The Vocab List Analogy

What are your feelings about foreign language vocabulary lists?  You know…the handouts with the target vocabulary on one side and the L1 equivalent on the other.

german vocabulary

japanese vocabulary


russian vocabularySome people love them.  They’re very useful.

Some students cheat with them.

Some teacher’s feel guilty if they pass them out to their students.

Some educators write articles saying, “Hey!  These lists aren’t just part of some outdated strategy!  Don’t count them out!

In this post I DON’T want to make a case for or against the use of vocabulary lists in the foreign language classroom.  However, I DO want to mention them for the purpose of explaining what I do in my 90+% target language use classroom.

(And at this point I’ll include SIDE NOTE for new visitors to this blog who might be thinking, “What, exactly, is it that you do in your 90+% TL use classroom?”  Well…I try to provide my novice students with the following:

Repeated and meaningful opportunities wherein a piece of incomprehensible linguistic input is *paired with a corresponding piece of comprehensible extralinguistic input.

I make it my goal to have this *pairing” happen hundreds of times during one instructional session.  See examples in these videos from my classroom.)

So what does *pairing have to do with traditional vocabulary/translation lists?

The thing that makes L2 vocabulary lists so useful is that they *pair what is incomprehensible with something that is comprehensible.  They make the unfamiliar L2 (something that can be overwhelming/stressful) MUCH LESS INTIMIDATING because the L2 gets *paired (or matched) with the familiar L1.  This is so helpful for foreign language learners because their list becomes a tool that they can use to navigate an unfamiliar L2 environment.

A second helpful thing about these lists is that they take the L2 and break it down into tiny, isolated components or pieces.  You know what I mean, right?  Generally a vocabulary list isn’t a paragraph of L2 next to a translated paragraph of L1.  It’s one, single L2 word next to it’s L1 equivalent.


…in my classroom I do the same thing EXCEPT, instead of *pairing pieces of unfamiliar L2 with L1 words/phrases, I *pair them with any of the following forms of extralinguistic input:

So my students don’t get a printed out list.  I give them a different kind of list.  It’s not a list they can look at.  It’s more like a list that they experience live and in person.  For example:

  • when I put something cold in their hands and say the L2 word for “cold.”
  • when I say L2 words like, “YOU WON!” or “YOU DID IT!” or “GREAT JOB!” after a student wins a classroom game.
  • when a student randomly sneezes and I say, “God bless you,” in the target language.

When these moments/experiences are strung together in meaningful ways, the students start to form an intangible list.  The incomprehensible L2 is paired with something.  But it’s not paired with L1 on a handout.  It’s paired with comprehensible extralinguistic input.  And their intangible and ever evolving list serves the same purpose as traditional vocabulary lists: it takes what’s unfamiliar and makes it meaningful.  With it they can take steps towards more effectively navigating L2 environments.

Señor Howard

Señor Howard – – @HolaSrHoward

Caleb Howard – – @calhwrd

*Disclaimer: These terms are my own and I’m using them for the purpose of reflecting on my own foreign language teaching practice.  The reader should not assume that this is a term found in formal, academic writing.

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One thought on “The Vocab List Analogy

  1. Love the blog! Has been very useful! Do you have suggestions for vocab with high schoolers? I have used a lot of C1 with Spanish 1s that’ similar to what you do at the elementary level, but with 2s, it’s harder……I feel like they need a little higher level of input to stay motivated (to be able to talk about what they want to and feel like they are learning something new), but their ability to stay in TL is growing slowly. They are also used to lists…which I think I’m okay to start giving them, as long as it’s paired with lots of practice to make it relevant, and not just memorized. Thoughts?

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