpeykar, N., & Tyler, A. (2015). A principled cognitive linguistics account of English phrasal verbs with up and out. Language and Cognition, 7(01), 1-35.

Rudzka-Ostyn, B . (2003). Word power: Phrasal verbs and compounds (a cognitive approach). Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Tyler, A., & Evans, V. ( 2003 ). The semantics of English prepositions: spatial scenes, embodied meaning and cognition. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press .

Tyler, A., Mueller, C., & Ho, V. (2011). Applying cognitive linguistics to learning the semantics of English to, for and at: An experimental investigation. Vigo International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 8, 181-205.


7 Techniques for Mining Vocabulary

Update: since writing this, I have learned of a few new tools that I have yet to try out. They are listed at the end of the post.

Selecting vocabulary to focus on from a text is not always as simple as reading the text and picking out words. It’s hard to determine the frequencies and relevance of words just from reading. So, I’d like to share several methods I use – often in conjunction – to decide what vocabulary I want my students to focus on.

To Pre-Teach or Not To Pre-Teach?

Whether or not to pre-teach vocabulary is a somewhat contentious issue. I leave it up to the teacher and their context to decide what is right. In my own context, and in my own view, I mostly pre-teach, or pre-expose students to vocabulary. This is because I deal with intensive reading which involves challenging texts that include difficult vocabulary. I want my students to go into their readings armed with enough vocabulary so that they do not feel completely overwhelmed. In addition, since these are challenging texts, and being able to guess words from their context requires knowing 95% of the surrounding words, relying solely on context is not a sound strategy. In addition, vocabulary is learned through multiple exposures. I believe that pre-teaching counts as an exposure. Working with the vocabulary first is likely to lead to greater recognition and internalization than other techniques. Finally, I do not rely on pre-teaching all the time, especially if it is a word that I know they can get from context, inference, or because they know related words. However, pre-teaching works for us most of the time.

1. Starting At the Source

This may seem obvious, but the best thing to do when choosing vocabulary is have a manipulable text. If your text is digital, you are already ahead of the game. All you have to do now is copy and paste. But if you are working with textbooks (readings or transcripts of lectures or conversations), a clean scan is required, followed by an OCR rendering. OCR makes the scanned “picture” readable by making the text recognizable by computers. If you have Adobe Acrobat, there is a built-in function for this. If not, you can use a free online service such as Free Online OCR. With OCR, it is not always 100% accurate. It depends on the scan quality, really. I still get things such as “are” rendered as “arc” or “history” as “h!story” but for the most part this is not a problem, and it is easily fixed in Word.

Starting at the source in Acrobat

Starting at the source in Acrobat

Copying to a text file is essential for some of the tools below.

Copying to a text file is essential for some of the tools below.


How to OCR in Acrobat Pro

2. Word Lists

Because I deal with academic texts, I use the Academic Word List (AWL) and the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL) to find words in the text that are important for academia. I have just started using Lauren Anthony’s free AntWordProfiler to compare target texts against lists. It’s quite simple to use and already comes preloaded with the AWL.

Download and run it (no installation necessary). There are three panes. The top pane is your target text(s). The bottom pane are your word lists. The right pane is the output, which includes the words in the text that are found on the word list, their frequencies in the text, and other pertinent information.

It’s quite simple to use. First, clear out the GSL lists in the bottom pane. That will leave you with only the AWL. You can add the AVL by first downloading it my very simple version of it here, then clicking “Choose” to add it. Click “Choose” in the top pane and select your text (which should be in a .txt file). Click “Start” at the bottom and the results will be printed on the right. Here are two examples:


My text compared against the Academic Vocabulary List. Words such as research, change, following, increase, system, and term have a frequency greater than 1 and appear on the Academic Vocabulary List.

AWL results

My text compared against the Academic Word List. Words such as research, consist, psychology, aware, estimate, function, benefit, etc. have a frequency greater than 1 and appear on the Academic Word List.

Having this information helps me quickly sort through what students likely need to know, what they can figure out, and what they already know.

