How to teach complex vocabulary to children.

How do you find material,  for use by students of ESL whose ability far exceeds that of their peers? Materials aimed at their age are too easy while materials aimed at their  ability expect a level of  worldliness that they don’t yet have.

Teachers don’t have the time to create or adapt materials for each of their classes. So we all depend on materials created by others sometimes.

So is it possible can you teach these exceptional students materials for older students?

How might you teach a subject like renting or buying property for example

The key is the difference between a students’ passive and active vocabularies.

Our passive vocabulary in is much bigger than our active vocabulary and Ttis is as true of our native language as of L2 or L3.

Hence the often heard refrain amongst language learners”I understand better than I can speak”

We’re able to understand a news report about something  complex and alien like the passing of the national budget passive, but find it hard to explain it someone else active.

Many  students  understand and complex subjects like property in their mother toungue passive, but find it hard  to talk about itactive

How can we access that passive vocabularies in their own language?

Brainstorming or Mindmaps are not just a way to to inspire executives in meetings, they can also a way  jog the memories of students and help us access their pass vocabularies

Studies have shown that the human brain stores vocabulary all over the human brain in clusters.

These clusters of words organise themselves in  in ways that might seem illogical to the conscious brain;  words that sound similar, kinds of animals, colours etc. By using mindmaps we can find and “tap” these connections.

For example, If I asked my younger students to name all the animal words they know in L1, L2 etc. they’d quickly exhaust their memoriesy, but if we created a brainstorm together and I asked them for kinds of animal such as:

  • fish
  • insects
  • four-legged
  • eight-legged
  • furry
  • words with wings
  • scaly animals
  • pets
  • farm animals
  • etc.

They’d remember many, many more, and they’d probably ask me for more words for their favourite animals in their native tongue too

  1. This is the theory, backed by research, but how can we use this?


Begin the class with a warm up activity

  1. Elicit words about a subject they know both in their mother tongues and the target language.

To use the example I mentioned above you could ask whether their parents have a mortgage, rent or own their houses and which they think is better, worse etc. and why?

  1. From there you can begin to talk about rent, payments, ownership etc.
  2. Try to guide them to prepare them for your next activity that requires this adult vocabulary
  3. Very quickly you’ll begin to have a list of words on the board that before were only in your students’ passive vocabularies.
  4. What you then choose to do then is up to you.
  5. Perhaps you could either help them translate some of the words or ask them to try to translate in class or at home.

Share This

Share this post with your friends!