Learning vocabulary with the whole brain


Active Vocabulary versus Passive Vocabulary

Making inferences and reducing anxiety

  We all understand a lot more words than we will ever use.  Students should be aware of this fact. They need not know every single word in a text. Language is very redundant — we can guess the meaning of unknown words by making inferences. Practice making inferences by asking students  to guess the meaning of unknown words with the help of context clues, using their knowledge of word roots, pre- and suffixes, other languages.   Fast-reading helps lower students’ anxiety of new and unknown words. There is no time to worry about them. Hand out a page of text (including pictures and other features of the original layout). Give the students 30 seconds to read the WHOLE page — tell them they will have to answer questions about all the parts of the text. After 30 seconds collect the students’ ideas in the plenary. Then give them another 30 seconds and collect more ideas. Usually the class will be able to sum up all the main facts. Discuss how they did it. They will probably notice that they did not have any time to worry about unknown words but just picked out what they knew and understood immediately and tried to make sense of this. That is exactly the kind of top-down reading strategy that learners need to develop.   Cloze texts and C-tests also show thestudents that you need only part of the text to reconstruct the meaning.


Vocabulary box: 

Using movement to help remember new expressions

We use vocabulary boxes to study new phrases. By working with the vocab. box students  regularly revise difficult vocabulary rather than going through endless lists of known words as they do with vocab. books. They use their hands and “manipulate” each expression, they walk around while reciting the new phrases and they might even use gestures, or Voice Movement Icons to help them memorize the new expressions.


This video explains the steps to young learners in GERMAN.

Download the ppt presentation here.

Step 1: Writing the cards

Students write their new vocabulary on cards (A8). The cards always contain one expression or phrase — never a single word. This way the new words are always learned as meaningful chunks embedded in (a bit of) context.    The students write the new phrases as  clearly and carefully as possible. To help them remember the expressions more easily they add visual clues or color associations. This helps link the new expressions to existing knowledge and build large, multidimensional neural networks in the learners’ brains. Depending on the level of the students, they use some of the following techniques to enrich their cards and help their brains make new and lasting connections:

  • drawing words,
  • personalizing the phrases,
  • associating the new expressions with colors  or shapes,
  • calligraphy, collocations, synonyms, antonyms…

The new cards  then go  in the first section of the box: 1. New words I want to learn.

front of card: English phrase e.g: “I’ve never been to Greece.”     “Our English teacher is very strict

back of card: German translation and/or drawing/doodle of the phrase.

Step 2. Walk and Talk (Important: Practice this in class several times. Then students will do it at home.)

Students take a selection of new cards  from the first section and walk up and down the hallway speaking the new phrases out loud. They try to find a rhythm for each phrase and repeat it many times until it sounds natural to them. For difficult phrases they also find a voice-movement-icon (VMI) that they associate with the word.

Step 3: Write and check (Practice this in class, then assign it for homework)

Students sit down again at their desks. They read the German phrase on a card and write the English translation into their vocab-practice books. Then they turn over the card and check + correct if necessary. If their sentence is correct they move the card into the second section (2. Recent words I know). If they  did not know the phrase or  have made a spelling mistake,  the card is put back into section one.

The teacher can easily check this work by collecting the vocab-practice books regularly. The same steps are repeated some time later in order to move the cards from section two into section three (3. Words I know well).

Students who work with their vocab cards in this way will quickly master the PHRASES and use whole chunks of idiomatic language. The best time of the day for  10 minutes of  vocab practice  is shortly before going to bed. The new phrases will sink in over night and the learners will be able to use them on the next day. 🙂

Excel Template for vocabulary cards (16 double-sided cards on an A4 sheet)

Excel template for vocab cards

Some learners may have trouble copying the vocabulary phrases on cards themselves. In this case, use the  excel template that my colleague Mr. Schirmbacher has kindly produced for us. It will help you produce double-sided, printable vocab cards for your learners.

Instructions for producing your own vocab cards:

1: Download the sample file for the topic “My Home“.  Do not delete lines in the sample sheet, only “empty content”, otherwise you will mess up the sheet.

2: Go to EINGABE and enter your sentences in English and in the learners’ first language into the 2 columns. Tip: Use the new words in grammatical structures that you want to reinforce: 3rd person s, questions, adverbs…

3: Go to DRUCK and check if you see 16 cards per page. You may need to change your printer settings in order to fit the 16 cards on one page. If you only see three lines or rows on the print preview, change your printer settings.

The following printer settings will work: margin 0, print on both sides — flip on short edge, fit on one page (or: custom size: 99%). See my print menu.


Colorful Pets

In this activity students practice the vocab of colors and use their top-down reading strategies to guess unknown words from a very “hands-on” context. Use any little toys or plush animals you have at home. Apart from learning new words the children learn new comprehension strategies. Download: Colorful Pets


A boardgame based on the idea of the well known game  “Activity”. Students use their recent vocabulary cards and practice these phrases by speaking, miming and drawing. Click on the picture to download the full-sized board. Print the two halves on A4 sheets, laminate them. Download: Voctivity  

Exercises that help remember new words:

Write yourself in

Give the students a list of about 10 new or recent words and ask them to construct true  example sentences including their own names. (Can also be done in pairs.) e.g.:     veal: we are both opposed to the production of white veal. tax inspector: I really hate tax inspectors.