3. Highlighter

An online tool that is related to the above word lists is the AWL Highlighter. Input text (up to 2400 characters) and select what level of sublist you’d like to search (there are 10, with the first having the most common words) and then hit submit. The website will bold the academic vocabulary. You can also select the gap-fill option to make the academic vocabulary disappear! The AWL Highlighter is a pretty good tool for quickly noticing academic vocabulary in context.

...text comes out

Text goes in…

...text comes out

…text comes out

4. Vocab Grabber

Another one of my favorite vocabulary mining tools is Visual Thesaurus’ Vocab Grabber. Paste in your text and click “Grab!”. It compares the text against its own word lists and then presents the text to you either as a cloud or a sorted list, which can then be filtered by subject and by list level. I typically arrange it as a list by frequency, and then look at each level individually. Levels 1 and 2 are the most common words. Relevant vocabulary typically appears in lists 3, 4, and 5.

What’s more, Vocab Grabber allows you to quickly get the definition of the word, see the word in its contexts in the text, and, being visual thesaurus, get a visual word association map of the text.


Unorganized Text from Vocab Grabber


Sorted by frequency, words from list 4


How words can be viewed: mind map, definition, examples from text

5. Word Clouds

I use word clouds more as an embellishment on my PPT slides, or as a warmer activity, than for actually mining vocabulary. However, visually displaying a text as a word cloud sometimes reveals vocabulary you may have otherwise missed. Tagxedo is the best world cloud generator I have found, especially as it allows you to organize your clouds into different shapes, and it has loads of customization features. Unfortunately, it doesn’t run on Chrome, but Firefox and IE work well.

The article's theme was about sleep, so I made the word cloiud into a "dream cloud".

The article’s theme was about sleep, so I made the word cloud into a “dream cloud”.

6. Manual Mining

Using the above resources is great. However, most of the time, manual mining of a text through skimming, scanning, or reading, is useful. This is especially true for various multi-word phrases that the automatic mining tools may miss. For example, the phrase “sleep debt” appears several times in the article but never appeared in any of the lists as a chunk. I wouldn’t actually define this phrase, as it deciding on the meaning of the phrase would be done via discussion. However, other phrases like sleep deprivation, fight off, cut short, wreak havoc, long haul, etc.

7. Student Mining

Getting the students themselves to do the mining is always a great way to work with the vocabulary they want, as well as giving them valuable pre-exposure too. You can have students scan for new or unfamiliar words (and phrases) and build a list. Then, they can work with another student to discuss unfamiliar words and come up with a list of words neither can define. I also get students to add words to a Google Form (a simple paragraph text input box) so that I can see the most common unknown words and work from there.

New Tools

How to Use Audacity to Quickly Make Audio Clips

Audacity, a freely available audio editing program, is one of my essential, go-to teacher tools – so much so that it is pinned to my taskbar and enjoys almost daily use.


Audacity is the last icon on the right.

There are many things you can do with Audacity that is useful for teaching. For example, you can slow down audio or speed it up; you can cut, shorten, and manipulate audio (such as TED Talks!); you can record your own audio samples; you can record students; students can make their own podcasts; you can analyze waveforms and spectrograms in a pronunciation class; and you can make really cool listening quizzes (an idea for a future blogpost of mine). Really, the list is endless.

The point of this blog post is to show you how I use Audacity to quickly cut up audio for vocabulary, transcription, and paraphrasing practice. 

The first thing you need to do is download Audacity. In addition, you’ll need to download and install the LAME MP3 codec in order to save .mp3 files (Windows users click here, Mac users click here). Once installed, you’re ready to go.

The quickest way to cut up audio is the use of labels. This allows you to select a section of audio, label it with a name, and then later export all the sections as separate files with a few clicks. I’ll try to give step-by-step instructions with pictures.

