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Oct 20, 2022 -

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Best Practices for Teaching Vocabulary

By Sophia Espinoza

As a parent raising bilingual children or a teacher of bilingual students, you likely find yourself searching for ways to effectively teach children vocabulary words in a new language.

As a parent raising bilingual children or a teacher of bilingual students, you likely find yourself searching for ways to effectively teach children vocabulary words in a new language. There are a lot of great research-based best practices out there, but sometimes it can feel daunting to know where to begin. Below are some curated strategies that will work great at school and at home. And on the theme of our new song, “The Small Little Plane/Había una vez un avión”, we are highlighting fun suggestions for teaching opposites.

1. Make a real-world connection

While flashcards might be the way you were taught vocabulary words, the reality is that they are not the most effective way to help children retain knowledge long-term. Whenever possible, tie a new word to something a child can experience, like an object they can hold or an emotion they can feel. Connecting it to something experiential is more powerful.

One good basic strategy is to label things around the house in both their native language and their new language. You should also take advantage of “teachable moments,” or opportunities to pausing and teach right then and there. This is especially good for abstract concepts like emotions. Finally, have children hold or touch objects while they are learning the corresponding word.

2. Engaging repetition is key

Every time a word is practiced a stronger connection is made in the brain. However, rote repetition is terribly boring. This is why teachers often use songs and rhyming books to teach new words.

Have a child create a playlist of songs they like in their new language they and play it often. You’ll see that sometimes they can listen to songs on repeat more than is tolerable for adults! Their young brains love taking in familiar, predictable music, lyrics, and stories.

While playing “The Small Little Plane” have your child do the same hand or body movements every time they hear the song. The opposites featured in this song are up-down (subía-bajaba), in-out (entraba-salía), flew off-came back (iba y volvía).

3. Incorporate interests

Instead of focusing on random topics, teach vocabulary relevant to children’s interests. They will be more willing to listen and speak if they care about the topic or activity at hand.

A fun way to teach opposites is to have them act them out in Simon Says or charades. In addition to the examples in “The Small Little Plane”, some great words for this are hot-cold (caliente-frío), big-small (grande-pequeño), or happy-sad (feliz-triste).  

It’s not always easy, especially in the beginning, to get children to speak words in a new language. Don’t give up, keep trying different strategies, and whatever you do don’t push it! A gentler approach is always better than “forcing” children to do something they find unpleasant. Learning new languages should always be fun!

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Ask a Bilingual Expert

Raising a bilingual child? On this page, our very own Director of Learning Design and Efficacy, Sophia Espinoza, addresses some of the most common questions, concerns, and curiosities around the benefits of bilingualism. Get the scoop below!

Sophia Espinoza is a career educator and curriculum designer with seven years of experience teaching in private and independent schools across the country. She is an expert in 21st-century education, including technologically-powered personalization, multilingual and multicultural curriculums, and social-emotional learning.

Sophia began teaching in Chicago Public Schools through Chicago Teaching Fellows, learning to support both English Language Learners and students with neurodiverse needs. Among her proudest accomplishments is launching the AltSchool Spanish Immersion Program, with the mission of creating bilingual global citizens who are socially conscious and environmentally aware. Sophia holds a B.A. from Northwestern University and M.A.Ed. from Dominican University.

Benefits of Bilingualism (FAQs):

Any advice on managing two Spanish dialects in the household? Does this cause confusion for kids?

What do you recommend if I’m not completely fluent and my child’s school doesn’t have an immersion class?

Do you recommend teaching different subjects in different languages? For example, the solar system in English and the days of the week in Spanish? Or is it better for kids to try to learn in both languages all the time?

We speak Spanish and English in our home but my child almost always answers or talks back in English. How can I go about encouraging her to respond and speak more in Spanish?

Should I set aside time or create activities for each language or is it okay to mix them both together?

Any advice for households where one parent speaks Spanish and the other English? Can this be confusing for children?

How can my child learn language through play?

What are the social and cultural benefits of bilingualism?

What are some of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism?

What are some strategies for raising bilingual children?

What are some common misconceptions about raising bilingual children?

What are some of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism?