Presenting Vocabulary to Very Young Learners

Presenting new vocabulary to young learners can be complicated because you need to get their attention, keep their attention and encourage them to participate in activities such as drilling. The routines I use in presenting new words to my students depend on their age group.


Four and five-year olds

With this age group I use a cloth bag to introduce new words. They seem to enjoy this element of surprise and suspense. When it’s time to present the new vocabulary, I take out the bag and we say our chant, ‘Shake, shake, shake the bag, shake the bag with me. Shake, shake, shake the bag, shake the bag with me. Shake, shake, shake!’ The children like the routine aspect of always beginning with the same chant because they know what to expect and pretty soon they lead the singing of the chant, making the experience more learner-centered.

Before I take the flashcards out of the bag, I try to talk a bit about the topic we’re going to see. I also try to use the target language they’ll later be hearing and using. For example, if the topic is food, I would say, ‘I’m hungry. I want some food!’ as I mime being hungry. Then I would ask them if they were hungry. They always are! So we would mime and say, ‘I’m hungry!’.

After setting the scene, I slowly reveal the first flashcard. I let them see it and they usually say what it is in L1. For a number of years, I didn’t want them to say the words in L1 but I think this step is useful in that the meaning of what the flashcard represents is made clear to all of them. I then mime and say the word in English a number of times, letting the sounds fall on their ears. I encourage them to mime and say the word with me a couple of times. Miming as they repeat the word means they’re using TPR in acquiring the meaning. We then do what I call an increasing drill. We start with our hands low and say the word softly. Each time we raise our hands and the volume of our voices until finally we’re saying the word loudly (but no shouting, please!) and our hands are raised up above our hands. It’s a fun way to get them to repeat the target words three or four times in a row.

We then begin drilling individually. The children are sitting in a circle (or rather a U shape) so it’s easy to show each one the flashcard and have them repeat the word after me. I try to get them to focus on the shape of my mouth and how I make the sounds. At this age they’re very good at picking up on those cues and using them to repeat the word correctly.

When we finish drilling, we do a recognition activity. I put the flashcards on the floor in the middle or on the board. I then go around counting one, two, three as I touch their heads. The fourth child stands up to touch the flashcard for the word I say. I repeat the process until each child has gone to touch a flashcard. This activity serves to reinforce meaning and also helps them focus on each vocabulary item separately.

After the recognition activity we move on to a production activity. I mix the flashcards as I say, ‘shuffle, shuffle, shuffle…’ until one of the children says, ‘stop!’. They then raise their hands in order to try to guess the flashcard facing me. I encourage them to use a complete question, ‘Is it…?’. Even after all the repetition and all the times we’ve seen and heard the words on the flashcards, they will probably have trouble remembering what they have to choose from when guessing. That’s why I usually say the words when I see they need help. I always say the words in the same order and with a certain rhythm so that it becomes a chant that some of the children will invariably start saying with me. We play a few times so that each child has a chance to participate.

Presenting vocabulary to preschoolers needs to be fun, well-paced and involve quite a bit of moving around. I usually follow the above procedure every time I introduce new words to my students. Since the only aspect that changes is the target group of words, the children know what to expect at every stage. This helps to lower their affective filters, letting them focus on learning.

Six and seven-year olds

Flashcards coming out of the bag don’t usually excite this age group as much as the younger ones, so I use other strategies with them. Normally I try to think of a way to present the target words as part of the larger topic they’re associated with. To use the example of food from above, I would draw a large plate or a fridge on the board. After we look at and drill each flashcard, I place them on the plate or in the fridge. I also try to use the target language they will later be hearing and using: ‘I like sausages. Yum! They’re delicious!’ or ‘I don’t like peas.’

By this age, they’ve had some experience with English outside our classroom so I try to elicit more than present the words to them. I show the flashcard and ask for suggestions in English. I praise all attempts and we all repeat together the target word and do a related mime. Miming is just as important at this age because it helps them internalize the meaning of the words. We normally do an increasing drill (see above) but I don’t usually do the individual drilling with this age group unless the word is particularly difficult to pronounce.

Once all the flashcards are on the board (or sometimes on the floor in the middle), we do a disappearing drill. I place all the flashcards in a row and we say them together. Then I turn one of the flashcards over saying, ‘bye bye ____’. We say the row of flashcards together again but I only say the ones facing up. They have to remember and say the ones facing down. We continue like this until all the flashcards are facing down. The tension mounts as we say goodbye to each card and they always get really excited, sometimes telling me which card to turn over. At the very end, they tell me the target word for each card and I turn it over to make sure they’re correct. Most of the time they are!

Next I leave the flashcards on the board and pick up the word cards. This age group is starting to read and write more in English, so we look at each word, read it aloud together, make comments about the way it’s written or sounds and then match it to the corresponding flashcard. I might call to their attention the ‘ph’ in elephant or ask how many ‘b’s are in rabbit. This helps them focus on the written form and sometimes leads to discussions about why English is not written the way it sounds. At this stage we also take our invisible pencils and write the words. I encourage them to write in the air as they are looking at the word card. I think this visualization helps prepare them for later writing and it’s fun!

Using the word cards we then do a silent mime. I show the word, they silently mime what it means and then I ask them to say the word. Effectively, they are reading and showing recognition through movement. It also gives them all time to read and respond before the answer is actually said aloud. Students who need more time to think benefit a great deal from these few extra seconds.

Presenting vocabulary to six and seven-year olds requires flexibility, movement and an element of fun. Reading and writing are two skills that are starting to become important to them so they should be incoporated into the presenting of new words.

These are the routines I use in my classroom when presenting new vocabulary. Please share with us your routines and activities.


About careymicaela

I've been teaching Young Learners and Very Young Learners for over ten years now. My degrees are in Psychology and Spanish. I also completed my TEFL certification in Madrid and the Ih Young Learners Course in Seville. I enjoy working with children and sharing those experiences with other teachers. In my free time (when that exists!) I like to read, listen to music, practice yoga and go on long cycling routes with my husband.
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