  1. Open the program and load the track you want.
  2. Listen to the track until you find a clip you want. Then highlight the clip and press CTRL + B. Give the label a name. In my example, it is “v – addictive”. This means the clip contains a short phrase with the vocabulary word “addictive” in it.
    vocab label
  3. Continue labeling. If there are two sections together or nearby, you may have to zoom in to be more accurate.
  4. When you are finished, Audacity should look like this (zoomed out).
  5. Next, go to File -> Export Multiple. This will allow you to export each clip/label you made separately.
    save multiple
  6. You’ll see a dialog box. Make sure to select “MP3 Files” under format, select a location, and choose whatever other options you’d like. The setup below is what I typically use. It will produce MP3 files in the folder I specified that are named only by the label I used.
    export options
  7. Press “Export” and you will see the box below. This will appear for EVERY label you created, so all you have to do is click “OK” multiple times in succession – unless you wish to read the information for each file.
  8. When the process is finished, you’ll see a list of your files.
  9. Open the folder, and you’ll see something like this:
  10. Now, the fun part…what to do with all those files? Here is an example – a game I play called “Popcorn Vocab“. I simply drag the files I want into a PPT and then arrange them to be easy to use. In class, I’d set up the popcorn game by telling students to list for the vocab (which we have already studied) and JUMP in the air and shout the word when they hear it. The first to jump/shout gets a point. OR, if two students jump/shout at the same time, they are both out. This last change is adapted from the Korean nun-chi game. Check the blog post I linked to to get a better explanation.popcornuse

Research Bites: The Relevance of the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL)

Durrant, P. (2016). To what extent is the Academic Vocabulary List relevant to university student writing?. English for Specific Purposes, 43, 49–61.

Durrant compares the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL, Gardner and Davies, 2014) to university writing in order to understand how academic vocabulary is actually represented in undergraduate and graduate writing.

The Wordlists

The AVL is a more updated version of the popular Academic Word List. There are some important differences between the two:

Academic Word List (Coxhead) Academic Vocabulary List (Gardner and Davies)
based on a 3.5-million word academic corpus based on 120-million word Corpus of Contemporary American
based on headwords without regard to different meanings caused by changes to word families based on lemmas (“headwords plus inflectionally-related forms”) to take into account the various meanings of world forms
based on General Service List of high frequency general English words which may contain words that also have academic uses (e.g. address) but are not included in the AWL not based on any pre-existing list

The Problem

Durrant’s research is to provide insight into just how relevant the AVL is. Some of the problems highlighted about wordlists are that vocabulary varies too much by discipline to have any list be of value. Another argument is that wordlists are more useful (insofar as they are actually useful) for reading texts, not producing them. In other words, their productive value is questionable.

The Research

The research compared the AVL word list to the British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus. Durrant looked at overall use of the AVL, as well as variation by student level, discipline, and genre.

The Findings and Conclusion

  • The AVL accounts for about 34% of the lexical words in the BAWE
    • 20% of this is covered by only 313 words
    • The most frequent 32 AVL items account for 5% of the BAWE lexical items
  • The AVL accounts for slightly more usage as their academic levels rise
  • There is wide variation between disciplines
    • While the average for the entire AVL to account for 20% of the BAWE is 313 words, there is great variation by discipline
      • 106 words in architecture account for 20%
      • 1,312 words in classics account for 20%
      • The median is 194
    • There is some overlap between certain disciplines
      • For example, 40 words from the AVL account for 10% of words in linguistics and physics (17% of items are shared)
        • The three words that cover 5% of the BAWE in these disciplines are however, therefore, and theory
      • About 30% of AVL represents shared words which account for 20% of the BAWE
  • There is signficant but small variation between text genres

The Implications

A relatively small amount of AVL words represent a great deal of academic writing while about half have very little contribution in terms of coverage. However, the words that do contribute to a great deal of coverage vary by discipline. Durrant argues that these results may seem to imply discipline-specific vocabulary teaching is a warranted approach. Nevertheless, he argues that is usually not practical nor desirable “given the cross-disciplinary nature” of academia. Durrant recommends focusing on the most frequently overlapping words (427 lemmas) and then moving on to either more discipline-specific lists or, vocabulary strategies such as inferring meaning or skipping unknown words (here, he refers to Nation’s [2011] “Learning vocabulary in another language“).

