INTRODUCTION - Idea Association

This is the most useful and perhaps the most difficult means of introducing vocabulary. Essentially it is the art of eliciting vocabulary from a subject and it resembles a well known word-game where one player has to get another to use a word without using the word himself. It is particularly useful at itermediate and advanced levels wher one is not sure whether or not one's student already knows a specific word.

In fact, from the teacher's point of view, the word can be in any one of three states:

  • Quite new for the student;
  • Known and available when required:
  • Recognised but not part of the student's active vocabulary.

If the treacher assumes that every new word is unknown to his student he is going to waste a lot of time drilling things that are not necessary. On the other hand if he just uses a word and judges from the fact that the student understands it that it is not necessary to drill then he will assume that a lot of vocabulary is known when this is not the case at all. All kinds of words will seem to be known because they are similar in the student's own language, because the context of the sentence makes them comprenesible in this particular instance, because they have a Latin root that the student vaguely recalls from school.

Only if the teacher makes an effort to elicit the vocabulary can he decide which of the two last categories it is in and this distinction is important as it decides how much drill is necessary to get it over. If the word is recognised then it is already half-known and will require much less drill than if it is completely new.

In their first efforts to apply this systematically many teacher's feel that it is too long, that they are "wasting time". This is very definitely not the case however, provide that he is going about it the right way. Any lesson is only partly a question of doing new material and that part a rather small one. Practice of the language and particularly the more recently acquired structures takes up a lot more than half of the time available - and this is how it should be as the structures are more difficult to retain and apply than simple vocabulary and their assimilation is a long term task.

The teacher should go about his introductions as far as possible through questions to involve the student and ensure that he is not simply listening and also to get feedback. A student talking about his knowledge and experience will often provide unexpected opportunities to intruduce vocabulary, sometimes in surprisingly specialised contexts that would be valid for only that student, but which, for him, are much more relevant, striking and therefore effective.

So look for the provocative question that is likely to get your student talking in the general area of your target word. Don't try and home in on it too soon. Suppose you want to intruduce the word "Retail". Firstly note that it is a word best approached through its opposite - "wholesale".

Some teachers might be content to say:

"People who buy from Rungis pay less than in the ordinary shops. They pay the WHOLESALE price."

(Rungis is the wholesale market centre in Paris, like Smithfield or Covent Garden in London).

This certainly ensures that the student understands the word but it hasn't found out anything about the students existing knowledge (if any) of the word.

Another kind of teacher might say to the student

"Have you ever bought anything at the WHOLESALE price?"

Admittedly this will get an answer if the student knows the word already, whether his knowledge be active or just passive, but it will not distinguish between the two, so the teacher will not know if he should drill it or not. Also, if the pupil doesn't know the word it gives the student little option but to stare at the teacher in hopes of further enlightenment or, at best, to say he didn't understand a word in the sentence.

Now let us consider what can happen if we go for a more general, but more demanding approach:

(a) "If you were a butcher in Paris, where would you get meat from?"
(b) "Have you ever bought anything cheaply from someone you know with a shop?"
(c) "How do shops make a profit?"

Any of these approaches has a high possibility of bringing out the word we require in the near future and in the meantime the student is going to have to use conditionals (a), start in the present perfect and then switch to simple past, (b), or simply explain a simple concept which, like many simple things, is rather difficult to explain in precise terms, (c). In any case the student is going to be usefully occupied as he explains himself (prodded gently in the right direction by the teacher with further questions) and sooner or later he is going to need the word "wholesale". If he doesn't use it himself we will provide the word at the right moment and his reaction will tell us whether the word is really new (in which case substantial drill will be required) or whether we have just reminded the student of a word which he "couldn't put his finger on" (in which case two or three further uses will probably be enough to bring the word into his active vocabulary). If the student use the word spontaneously then, of course, no drill is necessary and you can start looking at the next introduction.

Here is an example of an attempt to elicit an expression:


    • What expression is being introduced?
    • Does the student know the word?
    • How is the student corrected when she says "publicities"?
    • Is there an opportunity for auto-correction?
    • How is the student discouraged from using incomplete sentences (which avoid using structured language)?
    • How is the student encouraged to speak?
    • What percentage of the time does the student speak compared to the teacher?
BK12a 2000
reviewed May 2020