Target Vocabulary Questions

This is less of a coherent lesson plan and more of a series of related activities to recycle or review vocabulary through questions that drive the student to use the target words or phrases.  Teaching vocabulary is difficult because it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what learning or knowing a word really means, let alone how we evaluate when a student actually knows a word. As much as possible,  I like to give students the chance to be exposed to and use the vocabulary in a meaningful context. Asking and answering questions that authentically use the vocab is a great way to do that. Questions also lend themselves to incorporating other learning points like grammar, language style, or content. So here’s a few ways to do it.

I. Simple Vocabulary Questions

The simplest way to review or test vocabulary knowledge with questions is to give students questions that have the vocabulary in them, which sounds fairly obvious. See the image below for one example:

SimpleVocabQuestionsIt seems straightforward enough. But there are a few important points for writing good questions .

  1. The questions should use the vocabulary authentically. There’s no point in giving the students input if it isn’t good input. And students can pick up a lot from context, consciously and unconsciously including the most commonly used form of a word, the register and collocations. All of these are things that will help them later. And all of these tend to be things that students get wrong when using a new vocabulary word. For example, while “inflict” means to cause, it is really only used with negative situations and it generally collocates with a handful of words. A question like, “What do you enjoy inflicting on others?” is not going to help students learn to use the word correctly.
  2. The questions should help the student reflect on the meaning of the word in some way. Depending on the part of speech, students should be asked to give an example, or reflect on a nuance of the word, or relate it to a synonym or antonym, or discuss the word in some authentic context.
  3. That being said, you also need to consider what kind of knowledge of the word the student needs. Do they need to be able to recognize the word, grasp vaguely what it means, use it in a set chunk, or write and speak it clearly with 100% accuracy in all situations?
  4. Consider bolding or underlining or italicizing the word in some way so that students notice it.
  5. Finally, don’t be afraid to sneak in grammar review and content review by making the questions also feature a particular grammar form or relate to the theme of the unit you’re doing. This is especially easy if the vocabulary is on a particular topic. However do be sure that the questions aren’t taken directly from the book or already covered elsewhere so that students are sick to death of saying what their favorite food is or why salt is bad for you or whatever.

II. Question Dictations

Even if you can’t relate your questions to another topic, you can get in a bit more speaking practice, not to mention practice asking  for clarification by having students dictate the questions to each other before discussing them. Here’s an example of the Vocab Dictation Game. You’ll see a teacher’s sheet with all the questions that feature the target vocabulary and then a sheet for Student A and a sheet for Student B.  Basically each student has half of the list of questions and they need to take turns dictating their half of the questions to the other student. This is a great way to increase student talk time, force them to pronounce the word, and hear it, and also a chance to practice survival phrases like,

  • What did you say?
  • Can you say that again?
  • How do you spell it?
  • What did you say after “blue”?

Obviously to be done right, students should not see each other’s papers until they have finished dictating the questions. Then they can check if they got everything down correctly before discussing the questions.

III. Simple Vocabulary Answers

Obviously, if students are answering questions that use the word then they are recognizing the word and what it means. However, they may or may not use the word in the answer. If you do Question Dictations, then at least they are speaking the word. However that doesn’t mean they’re getting meaningful practice with it.  So one variation is to in some way force students to use the word in the answers as well as the questions.

A nice way to do this is with prompts:

VocabAnswers So here, I’m demanding that the students use the target idioms in their answers. The trick to doing this is to give authentic questions and imagine authentic answers–without forcing an answer. I think if you look at questions 5, 7, and 8, I’m basically forcing the student to give an answer of my own devising. #5 is pretty much set up for students to say something like, “You have to narrow down the textbook by underlining what’s important and what’s not.” Or, “You have to narrow it down to what you think will be on the test.” And that may not be the student’s strategy, so this is a bad example. Or a good example of what not to do. Because you want students to be focusing on expressing themselves with the language and not trying to read the teacher’s mind.


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