A Practical Approach to Teaching Vocabulary

This is one of the questions we, Spanish teachers, naturally ask ourselves, especially when starting the process of teaching Spanish to our students. We may instinctively tend to prioritize the teaching of grammar in order to construct sentences correctly; however, these two major aspects share the same raw material, which is vocabulary. Teaching vocabulary seems to be the first big step in this journey and it is of great importance to have a clear strategy for which kind of vocabulary we are going to work with and how to instruct it. 

There are many different ways to group vocabulary, and of course, there are some that make learning more efficient than others. Perhaps sometimes we think that the right thing to do would be to start with what we call ‘basic vocabulary’, which gathers everything that is around the student and to which they can put a post-it with literal translation in both English and Spanish; for instance: a book will have a post-it with the words: “Book = Libro” on its cover, and so on with lots of more things… But we fail to consider the usefulness of learning these vocabulary words in the broader context of what will be most efficient for students. Especially, when thinking about the students path to becoming conversational. At its worst, this strategy can make learning vocabulary overwhelming for Spanish learners.

The Kingdom of Vocabulary

  • Getting started
  • Focused in life
  • Building on core vocabulary

Getting Started

While it can be tempting, it’s best to avoid approaching vocabulary in terms of accumulation, just for the sake of increasing it, unless students are at a higher level of proficiency in target language, and then feel ready to expand their knowledge by adding more words (that could be synonyms, antonyms and different expressions). In an initial stage, ideally in terms of practicality and effectiveness, we would start with a Vocabulary containing most commonly used words in the target language, including verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs, so that students know there is a purpose for learning these words, and at the same time become familiar with pronunciation, so that they feel confident enough to put them into practice, while developing what is the most immediate goal in learning any language: Speaking skills.

As Spanish teachers, we will want to come up with lists that contain words per se: tender (verb) cama (noun), ahora (adverb), fácil (adjective), and we will avoid those words that fulfil a certain role within the sentence, such as definite articles, which are not words per se (el, la, los, las) as these make more sense with their respective grammatical uses, as in the following example: Tiende la cama ahora, es fácil. (Make your bed now, it’s easy).

As for verbs, it is preferable they are in base form, what we call infinitive (-ar, -er, -ir termination), since conjugations with corresponding pronouns is something your students will learn as they progress while mastering grammar, thanks to your guidance. Still, they can start using infinitive verbs, when they are taught to talk about activities they like or dislike doing.

For example:

  • Me gusta ir al parque (I like going to the park)
  • No me gusta jugar solo (I don’t like playing alone)

Focused in Life

Another advantage of approaching vocabulary from this perspective, is that students learn to construct sentences more naturally by placing them in context: at first, with a single word and then progressively by combining 2 or more within the list. 

For example: 

Topic: Buenos Modales (Good manners)

Words in the list: Aprender, Bueno, Decir, Gracias, Hoy.

Main word: Gracias.

Context: A situation where it is appropriate to use the expression ‘Gracias’.

Combining words in the list sentences: 

  • Hoy vamos a aprender a decir ‘gracias’.
  • Decir ‘gracias’ es bueno.

Building on Core Vocabulary

As we well know, the main objective of learning any language is to communicate, and if we want our students to accomplish this, there are a series of questions we can ask them to define vocabulary and context in which it will be used according to the class communicative purposes, in short, medium and long term. In this way, they will feel involved in the decisions that are made regarding their learning process, and the idea is this will keep them motivated from the beginning. Some questions you may ask are:

  • What do you like or want to talk about? – From this you get a list of topics that lead to practice activities.
  •  Who do you like to talk to? – This uncovers the formality levels that learners will need to be able to handle (if applicable).
  • How do you like to express yourself? – Here you find out what colloquialisms they use and how to help avoid misunderstandings when using them.

Approach Strategies

  • Identifying vocabulary
  • Practicing out loud
  • Mistakes are welcome!

Identifying Vocabulary

Thanks to what was previously mentioned, the awareness that is gained about learned vocabulary is very valuable. It is best to help students understand what a verb, an adjective, or a noun entails, in a simple way, without getting too technical, which can bore or demotivate them. Small examples in everyday situations are enough for them to know the type of word they are using so that they can define them in context.

For Instance: 

Scenario 1

The word we use when we answer the phone while in Mexico is:

¿Bueno? 

In this case, it is a saying to let the caller know that we are on the other end of the phone, ready to start the conversation.

Scenario 2

When we say something is ‘bueno’, we are qualifying it in a certain way, ergo it is an adjective, and can be used to describe people, things or situations. We can use it in sentences like:

Soy bueno para escribir.

El consejo de la profesora es bueno.

Jackson es un niño muy bueno.

Teaching your students to identify the vocabulary they are working with, will help them become even more aware of the English language through learning the Spanish language, so this exercise is a win-win for us and English teachers!

Practicing Out Loud

The point is to progressively bring Spanish learners into real conversations, and it is likely that many of them will not be enthusiastic about this idea, because they do not yet feel confident enough to tackle this kind of activity. Although there may be many variables involved in this predisposition, the one I want to refer to specifically is the lack of confidence in how to pronounce words, and fear of making a fool of themselves in front of their classmates or teachers, when they say them out loud. This is where a careful Listening practice will help students to become familiar with vocabulary, as well as being aware of how it looks written: how it does sound; as linguist Paul Pimsleur accurately states: “Good pronunciation begins not in the mouth, but in the ear”. We as teachers have to take advantage of the fact that Spanish is a phonetic language, i.e. it is written as it is spoken. Frequent Listening activities will help prepare students to produce the language sounds as they become accustomed to them and to the speed at which they are spoken.

Another goal that can be achieved through doing this, is to make everyone speak as natural as possible, both in pronunciation and speed, as fluency will eventually come as daily practice takes place.

And finally, here’s a very important thing to keep in consideration:

Mistakes Are Welcome!

Naturally, and especially when starting to learn something new, mistakes will happen and often we cannot avoid them. It is important to teach your students that mistakes are not bad in themselves, that they are part of their process. Moreover, if they do not make mistakes, they will not know the correct way to speak or pronounce certain words with which they may have more difficulty. Constantly remind your students that you, as their Spanish teacher, are there to help them build their confidence, and also let them know that the mistakes we make while learning can be fun and very nurturing. With this new perspective on mistakes, we should ideally start to notice a slightly more carefree attitude in students, so that they feel more and more comfortable speaking in target language, and feel able to do better with each practice or activity.

Flashcards

Spanish Pronunciation Survival Kit: Discover and practice Spanish Language phonemes through this most common used words list.

  • Tildes are written accent marks and are only used on the 5 vowels (á, é, í, ó, ú).
  • Every word has a stress, even if it does not have a tilde.
  • Most Spanish words have the stress on the penultimate syllable.
  • That curved line above Ñ is not a tilde! It’s called a ‘virgulilla’.

Word Lists

🥝 iKnow! Spanish Core 1000: Step 1

👩‍⚕️ Spanish for your job

😀 La Hora Feliz en Español

Make Your Own Games

Use LearnHip to create your own online board game that introduces students to the basic grammar concepts governing gender and adjectives.

Want to create your own online activity? LearningApps let’s you build activities like listen & match, crossword puzzles, matchings pairs, and more. Their app library also includes games built by other Spanish tutors.

About the Author

Mar Clavijo O.

Bogotá, Colombia

Musician at Tesla Coil Cub / Spanish & English Teacher Online / Podcaster at InsightFools

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