Pre-teaching vocabulary is something that many of us were taught to do on our CELTAs or other pre-service course. I hold my hand up to having trained other teachers to do it- and to having, as a result, sat through an excruciating 20 minutes plus while trainee teachers laboriously explained word after word until the students had lost the will to live, never mind the will to read the text.
Another argument against pre-teaching is that it doesn’t train students for real-life encounters with language; that we’re spoon feeding them rather than teaching them the skills to deal with unknown words.
I am sure this is true, and I would certainly not recommend pre-teaching as a way of explaining all the words in a text that students are unlikely to know. However, done sparingly, I think it can have some value both in terms of practicality (making sure they can actually do the task you set, and that you don’t have twenty people all asking the same question, one after another) and in terms of helping to raise interest and motivation.
The questions you need to ask yourself are, I think:
– Do the students actually need to know this word/phrase to do the task?
– Could they guess it from context?
– Can this word or phrase be used productively within this lesson?
Selecting what vocabulary to pre-teach
1. Look at what vocabulary the students will need to know to do the task you set, rather than what they probably won’t know in the text.
2. Look at vocabulary which is directly related to the topic of the text, so that it can be used to activate schema.
To illustrate what I mean, here is a scan of three pages from IELTS Foundation 2nd edition Macmillan 2012, with a set of activities around a reading text. Looking at the tasks set on the third page, there are certain words which the students will need to know to carry out these tasks. I would suggest:
current reluctant short term effects essential reduce prevent tend to encourage efficient
congestion charge higher parking charges public transport pay per mile
The first set of words could be looked at, as necessary, when the teacher is setting the tasks. Many of them are very typical of IELTS questions and so might well be already known. If not, a matching activity with synonyms might work well with these words, especially with synonyms in the text (most IELTS questions will use a synonym rather than the words in the text itself)
The second set of words however are all linked to the topic, so provide scope to act as a lead in to the text as well as a pre-teaching activity. If you look at the first page of the extract, you can see that these and other related words from the text are given to students to categorise into traffic problems and possible solutions. The students then use the words in a personalised way, to talk about problems in their city before reading the text and comparing with their ideas and opinions.
One of the major problems with pre-teaching vocabulary is dealing with a set of seemingly disconnected words, with no context. Choosing words which relate to the topic of the text is a good way round this issue, and the words can also be used productively.
Ideas for pre-teaching vocabulary
1 Categorising is often a good approach, as it should get the learners to engage with the meaning of the words. If the words aren’t related in terms of meaning you could always get them to categorise into ‘words I know’, ‘words I am not sure about ‘and ‘words I don’t know’. Done in pairs, this should lead to peer teaching and you can monitor and then help with any still causing difficulties.
2 Connecting words: ask students to choose two or more words and phrases from those you want to pre-teach and write a sentence using them. This will only really work if the words are at least half known though.
3 Predicting: Ask students to make predictions about the text using the words given. Depending on the words and the students this could range from guessing the topic, to guessing the attitude of the writer, to guessing the answers to the questions they are going to answer.
4 Using the context of the text: Pull out some sentences which contain the words you want to pre-teach and put them up on the board with gaps. Get the students to decide which words go in which gaps.
5 If appropriate, matching the vocabulary you want to pre-teach with pictures. Relatively easy these days, pictures are a great way of providing the context which would otherwise be missing.
If you do decide to pre-teach (and there are, as we have seen, arguments against it), make sure that the words and phrases are useful and contextualised and that the time spent pre-teaching is worth it for what the students will get out of the process.