Righting Writing #5.1: 5 Techniques for Vocab Cards

How do you get pupils to learn spellings, especially the key words they need in a topic or the words they usually get wrong?  If they have a ‘learning homework’, how do they go about it?  Is there any way we can introduce more than one learning style into this process?

I’ve always been keen to get away from L2/English vocabulary lists wherever possible.  It’s true that they ‘work’ for some (they did for me), but it’s also true that they don’t for many, and it’s the many I’ve got in mind here.  Even for those for whom bilingual lists in their exercise books apparently work, it’s questionable how useful they are over the long term.  Getting through each week’s vocabulary test can give a confidence boost I suppose, but how useful is it today if a pupil can no longer remember what they crammed for a test 3 weeks ago?  And for us, a list of impressive test scores in our mark books/spreadsheets suggests a high level of attainment, maybe even a consistently high level, but how meaningful is this evidence for deciding next steps or reporting to parents unless the same student is performing at a similar level when writing freely?

So, these are the principles I’ve worked with when it comes to vocab learning:

  • Little and often is better than lots all at once
  • Vocabulary discovered in a context (albeit a context I create) and lifted out of it is more effectively remembered than a list of random words, irrespective of whether they come from a single topic area or not
  • I limit the range of vocabulary to be learned only to those words we will actually use. (If they want to learn more, that’s fine of course)
  • Whichever memory technique is chosen, it needs to make the learner think rather than just try to memorise
  • Within the learning activity/technique, a disrupted, random order of the vocabulary is better than a sequential list where the learner already knows what comes at the beginning and the end
  • In the activities I plan and the work I set over the course of a unit (however long that lasts), I need to create plenty of opportunities for pupils to keep using the vocabulary they have learned.

In all of the 10 techniques that follow (5 here, 5 next week), I’m assuming the vocabulary has already been presented, comprehension and pronunciation checked and some sort of repetition activity done.  All of them can be done with a partner in class or with a parent at home (which makes them useful for when parents ask what they can do to help their child, even if they don’t know the language themselves), or with the student using them on their own (except for one).  Most of them use small cards.

  1. Picture/Vocab
    The vocabulary is written on one side of the cards (one item per card), a quick symbol to represent it is drawn on the other.  The cards are shuffled and the pupil has to guess the word on the back by looking at the symbol.  There really is no need for the picture to be a masterpiece.  A quick, simple symbol is enough.
  2. Match-up
    One set of cards has the vocabulary written on them, one item per card.  Another set of cards, preferably a different colour, has the symbols to represent the vocabulary, one on each card.  The cards are all spread face up on the table and the pupil has to match up the vocabulary and symbols against the clock.
  3. Pelmanism
    You need the same set of cards as for Match-up.  All the cards are face down this time.  They are only allowed to turn over 2 cards at any one time, one from each set, a symbol and a vocab card.  If the cards match, they keep them.  If they don’t, they have to turn them back over again.  Playing in pairs, the winner is the one with the most pairs at the end.  Playing alone, they have to do it faster each time they play.
  4. Missing letters
    Again, one vocabulary item per card.  On the back of each card, the word is written again, but with some of the letters missing and dashes in their place.  Try it with the cards you can download here:  Vocab cards  – it can be quite tricky, especially if the first letter is one of the missing letters.  When pupils make their own cards and they are choosing which letters to miss out, I encourage them to plump for the letters they usually forget.  If I make the cards for use in class, as you’ll see in the examples, I set them out across the page in three columns, the whole thing centred on the page (that bit is important – if it’s not centred the cards on the back won’t line up).  I then make a duplicate of that page for the back of the cards, but whereas the columns go from left to right on one side, they need to go from right to left on the other, otherwise the middle column will be fine, but you’ll have the wrong answers on the back of the other two columns.  I know, I’ve done it…
  5. Missing words
    The same idea as above, but for whole sentences instead of single words.  In a sentence of, say, 10 words, 3 of them can be blanked out.  You need enough words to create a context for them to be able to work out the missing word.  This is a good follow-up to marked work so that pupils can learn corrections, especially where they have written fairly (or completely) freely.  As I’m marking work, when I start to notice that the same sort of sentence is being mangled by a few students, I jot it down for my own reference later.  When I’ve finished marking, it’s a quick job to make up a few cards on a template (I use about 12 at the most) with these sentences, run them off on the photocopier, the pupils cut them up and they are all ready to play.

Next time, another 5 techniques and some tips on making them work effectively.

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