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A Common Sense Approach: Vocabulary Building
by Steve Schackne
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Most traditional EFL textbooks have modules designed to increase vocabulary stores. Although there are many different techniques for teaching vocabulary, it can be difficult for students to effectively increase their stock of new words through mainstream approaches; new words are most often simply acquired through use. In this respect, it is somewhat similar to developing reading skills.

Traditional curricula define intensive reading as reading carefully, or in detail, for an exact understanding of the text, while extensive reading is simply reading for pleasure and general understanding, not focusing on every detail. I have previously cited what I felt was the myth of intensive reading. It can’t really teach you how to read; traditional reading courses can describe reading strategies such as skimming (reading for general understanding) and scanning(reading for specific information), and offer practice in utilizing these strategies, but it is the process of reading extensively that really hones skills such as understanding opinion, understanding inference, and recognizing discourse markers. In other words, we learn to be competent readers by…reading.

And so it is with vocabulary. Traditional approaches have not been very effective. We learn vocabulary by using vocabulary, using it in meaningful contexts.

Selecting Vocabulary

A well-known school in Beijing, China preps its students for vocabulary sections of standardized tests by making them memorize long lists of words; the words are culled from previous exams and are occasionally recycled, so at worst one gets practice in the areas of vocabulary commonly tested. Needless to say, this may be somewhat effective for test performance, but most of the words are forgotten soon after the test.

Vocabulary lists have many drawbacks, notably that they are not contextualized and that many items are not relevant to students and, thus, rarely used. Some textbooks “chunk” vocabulary; that is, they group vocabulary items in specifically defined categories, such as colors, vegetables, or home furnishings. This may have the advantage over randomly selected vocabulary in that, sometimes, vocabulary items in categories reinforce each other, which makes them easier to learn. Still, the vocabulary groups may not be relevant to certain students and, hence, go unused and unassimilated.

Jeremy Harmer cites the principles of frequency and coverage which involve how often words occur in the language and how many different meanings a root word can cover, e.g., play being taught with playboy, Play Station, playbook and so on. This system, however, is also flawed as it often ignores topic, function, structure, and the needs of individual students.

Teaching Vocabulary

Presenting vocabulary takes many forms. Using realia or bringing objects into a classroom can often clarify meaning for a student, but the obvious drawbacks include depicting large concrete nouns and abstract concepts. Graphics are also useful, especially when illustrating objects that are too large to be brought into a classroom. Mime and gesture are useful in defining verbs and other concepts involving movement and action. Enumeration, a cousin of chunking, distinguishes the general from the specific in presenting vocabulary. For example, one can introduce the item appliances and then illustrate by enumerating items such as refrigerator, microwave oven, dishwasher, and such. One of the most common presentation techniques is explanation, but the more involved an explanation becomes the more advanced students have to be to really grasp it, a drawback in itself. Translation is also a commonly used presentation technique, but it also comes with its own limitations—culturally complex concepts are often difficult to accurately translate, teachers may not be fluent in the students’ native language, and a class of students from mixed language backgrounds would make translation of little use.

Discovery techniques go beyond simple modeling, explanation, mime, and translation; instead of simply furnishing meaning, discovery techniques also ask students to discover how the language works. The difference can be illustrated by looking at questions on a reading or listening comprehension evaluation that measure type 1 and type 2 skills. Type 1 questions simply ask students to pick out clearly stated information from a written or spoken passage, while type 2 questions demand students understand information that isn’t always directly stated, such as recognizing discourse markers, getting meaning from context, and interpreting attitude and opinion, information that requires students to possess a greater mastery and knowledge of the internal workings of a language. Similarly, discovery techniques have students look at language from different angles, not just from a semantic point of view. Students may be presented language and asked the time framework—is it describing the past, present or future? Students may be asked to note instances of adjectives and prepositions found in a written or spoken descriptive passage. Discovery techniques shift the emphasis from the teacher to students and invites them to use their reasoning processes and problem solving skills to learn the subtle nuances of the language and, hence, to mimic the psycholinguistic approach utilized by native language learners.

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