Inventing words in the ESL classroom

watermarkEver consider inventing a word? Well, turns out it’s not such a crazy notion. Language is constantly growing, but I’ve never seen anyone motivate us to help it grow quite like Erin McKean. After watching her TED video from November 2014 in New York, I felt the urge to share it because I believe it might help us explore a different perspective on language teaching, and learning for that matter. We are so wrapped up sometimes in using the language perfectly, when in reality the need is to communicate and make ourselves understood.

“Every language is just a group of people who agree to understand each other.”- Erin McKean

Erin who is a lexicographer, which means she basically dedicates her life to finding and including words in the dictionary, gives us an entertaining chat and shares with us her thoughts on words, their usage and how she thinks we should be interacting with the language. From what she tells us language should express what we want to say and let’s face it we can’t always find just the right word.

Take a few minutes and watch the video and then let’s analyze how this could affect our take on teaching English.

Ok, so now let’s put it into perspective as ESL teachers.

A main concern for every English teacher I’ve ever met is assuring that students use impeccable grammar and have good vocabulary accuracy. Sometimes we may miss the fact that they HAVE to make mistakes to actually learn. Let’s give our students the chance to make mistakes and speak freely. If we bite our tongue for a minute, it will be worth it. I promise. As our students lose their fear of expressing their ideas, we can focus on polishing up all those things we are tempted to correct right away. This becomes the perfect moment to give the students the opportunity of grasping and using the grammar in your lesson plan. The challenge is making grammar a “law of nature”, as she puts it. I think this is possible by making our classes fun and engaging so we can successfully teach our students the grammar rules and usage naturally in a comfortable environment. (There are some ideas below in the links.)

We constantly talk about being creative, but when we consider learning a language we sometimes limit it to mathematical-type equations that make up the structure of the language. The learning process needs creativity, even if that involves having fun with a few new words! No language is set in stone, it evolves with the people. Native speakers constantly invent new words, which makes it nearly impossible to truly teach the complete English language to any student. English is spoken as a mother tongue by over 430 million people around the world in 99 countries. Whereas thera are 1 to 1.5 billion non-native speakers.¹ Even though we usually teach a standard English, we shouldn’t forget that our goal is that our student’s make this language their own to the point they can express their thoughts and ideas in it. So, let’s motivate our students to participate actively in our classes by reminding them that they make part of this evolution.


Application in the classroom:

I usually enjoy it when students make up words, which I think every student has done at one point or another. I had this one student that would constantly invent words, but this actually promoted an environment of investigation and teamwork. When this would occur the class would have to try to guess the correct English word and find at least two synonyms. I’ve found that a Thesaurus comes in very handy in the classroom for this exercise. They would obviously know what he meant because it was an all Colombian classroom, so it was usually a Spanish word that was “turned into” English. Besides creating a fun environment in the classroom, it generated opportunities to learn new words along with their correct uses.

Recommended websites:

Teaching strategies to teach grammar without the math equations: 

The Discovery Technique

Guided Discovery


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