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

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.

What is a Teacher to Do?

So, clearly, to help students move beyond a 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; they can’t communicate. Here in Belgium, I am rarely silenced by a lack of grammar; I can usually make myself understood. But, not knowing a word can stop me in my tracks. For example, we had a water leak and it caused the wood floor in my bedroom to buckle. I had to ask my neighbour how to explain “buckle” in French before I could even think of phoning the landlord to report the problem. However, Keith Folse (2004) points out that, though vocabulary is really the end all and be all of language learning, text books often don’t focus on vocabulary building and language programs rarely offer vocabulary classes.

Even though I believe these deficiencies are slowly being rectified (my former university offers several levels of vocabulary classes), it is largely left to us teachers to help students develop their word banks. In my current teaching context, I provide vocabulary work on a regular basis. Especially for my Secondary students, having the perfect past tense won’t help them at all in Science class if they don’t know what an “amoeba” is. I usually follow an abridged version of Folse’s (2013) 9 Steps that I described in the previous post. Specifically, I have students begin a lesson with a card match of target word to definition. They can work on it as a group, as some have more background knowledge than others. Then, they copy the words and the definitions into their books. It’s a bit old-school to have them copy, but I firmly believe that this helps embed the words more firmly in their memories. Then, they have to translate the words. Many of my students won’t be at an English school forever. In fact, some come only for a year or two before they finish Secondary school in their home countries. So, they need to know “amoeba” in English for now and in their L1 for later. Then, in follow up lessons, we do readings and watch videos on the topic, revisiting the words again and again. We also play games, like the memory game (students turn up cards and try to find matches) and board games to help them remember. I often make my flashcards on Quizlet, which also provides games and review activities for each set of cards.

Clearly, knowing a lot of words is an important part of transitioning from Intermediate to Advanced learner. Teachers need to be aware of this and, because it takes a long time and a lot of effort to learn new words, we also need to identify which words are useful for our students to study.

Folse, K. (2004) Vocabulary Myths, University of Michigan Press.
Goldstein, B. (2010) “Countering classroom fatigue in advanced learners”, paper presented at IATEFL 2010 in Harrogate, UK.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.


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July 16, 2014 at 12:36 pm

[…] language users, they need to have access to a wider variety of words. In fact, in a recent posting, The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 3: The Constraints of a Limited Vocabulary, I summarized Jack Richard’s (2008) article, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to […]

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