Archive for March, 2014

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 3: The Constraints of a Limited Vocabulary

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Just recently, I wrote a post about the importance of all students developing a robust vocabulary. In Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Jack Richards (2008) stresses that often one of the barriers between Intermediate and Advanced level students is that Intermediate learners rely heavily on lower-level vocabulary. In order to break into Advanced level language learning, students need to know 5,000 to 6,000 words. To further complicate matters, “knowing” a word goes far beyond being able to fill in a gap on a quiz. Students need to be able to, among other things, pronounce it, know the grammar rules that govern its form, differentiate it from similar words (for instance, ”cup” and “mug” distinguish between words that look the same but have different meanings (such as mean, as in unkind, and mean, as in “what does that word mean?”), discriminate between different levels of formality and attitudinal meanings (as in, “ask” and “demand”).

What Goes with What

In addition to a well-developed vocabulary, students also need to be adept users of collocation patterns. This brings to mind a presentation I attended at IATEFL a few years ago about Advanced learners. The speaker, Ben Goldstein, showed a letter about a trip on the screen and asked the audience to identify the words we thought upper level students would find challenging. In other words, what would we pre-teach if we wanted to use that letter in a class? Then, he pointed out all the words that a student might think he or she knew, but really didn’t. For instance, a learner might think “get” is a pretty low-level word and it is certainly in the 1000 word list. However, when paired with “carried away”, it becomes an Advanced level lexical chunk. I found this revelation fascinating because, even though I am an experienced teacher, I had not thought to pick out those smaller words. How embarrassing! Goldstein’s presentation proved to me that even though a word might seem “easy”, I need to be more aware of how it is being used and how it might trip up my students.

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