Saturday, 17 October 2009

Vocabulary revision with a table and a guillotine

This is my absolute favourite technique for vocabulary revision. I use it all the time. It's almost certainly been 'discovered' thousands of times already - it's hardly revolutionary, but I think it's the simplicity that makes it so cool.

(I've made a little 5-minute film using Jing to show me working through the process, which means I'll explain a bit superficially here and then hopefully it'll all make sense when you watch the film at the end. The technique involves creating a table with MS Word, adjusting column widths, tidying up borders, deleting columns, sorting alphabetically, etc. I discovered on a recent training course that I was running that many teachers don't know how to do these things, or are unaware of many of the time-saving tools on MS Word. So as well as showing you my teaching technique, I'll also use this post to showcase the wonders of the Tables and Borders toolbar - one of my top three toolbars.)

First the old version - the one I used to do. I've been making vocab revision worksheets for years - using the 'tables' function on MS Word to create a 5-column table (with 20 to 30 rows for the actual vocab items). In column 1 you type the word, or the beginning of the collocation, or whatever. In column 5 you type the definition, or the end of the collocation, etc. In column 2 you insert numbers 1 to 20 (or however many rows you've got) and do the same with letters in column 4. Column 3 stays empty - it's for students to draw connecting lines from numbers to letters.

The next step is mixing up the two halves of the sentences. The quickest way to do this is to cut the last column and paste it somehere else. Then use the 'sort' function to sort it alphabetically (don't worry - I'll show you how in the film). Then you just paste it back in its original position. Hey presto, a matching exercise. You still need to adjust the column widths to make it look pretty and all fit on one page, and clear the borders in the middle column (so students have space to draw their lines), but once that's done, it's ready to print.

As I say, that's what I used to do. It's good for revising vocab, but it's not much fun to do in class, so I used to find my students wanting to do it as homework, which kind of defeated the object. (Which was, of course, to fill up some class time).

So I had the brainwave one day of cutting it up and turning it into a 'sort-the-slips-of-paper' exercise. Now this is a vast improvement. Where before students were working alone, in silence, a bit bored, now they were working in teams, standing up, moving around, racing to be the first team to complete the challenge. It's communicative! It's kinaesthetic! It's a change of focus! It's fun!

There were still a couple of teething troubles. the slips of paper were too small and fiddly, so I found a quick way to make them bigger (see my little film). Students preferred to have something to take away with them, so I started printing a class set of non-cut-up worksheets for them to keep. This had the additional advantage that early finishers could start matching the words on their complete worksheet while the slower groups were still messing around with slips of paper - so nobody is sitting around bored or feeling cheated because they didn't have enough time. Of course the second time they match the words (on the worksheet) it's much easier - that's because they've learnt something. There's even a chance for a third time: they fold the worksheet vertically (through column 3) so they can only see the beginnings and then test themselves or a partner to try to remember the endings.

And that's the technique. It's useful (vocab revision is one of my key obsessions), it's fun (a challenging team game), it's great for classroom management (when they're looking a bit glassy eyed, you can pull out the game) and, best of all, it takes about ten minutes to make.

(If you're really clever, you can plan carefully to save time at the guillotine too. If you make sure all the rows are the same height and all start at the same point on the page, you can slice up a whole set for one group (say, 4 or 5 pages) at the same time - no need to sort them into separate little piles afterwards. I've got some good techniques for guillotines, but I can't work out how to film that on Jing, so you'll have to take my word for it.)

Anyway, here's the film (it's my first attempt at film-making, so excuse me if it's a bit "experimental". You may hear my son playing in the background!):

By the way, the text I used was one from Management Today on 'Offsetting'. If someone tells me how to insert the actual documents into a blog post, I'll upload those too. Cheers.


  1. I'm not sure what the q' is but will try to help:

    - if you mean the article, you can't - it's best to link to it re copyright.

    - if you mean the document you made (great video btw, I can't wait to try this out!) then save it as a google doc, make settings public and then embed.


  2. Hi Karenne

    No, I wouldn't dream of using the actual article. As a potential victim of copyright abuse, and someone who's spent too much time with Intellectual Property lawyers, I'm quite strict about copyright. There's already a link to the article in my posting, so no need anyway to do anything else with it.

    No, I wanted to upload the docs you saw me making in the clip. I'll try your technique with google docs ... sounds a bit complicated ... when I get back from my tour of Czech and Slovakia. Right now I'm just going to (em)bed.

    Thanks, as always, for your help. Whatever would I do without it!

  3. Jeremy, the best way to produce those annoying little strips of paper is to put the sheet through ... the shredder. Then give the resulting mess to the students to piece together.

    Keeps them occupied for hours, while you can slip back to the staff room and read 'Loaded'!

  4. Jeremy, the best way to produce those annoying little slips of paper is to put the sheet through ... the shredder.

    Then give the resulting mess to the students to piece back together. It takes them hours, and you can slip back to the staff room and read your copy of 'Loaded'!

  5. ;-) no worries, I know you won't see this for a couple of days, so buzz me in BELTfree when you're back - if you've not worked it out maybe I'll give Jing a whirl and show you how through there ;-)... but it's easy peasy.


  6. Sandy: Thanks for that excellent idea. Even better if you don't give them all the pieces of paper, or add a couple of shreds from a different source. They could be sorting for hours and still not make any progress. Very kinaesthetic.
    Karenne: I'll try to do it when I get back from my tour. I'm currently in a rather amazing hotel in Brno - built in 1596 but with free Wifi.
    But you should still have a play with Jing - it's really cool software.

  7. You mention in the video that you used the text with your business students. How did you use this text with your business students and not violate copyright?

  8. Hi Chris

    I can't see a problem with using an internet text in class - just print it off and use hand it out. Most news websites even have a 'printable version' function, to make it look prettier. I figure they wouldn't include that function if they didn't want you to use it.

    The problems with copyright arise when you start changing the text in some way, or if you claim you wrote it, or if you try to sell it. But as long as you use a bit of common sense and show some respect to the author, you should be a million miles from breaching copyright.

    Copyright's actually a really interestring topic, and one day soon, when I clear my backlog of urgent work, I'll blog about it here. Thanks for the idea.