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Build vocabulary with young learners: tips and resources

October 14, 2021 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

The building blocks of our language are words: words that children love learning. Children are often proud and excited when they learn a new word, a strange word, or a funny word and can’t wait to show it off in new contexts (a perfect inbuilt learning strategy!). What are the best ways to help them with this process in L2? What are the most effective strategies and resources to help young learners understand, remember and then use new words? We have collected some ideas and resources for you to try with pupils aged 5-8.

Some things to remember about words

1 Types of words

Before we get started, it is important to think about the types of words we teach children. Nouns, verbs and adjectives are the strongest items in our lexical collection, and these are the words children focus on and want to remember first. But we need to deal with pronouns, determiners, prepositions, adverbs, and conjunctions. These word groups might be a little bit more difficult to learn. 

We find that the most important thing is to learn words in context. This is true about every word group, but especially pronouns, determiners, and prepositions. When I think about my own language learning experiences, one of the most frustrating things was trying to memorize these tiny words. When children are exposed to them in context and use, they will feel more comfortable using them and learn to use them automatically.

2 Words and concepts

Words are also the building blocks of conceptual development. The idea that words can open up new possibilities of scientific or artistic exploration is a powerful one, even if children do not need to explicitly understand this. When children become familiar with new words and understand the relationship between them, they will be able to start thinking on higher levels of abstraction. For example, when a young learner knows the words wind, sun, and rain, they will be ready to start thinking about the concept of weather, and then the changing of the seasons. All these new words lead to exciting learning pathways.

3 Thinking development and learning words

Young children make sense of the world by organizing things into categories and subcategories. This cognitive phase is also reflected in language development, making it easier to learn new words in blocks. These ‘blocks’ can be categories (types of houses, for example), or subcategories (rooms inside a house). They may also be opposites (hot and cold are generally taught together, as are happy and sad) or synonyms. Encourage students to learn words in pairs or groups.

It is also important to remember that binary oppositions are the extremes of a lexical scale. Not everything is black and white or good and bad and vocabulary development happens when we negotiate the language contained between the binary pairs. When you think in terms of a cline, meanings can be expanded and new words can be added at later stages of learning. So whenever possible, introduce the idea of delicate meanings. 

Some strategies

Language learning and vocabulary development are heavily based on aural and oral interaction and visual input with young children. For them, the written word is a new territory they are just beginning to explore. Of course, we can introduce some writing activities, but our main teaching practice should focus on listening, speaking, and play for now. 

1 Rhythm & rhyme: chants, songs, and stories

Children have a natural feeling for rhythm from birth, no wonder we find it easier to remember words and phrases that have a special rhythm. If they rhyme, even better, it is easier to learn new words. Using chants, songs, and stories that have a special rhythm or rhyme helps young learners remember new vocabulary. And the best thing is that they remember these words for a long time, even for a lifetime. 

When you read the Helbling Young Readers stories, you will find chants at the beginning of the stories. The texts have a natural rhythm making them easy to read out loud and helping young learners remember what is coming next on a rereading.

Using songs to practise vocabulary (and even grammar) is always a great idea, so look for children’s songs containing the words or phrases you would like to practise and integrate these in your lesson plan.

Each Helbling Young Reader has its own downloadable Speaking Worksheet, with rhymes, songs, and games.

2 Context

Words come to life and gain real meaning in context and become abstract concepts without context. So when you introduce new words, make sure the context is clear and encourage students to remember how a certain word was used and who used it. This can be as simple as giving a simple sentence to illustrate the meaning of a word. (As the teacher points at a bird in the sky outside, new word = sky: Look! There’s a bird in the sky. The sky is grey.) or creating a mini dialogue:

A: I’m hungry

B: Me too. Let’s eat a pizza.

3 Interaction

We use language to interact with others so why should learning new words be different? One of the most powerful innate abilities of children is their thirst to interact with others. This is why dialogue is such a powerful tool: it is the way into language from the very beginning. It is not different for young learners of L2 either. Promoting dialogue and interaction will make it easier to avoid ambiguous meanings and will create a context or situation for the learning to happen within.

4 Play

The key to learning (for children of all ages, there is a child in all of us) is play. I am always amazed by how well children remember new words when they learn them during play. Play gives context (see above) to the words, and they often become ‘hardwired' when associated with movement and music. By play, we mean playful and creative interaction in a controlled environment where some form of surprise element is possible. The teacher sets up the playground, giving children words as toys and tasks and rules to complete.

For example, my own practice has been starting young learners’ lessons with a storytelling session. Then, after the storytelling is over, we turn the classroom into a playground where we practise words from the story. For example, we set up a market where we organize and sell fruit and vegetables, or a forest path where we meet forest animals (and maybe even a wolf!).

5 Stories: picture books

Picture books are great companions and resources in the language learning process, and a few strategies will help you work on vocabulary a little bit more.

Labelling is a simple but effective way of introducing new words to even very little ones. When you are looking at a double page, simply point at various objects and name them. Here you can also start introducing prepositional phrases, for example: ‘Where’s the dog?’ ‘It’s in the garden.’ During reading, point at various details to reinforce meanings. Children love observing pages and details, and they will invariably notice things you haven’t spotted.

Repetition is a useful approach to reading stories. Young learners naturally love recycling, which is good news for teachers. They usually ask for a story to be repeated and repeated again. Take advantage of such interest.

Rhythm, rhyme, and reading aloud. As we discussed above, rhythm and rhyme are powerful tools in the vocabulary learning process. Since children generally learn by listening first (Listen-Speak-Read-Write), reading out loud is a must. You can test how good a story is by reading it out loud to yourself. If it sounds nice and has a good rhythm, reading it in class will be more fun. This way children will be able to repeat some phrases and sentences with you.

Storytime can be the core of the lesson. You can work on the new words in the text, and the story gives way to new lexical knowledge to practise through games, activities, arts and crafts ideas, and projects. You will find creative ideas for all of these in both the Young Readers and The Thinking Train young readers.

Acting out some scenes out of a story is also fun for children. They can work on a chosen scene in smaller groups. If there aren’t enough characters for each child, then take turns and repeat the scene a couple of times. This way children can introduce themselves (e.g., I’m the dog., I’m a tree.’, I’m the little girl.’ etc.) and repeat some of the sentences they heard in the story. Or they can act out the story chorally with groups of children playing individual parts.