How to boost your students’ vocabulary whilst creating a positive learning environment

IntroductionVocabulary teaching and affect _ teaching words through emotion.png

The validity of Stephen Krashen’s Affective-filter hypothesis as a theory has been discounted by many a scholar, mainly due to its unfalsifiability. However, it is undeniable that a positive and enjoyable learning environment in which the students feel safe, respected, validated, liked and listened to by their teacher and peers, benefits language acquisition in many ways, both in terms of motivation and in reducing learner anxiety – the number-one inhibitor of language learning according to much research. To create such an environment is a pedagogic imperative, whatever methodology or theory of L2 learning one espouses.

Moreover, we know that linguistic input that is perceived by our students as emotionally salient, is more likely to be retained. Hence, the importance of inducing high levels of emotional arousal in the classroom (e.g. through competition) and of relating as much as possible every lexical item we teach to our learners’ affect, both in terms of present and past emotions they associate with those words and/or their meaning(s).

Here are five strategies I use in my classroom to create a positive and enjoyable learning environment based on mutual trust and respect whilst expanding and/or consolidating my students’ lexical and even grammatical repertoire. I usually scaffold the process by providing lists of phrases with translation which I gradually phase out after a few weeks.

1.Taking the emotional temperature

Knowing how each of your students feels at the beginning of your every lesson is crucial, especially at the early stages of teaching a specific class, in helping you set up a positive and enjoyable environment and teach with empathy.

As you call the register at the beginning of a lesson, ask each of your students how they feel and ask them to respond by using a specific set of words or phrases (like the ones in the sentence builder below (for English-speaking learners of Italian), which you will display on the classroom screen (or share with them on Google classroom as I do).

Vary the words/phrases ever so often ,thereby expanding their lexical repertoire as the year advances. So if during the first four-five weeks you used adjectives such happy, angry, annoyed, stressed, bored, sad, excited, sleepy, worried and calm, in the subsequent four-five weeks ask them to use synonyms or widen the pool or emotions or ask them to make up more complex sentences explaining why they feel the way they do (if they feel comfortable, of course), e.g. I feel tired because I have not been sleeping well recently or I didn’t sleep well last night.

Vocabulary teaching and affect _ teaching words through emotion.png

Staging this activity day in, day out, has helped me teach and recycle new vocabulary and even grammar (past and future tense) obtaining excellent levels of student retention with relatively little effort and saving valuable curriculum time (as I do not have to devote a series of lessons on adjectives expressive emotions, for instance)

2.Learning about your students’ self-concept

An insight in your students’ self-concept is extremely useful in building an idea of who you teach. Students who are less confident and/or have a lower self-esteem are usually more vulnerable to anxiety’.

‘If I were…I would…’ tasks are a subtle and creative way to get students to tell you something about the way they view themselves whilst at the same time practising ‘if-clauses’ in the context of each vocabulary set you teach. Examples:

(whilst teaching adjectives) – If I were a car, I would be a Ferrari, because I am sporty, fast and noisy

(whilst teaching fruit) – If I were a fruit, I would be a cherry, because I am small and round

I stage a ‘If I were…I would’ task with every new set of nouns or adjectives I teach. It is far from being as accurate as a personality test, of course, but gives me quite a few clues as to the personality and mood of my students whilst eliciting their creativity with language and adding a bit of fun to the lesson.

How I do it: (1) I give them a prompt (e.g. If I were a car…); (2) they write the whole sentence down on a mini-board; (3) I ask a  few students at each round to read their sentences out and to some of their peers to translate them in the L1.

3.Creating a bond through peer validation

Encouraging the students in your classes to bond with each other is important from day one. Getting them to compliment each other in the target language is an obvious activity to help you achieve this, which students truly enjoy.

Ask them to write the compliment(s) for one or more of their peers anonymously on a post-it to put it in a box; then you or a student will read them out to the class or you will ask each student in the class to pick up one or more post-its and deliver them to the people they describe. Make sure you write a few yourself for those students who are less likely to get any compliments from their classmates.

