Now we all know the truth about tackling vocabulary with beginners.
An educated native speaker of English has a passive vocabulary of about 40,000 words and an active one of around 20,000.
We don’t expect our students to get to that level, but it’s often said that knowing 2,000-3,000 base words allows English learners to express what they want to say and understand 90 percent of what they read and hear.
But we can’t start like this.
We can’t say: “You have to learn 2,000 words so here are ten. Only 1,990 to go!”
We need to build on what students already know. We need to encourage and make goals achievable. That is why I usually start the first vocabulary lesson for beginners with a little bit of a trick.
Because if there are tricks, shortcuts, clever ruses or even some linguistic sleights of hand that help drive students onwards and upwards, then let’s use them!
How to Teach 100 English Words in One Lesson
Now, this does depend on the nationality mix of the class and is even more effective if you know one or more of the students’ native languages. But even with a lovely language cocktail, it can still work.
The trick? Focus on international words or loan words.
What Are Loan Words and International Words?
Technically, international words are words that are more or less the same in all languages, for example “hotel.”
Loan words are words borrowed from one language and used in another, for example “bungalow” in British English taken from the Gujurati word “bangalo.”
Because English is used so often in many fields (think sports, pop music, technology, transportation, communications, big brands) there are already lots of English words that have seamlessly slipped into other languages. It’s not a one-way street either; English has a gazillion loan words from other languages too.
Apart from the example above, English uses “café” and “ballet” from French, “kindergarten” from German, “alchemy” from Arabic and so on. Using those words can also be a good approach with a class that shares common language roots. “Look how many Arabic words we use in English!,” for example, with your class of Arabic-speaking beginners.
In the same way, other languages borrow words from English. Here are some examples:
- Chinese: ping pong 乒乓（球）pīngpāng (qiú), coffee 咖啡 kāfēi, pizza 比萨 bǐsà, sandwich 三明治 sānmíngzhì, cartoon 卡通 kǎtōng, e-mail 伊妹儿 yīmèier, sofa 沙发 shāfā, poker 扑克 pūkè
- French: le challenge, le shopping, le jogging, le chewing-gum, le/la baby-sitter, le t-shirt, le week-end
- German: Das Baby, Das Fast Food, Der Pullover, Cool!, Sorry!, Der Teenager, Hi!
- Spanish: los blues, el pop, el golf, el rugby, la disco, el marketing, el gol (goal), el bar
Remember that many languages have changed the meaning of the original English word. For example, “parking” in Italian means a car park, not the act of maneuvering your car. “Handy” in German is a cell phone, not an adjective describing something useful.
It’s probably best then, in this first lesson, to stick to some safe international words that haven’t changed their meaning, and that span numerous languages.
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20 “Safe” International Words
- Coca Cola
These are just examples that came to mind; I’m sure you can add to it easily—or even have a completely different list!
We’re going to look at an actual lesson plan that uses international words, but first let’s touch on the benefits.
Why Teach This Lesson on International Words?
This lesson kills several birds with one stone. Apart from focussing on the words themselves, it can also be used to teach students how to record new vocabulary, how to interact in pairs and it also highlights the usefulness of guesswork.
If that’s not reason enough, here are five more reasons to teach this lesson to your beginner ESL class:
- It’s motivating.
- It’s a good ice-breaker.
- It gives the class an achievable task to do, and students have a high chance of success.
- It encourages student talk and interaction because we are going to get them comparing ideas in pairs.
- It’s fun.
Sample ESL Lesson Plan Using International Words
Time: 45 minutes
Materials: Copies of a picture collage containing at least 20 international words. (If you are artistically inclined you can draw a picture with all of the elements in a scene.)
Objective: To gain confidence, to establish how much the class already knows, to introduce the topic of vocabulary, to break the ice
- Using the students’ own language if a monolingual class, or by example and mime, elicit how much English they already know. Most students will get the drift if you ask, “How many English words do you know?” or, “Do you speak English? A lot? A little? How many words?”
- Write some answers on the board, especially if they say things like “zero” or “three”! (By the way, “zero” is another international word, isn’t it?) This should get some laughs and groans.
- Say and mime, “No, no, no! You know a lot of English words. Maybe 100, maybe 1,000!”
- Hand out a picture collage of the international words face down.
- Tell students to turn the picture over on the count of three and look at it closely for 20 seconds. Shout “stop” when the time is up. Students should turn the picture face down again, or you can collect the collage.
- Students work in pairs to list as many words as they can remember.
- Solicit responses from the whole class; write words on the board, trying to list all 20.
- Turn the collage back over to check.
- In pairs, ask students to add more international words to the list.
- Check answers in groups and keep adding to the class list.
- Mix and mingle: Have students move around the room while checking lists and adding more words.
- Ask for class feedback. You can do this or have a confident student come to the board to do the writing. Elicit as many words as possible and write them down. Subtly correct pronunciation and demonstrate how to mark the stress on each word. (For example “hoTEL”)
- Depending on time you can follow up in several ways:
- Use the opportunity to teach “there is/there are” with vocabulary from the board/picture.
- Tell students some more ways to maximize what they know. For example, in Romance languages, very often a noun ending in –cion/-sion/-zione/-tion also ends -tion/-sion in English. It doesn’t work all the time—there are lots of exceptions—but it’s always worth a guess! And so much in language learning is about educated guesswork. Here are some examples of this: “informazioni” in Italian is “information” in English, “adopción” in Spanish is “adoption” in English, “passion” is the same in French and English (well, the French probably have more passion, but linguistically speaking it’s the same!).
- Practice pronunciation and spelling or introduce the concept of word stress. Get them used to writing new words and adding a sign/a color/bold/underlining for the stressed syllable as mentioned above.
- Watch a short video that you have chosen beforehand for its wealth of target vocabulary. Students shout “stop” every time they see an international word.
Once you add in social media, technology and the “-ion” words to the 20 “safe” international ones, you can reach 100 words in just this lesson! That’s pretty encouraging!
A lesson like this creates instant conversation and pair work, shows the class that they know more than they think and also introduces the concept of syllable stress and the essential skill of guesswork. Why not give it a try?
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you like teaching your students useful language, then you’re going to love FluentU.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. These are videos that your students already love watching, so they’ll be beyond excited to interact with them in the classroom.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
Worried that students might be stumped by some of the harder videos? No way. FluentU brings authentic content within reach by providing interactive captions and in-context definitions right on-screen. For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.