Activating Schema – Teaching Vocabulary

Activating schema is an essential part of introducing new vocabulary. In most cases, the majority of the vocabulary that your students end up using in a lesson comes directly from you and the materials you’ve chosen.

Introducing vocabulary is usually best done in context. It’s not so effective to start a lesson by giving your students a list of 15 new words. And having them read their definitions. At that early point, they haven’t activated their prior knowledge. And they are not clearly seeing the purpose of the words.

Instead, introduce the theme and get the students thinking about what they already know. In linguistic terms, we call this activating schema (link), and it is a crucial early step.

Start with a short discussion between pairs or groups, for example, that will elicit from students what they already know about the vocabulary in that scheme. In this way, you and the students know where they are and where they need to go. This is called a diagnostic assessment, and it’s a necessary part of effective teaching.

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Introducing New Vocabulary in Context

So you’re ready to introduce some new vocabulary in context. For the comparatives lesson focused on renting an apartment, ask students to look at short apartment descriptions, and pick out all of the adjectives, whether they know them or not. (example)

For example, they see a collection of online postings that feature a couple of photos and two or three sentence descriptions.

Looking for the adjectives serves two purposes; it gets students thinking about grammar and syntax, and it also gives them some time to think about the meanings of new words.

They’re going to automatically make some inferences about the meaning of the adjective based on pictures they can see of the apartment and other cues from the text.

Clear up any questions that students still have about the meaning of words after you’ve given clear definitions through context, pictures, and examples.

Be careful about asking students if they understand what you’ve just taught them. In many cases, the only way for you to feel confident in their understanding is by asking them to show you their understanding. And you do this by giving them opportunities to work more deeply with the vocabulary.

Building Collocations

You might want to have them create a list of adjectives on the board and then come up with their opposites; (shot) Discuss whether or not the new words that you are teaching have a positive or pejorative connotation. This is important information to know when learning any new word.

Then, in order to deepen students’ understanding of the words AND to provide opportunities for repetition and memorization, ask students to create mind maps that link new vocabulary with other words.

Here’s an example: (example) I’ve asked a pair of students to create a map for the word ‘clean’. And I’ve asked them to connect 5 words that they know with it, 4 which are good collocations and one which is not.

Once all pairs have written their mind maps on the board. The class looks at each one and decides which word does not fit. (example) This way, students are strengthening their knowledge of collocations around a word by thinking critically about how words work together.

This will help them when they later want to use the words in speaking or writing.

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