It’s a given that learning words in isolation is not particularly helpful when it comes to learning a foreign language. Words rarely appear in isolation when we communicate, and ELT has come a long way from the days in which vocabulary appeared as single words in a vocabulary box to the presentation of manageable language chunks. Nowadays, I don’t think it takes a lot of convincing to persuade teachers about the benefits of chunks, meaningfulness and personalisation of vocabulary. However, is there any occasion in which presenting language items out of a context can be helpful? Maybe yes, and this activity is likely to come in handy should you be forced to teach words in isolation, or in case you just feel like doing so from time to time.
Suppose you’d like your students to learn how to properly use a dictionary. What if you write a bunch of words on the board – connected to a topic of study if you use a course book, or simply random words to start a lesson – and ask them to work on the meaning of these words? Then, you get them to discuss their opinion with a partner and see if they agree or not. At this stage, give them some chunks of language (on slips of paper) to express their opinion, agree and disagree, and ask about someone’s opinion. After they’ve finished discussing, elicit from the pairs / small groups what their definitions were. Don’t tell them if they were right or wrong just yet. Instead, get them to open their dictionaries and check if their guesses were right.
Most students will probably stop at the definition of the word, which is the least import piece of information a good learner’s dictionary has. Unfortunately, most students are oblivious to the plethora of information they may obtain from their dictionaries. Teachers who fail to teach students how to properly use a dictionary are also failing in one of their most important objectives: making him or herself less and less needed for providing information. So, once you get your students to check the meaning of the words, it’s time to move onto the next stage – getting them to come up with original sentences using those words they’d just checked.
Should they be struggling with their sentences, or if they happen to fail to produce accurate sentences, point them to the examples of usage in the dictionary. Have them read the example sentences and ask them to focus on the words in bold (when applicable), or the sentences which have a brief explanation of a chunk in parentheses (also, when applicable).
After having read the examples in the dictionary, ask them to correct their sentences on their own. They will hopefully be able to notice some patterns of usage from the dictionary sentences and transfer these to their own sentences. Make sure you monitor accordingly and direct their attention to certain important collocations, such as ADJECTIVE + PREPOSITION, or VERB + PREPOSITION. Write their sentences on the board, or on paper, or on any other device you may use in your teaching context, and try to keep a record of the sentences they have come up with.
The focus of such an activity is not for them to learn the discrete vocabulary item per se, but they are likely to remember some of the words you have presented anyway. To make it more meaningful and a lot more relevant, you can choose these words from songs which are trending in your country at the moment (particularly good for teenagers), words and phrases from sitcoms, series and movies, or just using the news as a source. The possibilities are endless.
Finally, you should show your learners that this is the kind of procedure they could follow when they come across unknown words from reading passages in class. This is something they could do when reading more actively in order to study English and not “simply” reading for content. Needless to say, this kind of reading is very time consuming, so it’s important that you tell them to use this strategy only for one or two paragraphs of the text.
I do believe that by doing so you’ll be helping your learners think more about the language, noticing more, and, most importantly, even though you’re teaching them words in isolation, it’s easy to see that you’ve done a lot more than just teaching the words. This is likely to make their learning more memorable and, consequently, more effective. This is just one of the ideas that I use with my learners when dealing with words “in isolation”, or when we have a quick vocabulary challenge as a warmer. Get them to work on words from songs, for instance. You’ll be surprised how often it will dawn on them that they didn’t really understand what it was that they were singing before.
How about coming up with a twist to override the system when you’re pushed into doing something you don’t think that would be so effective, such as presenting vocabulary lists from students’ course books? I bet you’ll have a lot more fun – and they will learn a lot more.