Recently I was in China and I was reminded what it was like to be a novice language learner. I tried doing some apps and lists to help me get a small set of words before I left. I was frustrated because these apps have predetermined what I needed to know. Do I really need to know “girl” to survive? Or “horse?” I had some some specific activities I wanted to do there and none of those words helped me. Then I thought about my students. I pick the words/phrases they needed. Am I taking away their chance to pick what’s important to them? Am I strengthening their problem-solving skills? So how can I let students have control over their vocabulary and phrases?


By connecting to prior knowledge or experiences, STUDENTS should be figuring out what vocabulary they need. My real life example: I went to get a massage in Shanghai. About 15 minutes in, I really wished that I had learned “easier” and “perfect.” Also I didn’t know if I should tip or not. I should have thought it through before I got there! I’ve had a massage before and I know what I will need to say. Well… let’s just say I was a little sore the next day because my charades didn’t work so well.

massage China

In the classroom, I would often ask them what words they wished they knew AFTER an experience or assessment, but how often was I letting them do that before? Not often. So here’s what I’m thinking. After they find out the goal for the day, I will let them brainstorm a few words/phrases and knowledge about the culture that they will need to know. As the teacher, I can usually predict this; however, I need to let them learn to do this important step/skill so they can apply it to real situations.

Predict vocab

Put this in your target language


Having these in my back pocket (literally on my phone) helped me to solve some simple problems. Whether it was just understanding them (in the taxi- Where… ) or actually using them (in the pearl store- How much..), I could easily get and give simple answers. Now I’m think level 1 students should have these immediately on day 1. This will help keep them in the target language too.

Time for an upgrade (Question Word Posters)

preguntas questions

These are two quick ways that will help language learners be more successful in class and real life situations. By the way, can anyone tell me how to say “easier” in Chinese?!