15 ways of eliciting vocabulary

By Alex Case

Most of the ideas below can be combined (and in fact need to be!).

1. Opposites
This works for certain adjectives, verbs, nouns, adverbs, determiners etc, e.g. “What’s the opposite of dark/ stop/ an idiot/ suddenly/ few?”

2. Ranks, sequences and sliding scales
We can extend the idea of giving opposites to include things that could be written with two opposites as steps on a scale, e.g. (words you are trying to elicit in brackets) “What comes next? Cold, hot, (boiling)/ Dislike, like, (love)” This can be extended to anything else that could be seen to have some kind of sequence such as “pupil, undergraduate, (graduate)”, “tap, hit, (bash)” or “today, yesterday, (the day before yesterday)”.

3. Similarities
This is another good way of eliciting “the day before yesterday”- “If tomorrow is followed by the day after tomorrow, what is yesterday preceded by?” This works for word forms (e.g. “the noun of ‘act’ is made the same way as the noun for ‘connect’ that we learnt last week”) and similarities in spelling and pronunciation (e.g. “It has the same spelling/pronunciation/grammatical form as ‘bought’”).

4. Definitions
This is the technique that new teachers tend to use most often and most naturally. This is perhaps because we often use it when we really can’t remember a word or name in our own language and are hoping the person we are speaking to can come up with it or at least understand what we are talking about anyway, as in “I need one of those, what do you call them? Things to get your car off the ground so you can change a tyre” “A jack?” “Yes, that’s it.” You can make the definitions you use to elicit in class easier to come up with and understand by writing all the definitions you are going to use on your lesson plan, taking them straight out of a dictionary or the teacher’s book, writing the definition up on the board as well as or instead of saying it, or only using words they should know at that level (perhaps from a vocabulary list) when writing definitions. You might also want to have a plan B definition in case the first one is not understood or is confused with another word.

5. Synonyms
If you are lucky, you won’t need to go through a whole long definition if there is a word that means approximately the same (it doesn’t always matter if it is not an exact synonym as long as it produces the word you want, but make sure that it doesn’t reinforce their wrong idea that two different words are the same). You can increase your chances of using this method successfully and often by getting the students used to doing exercises on synonyms in class and for homework. If there are several synonyms, you might want to check with a teacher with more knowledge of students with that L1 which of them is more likely to be familiar because it is similar to their own language, is more often studied in the school system, is part of a well known product name etc.

6. When we talked about it before
Another method we use naturally in our normal speech we can exploit in the classroom is “Who was that actor we were talking about yesterday? You remember, when we were talking about films that we hate. That’s right, Beat Takeshi. Well, he…” with variations like “Remember the word everyone had problems with in the test?” and “What was the word for the kind of shop that we did a roleplay about last week?”

7. Memory
The idea of getting them to remember things to elicit words can be extended to, for example, seeing if they can remember a word from a dialogue they have just been doing, e.g. “What was the third product he asked for in the shop?”

8. Gaps
This could mean a word with letters blanked out, a typical sentences with the word or expression you are trying to elicit blanked out, or a combination of the two, e.g. “He let the c_t out of the bag”. This can be used with spoken elicitation as well as written elicitation by humming the missing part of the sentence.

9. Stress clues
By humming the rhythm of the word or drawing its stress pattern on the board, you can help students work out which of several similar words you are trying to elicit from them.

10. Multiple choice
You can really go for it with giving clues by telling students options they can choose from, although if you have chosen this method because students actually have no idea of the answer this makes it more of a presentation than an elicitation.

11. Brainstorm
Although not many people think of it this way, brainstorming is basically a form of eliciting but without the words you want them to come up with necessarily being defined. A brainstorming stage can then be moved onto a more traditional elicitation by showing them which of words they have already given you is most similar to the one you want.

12. Spider diagrams/ Mind maps
Brainstorming can also be done in a more organised manner with words being added to categories and subcategories like the branches and twigs of a tree. You can then point to the place where the word you want to elicit would be if it was on that mind map, using other elicitation methods to help them work out which of the possibilities that could be there you are thinking of.

13. Common mistakes
Another technique that teachers don’t often think of combining with elicitation is talking about errors, but in fact giving hints about what mistakes students make with a word or expression can be a great hint about which one you are thinking of (e.g. “People often confuse it with ‘butter’, but it has flour and is put on something that you deep fry” for “batter”, or “Spanish speakers often think it means pregnant, but it actually means ashamed” for “embarrassed”). This technique can also lead onto talking about subjects like false friends,  pronunciation mistakes, negative and positive connotations (“People who call someone fat should probably use this word that we learnt last term instead”)  and formality mistakes (“Although some people write ‘hello’ at the beginning of a business email, the word we want starts with ‘d’ and is…?”)

14. Visuals
Just like your students when they get totally stuck communicating in English during their travels, you might find that a quick sketch is the only way to get them to understand and produce the word or expression that you mean. In you think a picture might be the best way of explaining something, you also have the option of using a flashcard or a printout from the internet (try searching in the images option of Google).

15. Multimedia
If you have internet access in the classroom, there is also the option to just search for an image as the topic comes up (as long as the students can’t see the search terms you are using, as this means there is nothing left to elicit!) Using video takes a lot more preparation, but you could use a very short clip to elicit the name of  something you can see on a video, or even something that is going to appear but hasn’t yet.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net December 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

One Comment

  • Adriana Forero says:

    This article was very useful to learn how to teach vocabulary without using the students’ mother tongue. Thanks for publishing!

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