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14 Ways to Help Kids Learn Vocabulary in a New Language

What happens when your child comes home with homework in a foreign language of which you’re not fluent? What if they’ve got a list of vocabulary words to learn over the weekend? I’m facing a lot of language acquisition issues with my children as we navigate a bilingual educational system – and they speak neither of the two instruction languages.  I asked those on my Facebook page and my personal Facebook account what some of their tricks and tips for learning and teaching new vocabulary were. I was overwhelmed by the response! I have trained as a TEFL teacher but somehow when it’s your own kids that you’re trying to teach it can be difficult to find something that works well. I decided to share some of their best advice here so that others can benefit from it too.

Learning Vocabulary in a New Language

Label Items

This won’t work for all words but for those that you can do it.  Label the mirror in the target language, cabinets, etc. etc. They will start connecting spoken and written words.

Everyday Vocabulary

In Morocco there are lots of small stores on every street corner.  Sending (old enough) kids on errands to pick up things forces interaction and use of language. Likewise in a grocery store vocabulary words for food products, questions, transactions can all be used when there is no “fall back” option in their native language.

Learn the Language With Them

… and try to use it. The more they hear the language the easier it will become. Some estimates are that a child needs to hear a word over 100 times before it “clicks”.

Be Dramatic

Have kids write/perform skits or musical performances using vocabulary words. This makes it fun, and puts them in the position to not only learn vocabulary words but build sentences and plot.

Games

Playing games with vocabulary is great for all kids but especially effective with younger kids. Don’t forget if you, as a language learner, are learning/playing along with them they are likely to be even more interested. You can always adapt a board game so that they have to use/make a sentence with words.

Idea 1: Storytime using that vocab is also fun– have the list of vocab out, and have all four of you play the game where someone writes a sentence, starting the story, then passes the paper to the next person. The goal is to use all the vocabulary by the end of the story. Bonus points for creativity/wackiness.

Idea 2: Go Fish – recently my youngest son and I played Go Fish. He chose to play in French. We were able to work on asking questions, number recognition, and had a great time! 

Flashcards and Other Tactile Learning Devices

Vocabulary drills aren’t always fun but they are effective. You can create your own flashcards online with flashcard programs for pure rote memorization. But I find it’s easier to learn when you use it than just memorizing it.  If you have puffy paint or glue, you can add coloring to them and make the words 3D on a card so he can feel them. That will help kinetically. I’ve also found several iPad apps that my younger son uses to practice writing Arabic script. There’s a strong connection between remembering a word and having written it. 

Cognates and Word Association

Try association games to see if it helps him such as …. x sounds like x in target language. For kids with advanced vocabulary in their native language, understanding how a word relates to what they already know can be very helpful.

Make a game: a traveling game where he can get from one place to another by saying the word out loud. Once the child starts putting them into sentences, you can adjust the game then (correct form, singular/plural). 

Reading

I can remember my English teacher telling us the only way we would become better writers was to read more. In my husband’s ESL classes the advice he was consistently given was that if he wanted to spell or write better he needed to read more. Teaching kids to read in the target language will help them expand their knowledge rapidly.

Research Bilingual Education and Methods

A friend, and bilingual educator recommended the book Teaching for Biliteracy: Strengthening Bridges Between Languages. It’s not long (under 200 pages) and has many ideas to help teachers and parents. There are many, many great books to help parent-teachers support their learners.

- Total Physical Response

I first heard of this method in my TEFL training courses.  This method has educators using the same action to represent a word in both languages. Teachers and learners say the word while doing an action. This helps learners connect and transfer the two things. In the book mentioned above this process is referred to as “the bridge”.  Many bilingual schools in the US use TPR methodology because it’s very effective at that age. 

Visual Aids

Visuals are very important and helpful along with hearing the words used in context because it helps kids learn how to use the word correctly, and if they understand the rest of the sentence, it can help them to learn the meaning of the new word through context clues. The often used flash card would fall into this category. Just like writing a word, having something visual to connect to can help the brain hold onto and place the word. 

Immersion, immersion, immersion

Visit places related to the vocabulary theme and practice, speaking only that language by having a conversation there. Watch only films/tv in the target language using subtitles if helpful.  Listen to music in target language(s).

Finding Connections

Thinking of connections between vocabulary words can help to exercise your brain, and it can help students to file the new information in their memory in meaningful ways. For example when working with vocabulary they can: sort them into animals and non-animals, or sort them into feminine and masculine, or sort by big, medium, and small. This requires students to think about each word and what it means, and not just memorize it out of context.

Patience

An ESL teacher I have a lot of respect for shared this bit of advice. “I’m constantly telling teachers that many ESL learners (this would be true for any language) go through a silent period of up to a year where they may not use the new language. Forcing students to use the language before they’re ready can be bad. It’s also important to remember that it takes hearing a new word in context multiple times, something like a dozen, before students remember it and can use it themselves, and that’s when they understand the language being used…”

 Final bit of advice….

Don’t learn the language, live the language.

Have more tips? Share them here for others!

 

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  1. […] There are public and private schools in Marrakech.  Primary schools are easily distinguishable because of the bright colors they are painted. I have written a few posts about what education is like in Morocco and how to keep kids learning English in a non-English speaking country. […]

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