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Taking a thematic approach to learning a new language

by | Sep 29, 2021 | Dictionaries, News | 0 comments

In South Africa, most children are required to learn a second language (called the First Additional Language – FAL) at Foundation Phase level (Grades 1-3).

For the vast majority of non-English HL speakers in our multilingual society, that FAL is English as from Grade 4, English becomes the Language of Learning and Teaching (LOLT). The National Curriculum Statement (NCS)’s Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) for Foundation Phase English FAL concedes that “this (transition) will require high levels of literacy, and especially a wide vocabulary, in English”.

How difficult this goal may prove to achieve is illustrated by the fact that almost three quarters of South Africa’s ‘emergent literacy’ learners cannot read for meaning in their HL by the end of Foundation Phase (PIRLS1 2016). For these learners, a further challenge may be the phasing in of the Incremental Implementation of African Languages (IIAL) policy, which – apart from HL and LOLT – involves learning an additional African language at the same time.

The curriculum states unequivocally that “the main reason that children are unable to comprehend text is that their language skills are weak. They lack sufficient vocabulary and grammar to make sense of what they read.” Although there are many schools of thought around the most effective way of acquiring a new language2, one of the non-negotiables is a critical mass of vocabulary.

Language experts in collaboration with experienced teachers have calculated that one needs to know approximately 3000 of the most frequently used words in a target language in order to speak and understand it at a basic level – see for example the Oxford 3000 list3. (For children who surpass the 3000-word mark ahead of their milestones, there is an Oxford 5000 list4.)

Also widely available on the internet are lists of the first 100/200/300 etc. high-frequency words, which unpack vocabulary in digestible chunks for beginners. See for example The Children’s Printed Word Database project, as referenced in the CAPS Curriculum Statement for Foundation Phase English FAL5.

The curriculum specifies that vocabulary should come from the environment familiar to the child “to ensure that children acquire and apply knowledge and skills in ways that are meaningful to their own lives”, and should be grouped in themes, which not only assist with vocabulary building, but also with deepening comprehension as a word is seen in context.

The curriculum recommends selecting four themes per term in order to “introduce new words” and “recycle vocabulary and language structures in meaningful contexts” – in other words, for children to become actively and critically literate and not merely learn to parrot sounds by rote.

It also stipulates “daily and once/twice weekly focused listening/speaking activities built around themes”, adding that the themes should offer lots of opportunities for teaching language in context. Some of the theme or topic suggestions are (my) body, clothes, colours, numbers, food, animals, my family, growing things, the weather, simple greetings and farewells. It notes that the suggested themes/topics are simply suggestions, and that teachers should choose their own appropriate themes depending on their context and the resources available – within must-have categories such as Life Skills and Maths.      

The curriculum explains that in Grade 1, children should listen and then speak in their FAL, while in Grade 2 and 3 they should increasingly read and write in their new language. Keeping personal dictionaries (vocabulary books) and using children’s illustrated dictionaries (both monolingual and bilingual) are recommended to support Foundation Phase learners in their journey to literacy.

What to look for in a first children’s dictionary

  • As mentioned above, one of the surest ways not only to build up vocabulary quickly but also to promote comprehension is the themed approach, as advocated by the curriculum. Therefore, when buying your ‘emergent literate’ child their first dictionary, look out for an illustrated children’s dictionary where basic vocabulary is grouped in themes set in familiar environments that are meaningful to the child.
  • It should also offer lots of opportunities for asking questions, telling and listening to stories, playing language games, acting out scenarios and practising conversations, and allow for moving on to reading and writing activities as the child’s vocabulary, comprehension and grasp of grammar increase.
  • If your child is learning an additional language, research has shown that a bilingual dictionary is best for promoting comprehension of the target language vocabulary. Once they are proficient in their additional language, they will be ready to move on to a monolingual dictionary.

THE BRAND-NEW SECOND EDITION of the hugely popular Oxford First Bilingual Dictionary, now available in English + isiZulu/isiXhosa/Afrikaans/Sesotho sa Leboa/Setswana/Sesotho, is carefully orchestrated to link with the curriculum but go beyond. It places an indispensable tool in the hands of the teacher or parent.

Themed double-page spreads supply the basic high-frequency vocabulary children need to get talking while the rich, full-colour illustrations offer further opportunities for vocabulary development, storytelling and language games.

Relatable topics and a cast of lovable characters keep children interested while sentence modelling and read-aloud stories that link with the themed illustration pages build self-confidence in speaking their additional language.

Teachers and parents will harvest a host of teaching opportunities from the pages of the Oxford First Bilingual Dictionary (2nd edition). Whether they use the themed illustration pages to build extra vocabulary, play language games or tell stories, or rewrite the vocabulary on flash cards to label objects for environmental print and incidental learning, practise reading sight words or hold a spelling quiz – all recommended by the curriculum – the possibilities are endless.

Children will enjoy hours of fun and games that make learning a new language child’s play.

The Oxford First Bilingual Dictionary 2nd editions are available from www.oxford.co.za at a RRP of R149,95 each.


1Progress in International Reading Literacy Study

2See “Teaching your pre-schooler how to read” at https://resourcehub.oxford.co.za/category/dictionaries/

3Download the Oxford 3000 list at https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/external/pdf/wordlists/oxford-3000-5000/The_Oxford_3000.pdf

4Download the Oxford 5000 list at https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/external/pdf/wordlists/oxford-3000-5000/The_Oxford_5000.pdf

5Consult the National Curriculum Statement (CAPS curriculum) for Foundation Phase English FAL at https://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/CD/National%20Curriculum%20Statements%20and%20Vocational/CAPS%20ENGLISH%20FAL%20GR%201-3%20FS.pdf?ver=2015-01-27-155321-957

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