How to teach transport vocabulary to young learners
Summary: Lots of things to teach about transportation and how to do so
Transport is a very popular topic with kids (certainly not just boys), links in well with other common YL topics such as toys (“toy car” etc), and is probably more useful in students’ adult lives than many such young learner topics. It also ties in well with CLIL topics like road safety and cultural differences, and can be combined with other language points such as prepositions of position and movement, describing dimensions, and giving opinions.
Things you might want to teach about transport include, in approximate order of when I’d present them:
- Names of common kinds of transport
- English names of other local forms of transport (e.g. “motorcycle taxi”)
- Verbs connected to transport (e.g. “get on” and “drive”)
- Collocations (e.g. “return ticket” and “get in a taxi”)
- Language to talk about transport in full sentences (e.g. “There is a… from… to…” and “I come to school by…”)
- Specific examples of common forms of transport (e.g. “station wagon” for “car”, “tanker” for “truck/ lorry” and “cruise ship” for “ship”)
- Different names for the same thing (e.g. British and American English differences like “estate/ station wagon” and “lorry/ truck”)
- More unusual present kinds of transport (e.g. “tram”)
- Animals you can be transported by (e.g. “horse”, “camel”, “donkey” and “elephant”)
- Transport from history (e.g. “palanquin”, “horse and cart”, “horse-drawn omnibus”, “steam train” and “camel train”)
- Transport in the future (e.g. “horizontal elevator”, “teleport”, “faster than light space travel”, “space elevator”, “driverless cars”, “driverless taxis”, “jet pack”, “flying car” and “amphibian car”)
Younger but keen classes might have problems with the concept of collocations etc above, so you might be better off sticking to just names of forms of transport (including more unusual ones) and verbs with such classes.
Transport can also be combined with/ extended into other things that move, for example:
- Construction vehicles (e.g. “cement mixer” and “earth mover/ bulldozer”)
- Farm vehicles (e.g. “buffalo cart”, “tractor” and “combine harvester”)
- Emergency vehicles (e.g. “police car”, “ambulance” and “fire engine/ fire truck”)
- Military vehicles (e.g. “tank”, “armoured personnel carrier”, “fighter”, “spy plane”, “stealth plane”, “bomber” and “transporter”)
- Transport only used in sports (e.g. “go kart”, “skeleton toboggan” and “windsurfing board”)
You could also mention other ways of getting round (e.g. “skateboard”, “skis”, “wheelchair” and “moving walkway”).
Basic transport vocabulary includes:
- boat/ ship
- motorbike/ motorcycle
- plane/ aeroplane/ airplane
- truck/ lorry
Examples of those basic things include:
- bicycle – mountain bike, BMX, electric bicycle, unicycle, tandem
- boat/ ship – cruise ship, sailing ship/ yacht, rowing boat, canoe, kayak, (rubber) dinghy, steamboat, paddle boat, (passenger/ car) ferry, jet ski, pedalo, speedboat, raft, gondola/ punt, barge, tugboat, catamaran, jet foil
- bus – minibus, coach/ long distance bus, double-decker bus, minibus, shuttle bus, bendy bus
- car – jeep/ SUV/ four wheel drive, pickup truck, sport car/ coupe, hatchback, saloon, limousine, station wagon/ estate car, hybrid, rally car, racing car/ F1 car, rentacar/ hire car, luxury car,
- motorbike/ motorcycle – dirt bike, racing bike, moped, scooter, side car, quad bike
- plane/ aeroplane/ airplane – glider, jumbo jet, jet, propeller plane, private jet, microlight, hang glider, supersonic jet
- taxi – shared taxi, black cab, radio cab, motorcycle taxi, tuk tuk, rickshaw
- train – express train, steam train, funicular, local train, bullet train, underground train/ subway, monorail, driverless train, sleeper/ couchette, dining car/ buffet car, commuter train
- truck/ lorry – dump truck, articulated lorry,
Less common forms of transport include:
- balloon/ airship
- cable car
- camper van
- rocket/ spaceship/ UFO
- sled/ sledge/ sleigh
Presenting transport vocabulary
Obvious ways to try to elicit the names of forms of transport include:
- With noises (recorded or impressions by the teacher)
- With flashcards
- With toys
- With descriptions
Although this limits the vocabulary you can present, there are also forms of transport that you can use mimes for, such as:
- Helicopter (arms swung around above head)
- Bicycle (move one or more feet around in circles)
- Taxi (mime hailing one)
- Plane (arms out like wings)
- Motorbike (put on helmet and rev engine by turning your wrist)
- Unicycle (balancing with difficulty)
- Boat (rowing)
- Car (turning a steering wheel)
- Bus or truck (turning a big steering wheel)
- Train (arms moving like the thing connecting the wheels in an old steam train)
- Rocket/ Spaceship (arm pointing towards the sky)
- Submarine (holding nose and moving body down into a squatting position)
You can present much more vocabulary with a game I call Transport List Dictation, in which the teacher reads out a list of things that have something in common until one student or team works out what the connection is, e.g. that they all have two wheels.
