Vocabulary in the L2 Classroom: Less is More

Too Many New Words is Too Much

Before discovering comprehensible input for second language learning, I used to be very concerned about packing as many words as possible into each lesson. I did not think that there was a maximum number of words for each lesson’s focus. It is understandable that language teachers want to get as much out of each lesson as possible. Many of my students only have class for an hour or two each week, so they (or their parents) also want to get the most out of their time. Contrary to my previous beliefs, when it comes to target vocabulary words per class, less is more.

Seasoned language teachers who use comprehensible input to teach a target language, however, tend to focus on just a few structures per class. The problem with trying to squeeze as many words as possible into an hour of Chinese class is that there is not enough time to repeat the words the number of times needed for them to really sink in to the students’ brains.

Students Need Repetition

For younger students, a classic story with lots of repetition is a great tool for helping students acquire new words. As I have written previously, I like Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do you See? because of the repetition of the structure “to see something.” After reading this story, the structure “你看什么/我看见XX” can be used to do a task for listing all the things the students see in their classroom.

Just A Handful of New Words Per Class

A unit on family is a must-do for novice classes. Often my adult students would get caught up in nailing down the vocabulary word for every single family member they have. We spent too much time going over the words for “father’s elder brother, ex-wife, older female cousin on my father’s side, and etc.” Undoubtedly, my students wanted to learn the proper terms for important people in their lives, but it just was not possible to include all the different possible family members with sufficient repetition. The solution was to talk about a family (often, I present my family) using just the basic members of a nuclear family, mom, dad, elder brother, elder sister, younger sister, and younger brother. These are just six new words, which is about right for an hour-long novice class. The cool thing about family, is that members can be described in more than one way. For example, Uncle Bob can also be described as “dad’s elder brother,” so students can keep using the simple terms until they are ready to use the actual Chinese word for father’s elder brother (伯伯). Just as with vocabulary acquisition for children, the goal is to work in as many repetitions of the new words as possible.

To recap, a class that starts with a long list of vocabulary words is probably not setting out on the right foot. When it comes to vocabulary learning, less is more. Students need to hear vocabulary words spoken over and over again in order to retain them. There simply are not enough minutes per class to focus on the long lists of “new words” that accompany most legacy method textbooks. Instead, a tight focus on a small group of vocabulary words or structures is a better use of class time.

photo of part of vocab list for advanced Chinese class
Too many new words!


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