Vocabulary Lists

Yes, I was that Spanish student who went home and memorized any and every list of vocabulary my teacher gave me. Believe it or not, my nickname in ninth grade was, “Diccionario” (dictionary)! While this system worked for me, I have a slightly photographic memory and enjoy mathematical formulas, so conjugations and the like came more easily than not. This is not to say that I didn’t work hard–because I definitely did–but I would come to class the following day and not understand why my classmates did not even recognize the new words. Or maybe they knew them for the test, but forgot immediately thereafter.

When I became an educator, I remembered those students that had difficulty mastering vocabulary lists and, after learning more about the brain and observing how children process information, decided to eliminate said lists from my classroom.

Families will request from time to time a list of words their child is learning in Spanish class. While I appreciate their interest in the language program, vocabulary lists are just not my style. Students in an immersive environment pick up new words and phrases at different rates and paces. Some speak from day one, while others won’t say anything for months–and then, when you least expect it and have given up all hope, they blurt out a sentence or paragraph. Go figure!

Point being, I want my classroom to be a place where students feel comfortable to take academic risks; the technical term for this is a ‘low-affective filter’. If a [well-intentioned] parent is constantly quizzing their child on vocabulary, many students will start to freeze and clam up, mentally. We are not going for perfection at this point in time–our goal is to communicate basic ideas as efficiently as possible; and I want this process to be as natural as possible. We observe, we quietly assess, we listen, we encourage; but just as with a baby, we don’t pressure students when it comes to linguistic production. They will talk when they are good and ready!

That said, I like lists. I like being organized. And I am extremely interested in what I call linguistic chronology. Generally speaking, we know that babies and toddlers typically say things like, “Mama, Dada, up, down, water, apple” as some of their first words (when learning English, at least). As we are trying to mimic and parallel this natural language acquisition process in my classroom–based on immediate and practical needs and wants–the vocabulary lists I create are constantly evolving.

While I said that I do not send home vocabulary lists, I will give you a glimpse HERE into the type of words and phrases your child is working on. Perhaps the biggest difference here is that they rarely, if ever, see these words in list form; they acquire the vocabulary in meaningful contexts and when working on projects. Moreover, I listen constantly to what students say–to the words they use–and then we take the most practical and versatile phrases and learn the Spanish equivalent.

I know that people–especially language teachers!–can have very strong feelings on this topic, which is fine; but please take a moment to recall your own language learning journey, and whether or not the ‘vocabulary list’ method worked for you and/or your classmates. Are you fluent in another language (from this method)? Are they?