This can also be an oral activity whereby the students go around the classroom and compliment their peers orally.

The scope of this activity in terms of application to the topics one usually teaches seems limited to appearance, e.g.  adjectives describing personality and appearance (e.g. I think you are nice and generous), nouns referring to personality traits (e.g. I appreciate your generosity); clothes (e.g. I like the shirt you are wearing because it is really trendy); nouns referring to physical features (e.g. I like your hair).

However, this activity can also be used to express appreciation, lesson in lesson out, for something a peer has done, e.g. You have done really well today because…, Thanks for helping me out during the translation task, I really enjoyed working with you today. Giving them a set of phrases on the screen (or on a sheet to stick in their books) to scaffold the process obviously facilitates the task.

Everyone enjoys being praised. If during the process the students pick up new useful language, as in my experience students do, it is truly a win-win situation for all.

4.Linguistically ‘smart’ praise

Praising students in a way which is commensurate to their effort and/or achievement is something most teachers do. However, what you do not often see teachers do is use praise in a deliberate way to impart specific linguistic input (e.g. to recycle a specific grammar structure or set of words).

Yet, because of its emotionally salient nature, students are more likely to pay attention to praising input and try harder to make sense of it. Hence, instead of simply uttering the usual ‘great’, ‘fantastic’ etc. plan the linguistic content of the positive comments you write or impart orally so as to include useful new vocabulary or structures or to consolidate old ones.

So, if you want to recycle the perfect tense, write your two/three-line comment in that tense: ‘You have produced an excellent piece of work. I have really enjoyed reading it. You have included a wide range of vocabulary. Etc.’ If your aim is to recycle adjectives, write your comment in the form of adjectives: your work is informative, concise, well-presented and thorough. And so on. Ask them to translate your feedback to ensure they have actually understood what you wrote.

In other words, don’t waste this opportunity to use something the students (hopefully) value affectively and cognitively – your feedback – to enhance their vocabulary and grammar

  1. Listening to your students’ voice

Learning how the students feel about your lessons straight from the horse’s mouth is useful in order to gauge their level of enjoyment in your lessons and satisfaction with your teaching. In addition, you show your students that you value their feedback on your performance and that they are not merely the passive recipients of your teaching, but they play an active role in it.

At the end of each lesson ask them to anonymously write on one or more pieces of paper how they feel about your lesson and, if they are linguistically ready, to add in a piece of advice on how you could improve.

Again, since this is not merely a way to get formative assessment that will inform your future practice, but also a linguistically enriching experience, do select the input smartly. So ask them on one occasion to simply use adjectives; example:

The lesson was funny, boring, exciting, interesting, engaging,…

On another, to make sentences containing past tenses. Example:

Today I have learnt a lot, I haven’t learnt much, It was a bit boring,..

Or, with more advanced learners, if-clauses sentences. Example:

If you had done more listening…, If you had talked more slowly…, If you had explained that better…

Or questions. Example:

Next time, could you please do more games, go slower, let us speak more….?

Or superlatives. Example:

the best thing, the worst thing, the funniest thing, the most boring thing was…

As usual, you will provide your students with a bank of words, phrases or sentences as a scaffold to help them in the process. Once all the pieces of paper have been put in a box, you will fish some out and, if you feel comfortable with it, you will read them out to the class and ask somebody to translate for the rest of the class.


The above are minimal preparation strategies to simultaneously help creating a positive atmosphere whilst enhancing your students’ L2 vocabulary and even grammar acquisition. Exploiting the emotional saliency of the contexts these activities create facilitates retention. The secret is carrying out such activities as often as possible, five- ten minutes per day, so as to systematically recycle the target vocabulary and/or structures. This is a great way to consolidate old material and to plant the seeds for items you are planning to teach in the future.


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