Vocabulary Trees

My Spanish III students are in the middle of the unit that I loosely refer to as the music unit.  So far we have covered  La República Dominicana , Juan Luis Guerra, a bit of Haiti, Somos el Mundo and are now working with Colombia and Juanes.  The unit involves a lot of work with geography, historical perspective and social commentary through song (Ojalá que llueva café, El costo de la vida, La llave de mi corazón, Bachata en Fukoaka, A Dios le pido, La camisa negra, La historia de Juan, Sueños, and Somos el mundo).  I’ve done several other posts about this unit (Minas Piedras, La Historia de Juan, Ojala que Llueva Cafe).  By this point in the unit, the students have been seeing, hearing and using vocabulary related to the music and themes for three weeks.  It is time to pull it all together and see how much of it is “sticking” in their heads.  I don’t use vocabulary lists and I don’t do vocabulary quizzes.  I am a firm believer in not learning vocabulary to merely take a quiz and then forget it.  I am constantly enforcing the concept that each student will be carrying his/her own unique vocabulary list with words that may differ from  another student.

We’ve been working with Cognates, such as

  • Prostitución                                                          
  • Privilegio                                                              
  • Traficante/traficando                                          
  • Mutilar                                                                 
  • Suicidarse                                                            
  • Atrocidades                                                         
  • Abuso                                                                  
  • Crimen                                                           
  • Abandonar                                                            
  • Corrupción                                                            
  • Economía                                                              
  • Asesinar   
  • Robar                                                          
  • Gobierno                                                             
  • Libertad                                                     
  • Soldados

and words that are related to others that we know

    • Amar/amor
    • Esperar/esperanza         
    • Hambre, hambriento
    • Morir/Muerte
    • Pobre/Pobreza
    • Rico/Riqueza
    • Sangre/sangriento
    • Sentir/sentimientos
    • Soñar/Sueño
    • Sufrir/sufrimiento
    • Temer/temor


and words that are completely new

  • Agradecer/dar las gracias                                    
  • Arsenales (which looks like it should be a cognate, but students don’t know what an arsenal is)  
  • Asustado/a                                                           
  • Derechos                                                              
  • Disparar                                                              
  • Dolor                                                                    
  • Ejército                                                                
  • Esclavitud/esclavo                                                
  • Esconder                                                              
  • Guerra                                                                 
  • Herir/Heridos                                                      
  • Huérfano                                                              
  • Injusto (no es justo)                                             
  • Justo                                                                   
  • Lamentar/sentir
  • Matar                                               
  • Minas terrestres (minas tierras)                          
  • Oportunidad
  • Paz                                                    
  • Pena                                                                     
  • Perdón                                                                  
  • Secuestrar/secuestro                                          
  • Sin techo/sin hogar                                                                           
  • Suerte/tener suerte                                            
  • Temer/tener miedo

To further enforce what we have been accumulating over the past three weeks, I put them in groups and give each group a topic, such as Violencia, Cosas Ilegales, Cognates, Infinitivos, Cosas Malas, Descripciones, Los Niños y los sentimientos.  It is obvious that there is considerable overlap within the categories.  Then, I give each group a tree outline and  2 minutes to add appropriate vocabulary to the tree.  I use a tree because the next song and theme that we will be working with is Minas Piedras, and there is a very significant verse in the lyrics that will help tie all the themes together.

Los árboles están llorando
Son testigos de tantos
años de violencia
el mar esta marrón
mezcla de sangre con la tierra

After two minutes, each group passes their tree to another group, and I give that group an additional minute to add to their new category and tree. We pass again, and eventually I have them identifying the vocabulary that they see and asking each other questions about the words.  The trees are then posted in the room for a visual reminder of our expanding vocabulary.  Here are some examples:trees 3Trees 2Trees 1This visual representation of vocabulary by theme could be done with any number of themes.

9 thoughts on “Vocabulary Trees

  1. Forgive the simplistic thinking question but what do the students do with the words with on the trees now? Do they write them down somewhere or do they just know them now?

    Do you put the trees somewhere in the classroom?

    • Not a simplistic question, I’ll try to explain. The immediate followup activity I tried to explain in the post. In their groups they identify the words on the tree that they have, use them in conversation, etc. and then pass the tree on to another group and get a new one in return. I also tried to explain that the trees are actually a type of culminating activity since we have been working with the words (without listing) for the past three weeks. Additional reinforcement will come next week as we work with the song Minas Piedras and study landmines in depth. Are you familiar with the songs that I said we had studied the past three weeks? If you are, perhaps you can see how the words on the trees fit into this unit. Also,I did say that the trees, once created, are posted in the classroom. Does this help? Please let me know if there is something else I might be able to explain.