I have adapted the word list from Durrant’s work into an Excel file. The file contains the most common academic words that are shared among 30 disciplines, sorted by part of speech and frequency. Please click here to download it.

Six+ Ways I Use Mini Whiteboards in the Classroom

20160602_102608Under my desk in my office, I keep a bag of five or six mini whiteboards. When I tote this bag to class, my students perk up. When I break out the boards, they get really excited. Now, I’d like to think that my class is engaging and exciting without these boards, but these boards signal that class time will be spent a bit differently than usual. I use mini whiteboards to do a lot of reviews and games, and it’s clear from my students’ reactions that they love these sorts of activities. Because mini whiteboards are now a dedicated part of my teacher toolkit, I’d like to share some of the activities I do with them.

(Note: if you don’t have access to mini whiteboards, laminated white paper and board markers work just as well!)

1. Grammar Review with Video

This is probably my favorite mini whiteboard activity. It’s really quite simple and can be done with almost any video. I have used trailers (check out Subtitled Trailers on YouTube) and often the interactive zombie video Deliver Me to Hell. This is a review activity and works best with grammar, though vocabulary and other structures would work too.

I typically introduce the video and give a brief explanation of what students are expected to do with their partner (groups of 3 or 4 would be OK too). I write a checklist of structures on the board (e.g. adjective clause, adverb clause – concession, adverb clause – unreal past, etc.) sometimes with point values, sometimes without. Then, I play the video and pause it at either a random or action-packed moment. Students then must choose one of the structures on the board and make a sentence about the action surrounding the paused moment. I walk around and give feedback until students have a correct sentence. Students can then check off that structure. (Alternatively, you can award points to the first group with the correct sentence or only allow the first two groups to finish to check off that structure – it’s a game, so play it how you’d like). I ask students not to erase their boards so that they can share their sentences with other groups. If it is a particularly good sentence, I write it on the board and we discuss the structure together. If I see a group is struggling, I’ll write their sentence on the board and we will work on it together.

I repeat this game until all structures have been completed. If I am using trailers, I typically have several ready to go, and I do use the subtitles, but they are not necessary. During this activity, my students are fully engaged and are really applying their skills. The pair/group work allows students to help each other and allows me to offer targeted feedback and identify group- or class-wide areas that need help. It’s a great activity and something I try to do several times per term.

2. Vocabulary Practice and Review

There are a number of ways you can practice and review vocabulary with mini whiteboards. The following activities can be completed in pairs and groups. They require students to have already studied the vocabulary and be somewhat familiar with it. Each one of these activities is simple and can be played as a game (e.g. giving points to the first group finished). The activities are:

  • Say or show the meaning, students must write the vocabulary word
  • Say or show the word, students must write the meaning
  • Show a sentence with one word missing, students write the vocabulary word
  • Show a vocabulary word and students write a sentence with that word
  • Show a vocabulary word and the word “Noun,” “Verb,” Past Tense” and students must change the part of speech or write the past tense form of the word
  • Show a synonym/antonym, students write the corresponding vocabulary word
  • Show a list of words and get students to group them and then explain their groupings

The goal of these activities is to get students to collaborate in order to recall and apply vocabulary. They are a quick and fun way to get essential practice and easily allow immediate feedback. Students find these activities very enjoyable.

3. Collaborative Writing

I have used mini whiteboards to introduce students to collaborative writing, to assess different writing skills, and to provide immediate feedback. For example, given some topic we have been discussing, I get students to work together to draft a hook or thesis statement. I can then give each group feedback as well as show student exemplars to the rest of the class. I can ask students to look at an essay and work together to write a transition between paragraphs, to strengthen a claim with support, or to make a conclusion sentence more general.

