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No-prep vocabulary lesson

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

A variation on controlled practice activities inspired by Scott Thornbury (2002).


I just wanted to share (i.e. note down before I completely forget 😂) a lesson I had last week with my in-service trainees. The best part of it was that even though I had the main ideas, the pieces simply fell into their place as the lesson progressed. I absolutely love moments like these!

The aim of the session was to simulate a variety of controlled practice activities (inspired by Scott Thornbury’s How to Teach Vocabulary) with a group of words that had been collected right on the spot with the “I Spy with my Little Eye” game.

First, students play the “I Spy…” game by describing an object they can see around them. It can be anything in or even outside the classroom if they can see it. The others have to guess the word. The advantage of collecting words this way is that it's entirely controlled by the students themselves. They will most likely pick words they know, so the level of the words is going to be just right for them.

We collected about 5 words this way, but then I added another 5 at random. With this approach, the teacher can increase the challenge if the first group of words ended up being too easy for the students. A maximum number of 10-12 words is ideal for these activities so as not to overload the working memory of students too much. The final list of words was: clock, hoodie, jumper, coat, bottle, bag, sandwich, plastic bag, iphone, pencil case.

This is when I started demonstrating Thornbury's list of controlled practice activities, which increase in difficulty according to the amount of cognitive demand they require.

  1. First, I asked my learners to identify/select items of clothing.

  2. Then I asked them to put the remaining words into categories (sorting/selecting).

  3. After this, they had to find pairs of words that could be matched up based on some reason. For example, bottle and pencil case go into a bag, or clocks and iphones both show the time.

  4. Finally, they had to rank all the words as they wished. I didn't specify the basis of ranking.

  5. To make this final activity engaging, my learners had to read out their lists, and the others had to guess the basis of them. It was an extremely exciting thing to see how they could abstract away and find out each other's reasoning. (A group, for example, ranked the words according to how close they are typically to one's body.)

The great thing about this entire sequence of activities is that there was absolutely no preparation involved other than being aware of the different activity types. What's more, the activities don't have a solution. As long as students can justify their choices, they can be accepted as correct.

We then followed up with a different free practice activity (from Jill Hadfield's Intermediate Communication Games) but before that, learners were shown this clarification slide of different levels of vocab practice.

What's your go-to method for practicing vocabulary?

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