Teaching vocabulary for communication (Part 1) [Archives:2008/1136/Education]

March 10 2008

Dr Kalyani Samantray
[email protected]
Reader in English,
S B W College, Cuttack
Orissa, India

Over the many years I have been teaching English as a second language (ESL), I have become more and more aware that some of the most basic principles of vocabulary teaching and learning have been forgotten or ignored. This article will try to refocus us on the basic and most fundamental common sense aspects of vocabulary teaching and learning. Let us start with some of these common notions.

Teaching a word does not mean the students learned it. Teaching and learning do not go hand in hand, from the easy to the difficult. It is too easy to forget that teaching does not cause learning. Because students have finished a unit does not mean they have mastered all the words in it.

– We do not learn a word from one meeting. Research tells us that it takes between 5-16 meetings (or more) to learn an average word. (Nation, 1990: 41).

– It is easier to forget a word than remember it. Initial word knowledge in a second language (in our case, English) is very fragile and memories of new words that are not met again soon, are lost. This is because our brains are designed to forget, not remember. If a student has just learned 10 new words, it is normal for most of them to be forgotten within a few days, and may be only one or two will be retained in the medium or long-term memory.

– There are two major stages in word learning. The first stage is matching the spelling and pronunciation of words with their meaning. When a student has learnt this, the second stage of learning starts. Now, spelling and pronunciation should work on the deeper aspects of word knowledge. This may include the different ways a word may be used; the restrictions on its use; whether it is formal or informal; whether it is spoken or written; its similarity to other words; its shades of meaning; whether it is frequent or not, and so on.

– Students do not need to learn every word they meet. This is because not all words are equally useful. The words students need to master are the general service vocabulary i.e. those that are found repeatedly in a wide range of texts.

– Some words are more difficult to learn than others. Research suggests that words that are more concrete and closer to a known concept, or have a similar form in the first language, tend to be learned before those that are more abstract and are relatively dissimilar from those in the first language.

– Words live with other words, not in isolation. Languages are made up of sets of words that go together to make individual meanings, such as by the way, the day after tomorrow, bus ticket, half-past three, sunny day and so on. These are often called collocations, or lexical units. It is easier to remember words in collocation rather than words in isolation.

– Written and spoken vocabularies are different. Fewer (and often different) words are needed for fluent speaking and listening, than for reading and writing.

– Students cannot guess the meaning of an unknown word from the context if the surrounding text is too difficult. Hu and Nation (2000) suggest that students need to know about 98% or more of the other words in the text (1 new word in 50) before successful guessing can take place. If the rate of new words in a context is higher, the probability of guessing the meaning of unknown words is close to zero.

Having considered these notions of vocabulary learning and teaching, let us consider how to use these principles in English language teaching.

The core of CLT is learner autonomy. Since we may not have enough time to teach everything about a word, students have to become independent word learners. We must train them to be such autonomous learners. Students learn best by making sense of their own vocabulary and internalizing it. The more they work with the words, the more deeply the words are processed. That is, by working with the new words in many different ways, it is more likely that the words will be retained in memory. Thus an early emphasis on vocabulary growth within ESL teaching will help kick start their learning (Meara 1995).

I am discussing here some techniques that will help making students autonomous in learning vocabulary.

Firstly, students should learn the principle of selecting words that they need to learn. Focus should be on choosing the most frequently used words. Learning such words makes one more fluent and meaningful as these words carry the most meaning senses. Similarly, the words which will be relatively easy to learn (i.e. those which have close relatives in the first language) should be learnt early to build a start-up vocabulary base. Special attention should also be given to words which are difficult to learn.

Secondly, as we can all but guarantee that most words we teach will be lost to the Forgetting Curve (Pimsleur 1967), it is therefore essential that the new words are repeated soon after the initial learning, and repeated at spaced intervals in many contexts thereafter to cement them in memory. As our textbooks do not seem to consciously recycle important vocabulary for the required 5-16 times, teachers have to find ways to ensure that there are enough meetings. One easy way to achieve both these goals, and one that takes little classroom time, is to require students to read graded readers out of class or ask them to listen to simplified recordings (Waring, 2001). Added advantages of graded readers are that

i. students will be exposed to massive amounts of vocabulary

ii. they can discover new collocations, and

iii. improve their reading fluency in an enjoyable way.

Thirdly, students should not be faced with material that is too difficult because they will not be able to guess successfully and easily the meaning of new vocabulary. Material that is a little easy is beneficial for language learning because students can improve their reading speed through competent guessing.

Fourthly, teaching students how to learn vocabulary effectively, and use their dictionaries well (Samantray 2000) will save a lot of time and will ultimately make them independent learners and users of vocabulary.

Lastly, vocabulary activities should focus on deepening and internalizing knowledge of words, and not just the surface or basic meaning/ mother tongue equivalent. The activities should deal with collocations and multiple-word units, not only single words. The type of practice in these activities allows the students to notice new words, or new features of known words, and give them chances to internalize them. For example, simple gap-fill and matching exercises manipulate only the surface meaning and/or form, and thus call for relatively shallow mental processing. The focus should also be on deepening and internalizing the knowledge by doing activities at a deeper level. Thus, the quality of the mental processing when doing the activities is more important than simple quantity.

This is the first part of this article where we discussed the principles behind teaching vocabulary. In the next part, activities for teaching vocabulary will be presented.