Effective strategies for teaching vocabulary to young learners


How many words do you know in your native language? 20,000? 30,000? More? According to The Economist, most adults score between 20,000 and 35,000 words on the website TestYourVocab.com, and children as young as four already know 5,000 words – quite impressive. The non-native children taking the same test scored, on average, about 4,500 words – a figure that they can increase by immersing themselves in the language. So what type of words should we expect non-native young learners of English to know?

What constitutes a ‘word’?

The Global Scale of English (GSE) Vocabulary is a graded lexical inventory of general English thatlearners should be able to understand at different levels of proficiency. The entries in the GSE Vocabulary are word meanings, not lemmas (e.g. for the base word “foot”, the singular form “foot” and its inflected plural form “feet” are two separate entries) or word families. There are more than 37,000 word meanings, corresponding to about 20,000 lemmas, 80,000 collocations and 7,000 phrases.

A four-step process was used to create the GSE Vocabulary inventory:

1. Three corpora were analysed to identify the most frequency words used by young L1 learners speakers.
2. The words were annotated according to the topic and subtopic they related to.
3. The words were rated by teachers for communicative usefulness.
4. The word meanings were aligned with the GSE and CEFR.

Teachers were asked to rate words by meaning using this scale:

1. Essential
2. Important
3. Useful
4. Nice to have
5. Extra

What does it mean to ‘know’ a word?

Studies have shown that vocabulary and grammar are intertwined, so knowing a word involves knowing how it collocates or what ‘chunks’ it can occur in. Young learners learn effectively when language is presented in chunks, so this approach is common in course materials. To ‘know’ a word involves the following facets of a word:

1) Its cognate or semantic referent, i.e. its meaning.

2) The letters that make up the word, i.e. spelling and the visual ‘look’ of the word.

3) The sounds that make up the word, i.e. its pronunciation.

For example, for the word “nurse”, learners need to know it is a male or female health professional, that it is spelled n-u-r-s-e and is pronounced /nɝːs/.

There is also the question of learners not knowing all the possible meanings of a word – and this is common in the young learner classroom. For example, children are likely to first learn “mouse” as an animal and then, at a later stage, learn that it is a computing device. There is also the fact that young learners working at the edge of their competence often produce neologisms that show learning even though they are not correct forms. Consider the utterance “wind snake” for “flag”, which results from L1 transfer, or “tooth doctor” for “dentist”, which uses existing language to convey a concept. Such utterances will benefit from the teacher teaching the correct forms.

What role does vocabulary play in language learning?

There has been much research into vocabulary acquisition, teaching and assessment, but there is little agreement about which and how many words are needed to communicate effectively at different proficiency levels. Vocabulary learning should not just be quantitative, focusing on expanding the number of words a learner knows, but also qualitative, focusing on how the words are used pragmatically. For example, “hair” is plural in many languages, but it takes the singular uncountable verb form in English – so students need to learn this so that they aren’t producing incorrect sentences such as: “He has a curly hair.”

What strategies can be used to help young learners learn vocabulary effectively?

In order to help young learners learn vocabulary effectively, we need to employ a range of strategies. First, we need to think why the young learner wants to know the words we teach as they are much more likely to remember them if they need them or want to use them. One way a teacher can do this is to get the learners to draw or write the words they already know and then draw or write the L1 translation of words they want to know. This can be followed by a spot of peer teaching where learners who know the second set of words teach them to the learners who want to know them.

Another way to help young learners learn new words is to explore ways of recording vocabulary. Show learners some examples of picture dictionaries, words with sentences in English explaining what they mean and mind maps linking words and ideas. Discuss why these strategies are helpful. Encourage the learners to use these strategies when noting down new words.

If we want our young learners to be effective learners of vocabulary, we have to invest in teaching them strategies that help them to remember the words and produce them when they need them. Using the strategies above will help them develop their vocabulary and increase the total number of words they know.

How can the GSE Vocabulary help teachers and young learners?

The GSE Vocabulary is designed to help teachers ascertain what vocabulary they should be teaching their learners and when to expect them to understand the words. When it comes to deciding what word meanings and chunks young learners should know at primary and secondary level, most teachers are guided by the coursebooks they use or by external exams their students are preparing to take. But teachers can use the GSE Teacher Toolkit to search the data and compile a list of level-appropriate words to teach their classes.

For example, a teacher using Big English may have to teaching parts of the body can access the Teacher Toolkit, click on the ‘Vocabulary’ tab and choose the topic ‘body and health’ and then select ‘Parts of the body and mind’.

Click on ‘Show results’, and we get this search result:

The first word in the list that is a body part is “hand”: GSE level 16; below A1 (10-21). This is followed by “body” and “face”, and then some words that all fall within the GSE 16-29 range, which are usually taught when this topic is taught for the first time: “leg”, “eye”, “ear”, “hair” and “nose”.

For more results for different learner levels, you can view the appropriate results by narrowing down the scale:

Try the GSE Teacher Toolkit today and tell us about your experience in the comments section below…

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