Ask, Donít Tell: How to Elicit Vocabulary in the ESL Classroom

Ask, Donít Tell: How to Elicit Vocabulary in the ESL Classroom

Imagine that you’re preparing a lesson which includes five new pieces of vocabulary.

You have a lot of choice as to how you might convey this information to your students:

  • You might verbally translate them from L2 (the target language, in this case English) to L1 (the students’ own language).
  • You could write dictionary definitions on the board, or on a handout.
  • You could assign the words for homework, so that the students arrive armed with definitions when class begins.

In all of these cases, though, something very important is missing. I’m a firm believer in learning by doing, in teaching English exclusively in English, and in making sure that our students are engaged participants, not passive recipients. For me, the problems are:

  • Translation doesn’t make sufficient use of L1, and therefore misses the point.
  • Using dictionary definitions frequently brings up problems of level, as a lot of dictionaries define simple words in complex ways unlikely to be genuinely understood by our students.
  • Assigning vocab learning as homework leaves the method up to your students; they’re likely to choose the ‘easiest’ one (translation), which avoids L1 and is therefore suspect.

However, in your classroom, you have two outstanding sources of explanations which are far better than these old-fashioned methods. Firstly, there’s the students themselves. They might already know the word! You’ll only know if you ask, and there’s the secret:

Ask, Don’t Tell

Then, there’s the teacher. You have so many ways of presenting the word which are far better than a translation or a dictionary definition. Consider which you’d prefer: being sent to a dictionary, where all you find is a translation of the word (in an L2-L1 dictionary) or a potentially confusing explanation (in an L1-L1 version), or being engaged in a little puzzle by your teacher, the aim of which is to discover the meaning and usage of the word together.

Words learned in this way are more likely to be remembered - and I don’t mean ‘memorized’, but genuinely brought into the students’ active vocabulary, that family of words which they can use independently, and which should grow on a daily basis.

There is also the sense of achievement: “We weren’t simply given this word by the teacher; we found it ourselves!”

I’ve always felt that engaged learning of this type creates a better atmosphere, a noisier and more active classroom environment. Yes, for me, noisy is a good thing! It evinces language use (hopefully exclusively English!) and an engaged, focused group enjoying the learning process.


Ask, and Avoid Telling

  1. There is a type of classroom language oriented around eliciting vocabulary, structures , facts, opinions and concepts. The best teachers find themselves using this language all the time; they are constantly vigilant against lecturing, and many adopt a rule like this one, to which I have tried to stick for the last 15 years:

    Don’t speak for more than 30 seconds without asking a question which requires a thoughtful answer.

    Note that this doesn’t include closed (yes/no) questions. The application of this rule creates a learning environment in which the teacher needs constantly to be checking understanding, asking for details and eliciting words and ideas, and in which the students are engaged from the beginning of the class to the end, and most definitely during presentation.

  2. 1

    Example One: ‘Clandestine’ (Adj)

    1. We could ask if the students know the word, giving one synonym.
      • “OK, does anyone know a really cool word beginning with ‘C’ which also means, ‘secret’?
    2. We could contextualize the word using some familiar organizations relating to it:
      Teacher: “Guys, tell me the names of some of those ‘spy’ organizations. What’s the name of the famous American one? The people who work at Langley?
      Students: The CIA!
      Teacher: Good. And the British one? Where James Bond works?
      Students: MI5 / MI6
      Teacher: (Could clarify the difference, but it’s not too important now). Nice! So, these are secret organizations, right?
      Students Yes!
      Teacher: Anyone know another word for an organization that’s secret? When nobody knows what they’re doing?
      Students: (Thinking) Stealthy? / Under cover? / Black ops?
      Teacher: Great ideas, guys. I’m thinking of this: Clandestine organizations (writes the word on the board, making sure the students are writing it in their books, and then drills for the difficult ‘cl’ consonant cluster).
    3. We could lead the students to the word through a simple game. Hangman often works well. In our example, I would begin by providing the C and maybe the INE ending. You never know, the word might pop into someone’s mind from their recessed, passive vocabulary, and suddenly you’ve achieved asking rather than telling.
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    Example Two: ‘Volume’ (N)

    1. You could use a diagram or picture. Many of my students are high schoolers who have taken math courses, so I could use an equation: V = πr2h. Alternatively, I could draw a cylinder and, simply through pointing and drawing measurement lines along the edge, elicit ‘height’, ‘pi’, ‘radius’ and eventually (perhaps by coloring the empty center and pointing to it) ‘volume’. Don’t forget to apply what your students have learned in other courses, even those in their first language.
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    Example Three: ‘Wrist’ (N)

    1. Here, using realia (real objects) seems obvious. I would elicit ‘arm’ and ‘hand’, but fewer of the students will know ‘wrist’. Flexing my hand in a circle and pointing clearly to the join between arm and hand will get the point across. I would go on from there to teach the other words for joints: knee, shoulder, ankle.
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    Example Four: ‘Yawn’ (N, V)

    1. A mime communicates this meaning easily; don’t be afraid to be a little theatrical - perhaps as though you’re waking up slowly from a long, deep sleep - as this will help cement the learning experience in the students’ minds.
    2. Elicit the word using a situation:
      Teacher: If people are really bored, what do they do?
      Students: Sleep?
      Teacher: Perhaps, but what about before sleeping?
      Students: (Miming staring into the distance)
      Teacher: (Seeing an opportunity) Yes, they get distracted (writes this up). What else? (Either wait for someone to mime a yawn, or gesture one themselves)
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    Example Five: ‘Ugly’ (Adj)

    1. An easy way to elicit words is through synonyms and antonyms. This can be backed up with the first letter of the target word, especially if it’s an unusual one like ‘U’:
      Teacher: Tell me the opposite of ‘beautiful’.
      Students: Erm… not beautiful?
      Teacher: (laughs) Sure, but how about a word beginning with ‘U’?
      Students: Un-beautiful?
      Teacher: Good guess… Try ‘ugly’. (Writes on board and drills)

I’ve always believed that this simple method is far more interesting than simply standing in front of the students and intoning, “The opposite of beautiful is ‘ugly’. And if we’re bored we ‘yawn’. Do you understand?

By recording yourself presenting in this way, you can tailor your explanations to your students’ level, and pare down your Teacher Talking Time (TTT) to the bare minimum.

Your students will respond to being asked and engaged, and feel good to be genuinely participating in the learning process.

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