Higher level classes could brainstorm transport vocabulary onto a mind map, explaining or drawing any they don’t know the English for.
Practising transport vocabulary
Noises, flashcards, toys, descriptions, mimes and brainstorming can also be used in the practice stage. Some of these can be combined, e.g. getting them to do the action and make the noise as they run towards the flashcard that the teacher has called out the name of. They can also use noises etc with an adjective plus a transport noun, e.g. making the sound of a slow car or miming an old train (i.e. a steam engine).
With toys, students could feel what they are through a bag, guess what a Transformers-style robot changes into (from a toy, picture or video), or add other transport to a picture of a model railway. They can also design their own transport toys, explaining what each thing can do (e.g. the dump truck can really squash rubbish and the helicopter can move up and down on a pole). They could also choose which toy they want for a particular challenge, e.g. to push along the floor onto a flashcard that the teacher calls out or to balance on their head.
If you want students to describe kinds of transport for their classmates to guess, they might need some help with categories or vocabulary, for example:
- Number of people (or used for transporting things rather than people)
- Verbs that are often used with that form of transport (e.g. “People get on and off this thing”)
- If they or people they know can drive/ ride/ fly/ sail one
- Other personal experiences (e.g. “I have seen one but never been in/ on one”)
- Parts of it (e.g. engine, carriage, wing)
- Sentences to describe dimensions such as length, weight and height (e.g. “It’s as big as a whale”, “It’s bigger than this room” and “It weighs about 500 kilogrammes”.
The brainstorming that is mentioned above for presenting the language can also be turned into a race at the practice stage, e.g. asking them to write as many “things with two wheels” or “transport with no engine” as they can in two minutes.
Project work on the topic of transport includes combining two or more kinds of transport (e.g. drawing a pedal-powered taxi or a submarine/ plane), adapting some transport for a completely different place (e.g. a bicycle for a really steep mountain or a rowing boat for the ocean), changing a kind of transport as much as possible (e.g. a train until it is almost unrecognisable) and drawing an around-the-world trip on a map with a different kind of transport for each stage of the journey. In all of these cases, they should write descriptions of what they have created and/ or present their ideas to other students.
You can also personalise the topic, as long as you take into account that the number of forms of transport most students will have travelled in will be limited. You can exploit this by giving them sentence stems like “have touched”, “want to buy”, “have a toy” and “saw last week”. These can be used for bluffing games, questionnaires, or guessing true things about their classmates.
If students can see a street from the classroom, they could race to count types of transport there now or predict what will come next. The same thing should be possible with streamed CCTV of streets and other videos, e.g. of stupid driving. You could also freeze a video including several forms of transport and get them to predict what will happen (e.g. “The bicycle will overtake the slow car”). They can also guess the transport from just the sound on a video then watch again with the image to check.
There are also loads of popular animated movies and TV shows, storybooks, computer games, card games and songs on the topic, for example:
- The Pixar animated movies Cars and Cars 2
- The TV series Chuggington
- Thomas the Tank Engine books and TV series
- The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round song and books
- Down by the Station (Early in the Morning) song and books
- The animated songs 10 Little Aeroplanes, Over the Mountains, and Stop Look Listen Think (both on LearnEnglishKids, the third one for road safety)
- The card game Top Trumps
- The interactive turn the flaps book Can Cars Fly?
- The song, book and YouTube video We All Go Travelling By
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