The act of learning new words comes with the territory when studying a language. For English it’s the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher’s responsibility to help students in pronouncing and, sometimes, understanding any new words they encounter.

Practising new words can be a fun, active part of any EFL lesson.

New Words

I’m speaking from the point of view of an English Teacher who’s taught at public schools in Japan, but these techniques can be used to drill new words in many situations.

Japanese English textbooks usually contain some text passages for the students to plough through. These passages always come with a set of new words located somewhere by the text. Introducing and practicing the pronunciation for these new words often falls to the native English speaker.

Some classes face new words every lesson so it’s good to have a flexible array of tricks to take this part of the lesson beyond the dull “listen and repeat” format.

Numbering

Write the new words up on the board; read out each word as they are written. After writing each word put a number beside the word. Once finished read the words clearly and loudly while enticing the students to only say the number next to each word. For example, if you had these numbered words (these may seem a bit random,  but I took them from a High School textbook):

  1. Kenyan
  2. villager
  3. broaden
  4. brave
  5. horizons

Then you would say “Kenyan” and the class would respond with “one.” Do this a few times, jumping around the list, speeding up and slowing down based on how quickly the class responds. Then switch to saying numbers instead of words. Ideally the students will pick up on what you’ve done and there’ll be no need to pause the activity to explain the shift in rules. Continue in the new fashion for a while, with the teacher saying numbers and students saying words.

The final stage is to gradually erase words, leaving only the numbers on the board. The finale being a sequential reading of numbers by the teacher and the students fully remembering the whole list of new words.

Be aware that if you use too many words this activity may be tricky and will ultimate drag. I recommend sticking to eight words max.

Pointing And Listening

This is my favourite way to drill new words. With all the words on the board, point at one word and read it. Encourage the class to repeat after you. Repeat this with a different word, and then another. Then point to a word but say a different word from the list. Make it clear to the students that they should not repeat what you say because the word you’re pointing at doesn’t match what you’ve said. They should stay silent.

Continue in this manner, switching between “saying what you’re pointing at” and “saying something different to what you’re pointing at.” As the tempo increases it becomes a battle between teacher and students. Catching a couple of students out always gets a laugh.

Rhythmic

The effectiveness of this style varies depending on how outspoken the students are. I’ve found having the students stand up for this one helps their enthusiasm. The idea is to develop a rhythm or chant with which to practice the new words. I start clapping a steady pattern, count myself in (“one, two, three, four …”) and start reciting the words along to the rhythm. Each word is repeated twice, for example:

Ken-yan, Ken-yan, villa-ger, villa-ger, broa-den, broa-den …

Then we do it all together, slowly. Next we speed it up and, if the students are coping well, we move to an extra fast super speedy round. I know more could be done with the rhythm itself; I had one JTE suggest using a bossa-nova beat. One thing to remember is that it’s important to start simple and build.

PRO TIP: After practising once or twice add a special rule to give students something extra to concentrate on. Each word gets repeated twice, right? So, maybe the first repetition could be said by all the boys and the second by all the girls. Or, the first should be shouted, the second whispered.

Memorization

Ideally you want your students to remember the new words you’re introducing. Not just what they are or their meaning, but also the spellings and sounds of the words. One activity I’ve tried a couple of times, with varying degrees of success, is to try to get them memorizing spelling straight away.

For this activity write the new words on the board in a grid, like a simple bingo grid. Hand out worksheets, at the top of which place a similar grid that’s missing the words. Tell students not to write on their worksheets yet – I would often tell them to turn their sheets over. Next, drill the new words in a simple “call and response” way. Then take a sheet of paper and pin it over one word using a magnet. Elicit the obscured word from the class. Cover another word with paper and elicit that one. Continue in this fashion, all the while returning to previously elicited words and still-visible words to re-enforce students’ memories.

Finally, once all words have been covered, tell students to turn over their sheets. They have to try to write the words into the grid from memory. Make it clear that spelling is not important at this stage; they should just be trying to sound out the words from memory. Emphasise the word try.

PRO TIPS: Encourage struggling classes to work in pairs or groups. Setting a time limit can help make this stage run smoother and will stop it from slowing the flow of the lesson.

Once time has expired, or you feel they’re gotten as far as they’re going to get, elicit one of the words and remove the relevant piece of paper. Students should check their spelling and make any necessary corrections. Go over each word in this way until all words have been revealed and re-practised.

Once again, be aware that too many words will only befuddle students and stress everyone out. I’ve only done it with a maximum of six and even then I think that’s a bit much for some classes.

Practise Makes Perfect

Getting a good flow going when practising new words is often tricky for new teachers. If an activity doesn’t go well the first time, set it aside. Try something new and return to that first activity another day. Some teachers view drilling new words as a bit of a chore; so do most students in fact. However, a dash of creativity here and there plus some smiles and energy from the EFL teacher can really turn this part of the lesson into a jolly time.

How do you approach drilling new words? What do you think of my ideas, can you see see any room for improvement?

Thank you for reading! Drilling new words often comes before reading practice, so here’s some thoughts on that!

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