Students choose 10 – 15 difficult words from their vocab. box (or notebook) and rewrite the words, using calligraphic artifice to bring out the meanings.


Draw the word or draw a doodle

Students draw the word on the vocab. card or in their notebook.


Find the word a picture

Whole class activity, beginner to advanced Select about 50 – 60 recent words/phrases you want to revise and write them on separate cards. Give out the cards to the students (2 – 3 per student). Collect all kinds of pictures from magazines and stick them on filecards. (You can use these cards for other purposes as well) Spread the cards out on the desks and ask the students to mill around and find a card that somehow matches  each of their words. It is up to them to decide how. Students then work in groups and explain to each other how they have matched their words and pictures.


Give the students a list of words that need reviewing and ask them to categorize them. Choose one of the following possibilities:

  • free categorization: the students find their own categories, don’t offer any help!!!
  • positive words, negative words: students associate + or – with different words. There are no correct answers. Pairs or small groups compare their results.
  • male or female words: even verbs and adjectives can be regarded as either male or female. Again, there are no correct answers. Students compare their judgements.
  • Shapes: Students associate the words with different shapes.
  • Other possible categories:   past words, future words, high words, low words, me-connected words, separate-from-me words, words that sound nice, words that don’t sound nice, ……

The purpose of all these activities is to raise the students’ awareness and allow as many associations as possible to take place. A new word can only be recalled form memory if the learners have built enough associative links to the word.

Synonyms and Antonyms


  • Shaking/quivering I went to my window.
  • A raccoon was clumsily/awkwardly dancing with our trash can.
  • hot – cold
  • sad – happy…

also consider “diagonal opposites”: Students  find opposites for words that do not have clear opposites, such as ball, typewriter, Wednesday….. Students find their own personal opposites and discuss them in groups.

  • balloon – stone (one is light, the other is heavy)
  • Wednesday – Monday (one is a fun day where I have my riding lessons, the other one is a          terrible day because we have our math test…)

Matching words: (Pairs or Dominoes)

Groups of 3-4, elementary to advanced You need: about 20 vocab. items on separate cards. For each item you need a second matching card containing either a synonym, the opposite, a dictionary definition or a groping definition Students work in groups. They deal out the cards. One student starts reading out a card, the others listen. The student with the matching card collects the pair and continues with a new card. The same game can be played as a game of dominoes.


Games for describing people (Faces) Time Pairs Time Dominoes

Classroom phrases domino race


Finding collocations

Pre-reading exercise: From a text that the class is going to read choose about 10 keywords and phrases. Ask the students to guess how they are used in the text. e.g.: Text on Earthquakes: You are going to read a text about the earthquake in the picture. Here are some words and phrases from the text. Can you guess how they are used in the text? the sea-bed     the Richter scale                     tremors            massive shocks having a bath  Tokyo and Yokahama            a huge wave The learners will probably find this rather difficult and be very curious to see how these words are actually used in the text. This curiosity and heightened attention to the new words will help the learners remember the correct usage.

Word Families -Word Sets  

Students collect all the words of a semantic field (in groups, or whole class) e.g.: House, Jobs, Restaurant, Breakfast, Accident…. Also think of unusual word families such as:

  • things found at home but not in the office,
  • differences between Mr. X and Mrs Y…. ,
  • differences between your bike and your friend’s bike….,
  • different ways of talking (e.g. grumpily, softly, cheekily…)
  • different ways of…..(walking, moving, listening, sitting, ….)
  • things which : bend, creak, rot,…
  • people who move slowly, jerkily, quietly….


Where are we? The students work in groups of 4, one person thinks of a place, building, or room, and tells the others three things that would be found there. The others then guess the place. Example: shelf, sun-blinds, catalog (office) If the others can’t guess the word, additional objects may be offered!


Word profiles Ask the students to write 5 adjectives on slips of paper. Fold the  papers and collect them in a box. Then get one student to pick out 3 slips at random, open them and write the adjectives on the board.  The students work individually and produce a list of things described by the set of adjectives. Then groups compare their lists. example:    old – grey- expensive : Rolls Royce


Call my Bluff Dictionary game (intermediate to advanced) Students work in groups of 3 or 4. Each group has a monolingual dictionary. Each group chooses a word from the dictionary which they think will be unknown to the rest of the class. Within each group one player then writes down a correct definition of the word, while the other players write down false definitions. Groups are paired (A + B, C+D,….) Group A tells group B the word they have chosen and each player reads out his definition. Group B  must decide which definition is correct and which are bluffs.




Hand out a page of text that is interesting and suitable for the learners. Allow students to read it and ask any vocab questions they might have. Make sure the learners understand the text.

Pairs then start blacking out parts of words and sentences with thick black markers. They read and re-read the text and keep blacking out more and more letters and words.

How far can they go — and still read the text?

Option: The pair that can black out most wins a prize.



 A really useful website and app for learning new words and phrases

After spending a whole day on testing all the available vocab and flash-card apps available in the Google app-store, I have finally found the ONE really useful tool that supports learning. While most vocab apps only match words and explanations (some use words and pictures) — this one really gives you a full picture of the meanings, contexts and usage of the words. It is only suitable for advanced learners (going towards B2 or higher) — but it is just perfect for anyone who really wants to know how words work. Check it out at vocabulary.com

Apart from being really cleverly designed, this app also allows teachers to create classes, share and assign lists that the students have to practice and even see their progress. AWESOME — and still free (at the moment).


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