Personalizing vocabulary for second language learners

Personalizing a second language classroom has been pretty interesting as I constantly try new things and ask students how they feel about it. One aspect of this experimentation has been the personalized vocabulary list. I have tried to make up generic one size fits all vocabulary sheets for units and although useful for the final evaluation, I wonder how much of it students actually take with them once the course has been completed. I used to teach a crime unit, and I staged a scene and had senior students involved as witnesses with scripts and Gr. 9 Core French students fumbling through questions trying to understand the clues and testimony of the witnesses so they could solve the crime. The students had fun, and learned how to ask questions but didn’t seem to need CSI vocab in their daily lives which I believe leads to them conversing like this later in life …


I have tried several apps for students such as Duolingo, 1000+ French words, and these 9 others who claim you’ll “Learn French like a boss” but have been luke warm at best with the long term progress of vocabulary acquisition. Many are game-based which I support, but so many are simply out of context which Eddie Izzard points out clearly in his stand up routine. ** He swears a couple of times so perhaps earbuds are best.


Exposing students to commonly used transition words and idiomatic expressions with specific situational applications is useful. However, a personalized lexique has proven to be quite successful to the second language learners I work with. I believe it’s important that students speak in all classes, about a wide variety of things that grip their attention. Then in groups we take advantage of cooperative learning strategies or visible thinking routines but students keep a sheet of paper with them with words they know in English, but don’t know in French. Once the activity is done, they are given a few minutes to look up the French words, write them down and share them with their group. If any members also want to be able to use the word they are free to write it down.

They continue to build this lexique and are able to have it with them during any conversation, especially ones focusing on interaction with another person or group. Apparently someone needs to repeat a new word 6 times over days, even weeks to get into their functional vocabulary – which is always weaker than what I call comprehension vocabulary. My goal is to diminish the gap between the two and I think the personalized lexique is one of many keys to this goal.

I have seen varying degrees of success, but from what I can tell, it has everything to do with the student’s motivation to improve and build upon their language skills. Is anyone doing anything similar with vocab and/or language acquisition? Have you stumbled upon any dynamite French language apps? If you have any suggestions, please share! If you know of, or are a teacher who would like to collaborate and share ideas on second language learning let me know!

3 Replies to “Personalizing vocabulary for second language learners”

  1. Bonjour Derek!
    I don’t know of any dynamite French apps for personalized vocabulary acquisition, but I’ve been using an old-school writing method for the past few years with which I’m seeing some good results. Our senior school language students all get a blank exercise book (think elementary school) at the beginning of the year that stays in the classroom. They record vocab that comes up during class (“comment dit-on ‘spare'”?) and I provide a running list on a google doc posted to our LMS if they need to consult outside of class time. Every now and again, I ask them to write 3-5 sentences in their cahier using the words they feel are most important to them to know. Sometimes I ask them to write at least one sentence in the past, or use a transition word from a reference note, etc. But they choose which vocab to focus on. I collect the workbooks and hand them back next class, with feedback. This exercise allows them to internalize the vocab and also highlights some common areas for the class to work on (think just-in-time grammar). Since I started this practice, I’ve seen more demonstrations of vocab acquisition across different modes of communication (i.e. using it in class simulations, recognizing it in a movie clip, reading it in an article). I like your lexique list idea which has them actually create their own list of important vocab instead of simply studying from the class list – and also practice using their reference sheet during spontaneous discussions. I’d love to see a sample of a senior student’s lexique list looks like!

    • Hey JBibby!
      Great to hear from you. It’s something we’re working on right now and I would love to share a copy of one after our first unit. I still give them transition words and I like your cahier idea – I started using it last year – perhaps you gave me the idea at C21? At any rate, I know I say this all the time but I would really like to connect to hear about what you’re doing so we can collaborate on stuff. We had a successful year of DELF – with only 2 kids missing out but they were close so we were in the right ball park.

      I will send an email soon to set up a Hangout.

  2. Derek,

    Some very cool ideas for connecting with second language learners. I was actually “grabbed” by the reminder of the Flight of the Concords – what a band!! 🙂
    Thank you for the chances you are taking this year both with Cohort 21 and in your IT coaching role at LCS. You are moving our learning forward every day. Awesome!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *