How To Teach Family Vocab To Young Learners
What family words to teach and how to do so in ways that give context and make the meanings clear.
Family is an important topic for young learners to study in order to be able to talk about their lives and those of others, but it can be rather difficult to teach. When presenting the language, pictures meant to represent family members such as “uncle” and “great grandmother” are rarely clear and unambiguous, and other pictorial ways such as family trees can be culturally specific or too conceptually difficult for some young learners. Songs and stories can add some context, but they rarely include much beyond the nuclear family. Even translation might not work, for example when the Spanish word “hermanos” could mean “brothers and sisters” or just “brothers”.
There is also the constant danger of suggesting that normal families have only one form, e.g. that they should all be married couples with a housewife looking after 2.4 children and grandparents who occasionally drop by. The teacher will also need to decide if or when to teach alternative forms of expressions like mother/mum/mom/mummy/mama and older sister/elder sister/big sister – with the most age appropriate one often being the most idiomatic and so highest level.
What family vocabulary to teach
This is the order I would teach words for family members in my classes, stopping whenever I’ve taught them at least two which are completely new to all the students:
- mother and father
- sister and brother
- baby brother/sister
- big/little brother/sister
- another form of mother and father, e.g. mum and dad
- another form of grandfather and grandmother, e.g. nanny and granddad
- older brother/sister
- uncle and aunt (maybe leaving the “by marriage” meaning till later)
- son and daughter
- youngest/oldest brother/sister
- great grandfather/grandmother
- niece and nephew
- great great grandfather/grandmother
- elder brother/sister
- eldest brother/sister
- foster parent
- (life) partner
- great uncle/great aunt
Presenting family vocabulary
Although textbooks sometimes have flashcards for family members, these are next to useless for normal-style presentation of all but parents and grandparents. You can partly get round this by presenting the vocabulary with the pictures arranged into a family photo or family tree, or by using a group photo such as a wedding photo.
More useful can be pictures in the textbook where regular characters are introduced for the first time, e.g. mummy and daddy coming home with a new baby brother in the OUP title Little Friends. A selection of such pictures or stories can also be used from a textbook that students don’t have, and some storybooks can be used in the same way. Perhaps the best way, however, is to get students drawing their families and then give them the language they need to describe them. A similar activity is for the teacher to describe their family for the kids to draw, then the kids to do the same with their own or each others’ families.
A simpler way to use drawing is just to brainstorm family vocabulary they already know and get them to draw or explain words they don’t know in English to elicit the words from you, e.g. saying or drawing “Nephew – girl” to get “Niece” out of you.
Practising family vocabulary
Brainstorming can also be used at the practice stage, e.g. giving them a category of family vocabulary that they must take turns brainstorming or brainstorm together. Possible categories include males/females, older/younger than you, included/not included in the teacher’s family, two or more steps away from you on a family tree, and people someone in the classroom lives with.
Pictures can also be used at this stage. One possibility is to bring in photos of your own family or famous families (e.g. the Simpsons or a royal family) for students to guess the relationships in. Something similar can also be done with video, especially if the relationship becomes clearer as the video goes on.
A really nice thing to do with simple vocabulary is to get students using different mimes and voices for each one, perhaps as you present them. Possible mimes include:
- Father – standing in macho pose, stroking his beard or shaving
- Brother – screwed up aggressive face and fists pumping
- Sister – brushing her long hair or skipping
- Mother – brushing her hair or holding and rocking a baby
- Baby – sucking its thumb or crying
- Grandfather – bent over and stroking his long beard
- Grandmother – bent over and holding a handbag
Flashcards arranged into a family tree as mentioned above can also be used as part of a memory game to practise other vocabulary. Arrange the family flashcards on the floor in a family tree and hide other flashcards under them, asking students to remember who is on top of which flashcard and which thing is under each person. This works best if the question makes sense, e.g. “Who has a bicycle?” and “What does mother have?”
Once the students know the vocabulary fairly well, they can be tested or test each other with puzzle type questions like “If I am his daughter, he is my…?” and “What relation to me is my grandfather’s son?”
As mentioned above, the problem with most songs and books is that they rarely include more unusual family vocabulary. Good songs for the simple vocabulary include The Finger Family Song (“Mother finger, mother finger, where are you? Here I am, here I am, how do you do?” etc), the This is my Mother (Nice to Meet You) song from Let’s Go, and The Farmer’s in the Dell and Grandma’s Glasses from Wee Sing. Books for that same basic vocabulary include Little Red Riding Hood, Room for One More, Fur Family, This is My World from Apricot Books, A Chair for my Mother, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
The Farmer’s in the Dell, Grandma’s Glasses, Little Red Riding Hood and The Enormous Turnip can be adapted or extended to add more vocabulary. Stories with more vocabulary include I Love You Blue Kangaroo, Cinderella, Two is for Twins, The Family Book by Todd Parr, and Heather Has Two Mommies.