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December 2012
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NEW! TC Quick Tip:
3 Novel Vocabulary Teaching Tips
by James Dunn

Audience: High beginner to advanced

Many cognitive linguists are leading the charge to bring cognitive psychology and neuroscience knowledge into the ESL and EFL domains. Those on the forefront of this movement give us insights into new best practices as they are developing in our field. These three tips are considerations that can help make learning vocabulary engaging, relatable, and emotional for our students.

Using insights into how the brain stores and recalls words with semantic networks, we can build on existing best practices, such as differentiated instruction, to continue evolving methodology for teaching vocabulary to ELLs. Considering vocabulary items before, or even while, they are reached in a lesson can help students to rely less on their dictionaries and start using their existing knowledge to make meaningful concepts of words that connect to their lives.

So, the question becomes, how can we introduce and teach vocabulary that is brain friendly and thus easily incorporated into a student's existing semantic network?

Consideration 1: Use Connectors
Introduce vocabulary with connected terms, or “connectors,” that may already exist in the students’ pre-existing semantic network. For example, in Japan, connectors for a word like "impressive" could be terms such as "Mount Fuji" or "Tokyo Sky Tree" to add relatability to the target term. Once well known connectors are realized, you can introduce more generic examples to further their understanding. This approach

  • compliments how we access and store words,
  • makes new vocabulary readily encodable into the language due to the insertion of terms into existing semantic networks, and
  • increases the size and complexity of students’ existing semantic networks.

Consideration 2: Make Connectors Relevant
Make the connectors, as well as the example sentences, relatable to the students’ lives, culture, interests, and so on. Business connectors or examples will be of limited use for young teenagers. The opposite is also true for older students. Tailor your connectors carefully and you will be rewarded with students who will grasp the concepts more quickly than with canned examples. Using relevant connectors and examples

  • makes the vocabulary real and usable for the students,
  • leads to an engaged atmosphere and combats boredom, and
  • allows the terms to be inserted into students’ existing realities and semantic networks.

Consideration 3: Build Semantic Networks and Use Them
Using word maps or other types of semantic network building activities, increase the reach of the connections. Have the students use most or all of the connectors in their own example sentences or questions. Building such semantic networks

  • helps to create interest by allowing students to choose what to produce,
  • helps to cement new concepts into students’ existing schema and semantic networks, and
  • can be done verbally or in a written format for practice, depending on the focus.

I hope these considerations make as big an impact in your classroom as they have in mine: For my students, retention has improved and they are engaged more often. When we get students interested in something and make it meaningful for them on a real-life level, the potential for learning is immense. By using self-generated questions and sentences to further solidify new vocabulary and further expand their own semantic networks, students become involved on both a mental and an emotional level.


James Dunn works at Teikyo University in Japan. He loves to engage his students, challenge their views on learning and life, and expand their horizons.

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