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?


Check out other perspectives on vocabulary lists: We Teach Languages Podcast