Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Teaching Vocabulary Appropriate for Beginner Young Learners through Games - Report on Konstantinos Kemparis’s Session

Konstantinos Kemparis gave a very interesting and informative talk on the importance of teaching vocabulary and how games can help young learners retain new words in a fun and inspiring way.

                                                                                     Photo by Aspa Georgopoulou

He started off by stressing the importance of vocabulary in communication and by extension in language learning. Through several references and examples, it became clear that “no matter how well students learn grammar, without words to express a wide range of meanings, communication in L2 cannot happen in any meaningful way” (McCarthy 1990: viii). It is therefore, essential for students, as they develop greater expression and fluency, to acquire productive vocabulary knowledge in order to communicate effectively and also develop their own vocabulary learning strategies.

Younger learners, who are at the beginning of schooling, serve as the best age group for developing good vocabulary learning habits and strategies for lifetime. But, what is the best way to teach them? According to Konstantinos, the translation of lists of words isolated of context, “limits opportunities for students to develop their lexis in a meaningful fashion”. Games, on the other hand, can help young learners, who enjoy learning through playing, retain new words in a fun and motivating way.

Teaching the vocabulary goes through four stages, which according to Doff (1998:98) are presentation, practice, production and review. To effectively acquire new vocabulary, it is essential for students to go through all of them. 

                                                                                                                                Photo by Aspa Georgopoulou

There are several techniques. Konstantinos presented seven, which as proposed by Harmer (2003:159) include realia, pictures, mime, action and gesture, contrast, enumeration, explanation and translation. The choice of the most suitable technique lies within the teachers’ knowledge of their students’ characteristics. 

Vocabulary appropriateness is another important choice.  “Coursebooks aimed at young learners often focus on nouns, as they are easy to illustrate. However, language is more than just that”. Konstantinos suggested choosing high frequency words and lexical chunks and emphasized on how important it is to take students’ schematic knowledge and cognitive ability into consideration. 

Teaching vocabulary to young learners also entails a good knowledge of how they acquire it. “Learning a new word is not a simple task that is done once and then completed”. When teaching young learners, vocabulary items should be recycled in different activities, with different skills and for multiple times. 

Games are ideal for serving these purposes and come with many more advantages. They add variation, improve attention span and concentration, encourage pupil participation and communication and reduce distances between students and the teacher. 

However, teaching vocabulary to young learners and using games in the classroom can give rise to several issues. Konstantinos went on by addressing them and offering valuable hands-on solutions:

1. Young learners need a lot of motivation in order to participate and learn effectively. Teachers should find ways to make the learning experience enjoyable and stimulating. They should also establish a class atmosphere of mutual trust and respect and show their enthusiasm so as to inspire students to reach their full potential. 
2. Remembering and being able to retain new vocabulary can be challenging for young learners. In order to make the learning process more memorable, teachers need to recycle it through different learning tasks. Visual aids, personalization, kinesthetic teaching, TPR activities and games can make the experience of learning the vocabulary more memorable.
3. Students may often get confronted with spelling and/or phonology difficulties. Some useful games to help them deal with these difficulties in a more fun and creative way are “paper and pen” games such as cryptograms, hangman, running dictation and dictogloss. Other techniques include finger modelling and backchaining.
4. Playing games in the classroom is exciting, but can also be noisy. Calmer activities should always follow in order to restore the balance of the lesson, calm students down and settle them into a routine. 
5. Some parents and school owners may feel that games are a waste of time. Good teacher-parent and teacher-school owner communication should be a main goal as it can help bridge gaps and benefit all parts. 

                                                                                                                   Photo by Aspa Georgopoulou

In the end, Konstantinos presented the game “Pass the Ball” from the book Oxford Basics for Children. A fun and communicative game to encourage students recall and recycle the target vocabulary. To play, students sit in two circles. The teacher places a set of picture flash cards, facing down in the middle of each circle. While listening to music or singing, students in each group, pass a ball around. When the music stops, the student with the ball picks up a card from the pile. The rest of the students try to guess what’s on it, the size and the colour of the object, by asking questions. The game ends, when every card has been picked up. The aim for each group is to correctly name all the cards first.

An enlightening talk on the whys, the whats and the hows of teaching vocabulary to young learners, with a useful theoretical background and a variety of interesting and valuable ideas to put into practice.

Report by Aspa Georgopoulou

Interview with Konstantinos Kemparis by Dimitra Christopoulou

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