Don’t show lists, focus on words!

I am not against vocabulary lists or word banks as a way to review what you have studied, but I am curious why they are used so often to introduce new language.

As a language learner myself, I am fully aware that I only remember the words that I have put into context, or have had a chance to focus on. Words in a list all seem to blur together and I end up forgetting more than I remember.

As a teacher, I often have to present lists or groups of words to students. Especially if I am using a course book. I try to present the vocabulary in different ways, but in the book they still appear as a cluster of words. The amount of words vary, but it’s normally in the range of six to ten words or phrases. Sometimes it’s more and then the demand on student attention is high.

If the words are accompanied by images, then that doubles the amount of objects. Images are great for eliciting meaning and providing context but how many images and how much text can we realistically keep in our working memory?

Then I came across this TEDx presentation by David JP Phillips who outlined several tips for improving PowerPoint presentations.

“Wait a minute!”

I hear you say.

“You were talking about course books. How is PowerPoint remotely relevant?”

Of course there is a difference in the two mediums. PowerPoint is a visual aid and the speaker presents the information, whereas a book has to present both the visual aid and the information.

What they both should have in common though is the presentation of key information and the visuals to help the students understand the material. David Phillips may be talking from a business point of view, but his tips can be directly applied to education. Why? Human nature.

He conducted this little experiment during his presentation. He wanted to demonstrate how many objects humans can see. First he showed a picture of 10 balls on the screen and asked the audience to nod when they had counted them all. Then he showed a picture of 7 balls on the screen and the audience nodded a little quicker. Finally he showed 5 balls on the screen and the audience nodded instantaneously. He remarks that there is almost a 500% difference in response time. Why? Because it takes longer to count than it does to just see.

A small grouping is easy for our eyes to interpret than a large collection of words and images, and a single word or phrase is even easier to focus on.

David Phillips suggests that the ideal number of objects on a single slide is six, but I often have more words or phrases to present than just six. So, if we place the vocabulary on a PowerPoint slide, there is a simple trick we can do to draw the students’ focus toward the phrase we want.

Click on Focus on Words to download the template. Simply click on where it says ‘word’ and type in your own phrases. All the animations will still work.

Use the arrow keys to scroll through the words.

So, let’s imagine that I have taken 10 words or phrases and put them on a slide like this.

A list of Phrases
Screenshot of the Focus on Words template with all words showing – PowerPoint 2013

I don’t know how you react, but this kind of list continuously pulls my focus left and right. If I do focus on it, I tend to read the list either by each column or row by row. What are the chances the students will stop listening and continue to read that list by themselves? They are probably going to be thinking what ‘standing’ has to do with liking something, rather than pay attention. More importantly are they going to be reading the same phrase you are talking about?

So, instead of introducing the vocabulary from a course book, I am going to take some of the new advice I learned from the video and apply it to this PowerPoint slide. I am going to dim the text, so that the students are not trying to focus on all the words.

Dim the Phrases
Screenshot of the Focus on Words template with all the words dimmed – PowerPoint 2013

Then I am going to highlight the phrases I am introducing one by one, so there is only a single phrase for the students to focus on. I know. It’s still a grouping of phrases. The difference is you have managed to pull your student’s focus onto one particular phrase.

Highlight a Single Phrase
Screenshot of the Focus on Words template for a single phrase highlighted to draw the students’ focus – PowerPoint 2013

You can see from this video that I can now scrolls through all the phrases. Pressing the left and right arrow keys lets you move through the phrases.

When I first saw this technique used in David Phillips presentation, I instantly saw the potential to use it in the class.

In the classroom

I tried this in the classroom by adding a selection of expressions and idioms to the slide. I had students working in groups to provide the definition of the expression and to come up with an example sentence. I selected each phrase individually and I noticed that my students knew exactly what to look at without any need for pointers. They knew what they had to focus on.

Other ways to use this kind of slide

This kind of slide would be useful for introducing stems and useful phrases. Particularly if you want to develop your student’s presentation skills with signposting.

It could also be used to select random topics that the students could discuss in pairs or in groups.

It would make a great hot seat game. With 10 different actions on the screen, and the groups perform the gestures to students who have their backs to the screen.

Word association games are also possible. Provide students with the initial word or phrase and ask them to make a word association chain. Give them a time limit or a word limit and ask them the final word that they thought of.

It would also be a great way to introduce goals, objectives and class menus at the beginning of a lesson.

All these ways benefit from the student being able to focus on one word or phrase at a time.

Sometimes I wish I could do this with course books. Switch off the areas that I don’t want to explore yet and allow my students to focus on one element of them only. So, when you come across a course book with dense material spread out across the pages. What can you do to limit the amount of objects and words on the page? What can you do to help your students just see the material that’s relevant?

Do you teach English online? Do you think this kind of technique would help you present vocabulary?

Leave a comment on the site if you have any other ideas for using this presentation technique in the classroom.

Alternatively you can send me a message on my Facebook page or on Twitter.

Thanks for reading and take care!

The idea for this post was inspired by the techniques used by David Phillips in his TEDx presentation – How to avoid death by PowerPoint.

3 thoughts on “Don’t show lists, focus on words!

  1. I really like this idea for focusing students’ attention especially when the word or phrase needs some kind of explanation (register, grammar following the phrase or how to pronounce naturally). However, I never thought of doing on PowerPoint. Thanks for the tip!

    Liked by 1 person

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