Thursday, February 11, 2010
What’s the Word on Vocabulary Acquisition?
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.