Thursday, February 11, 2010

What’s the Word on Vocabulary Acquisition?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Words are the starting point of language. As a French student, I hunger for more words, and as an English teacher, I strive to make learning words interesting and easy in my classes. In my experience teaching different levels, I have seen a difference in the needs of students of different levels. Beginning students seem, in general, to simply need vocabulary, while more advanced students seem to want to not only build their vocabulary, but also to use a variety of words easily in conversation.

It’s Not Even on the Tip of my Tongue
As a lower-level French student living in Belgium, I am living proof of the hunger for more words. The more words I learn, the more I forget. My inability to remember words is unbelievably frustrating, and, while my grammar errors are cringe-inducing, I can still communicate. However, a lack of vocabulary can stop an interaction in its tracks. Even when the motivation is high to remember a word, it slips away. For example, I have a prescription that I get once a year from the doctor and I leave on file at my pharmacy. For the past year and a half, I have referred to the prescription as “le papier”, the paper. Recently, when we learned the word for “prescription” in my French class, I was thrilled. No longer would I be the neighborhood idiot. I was strongly motivated to remember the word, and I said it quietly to myself several times in class. However, a couple of weeks have passed, and I can’t remember the word to save my life. I guess it’s back to “le papier”.

Flash Cards
From this, I have learned that students need more exposure to words in order to retain them. Experts suggest that learners need to see or hear a word a minimum of 12 to 15 times in context before they internalize it. Wow. In her presentation at TESOL 2009, Teaching Academic Vocabulary and Helping Students to Retain it, Eli Hinkel suggested a tried-and-true method for memorizing vocabulary: flash cards that are reviewed regularly. I have even heard of students putting words on post–its all over their house with the translation on the back for a constant barrage of English vocabulary. I can’t help but feel that if I had to look at the French word for “prescription” several times a day, I would still remember it.

Danny’s List
However, Danny, my wonderful student from Germany faces the second problem that I described above. Danny’s English is so good that I wondered why he would bother with English classes at all for that matter. When he showed me his working list of vocabulary, I was very impressed. He was doing everything right, as far as I could see. His list included everything from academic vocabulary to words associated with his work to phrasal verbs and idioms. He adds to the list frequently and diligently and studies it often to increase retention. His problem, however, lies not in memorizing the words, but it being able to retrieve them when actively engaged in a conversation.
Activate the Passive
So, how can Danny activate his passive vocabulary? Unfortunately, I don’t know any easy answers. (If you do, please respond to this blog immediately! I always like an easy answer!) One of my more advanced students, Emre, thinks hearing it is the key. She told me that she will never forget the word “flexibility” because she attended a presentation in which the speaker repeated the word many times. After the presentation, she was comfortable using the word in conversation without much conscious thought. Obviously, the more exposure students have to English input, the more likely passive vocabulary will become active. However, for students who want a more structured method for activating their vocabulary, unfortunately, I have little to offer.


Comment from Ismael Tohari
February 12, 2010 at 3:14 am

Thanks a lot for such an interesting article.

I think that one of the methods to memorize wrods is by trying to associate, though it doesn't work all the time, a word with one's own language. Here is an example:

[asthma] is pronounced as /asma/. So, the pronunciation of the word is the same as the Arabic female name "Asma", and so on.

I hope you find this method helpful.

Comment from Tamara
February 22, 2010 at 4:43 am

I think this is a good idea!

Comment from Katherine
March 1, 2010 at 10:22 am

Hi Tamara,
I really related to your vocabulary article. I am a beginning German student and EFL teacher living and teaching in Germany. As a student, I am almost bombarded with about 50+ new words in my three hour German class and often wonder while I am there…how could it be easier for me to learn these words?
I think a key idea could be categorizing words into groups, topics, contexts that will help students use these new words appropriately. I teach a vocabulary heavy course at a university and use a textbook that does just this. Then I try to add in extra activities that give students more "authentic" situations where they might actually use the words. This might be a way of turning the active into the passive?

Comment from Fé J Sharp
April 27, 2010 at 9:45 pm

I have a few suggestions for Danny.
1. Categorize his vocabulary words into word groups and synonyms/antonyms.
2.Danny can take these same words and use substitution drills/ or role play dialogues, where the synonyms can be substituted for the target vocabulary word. Ex. Vocab word- great
A) I had a great time at the movies last night, Susana.
B) Yes, I did , too. I enjoyed the movie, and had such a nice time with you, Bill.
A) Well, maybe we can make that an even more incredible experience the next time. Are you busy this weekend, on Saturday evening?
B) No, I’m not busy this weekend, and I would be thrilled to go out with you on Saturday night, Bill. By the way, have you seen the latest movie with Jennifer Anniston, and Chris Rock? I hear it’s awesome, although I can’t remember the title right now. If you are thinking of going to another movie, I would just love to see that movie. Everyone says it’s amazing!
As you can see, there are a group of words that can be substituted for the target word in most cases. The student could make a word wheel, like a clock, and write all these words like numbers around the face of the
clock. A spinner can be made, and Danny can spin the wheel and see if the word that came out would be a good fit for the context of the short story or dialogue. In that way, he gets to learn what w ords are appropriate to use in similar situations

Comment from Tamara
May 4, 2010 at 4:47 am

Excellent suggestions! I like the idea of a word wheel. Thanks!

Comment from Fatima
January 21, 2013 at 8:39 am

Hi Taram

This was great, however I have some better idea for memorizing vocabularies and at the same time making them as one’s active words in daily conversation. I personally do not believe much in flash cards. Instead I believe learning words in texts specially texts which are interesting enough for students. Magazines and stories are the best choices. Once you see a new word in the texts you mark it and try to memorize the word by repeating the sentence containing the word. After finishing the text you try to recite it being careful to use the word exactly in the same way it is used in the text. You should do it with enthusiasm like if you’re giving a lecture or are being interviewd on a TV show! repeat the reciting for three times and not only won’t you forget the word but will even remember where you saw it for the first time!And specillay when talking about thesame topic you will automatically use the word with right structure in english. this also helps with the right English structure and grammar without being specially trained for grammar.

Comment from Tamara Jones
January 21, 2013 at 11:04 pm

Great idea! Thanks for the input!

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