  2. Thanks for your quick reply. Things are a lot clearer now after your explanantion but I have just a couple of more questions.

    My first one has to do with the genesis of this unit. When you say that you’ve been working with a list of cognates and words from words you already know, where do those words originally come from?

    Also, when you say that you don’t work with a list, do you mean that you don’t give the students a set list at the beginning of the unit but that they are encouraged to add words to their own personal list as the unit goes on or do they just rely on the trees?

    Teaching vocabulary is something I’ve always struggled with. I’ve tried different things and always revert back to handing them a list. You’re method seems like one that I’ve always had in the back of my head as one that would work but I have been hestiant to unleash it. So, thanks for detailing it out and taking the time to answer my questions.

    I’m not familiar with the songs but after listening to them, I can see how it’s all tied together.

    • I have not given my students a vocabulary list at any point in time this year. While I have a focus list for each unit, they never see it. All of our activities are designed to incorporate the vocabulary and continue to expand it. Therefore, while all students are learning new vocabulary, it truly does vary from student to student as to what they actually have “cemented” in their brains. Trying to explain about words from words they already know….”te amo” most of them learned this with our Valentine’s activities. It was not a stretch to figure out that “amar” was the infinitive and “amor” the noun when we saw these in other authentic resources, which, at the moment, are all songs. The same thing happened with “esperar”. About three months ago, I started using Espero que……, because I was beginning the subjunctive without them knowing it. From there, it was relatively easy for them to realize that “esperanza” was related to it when we got to that word in our current unit of study. In class discussion, I always write the words that they need or are asking for on the board. Sometimes the words stay there for a few days before being erased. In that fashion, many of them learned “morir, muerte, matar, secuestrar, secuestrado”.
      As far as the “trees” are concerned…..the only time this year that I have used that concept is with this unit, and again, I chose trees because they will tie into the song Minas Piedras, which will be our focus this week. I have done other similar things (with food such as fruits and vegetables, place settings and with animals and geography).
      Although you didn’t ask, I will also tell you that I don’t do vocabulary “quizzes” either. I don’t want them learning vocabulary just to take a quiz and then forget the words. Rather, my assessment takes place with many different speaking activities, partner activities, group activities and individual creations (pictures, cartoons, postcards, etc.)
      Lastly, I use songs to constantly introduce, reinforce, review and revive vocabulary and grammar. If you are interested, here is a link to my music database: http://elmundodebirch.wikispaces.com/NECTFL+Workshop+2012
      I hope that I have helped a little bit, and I encourage you to try going without a list!

  3. Let me start out by saying how grateful I am that you take the time to respond to my questions.

    Thanks for sending me your database of songs. That, plus the way they have things organized over at Zachary Jones’ website, is going to make it really easy to narrow down which song(s) will go best with a certain unit.

    I guess this conversation has turned into more of a, “how to teach vocabulary” lesson which is fine by me. I know there is a better way to do it than the way I currently do it but I just need the confidence to take the plunge and take away their comfy (for me) vocabulary lists.

    So, a few more questions. Are most of your assessments in class? Like, with a “postcard” assessment do they do them in the classroom? The reason I ask is mainly because of translators that they have at their disoposal outside of class and I’ve found that I get more “true to what they know” type work when I require them to do assignments in class.

    When you guys do a writing assignment, do you take off for minimal vocabulary used? How do you assess whether or not they are developing an extensive, personal vocab list of their own?

    Also, I’m still hazy on how the vocab is presented. If you have a list that they will eventually cover, are a lot of your time early in the unit spent with them identifying words in various activities that they don’t know and then adding them to their list and you writing them on the board?

    Thanks again.

    • Sorry for the lengthy delay in responding….school gets crazy sometimes. When you ask if most of my assessments are done in class, I think that you are asking if they prepare them in class? Half and half. They get some time in class to work on the big “creative” assessments, but a large part of it is done at home. I don’t worry about translators because I prove to them very early in the year that I can always tell when they have used them (or even other native speakers). While I will see a translator used very infrequently, I know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, and they get a zero.
      Writing assignments usually include a range/number of words that they need to use to get a specific grade. I don’t specify WHAT words they need to use, just that the words should be from the base we have been developing.
      There are so many ways to present vocabulary that there simply isn’t a realistic way to write it in a reply post like this. However, I will say that they DON’T have a list to which they are adding words. I do not encourage lists. The words are in their heads. Words that I am writing on the board are for temporary reference, emphasis, or for conversational purposes; they don’t stay there.
      I hope that I have answered some of your questions……

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