I find that having students work together often produces better results than getting students to write independently. They have the ability to share different ideas, peer edit, and confirm their sentences that they otherwise would not have. These sentences then serve as models for their own independent writing.

4. Discussion Aids

This is an activity I have only done recently when my students were practicing for debates. While students were in their groups having mini debates, I would listen to them carefully. Whenever they missed an opportunity to add support or evidence, or missed an opportunity to apply a good argument, I would write a keyword on the board and show it to them. This prompted them – without interruption – to include the ideas during their debate/discussion.

I think that this type of whiteboard-based remind can be used to aid in many different discussion activities. Another way that it can be used is with target vocabulary or pragmatic structures. As students are having discussions, write a key vocabulary word or phrase on the board. Show it to students to remind them to use that word or phrase during their discussion. The whiteboard serves as a gentle reminder to include that language, giving students extra opportunities to practice and include language in a contextualized way.

5. LyricsTraining

I have already written about how I use LyricsTraining in the classroom (here and here). With mini whiteboards, students write missing song words on the boards. Here is an example activity using the song “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten:

  1. Access “Fight Song” on
  2. Explain that students will need to look for the missing word during the game as the lyrics scroll. If they think they know the word, they should write it on their board and then show the teacher the word. The first group to show the correct word gets a point. Students should keep track of their points on their boards. After they write a word, they should pass the board the next member of their group.
  3. Choose “Beginner” mode and begin the game.
  4. As students give correct answers, type them in to keep the game going.
    • Pay attention to the words and know them before the song gets to the blank. This way, you can focus on watching students rather than watching the game, making choosing the fastest group more easier and fairer.
  5. You should complete any really difficult words, especially those obscured by the music. However, for words that you think your students can get, use the replay button.
  6. At the end of the game, tally students’ points to determine the winner.

Students really enjoy this activity. It gets them practicing writing (mostly spelling), listening (to the song or other students), and speaking (giving directions and telling students the missing words). Quite simple but all my students enjoy it and it makes for a memorable experience.

6. Quiz Games

Finally, quiz games. I have made numerous quiz games to review vocabulary, grammar, and so on. I typically use a TOEFL review game at the end of each term to give students some TOEFL test practice before they take it. This would also work with Jeopardy or pretty much any other PowerPoint quiz game you can think of. Students work together to decide the answer and write it on their board within the allotted time. The review games are usually fill-in-the-blank, short answer, or multiple choice but students can practice sentence and even short paragraph writing as well. The TOEFL review game link above has an example reading/grammar game and an example listening game. The template can be modified to suit any question or goal.

[update: added #7 – 7/22]
7. Peer Dictation

I used this activity recently to work with vocabulary, listening, and pronunciation and it was quite a success. I think it could work in any classroom, but it was particularly fun and useful in a multilingual classroom with a variety of accents and abilities. I used our vocabulary to craft 10 simple sentences. I printed out the sentences on a sheet of paper and gave each group of 2-4 students one list and a mini whiteboard. One student was to have the list and the others were to listen carefully as the student read a sentence of their choice at a natural speed. Then, the other students had to work together to write their sentence on the whiteboard, asking for repetition, clarification, and spelling if needed. I found that all students were engaged in this and it was much more difficult than I had originally anticipated. It was also sometimes hilarious with students pronouncing over and over again certain words until they finally got their meaning across. I could see this as a good opportunity for practicing clarification, repetition, and even circumlocution strategies.


If you noticed, I claimed that each of these activities was fun and that students had a great experience. By simply bringing mini whiteboards – or any unusual object – to class, students expectations and interests grow. Mini whiteboards can be used for serious tasks and study, but my point was to show how they can be used for easy and fun practice and review.

Have you used mini whiteboards? What activities do you like to do with them?

My Favorite Vocabulary Activities

That vocabulary is a basis for language learning is a given. When people travel abroad, they take dictionaries and phrase books, not grammar guides. Therefore, every course we teach should have a substantial focus on vocabulary. The more vocabulary one knows, the more families are known, and the more one can both derive and express meaning. Vocabulary is infinite; grammar is not.

