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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 2; Issue 5; September 2000

Short Article

"CREATIVE VOCABULARY TEACHING (within the course book-led English Language Classroom)"

by Ian Reade

What is the most effective compromise that can be reached between a creative teacher and a course-book lead institution? How can the creative teacher and the students work together as interactive human beings in this context? How can they develop communication between themselves and still be operating within the paradigm the course book/institution has created? These are questions I have been wrestling with ever since leaving Pilgrims and then working in much larger institutions abroad.

The positive aspect of vocabulary and revision activities within these restricted circumstances is that the students are given the opportunity to try and mesh their creativity with some of the language the institution and the coursebook are directing them to learn. I identified this space after one term of teaching a course for advanced level students and decided that I would make the most of this space during the teaching of the same level in the following term.

The approach I took consists of a combination of dramatic and spatial exercises.

The first step the class and I made was to start trying to remember new vocabulary by making short phrases with it, but the phrases were incorporated into a very loose house-building scenario. Each new vocabulary field was allocated a different room in the house. Adjectives of personality all went into the bathroom for example:

"My grandfather has a set of gold taps in his rather pompous bathroom."
"Easy-going people don't mind others leaving wet towels all over the bathroom floor, but I do".

For each new area of vocabulary, which included phrasal verbs, idioms and other found items such as spiky, and in the nick of time, the students chose a new room in the house and created sentences. We spent roughly forty minutes a week either creating sentences or revising old ones for two months. We had sentences in the attic, the bedroom, the TV room, the dining room and the kitchen.

I found however, that on checking the vocabulary later, it was hit-or-miss whether the students would actually be able to remember the words, and even then, successfully in a new context. Reading "Motivating High Level Learners" by David Cranmer really encouraged me to think about the way that I learn new words in Portuguese and what the most effective ways were. One night, running home from the shops, I had slipped on the steps in front of my apartment and got soaked through. The porter who had seen everything asked, "Escarregou?" (Did you slip up?), laughing all the while. I went upstairs and told my partner the story, using my new piece of vocabulary, the verb escarregar, immediately. Thereafter that new word stuck with me, and kept recurring on the screen in the conscious part of my brain for days afterwards. I heard other people say the word, saw it in the subtitles of an American film, heard it in a song. After a while, it slipped into the realm of all my other words. It had been heard, understood, used and then, after repeated reinforcement of the same process, known and part of me. As Alan Maley puts it, "The acquisition of vocabulary is not a purely intellectual, effortful process but an experiential, hands on process too." (Maley 1986) I wondered what kind of simulation could help students to experience English in the same way? What activities could provide this kind of depth of experience?

I have some knowledge of drama techniques (of which role play makes up a very minor part), and firmly believe that these methods really are a way of engendering the kind of emotional depth that students need to experience their subject.

In order to get students (dramatic) hands on the language, I introduced a very basic version of Boal's Image Theatre technique into the class to create a narrative around which the students could hang their new vocabulary. The scenes were based in the rooms of the Vocabulary House we had been building and were based around the idea of conflict. Image Theatre basically functions without words. Students form statues of each other and then move into scenes. The procedure basically works like this:


Teacher asks students to think of a famous statue. In pairs, students mould their partner into the form of their statue without words. The sculptors use their hands or show, by miming, the way they want their partners to look. The first time round, sculptors usually forget the way faces look and statues have a hard time freezing and concentrating but they get better with practice. Then pairs swap roles. (This exercise can be extended in various ways if you feel your students haven't got the hang of it. Ask them to think of a famous person they like and create a new statue in honour of that person). After each round, sculptors walk around and guess the identities of the other sculptors' statues.


The students then get into groups of four and construct tableaux on a single theme. Each person in each group acts as director in turn, sculpting the image they have thought of. The theme I like to choose is "Conflict" because this is the essence of all drama, but you could easily choose something like "Christmas" if you wanted to be less controversial, although you might easily get more dramatic results. After each round, as before, students show their statues to the others.


Students now elect one of the four pictures they created from their group as one which they would all like to develop the most. The director of this picture remains as the sculptor. The teacher explains that the picture they have created is in fact the middle picture, or picture number 2, and that there are two more pictures to be created: One that goes before and one that goes after. The sculptor gets to work and creates these pictures, and each group shows them in sequence.


Students are then invited to think of ways in which they might possibly be able to incorporate the vocabulary from the new field into their dramas, and to write the sketch bearing these words in mind. The best way to approach this is to mix up different fields together and allocate a selection to different groups.


Students write and perform their sketches (without scripts). Obviously, the teacher should make sure that the usage of the various items is correct before the students get up and perform, unless s/he wants the other students to question or correct the performers.

The important factor for me was not the result of the exercise, which was a few very rough scenes, containing target vocabulary, (which ventured into the surreal at times with lines like, "I'm going to kill you with my silver cutlery.") but the process itself. The group, which previously had seemed a bit tense, always battling against what the course was making them do, before my eyes, became a sensitive, intelligent and thinking group of young individuals. Everybody relaxed into the work. This is because Image Theatre is a wonderful technique, which allows students to create work without words, bypassing language and going straight for what they really feel.

Students are proactive and creative and working together in a way they never have before.

After the process was complete, we had a very long discussion about learning languages (which was actually the topic of the course) and this later led into a piece of writing.

Several sessions later, I asked the students to recall the lexis they had used during their scenes. They came out with it off the top of their heads, in entire sentences and with relatively complicated grammar structures: "If you had've attacked her she wouldn't have been able to bear the brunt of your assault."

After creating all of these new techniques, or rather putting some quite old ones together in a different way, I felt that we, as a group had really achieved something. We had developed a much better group dynamic. The class had actually taken an active interest in what was on the programme. I felt that, in addition to this, people's speaking, pronunciation and overall fluency had improved too, particularly amongst those learners who had previously been extremely reticent to speak.

Then at the end of the course, I asked students which words they found easiest to remember. One of them came up with spiky, which of course, was not part of the course plan. "How come you remember that so easily?" I asked. The student replied because he had needed to use it whilst describing himself a few years ago to a friend in class, and that I had given him the word when he'd needed it. Then he'd found it in a book he was reading a few days later, and had used it again in an English class at his school. Just like the verb escarregar. He had directly experienced a need to communicate and had fulfilled it, but nobody could have foreseen the need for this particular item. Course books don't allow for spontaneity or a really meaningful way of encountering and learning new vocabulary. But perhaps this technique I have outlined above will allow for students to be less fatigued with the material we are compelled to place in front of them


Vocabulary - John Morgan and Rinvolucri OUP 1986

Image Theatre is one of the many excellent series of techniques devised by Augusto Boal. If you wish to work with these techniques then his book, "Games For Actors and Non-Actors" Routledge 1990, is really the first starting point, if you are not able to attend one of his many workshops. If you are in the UK, contact the London Bubble in Brixton for information about workshops. These kind of techniques are really the kind of techniques you need to do and see, rather than read about. It would be very difficult to sum up here, or describe effectively how to work with these techniques, but the very basic idea is that participants form their narratives through silently making statues and tableaux. You will find other highly approachable techniques in Drama Techniques in Language Learning by Maley and Duff.

The Vocabulary House is a technique which was developed by Morgan and Rinvolucri (1986).

Extremely insightful information on vocabulary retention is available in "Working with Teaching Methods" by Earl W.Stevick.

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