This is a great question! And it is one that many people disagree over! Let’s look at some things we know from the research of Krashen and many others.
- Poor readers have the smallest vocabularies. Giving extensive lists just puts these struggling students at a greater disadvantage.
- Exposure to oral language promotes growth of vocabulary.
- Repetition improves acquisition of vocabulary.
What I know from my personal experience:
- As a student, I was given massive lists of vocabulary in both Spanish and English classes, out of context. I did well on the tests because I am a great memorizer. My friends didn’t all do well on the tests and had negative feelings about their own ability.
- As a reader in Spanish and English, my vocabulary gets bigger and bigger all the time! My students are only 14-18, I have to be realistic even about what is a cognate for them. It took me a long time to develop the vocabulary I have.
- I learn vocabulary I am interested in at a much higher rate than that which I am not… ex: Jim, my husband, tries telling me a computer thing and I get anxious because I don’t understand what he is saying. I respond by speaking Spanish to him so he can see how ridiculous this conversation is. ex: I tell Jim about my nerdy science readings online and he says “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
What I see in my classroom:
- I give a few words that everyone needs to know and then allow lots of room to add self selected vocabulary. The words they choose for themselves are the ones they use most often in conversation.
- Even though I don’t give all the clothing (numbers, rooms of the house, etc) at one time, they acquire them all slowly through the year!
- They acquire a TON of words through reading!
- They actually acquire the vocabulary we use in the classroom! Those old lists I gave were deceptive. It made me FEEL like they were learning a lot more vocabulary than they were… but it was one of those cram and forget type of things for most of the kids.
Vocabulary is important! (If we don’t have words, we can never communicate.) That said, vocabulary has to be sheltered. If we throw too much out, we risk losing enrollment and feeding the mindset of ‘I can’t learn a second language.’
Try the chuck-it bucket as a way to pare down to the basics and then add a few enrichment structures for the real superstars! If you can present small chunks of vocabulary as the “required structures” for each unit, then the pressure is off for your slower processors to acquire more than they can and the spotlight can shine on your faster processors as they pick up the extra little things you share in readings, in class discussions, and in stories/movie talks.
Have a great year sharing your passion with your students and be patient with them and with yourself. We are never going to be perfect! As a matter of fact, just today I read in Daniel Pink’s book Drive that mastery of anything is like an asymptote (google that one if you don’t remember from math class). You get close but you never quite get there! In the end of it all, your students will really blow you away with the language they can produce after a year… and even more so the more years they come back!!