Monday, August 1, 2011

Brainstorming Vocabulary

Richard Firsten By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I recently came to a difficult decision that it was time to retile most of the floors in my house. Where I live, very few people have carpeting in their homes. The climate is just too hot and much too humid most of the year. So, after 29 years of living with the same ceramic tile floors and watching them deteriorate more and more over those years, I took the plunge.

Just by coincidence a neighbor down the block whom I’ve known for a very long time had just finished having her house remodeled with all the work done (breaking down a couple of walls, adding a whole room to the house, retiling, etc.) by just one man and his uncle. I was so impressed at the work when the project was finished that I knew he and his uncle were the men for my project, so I hired them to retile my floors. But there was just one thing: They didn’t speak English, just Spanish. I speak what I would call conversational Spanish, so that wasn’t a problem for me – or was it? Well, actually it was. If we were talking in generalities about the work that had to be done, I could hold my own in a conversation with Davíd, our remodeling Renaissance man, and his uncle. But if the conversation got into the nitty-gritty of the work that needed to be done, or if I had technical questions to ask, I knew I would find myself at a terrible loss for the vocabulary needed to accomplish such things.

So what did I do? I took a lesson from myself, one that I had taught my ESOL students over the years. I sat down and wrote out two lists. One list had all the vocabulary dealing precisely with the retiling project, and the other list contained all the questions I could come up with that I knew I’d want to ask at one point or another during the project.

For example, I made sure I looked up the Spanish words for such things as layers, old vinyl flooring, debris, haul away, lay floor tile, square feet, thin set, grout, matching color, floorboards, plastic sheeting, tarps, contract, deadline, penalty. It was easy to look up some of these vocabulary items, but it wasn’t easy to find some others. One thing that I found very funny was that even though I had found the Spanish word for grout, neither Davíd or his uncle had ever heard the word; they only knew the English word! Anyway, I got a real education in how to successfully discuss a retiling project in Spanish. ¡Olé! Then, just to visualize things in another way and make it easier to study and internalize the new vocabulary, I created a diagram, first in English, then in Spanish, which looked something like this:



I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. I know that my ESOL students found it very interesting and meaningful to brainstorm vocabulary that dealt with a specific place or activity, and what made this so important was that I gave them the ability to do such brainstorming on their own; they really didn’t need a teacher to do it with them. All I had to do was show them how it’s done, and that was most important of all.

Here’s one example to show your students how it’s done. Tell them to pick out one room in their homes. First, ask them to list the names of all the objects found in that room in their languages. Then ask them to find the English equivalents. Next, have them find the vocabulary needed to explain the purpose of each object. Picture dictionaries do this to some extent, but they tend to be limited and can’t personalize the vocabulary enough. Let’s take the bathroom as an example.

Here’s what you can find in my bathroom plus some other words: sink, faucet (tap), hot/cold water key, drain, stopper, porcelain, soap dish, soap dispenser, cleansers, towels, bath mat, bathtub, shower stall, shower stall door(s), tile floors, soap scum, mildew, hand soap, bath soap, body wash, soap rack, shower head, medicine chest, toilet (commode), toilet seat, (a roll of) toilet paper (bathroom tissue), toilet paper rack, toilet bowl, toilet bowl cleaner, toilet bowl brush, stopped up/backed up/clogged toilet, plunger, overflow, turn-off (shut-off) valve. Of course your students won’t come up with as complete a list as this, so you can fill their lists in with items you think important for them to learn. In this particular case, you can even deal with the interesting subject of euphemisms and why our culture has them in these cases (toilet vs. commode; toilet paper vs. bathroom tissue). Next, have the students create a web with related items placed together in balloons just as I did for my retiling project.

Then the students should deal with short sentences that describe the purpose for all or most of the items listed or how those items are used. The complexity of the sentences will depend on what level you’re teaching. (As for dealing with the bathroom, you might want to avoid some items depending on how squeamish you are.) You wash your hands in the sink. You turn on and turn off the faucet. The water goes down the drain. Bon Ami is a great cleanser to use on porcelain sinks. Most people take showers, not baths. You need a plunger when your toilet is clogged. If the toilet overflows, use the shut-off valve right away if you don’t want a flood.

The same technique works equally well for activities or events. Let’s talk about a pleasant summertime activity like a picnic: blanket(s), insect repellent, sunscreen, picnic basket, ice chest, names of various traditional foods and beverages brought on a picnic, paper plates, plastic cups, plastic utensils (forks, knives, and spoons), corkscrew, ants, flies, mosquitoes.

And then sentences about the items listed: You spread a blanket on the ground to sit or lie on. You use insect repellent to keep mosquitoes and other bugs from biting you. People sometimes have a problem with ants getting on the food. If you bring wine, you’ll need a corkscrew to open the bottle. Plastic utensils are good to bring because you don’t have to wash them when you’re done using them; just throw them away.

So there you have it, an interesting, detailed way for students to increase their vocabulary exponentially for places and activities that have a direct, meaningful correspondence to their lives. I hope you’ll give this a try no matter what level you’re teaching.


Pingback from Brainstorming Vocabulary | English Teaching Daily
September 21, 2011 at 3:03 am

[…] Brainstorming Vocabulary […]

Comment from sankar
November 23, 2013 at 10:37 pm

please join me

Leave a comment on this post