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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!
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.