So, how best to teach vocabulary? There is no simple answer to this. Some will say in context, in co-text, with collocations, as chunks, not at all, etc. There are as many ways to teach vocabulary as there are teachers. We all have our go-to activities – those activities that we have found to be effective for our context, students, and style. I’d like to share a few of my favorite ways to teach vocabulary.

Part I – Activities

Taboo – Taboo is one of my go-to activities for all levels. I keep a running set of taboo cards for each class, which are added to as our vocabulary grows. It’s a great way to practice and recycle vocabulary, and requires little preparation. To play Taboo, simply make cards for your target vocabulary words. Students sit in groups with a stack of face-down cards. One student draws the top cards and using definition, explanation, and example tries to get the other students to guess the vocabulary word. The student who correctly guesses first takes the card. Play passes to the left (or right) and continues as such.

One variation I play is that, at the end of the game, students take the cards they have won and defines them for the group, or makes sentences with them. Likewise, students can also take the cards they had the most trouble with and do the same.

Though this game is simple, students have always been engaged and it seems to really help them recall vocabulary and gaps in their vocabulary.

Hot Seat – This is a game I have been using more of lately with my students as a vocab review and warm-up. The game is simple. Divide the class into two teams. One student from each team comes to the front with their backs to the board/screen. Show their teams the same vocab and let them start giving the definition or examples of a vocab word. Whoever guesses it first is the winner. This can also be played as a whole class game with one student at the front. You’ll quickly see why this is called “hot seat”. It’s really fun and really effective.

The Popcorn Game – This is an ELT variation of the Korean “Nunchi Game” (눈치게임). In the original nunchi game, one random student starts by standing and saying a number (starting with 1). The next random student says “2” and so on. However, if two students stand at the same time, they are out. If you say the wrong number, you are out. And, if you are last, you are out. There is a basic “ESL version” explanation here.

In my version, which I have dubbed “the popcorn game” (because students look like popcorn while they play) I say the meaning or an explanation of the vocabulary word. Students who know the answer must stand up and shout the word. However, the same rules as the original game apply: if two students stand up at the same time, they are out (even if they both don’t say it). Additionally, if they are wrong, they are out. Students can guess multiple times unless they are out. Play continues until there are a few students left and there is an obvious winner/know-it-all. Then, everyone plays again. This game takes a round or two to get going, but it is a great, fun way to review vocabulary.

Part II – Techniques

The 24 Hour Game – Although this is called a “game”, it’s more of a technique. Basically, I give students the challenge of using 2-3 (or more) vocabulary words outside of class within 24 hours. They must seek opportunities to fit the words into their everyday conversations. What’s more, they must write down (at some point) the sentence they said and the context in which they said it (e.g. they were talking about politics, or asking for help). They bring their sentences to class and we discuss how they were or weren’t able to use the vocabulary.

This is obviously a much easier activity to do in an ESL context, but it is still possible in an EFL context if students have other English classes, speak English with their friends or parents, or even talk to themselves in English. The point is to get students to use vocabulary so they don’t lose it.

Alternatives to this would be something in tune with the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon (or linguistic landscapes) where they have to try and pay attention to their environment and see if they notice their new vocabulary being used (either aurally or visually).

Quizlet – Without a doubt, Quizlet is an essential tool for me as a teacher/learner and for my students. I use Quizlet with almost all my classes and I know that it is effective. I can see which students study, and how often, and their effort is clearly reflected on the assessments I give. If you are not using Quizlet with your students, you should start. If you need some ideas on using it, check out these ideas from Leo Sullivan or this guide from Sandy Millin.

Vocabulary-Integrated Discussions – This is a more serious variation of my “Strangers on a Train” game. For this technique, students briefly review their vocabulary and choose 2-3 words they wish to use during their discussion. They then work in a small group to hold a discussion on any topic (based on lesson, coursebook, student choice). Their goal, besides having a successful discussion, is to use their vocabulary words naturally in that discussion. At first, these kinds of discussions are a bit awkward as students really focus on strategically using their words. However, soon it becomes a less cognitively demanding task as they get more practice noticing opportunities in which they can use vocabulary.

