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Teaching vocabulary to L2 learners
by Kendall Peet
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I have written this article for EFL/ESL teachers interested in improving their approach to teaching vocabulary. Because I am primarily interested in teaching, this article will focus on the practical aspects of teaching vocabulary , with attention paid to theory only where it relates directly to teaching practice. It is my hope that this article will provide teachers with an overview of some of the most important issues to be considered when teaching vocabulary and possibly answer some, if not many, of the questions teachers may have in regard to teaching vocabulary.

Within the context of this article, any reference to vocabulary includes the base form of a word, its inflections and derivatives, and lexical phrases or chunks, which constitute a major portion of the English language (Lewis: 1993, 97). I have chosen to include lexical phrases in the definition because, like words, they can often be taught as a single unit of meaning.

What vocabulary to teach?

Needs Analysis

How do you currently decide what vocabulary to teach? When I first started to teach I remember what a panic I was in trying to decide what to teach. My only guide for teaching vocabulary at that time was my high school teachers who used to hand out a vocabulary list of twenty words at the start of each week, to be memorised and tested the following week. I remember sitting at my desk flicking through a dictionary wondering how on earth I was going to select twenty words for that week, growing increasingly despondent. It was a puzzle to me how anyone could possibly select any finite list of words with authority from the seemingly infinite. I never did finally decide upon a list. What I did do instead, which I am sure is the approach taken by many teachers, basically entailed reading through a given text, that was to be used in class, and selecting words to focus on that I thought the learners might not know. It wasn’t particularly systematic, but it was the best I could do.

Since my early days of teaching, I have come to learn much more about the art of teaching vocabulary, believing strongly in the effectiveness of a student-centred approach, which places much of the onus of decision making in the hands of the learners. Of course it is true that the teacher often knows what is better for a learner than the learner, however, I also believe that it is important for teachers to be sensitive to the learner’ needs. Therefore, in answering what to teach, I try to determine the real needs of the learners on an ongoing basis, using both formal and informal means of assessment: take-home questionnaires, 1-2-1 interviews, classroom observation, marking written work, and class tests.

To determine the real needs of the learners, it is useful to first draw a distinction between productive language and passive language.

Productive language or Passive language

In general, we can define productive language is that which a person uses to speak or write and passive language as that which is used in the process of listening or reading. In the case of L1 acquisition, the natural progression is from passive language, listening, to productive language, speaking, with reading and writing coming later. In regard to leaning a second language, there is strong argument for the learning process to follow a similar path. (1)However, due primarily to commercial and time constraints, and taking into account the fact that learners have already learnt the concept of many words in their L1 that can be easily transferred to their L2, it is common practice for there to be a considerable focus on productive language from the very start of L2 acquisition, with a natural shift toward passive language occurring as the learner progresses toward L2 proficiency. (2) Therefore, when deciding what vocabulary to teach, teachers first need to be able to distinguish between passive and productive vocabulary to ensure that priority is given to productive language.

Do you focus on productive or passive language in the classroom? How can you determine whether a particular word is productive or passive vocabulary?

1. Krashen, S. 1981. Takes a Chomskian position. arguing for an L2 approach based on L1 acquisition.
2. Thornbury, S. 2002. It is estimated that an educated native speaker has a vocabulary of approximately 20,000 words (or more accurately, 20,000 word families). However, in stark contrast to this figure, most native speakers use a vocabulary of approximately 2,000 words in daily conversation. p. 20, 21

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