Unit Vocabulary “Lists” – not created by the teacher

Posted by Kara Parker on October 17, 2017 in Units, Vocabulary Building

Thought I’d share two simple ways I changed vocabulary lists as I transitioned to a more learner-centered class. Read on for the download and some tips to use them!

“How do you create a vocabulary list when each student pulls different words and phrases?”


This is one of the most common questions we get. Graphic organizers and they create it! That’s it. The book “How the Brain Learns” by David Sousa really inspired me to try this and I found out it really helped to improve their proficiency.

I started by giving them the graphic organizer for them to complete DURING the unit, usually after they did an interpretive activity. This was a change from giving them all of the unit vocabulary upfront and practicing it for several days before truly using it to communicate.

Big Reflection: WE as teachers are used to the list, but they do just fine (OR BETTER) without it. As we learned more about proficiency, we found it was more important for them to learn language functions rather than topic vocabulary. Example: For a lesson like “I can give my opinion about extreme sports” they ALL need to know “I think” “it is” and “because” = function vocab. They all need detail vocab too, but that is going to be unique to each kid. So that’s where the graphic organizer comes in. Click to see more examples of function vs details.

As for how they are held accountable for the vocabulary… it’s all about being able to communicate with it. I prefer an open-ended performance assessment (formative and summative).

By the time I assessed at the end of the unit, I found kids were using a greater variety of words and lots of details I would have never put on a vocab list. I saw that they weren’t limited to the list – it was awesome! Plus, if you have native speakers like I did… they may already know 75% of the list. When the focus was to complete the daily objective at your proficiency, they had to actually think! – Megan

Here are two options that show an in-progress example from a unit based on Birthday Parties.


This one comes from Megan and is very open. They can organize their words and phrases however they want. The example below shows how some students wrote them down by lesson. Megan said she found it interesting the words/phrases that they chose – which many times not what would have been on a traditional vocabulary list.


This one has categories for them to list the words. Additionally this helps them to use words like “place” and “thing” to be able to circumlocute. I found this really helped me to see that they had a variety of words and phrases that they needed to be able to give details (which helps their proficiency).

Suggestions and Tips

– Copy the organizers on the back of their Stamp Sheets with the unit’s objectives or have them put them in a notebook.

– After or during each lesson, give them time to add new words and phrases while the information is fresh.

– Have them set their own ways to learn/practice their vocabulary as homework.

– Use this for yourself to plan and/or track the most needed words/phrases. This helps me to create a well-developed unit that includes the needed words and phrases to communicate about the theme/topics.

Here are blank versions of the above documents. If you don’t see your language, and you want us to make it, just add the translations in the comments below!





How do you make “vocabulary lists” more learner-centered?

12 comments for “Unit Vocabulary “Lists” – not created by the teacher”

  1. Lori Leopard says:

    Do you require a certain amount of words (3?) in each catagory?

    1. Kara Parker says:

      Nope. Especially since some lessons tended to have more for one category. For example (still using Birthday unit) – “I can describe birthday decorations.” had lots of “things” and “descriptions.” Then the “I can read an invitation.” had lots of “places.” I put this all on them… “If you think it’s important… write it down.” Sometimes I made comments like “this word is very important” to hint to them that they probably want to write it down (like the word “birthday” that we were going to use a lot). In the beginning, they were not great about figuring out what was important, which made me realize even more why I needed to let them figure this out. If they asked, “Is this important?” I would refer to the daily objective and ask them what they thought. There was a learning curve, but in the end, they were so much better!

  2. Elena Boshier says:

    Do you have the students look up the meaning of what they want to say?

    1. Kara Parker says:

      They are writing these words down as they learn them during/after the lesson. Some of mine would add a picture or translation.

  3. Kelly Ochoa says:

    OMG, I love this! I adapted your stamp card idea several years ago and created them for all of my units in levels 1-3 that align with our textbook series. I love this vocab idea. It allows the kids so much more freedom. If only I could get the rest of my district on board. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Kara Parker says:

      Thanks Kelly! The more I could prove that my students were meeting/exceeding proficiency expectations, the more others wanted to get on board. Show them the proof! Have you read this post by Megan? It shows the proof of letting them pick their vocabulary. http://www.creativelanguageclass.com/comprehensible-input-is-the-key/

  4. Erica Guittar says:

    I really love this idea. My problem is finding a really great input activity to use for htem to pull the vocab from. Any ideas for a French teacher? PS I will be at FLAM tomorrow and can’t wait for the keynote presentation!

  5. Kara Parker says:

    Hi Erica! First, here’s a page that has some authres ideas and two links for French AuthRes at the bottom. http://www.creativelanguageclass.com/authentic-resources/ Then on this page – http://www.creativelanguageclass.com/activities/ – we have lots of the input tasks that I like to call “Adaptable Activities” because once you have the reading/listening, you can add this quickly. Also many of our other posts give ideas that either have a resource plus the interpretive task. Start on the blog page – http://www.creativelanguageclass.com/blog/ – then on the right you can choose a category like specific topics. Just curious! Did you come to the AuthRes Take the Lead session? We talked about several of these.
    FLAM was great! We were so honored to give the keynote. 🙂

  6. Alix Scott says:

    This is great! It gives students freedom and ownership in their learning. What levels do you use this with? Also about how long was their learning curve? Several units I would imagine. I am trying to picture doing this with Spanish I and like you said I think it would be challenging for them to determine what is important.

    1. Kara Parker says:

      Thanks Alix! I started it with level 1, on day 1, every unit. Learning curve was different for each student – most got it in a week or so, but after the first big assessment, it really clicked. That was a discussion we had (Did your notes help you? Why, why not?) that was part of the reflection day afterwards (http://www.creativelanguageclass.com/refinement-through-reflections/). I’ve learned that it’s worth teaching them these skills if they don’t have them.

  7. Karen patinella says:

    Guten Tag,

    For the German sheet, “Orte” is a better translation that “Setze”

    Alles Gute!

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