Language Learning Activity: How Word Field Practice Can Help You

“Oh, I know this word….

“Arghh…..let me think….

“I can’t even think of a related one!

“It’s on the tip of my tongue!

I suspect you know what I’m referring to by now – that frustrating thing that happens when you’re trying to express something and the words just won’t come to you. So. Annoying.

I often work with language learners who are stuck on this one, so first of all: Don’t worry, you’re not alone.  There are some exercises that you can use to target fluency and vocabulary specifically.  Aaron already set the ball rolling with his tips on sentence extensions and transformations, and today I will add another one for your arsenal.  If you like structured exercises, this one will be great!

How the exercise benefits you

Word field practice is aimed at helping you develop a bigger vocabulary in your chosen field.  It’s really useful when you know you’ll be speaking about a particular topic or you can tell you keep getting stuck in the same place.  I’ll outline a simple version for you and add a bunch of tips on expanding the exercise to really take full advantage of what it does.

How to do the exercise

Now that we know it’s great, let’s get started.  I tend to recommend pen and paper for most of my exercises, but a good mind-mapping tool will work just as well.

1) Decide on your field – what is the subject you would like to learn words about? Make sure you pick a topic that isn’t too restricted or general.  For example, photography is fine but if you pick art you might be adding words forever.  And “my CV” is fine, but expanding it to job interview question standards may add a nice challenge.

2) Note down the ideas this question brings up – who are the groups of people involved, what sections are there in your topic, what can you do with the things you use for it, how did you become interested in it?  You can do this in your native language. We are looking for 3-6 headings.

3) Move into target language.  First, jot down a list of words you know which relate to the topic.  It’s useful to be indiscriminate at this point, a bit like brainstorming.

4) Work out the word types: nouns, adjectives, verbs and so on.  If you haven’t got many in one column, make sure you even them out by adding new ones.  Related words like a noun and the verb that you can make out of it are absolutely fine.

5) Now try and answer the questions using your words.  Make yourself write full sentences, and structure them differently.

This exercise is designed to get you using your dictionary, so don’t hesitate to write down lots of words in your own language without knowing what they are in the target language.  The finished product should be a reference tool you can always come back and add to – your personal vocabulary guide.

How to do more of the exercise

Tip 1: Use this as a growing project which you return to many times over the course of a short period.  I would recommend 10-15 minutes with the table every day for a week or two, and you can add in revision sessions (new sentences with the words you’ve got) and dictionary sessions (expanding the vocab).

Tip 2: If you’re keen on building vocabulary but very confident constructing sentences in your target language, you may not need to limit yourself to word types.  Instead, treat it like a 7 day brainstorm: add a set number of related words every day, then challenge yourself to make the longest possible sentence using all of them.

Tip 3: Set up the exercise in a targeted way.  One column will look for adjectives, one for nouns, the next for verbs.  Knowing which word type is which will guide you through putting the words to good use.

Tip 4: Once you have exhausted your dictionary, get a thesaurus and see what other words there are.  This is especially useful if you want to build an excellent vocabulary, or if one word just won’t stick in your mind and you want another one with a similar meaning instead.

This exercise lends itself really well to working with a partner, because you’ll be able to bounce ideas around and learn from each other as you go along.  But if you are a lone and independent learner, you’ll still feel the benefit.  I would recommend you set yourself a target score and share your achievements proudly on the internet (but then, I’m an extrovert!).

The main thing is that you have fun and make it your own thing, of course.  If that’s the case, then welcome to the word gym and may the full force of vocab be with you!

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