Filling Vocabulary Gaps in Global English Communication

Joshua Lee Solomon, Hirosaki University

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Negotiating meaning, creativity, global English, children’s language
  • Learner English level: Low intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: High school, university
  • Preparation time: Less than 30 minutes
  • Activity time: 60-70 minutes
  • Materials: 6 or more early-learner readers (alternatively, nursery rhymes or children’s songs) for a class of 24 students, Post-it Notes, Vocabulary Explanation Exercise slide/handout (Appendix)

Students often struggle to negotiate vocabulary gaps without resorting to a dictionary or their L1. This activity uses children’s books to systematically teach creative thinking and functional language strategies for communicating in a global English environment full of vocabulary gaps.



Step 1: Procure early-learner readers (or alternatives) with non-challenging vocabulary. These should be short enough to read in a few minutes. I use First Little Readers: Guided Reading Level C (Charlesworth, 2010), a box set of 25 eight-page books with 6–11 words per page. 

Step 2: Write three target words from each book on Post-it Notes inside the back covers.

Step 3: Prepare class slides and/or handouts of Vocabulary Explanation Exercise (Appendix).



Step 1: Ask students, “What is a snake?” You will likely hear an L1 translation or be met with confusion. Explain that in a global English environment, people often have surprising vocabulary gaps, and that they must learn how to deal with them to avoid breakdowns in communication.

Step 2: Explain “snake,” deploying strategies from the Appendix. For example, “A snake is a kind of animal. It is like a lizard, but has no legs. Snakes are found in nature, like mountains and forests. They move like this [snakelike hand motion].”

Step 3: Display the Vocabulary Explanation Exercise slide (or distribute the handout). 

Step 4: Elicit which techniques you just used. Go through the rest and elicit or provide examples.

Step 5: Explain that students will now practice these strategies using picture books. One student will read a book aloud. Other group members will each have a word they pretend to not understand. They must politely interrupt, ask the meaning, and receive an explanation without resorting to L1. Emphasize that although it is children’s material, you are not patronizing them: they will learn valuable skills and will likely find it surprisingly challenging.

Step 6: Indicate the phrases on the slide/handout for politely interrupting. Model and drill these, giving examples of body language for displaying an intention to speak.

Step 7: Divide students into groups of four. Distribute one book to each group and designate storytellers. Have non-storytellers look at the Post-it Notes and divide the words between themselves. 

Step 8: Tell storytellers to begin reading aloud, and non-storytellers to interrupt at appropriate points to ask about their words.

Step 9: Circulate and help, as appropriate.

Step 10 [optional]: Have a non-storyteller from each group report to the class about the most interesting or effective explanation.

Step 11: Repeat so each student has a chance to be a storyteller. This can be done either straight away or in subsequent sessions, depending on time.



This popular and enjoyable activity teaches fundamental communicative skills often not encountered in more conventional lessons. It can be tied into lessons on poetic techniques, reading aloud and pronunciation, and children’s language. It can also be expanded on with other My Share activities such as It’s a kind of…Explaining Japanese Culture in English (Davies, 2018). 



Charlesworth, L. (2010). First Little Readers: Guided Reading Level C (Vols. 1-25). Scholastic Teaching Resources.

Davies, B. (2018). It’s a kind of...Explaining Japanese Culture in English. The Language Teacher, 42(4), 26-27.



The appendix is available below.