Family vocabulary is very important for beginning ESL students because it allows them to talk more about their lives. However, teaching about family members can be a touchy subject in a world full of divorce, blended families, and other arrangements. How can you teach about family members without embarrassing students who come from non-traditional families? How can you get all of your students involved and using all the vocabulary?
Borrow a Family
You don’t need to ask students for personal details about their families. You can simply borrow a family to use in your classroom! If you work with a textbook, chances are good you already have a family of characters with whom the students are familiar. If you are developing your own materials, or if your textbook doesn’t have a built-in family, you can simply borrow a well-known family. Famous television families, like the Simpsons, offer recognizable characters to fill family roles, and your students may not even need an introduction. You can find pre-made flashcards on any number of ESL printables sites, or you can assemble your own images. Attaching magnets to the back or using a bit of tape will allow you to put the cards on the board or wall in a family tree set up.
With your family tree on display, you can practice pertinent vocabulary. Don’t limit yourself to just nuclear family set-ups. Depending on the age and English level of your students, you can introduce grandparents, cousins, and even more complicated relationships, like stepsiblings. Remember that repetition is key, so having students repeat family member terms multiple times will help them to remember. Also, you can come up with riddles to test their understanding. Questions like, "What is the name of the father of the cousin of Lisa?" will really get your students thinking and using all of their vocabulary words.
Small Group Activities
Once you’ve reviewed the vocabulary with the whole class, it’s a good idea to break the class down into small groups of four or five students. This allows the students to have even more talk-time, and it provides a quieter, more relaxed setting so that shy students will feel more inclined to participate.
A great game for young learners combines family members with a review of colors. For this modified version of the French game, jeu de sept familles (Seven Families game), you will need to create decks of cards. Simply use the same images from your family tree or other easily recognizable family clip art to assemble a family. Six or seven family members works well, and don’t forget to include a dog or cat if your students know the words. If you are playing with groups of four, pick four colors and reproduce an entire family of cards on each color of paper. Be sure to affix these images to another, bigger card of another color so that all cards look the same from the back.
Students will shuffle and deal all the cards, and then they take turns asking the other players for specific family members in specific colors to try to collect the whole family. You can review the correct structure for posing the question beforehand, such as, "Do you have the orange father?" or "Have you got the purple dog?" If the student being asked has the requested card, he or she hands it over. If not, the student asking must wait until his or her next turn for another chance. Either way, that student’s turn is now over and the next student asks the person of his or her choosing for another family member-color combination. The first student to collect all of the family members in a specific color wins!
It’s a good idea to keep these cards on hand in case you ever find yourself with five or ten minutes to spare at the end of class. It’s a quick time-filler and a great review for students. You can also adapt it for future lessons to practice a range of vocabulary, from animals to occupations to classroom objects.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons