Monday, June 24, 2013

Words! Words! Words!

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Whenever I am at a TESOL Conference, there are a few speakers I go out of my way to see every year. Keith Folse is one of them. Whatever he is speaking about, I know I will learn something new and have a great time doing it. He is entertaining and witty and so, so smart. (Can you tell I have a bit of a TESOL crush?)

Anyway, I managed to make one of his presentations at the 2013 TESOL Conference in Dallas, Texas in April. It was, as always, genius! He spoke about practical activities for learning vocabulary, a great topic for me, as my students needs to master lots of academic vocabulary quickly to succeed in their mainstream secondary school classes.

Folse organized his suggestions around Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction, which I had never heard of before. At any rate, he contends that if teachers structure vocabulary development around this instructional design model, students have a better chance of retaining vocabulary. At the risk of miscommunicating Folse’s message (I hope he will see this and correct me if I misspeak), I wanted to share them with you.

1. Gain learner attention of target vocabulary. Folse says there are several ways we can do this. We can present the students with a problem that prompts the target vocabulary, ask them questions that contain the vocabulary or show them an advertisement with the vocabulary. I sometimes like to start a lesson with a simple card match (word to definition or word to picture) to see what students already know and to show them what words they will need to learn.

2. Describe the goal. According to Folse, we need to explain to students why these words matter. This allows students to frame the information and helps them remember it more easily. For me, this is an easy task. My students trust me to choose the vocabulary they need to access their Science lessons on, say, electricity. It’s clear to them that these words will be useful, though I still take every opportunity to remind them because teenagers don’t always get excited about learning vocabulary. However, when I taught phrasal verbs to adults, I needed to be more explicit about WHY I had chosen those phrasal verbs to study. Maybe they show up as  high frequency in a corpus or maybe they are a good fit when talking about a topic that my students often come across. But, we need to make this explicit. After all, we are the experts. We know the language better than the students, so it is our job to know what to teach!

3. Stimulate recall of prior knowledge. Folse argues that this helps learning and remembering. I may do this simply by asking the students what they know about the topic. For instance, if they are learning about coasts in Geography, we might have a short conversation about their experiences at the beach. Or, I might do a quick activity that reviews vocabulary they already know in preparation for the new vocabulary. For instance, if they are studying animal adaptations in Science, they might already know many animals, but they might not now the parts of animals, like “hoof” or “fin” or “talon”. So, I might play Pictionary with the group to warm them up to the topic. This gives them hooks on to which they can hang their new vocabulary, so to speak.

4. Present the vocabulary to be learned. And present it. And present it again. Folse points out that the key to remembering vocabulary lies in “the number of times your brain touches the word.” (I just love that image, don’t you?) Researchers, such as Hinkle (2009), contend that learners need to see or hear or use new vocabulary 12 to 15 times before it sticks. According to Martin (2010), when teaching vocabulary, we need to write simple definitions on the board, preferably ones we thought out before the lesson and not came up with on the spot. We also need to give good antonyms and at least 2 example sentences. I admit, I am not always so conscientious, so this was a good reminder.

5. Provide guidance for learning. This one really got me. Folse reminds us that the presentation of the content, in this case the academic vocabulary words, is different from instructions on how to learn them. In fact, we need to tell students how to remember the words, give them a plan of attack, so to speak. Folse advocates using vocabulary logs, which my students have had great success with. Some of my students like using flash cards, and some (the auditory learners) even prefer to record themselves reading the words and definitions so they can listen to them later. In the end, we have to help students find their best way of learning, as it is it our job, as teachers, to make this learning manageable.

6. Elicit performance. This, according to Folse, means practice. We need to have students DO something with the words. This can be as simple as a “yes/no” drill or multiple choice questions that the teacher makes up on the spot about the list of words. Folse suggested asking the following list of questions:

• “How many letters in ___?
• What does ___ mean?
• Which words mean ___?
• Which words are living?
• Which words are negative?
• Which word is the longest / shortest?
• Which word would come first / last in the dictionary?
• Which is the hardest for you to pronounce?
• Which is the hardest for you to spell?
• Are you sure? (This asks students to “touch” the words again!)
• Which word will you forget by lunch time? Why?

Again, the purpose is to give the students as many chances as possible for their brains to “touch” the words.

7. Provide feedback. Folse argues that we need to show if the students are correct when they use the new vocabulary. This can be done by providing our classes with opportunities to write using the words and then hauling out our red pens to correct them. A little less straightforward is to provide students with opportunities to use the new words in conversation and correcting them. There are various techie ways of doing this, but I get my students to record themselves talking about, for example, their history lessons, maybe summarizing Hitler’s rise to power, using several of the target words. After I listen to the recording, I can record something back to them commenting on the accuracy of their pronunciation, use and form of the words. In the end, there is little point for students to learn a bunch of new vocabulary words if they can’t actually use them correctly.

8. Assess the Performance. For those of you who need to submit grades regularly as part of your teaching duties, this is a given. You would, obviously, consistently quiz students with gap fills or similar quizzes. You may even orally quiz students from time to time; it’s one of my favourite ways to assess! However, in my current teaching context, I don’t formally assess my students frequently. Instead, I informally gauge their knowledge of the vocabulary when I provide feedback. I’ve always known  though that, for my students, their real test comes in Science class or Art class when they have to understand or use the vocabulary. But, after hearing Folse’s presentation, I am re-thinking that approach.

9. Enhance retention and transfer. Folse points out that we need to provide additional practice in the form of spaced rehearsal. That means, as students master specific vocabulary, they need to return to it less and less frequently, gradually increasing the spacing between reviews. In other words, the frequency of success with a word should determine how often a student returns to it. Sadly, I haven’t done this at all. Perhaps it is the specific nature of the words the students learn, in my context. Once they have finally mastered the words for earthquakes, for instance, their mainstream class has moved on to rocks, so there is no opportunity, or, frankly, purpose, to return again and again to words. But, this is something to consider.

So, there you have it – my twist of Folse’s take on Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction. I hope I have done Folse’s strategies and suggestions justice and that I haven’t offended him by describing his presentation in such detail. It was just too good to keep to myself!

Folse, K. (2013) Practical Activities for Learning Vocabulary, paper presented at TESOL Conference, Dallas, Texas, USA.
Hinkle, E. (2009) Teaching Academic Vocabulary and Helping Students to Retain it, paper presented at TESOL Conference, Denver, Colorado, USA.
Martin, L. (2010) Explicitly Teaching Academic Vocabulary, paper presented at TESOL Conference, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.


Comment from Keith Folse
June 24, 2013 at 8:02 pm

Thank you for this excellent summary of my presentation at TESOL Dallas. I first found out about Gagne’s Nine Events in an Instructional Technology (Design) course in my PhD program. As soon as I read the nine events, I recognized my own style of teaching. I also recognized that this is exactly what a good materials writer (or software designer) does… but explained in nine neat steps. I wish all teacher prep programs would have their novice teachers study Gagne’s Nine Events. It’s a brilliant set of information. Again, THANK YOU for this summary!

Comment from Tamara Jones
June 24, 2013 at 10:53 pm

THANK YOU for the presentation! I agree that Gange’s 9 Events should be covered in teacher ed programs. My teaching certainly would have benefited from learning about them 18 years ago!

Comment from Claire Bergstrom
October 3, 2013 at 3:11 pm

I have been teaching adult English in a community based education program for about three years. I began to recognize a need for better vocabulary instruction and in my research I came across your post. Thank you for the summary of Keith Folse’s presentation and the introduction to Gange’s 9 Events. They make so much sense, but it’s good to have them stated explicitly. I am sure to use this model in my teaching.

Comment from Tufail dhudhaal
February 19, 2014 at 4:05 am


Pingback from Teacher Talk » The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 3: The Constraints of a Limited Vocabulary
March 6, 2014 at 10:04 am

[…] plateau at any level, we need to provide opportunities to develop their vocabulary. As I argued in Words, Words, Words, if students don’t know a word, it doesn’t matter how good their grammar or reading skills are; […]

Comment from Keith Folse
September 7, 2018 at 10:00 pm

Hi, Tamara! In reading something else, it led me to another post you did, which in turn led me again to this post from a few years back. I just re-read the whole thing, and now I’m convinced that I should do a presentation on Gagne’s 9 Events. Yep, I will submit it the next time there is a call for papers for some conference. THANKS AGAIN FOR YOUR SUPPORT! Students NEED words, words, and MORE words, so I do appreciate your support in helping to get the word out!


Comment from Tamara Jones
September 10, 2018 at 7:15 am

Yay! I so enjoyed your original 9 Events presentation!

In fact, my school recently hosted a group of EFL instructors from Ma’anshan Teacher’s College in China, and one of the PD sessions I was responsible for was on Building Academic Word Banks. I shamelessly copied your approach (giving you full credit) and loosely based the session on Gagne’s 9 events. It really provides a nice scaffold for vocabulary practice activities. So thank YOU for teaching me how important vocabulary is for our students.

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