Recycle, recycle, recycle – Any teacher will tell you recycling is extremely important. We need at least 8-12 exposures to a word in order to really internalize it. Few teachers will tell you that recycling is no easy task, especially if they are focused on coursebooks, for coursebooks claim but do little recycling (or they are focused on authentic materials, where the probability of the same non-high frequency vocabulary cropping up is low). There are several ways I make sure I recycle vocabulary.

First, for any materials I use, I always incorporate previously learned vocabulary. For example, I modify my reading texts (often stories taken from BreakingNewsEnglish or simple authentic readings) to make sure it contains both new and old vocabulary. When making language examples for explanation or practice (such as worksheets), I recycle vocabulary. In addition, I try to consciously use vocabulary in my own teacher talk – which is no easy feat, as I often confuse the vocabulary lists of different classes! Furthermore, assessments I create always test previously-assessed vocabulary (this keeps students on their toes, theoretically always reviewing vocabulary on Quizlet).

Admittedly, I may not be the best recycler and I am very curious about how you make sure to recycle vocabulary and give students the receptive and productive exposure necessary to truly learn vocabulary. Please let me know in the comments!

You Win Some, You Lose Some: Lexical Notebooks vs Flashcards

If you read a recent post of mine about lexical notebooks, you could tell that I was keen on using them in the classroom. I had tried them previously in my university in South Korea with mixed but mostly positive results. Students seemed to appreciate them, found them useful, and did a generally good job keeping them.

Unfortunately, things did not work out the same here. Despite me explaining the benefits of lexical journals, they just didn’t take. Students either did not find them useful, did not really do them well, or just didn’t bother to do them. Some made minimal effort, while others did quite a good job. Like Korea, the results were mixed but mostly negative. I actually came away from the last lexical notebook collection (where I check their notebooks for a grade) a little jarred at the results. One student actually showed me a list of words and their translations and told me she preferred to study vocabulary that way. How can I argue with that? “Sorry, but research shows…” I don’t think so.

Lexical notebooks have been somewhat tainted for me now as I realize not every student finds value in them. If I were a student, would I want to use them? When I studied Polish and Korean, did I keep a lexical notebook? The honest answer is “no,” but this has more to do with not wanting to see my own handwriting than not wanting to write pronunciation notes, collocations, or word trees.

Despite the failure of lexical notebooks, I did manage success in my classroom with Quizlet flashcards. I did in fact use flashcards to study Korean, Polish, and GRE terminology – and I used them with success. I am consistently shocked that few, if any, of my students know about flaschards. Unlike lexical journals, there is really little to convince them of. They are easy to make, easy to use, and really effective. They are always with students (because they are on their smartphones), and, with Quizlet’s games, they are fun.

Each week, I make a set of English-English flashcards for my class on Quizlet. These contain the English word and a simple English definition taken from Learner’s Dictionary, along with the pronunciation of the word in IPA. I require my (low level) students to copy the flashcards to their account and add translations for the words, and save the cards as an English-YourLanguage set. This is weekly homework, and they are free to study both. I encourage them to use the different functions of Quizlet, such as the Learn, Spell, and Scatter functions. Sometimes I check my sets or my students’ sets just to see what they have been up to (in the free version, you can see who studied your sets or how students sets were studied). I can also tell which students use the flashcards and which students don’t: students who use the flashcards (1) are the more motivated students, (2) participate more in class, (3) perform better on vocabulary tests, and (4) perform better all around in my class. Whereas none of my students enjoy lexical notebooks, most of them enjoy flashcards.

The point here is you have to go with what students like, and…you shouldn’t endorse any method or technique you personally haven’t used to try and learn a language. Having said that, I do wish to play with lexical flashcards, which is something I kind of have used personally. I’ll save this for a later class, and a later blog post.