Archive for Tag: vocabulary

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.

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.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Words! Words! Words!

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

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.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

I often ask students whether they have any problem understanding “small” English words like “a,” “the,” “it,” “at,” and “in.” They invariably reply that they do. Luckily, I have some great advice for them:

“There’s no point in worrying about them. You’re never going to understand them properly anyway, so you might as well just give up.”

I want to stress that I am not being facetious when I say this – I genuinely mean it. As I have mentioned before, I really struggled with Japanese when I started to learn it, and it was the small words that caused me the biggest problems. Actually, if someone asked me to choose the most difficult part of Japanese, I would have to say not a word, but two single letters. Japanese has something called “particles,” and the difference between two of themwa and ga—(these are single letters in the Japanese alphabet) is completely mystifying to speakers of languages like English that don’t use the same system. Of course, this is not something that is unique to Japanese. I have observed the same phenomenon with speakers of Asian languages trying to learn English articles.

Whilst it is true to say that wa and ga are mystifying for non-Japanese, it is also true to say that they are pretty mystifying for Japanese speakers too! Of course, Japanese people can use these particles correctly, but very few could explain the rules that govern their usage.

Even for teachers, it is often the “small” words of a language that cause the most problems. I remember talking to an experienced teacher when I started my first teaching job in Singapore. Faced with a syllabus of complicated grammar such as the past perfect tense, the passive voice, and conditionals, I asked my colleague which he thought was the most difficult to teach. He did not hesitate. “Without a shadow of a doubt,” he said, “the most difficult thing to teach in English is the word ‘the’.” (We were teaching mainly Asian students.) With twenty years of experience under my belt, I would have to say that I completely agree with him.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Learning to Listen

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

For years (and years and years), whenever I had to teach “listening”, I just popped the CD into the machine, pressed play and hoped for the best while the students scrambled to fill in the gaps, answer the questions or match the cards. I always had the sneaking suspicion that I could, and in fact, should, be doing a lot more to support my students’ listening development, but aside from listening practice and more listening practice, I was not sure what else to do. In spite of my many years of teaching and the confidence I feel helping students with speaking and pronunciation, I felt like a neophyte when it came to teaching listening. So, imagine my relief when, as the Speech, Listening and Pronunciation Chair elect, I was tasked with organizing an Academic Session at TESOL on teaching listening for the 2013 TESOL Conference in Dallas. It was actually Helen Solorzano who organized the session, and all I had to do was show up, take credit, and learn!

Top Down Strategies – Check!

So, here’s what I learned: it turns out that what I have been doing for all these years was, in fact, “testing” listening and not teaching it at all. I needed to back up a bit and think about listening as speech processing. Dr. Steve Brown spoke about how listening is a combination of top down and bottom up strategies. Stronger listeners make more use of top down strategies, which means they pull from their general knowledge about the context and the topic to make inferences about the listening. Happily, a lot of texts on the market encourage students to do this by including pictures and warm up questions designed to activate students’ prior knowledge about the topic. As a result, even in my very primitive approach to teaching listening, I did occasionally manage to expose my students to top down listening strategies.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In Praise of Explaining

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

When I did my initial teaching course way back in 1992, our trainers made it clear that standing at the front of the class and explaining things to students was simply not the done thing. Good teachers, we were told, don’t explain things; good teachers have special techniques for “eliciting” or “facilitating discovery” of the points they want to get across.

I suspect that this was a reaction to the excessively teacher-centered methods that had gone before, and to be fair, my trainers did have a point. After all, who wants to sit in a classroom and be “talked at” day after day? As with so many things in our profession, however, this new awareness did not result in a logical “Perhaps we should do less one-way explaining” or “Perhaps we should combine explaining with other methods of instruction,” but rather the more reactionary “Right! Nobody is to explain anything anymore!”

This way of thinking was particularly noticeable in the area of vocabulary instruction. In the 1990s, no self-respecting teacher would offer students a simple translation of a new word. Well, not in an observed lesson, anyway! I remember being told that there was no need to translate words because a skilled teacher should be able to convey the meaning of any vocabulary item through other methods, such as the use of gestures or mime. I still hear this claim a lot even now: I can explain any word without using the students’ language!

Again, an argument can be made in favor of this approach, but I think it misses an extremely important point that is often overlooked in language teaching: the question we should be asking ourselves is not “Is it possible for me to do XYZ?” but rather “Is XYZ the most productive way of using the very limited time available?” It is all very well contorting yourself to demonstrate the meaning of a word like “accelerate” through exaggerated mime, but is that really the best use of the teacher’s and the students’ time?

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Monday, August 1, 2011

Brainstorming Vocabulary

Richard Firsten By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I recently came to a difficult decision that it was time to retile most of the floors in my house. Where I live, very few people have carpeting in their homes. The climate is just too hot and much too humid most of the year. So, after 29 years of living with the same ceramic tile floors and watching them deteriorate more and more over those years, I took the plunge.

Just by coincidence a neighbor down the block whom I’ve known for a very long time had just finished having her house remodeled with all the work done (breaking down a couple of walls, adding a whole room to the house, retiling, etc.) by just one man and his uncle. I was so impressed at the work when the project was finished that I knew he and his uncle were the men for my project, so I hired them to retile my floors. But there was just one thing: They didn’t speak English, just Spanish.

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Look at That and Watch What Happens, Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

In my last piece, I asked that you look at 14 pairs of words and see if you could clearly and simply explain the distinctions between the two words or phrases in each pair. I said that I’d post my own interpretations in my next piece – this one – and that it would be fun to compare notes. So let’s get to it!

 

  • a bee’s sting: a wound inflicted by a bee, i.e., the aggressive action of a bee

A bee’s sting can be as painful as a wasp’s.

  • a bee sting: an actual wound already inflicted by a bee

That bee sting you got yesterday still looks pretty inflamed.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Look at That and Watch What Happens.

Richard FirstenBy Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

You’ve put some questions on the board that you want your students to answer in writing so you can get an idea of their writing skills. One of the questions you’ve ask is “Do you like gardening?”

A student hands in her paper, and her answer to that question is

 

 

“Uh-oh!” you say to yourself. Right away you know you’ve got to make three corrections to that sentence, so when the student gets back her paper with your corrections, she sees the following changes you’ve made:

 

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sneaked vs. Snuck: What Ngram Tells Us

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series
betty@azargrammar.com

I have just discovered an online tool that I think will be fun and useful for all of us who are fascinated by English language usage. It is Google Labs Ngram Viewer, released by Google in December, 2010.

The Ngram Viewer graphs usage frequency from 1800 to 2000, based on the corpus of millions of books that Google has thus far scanned.

The first word I looked up was snuck. Through my years of writing textbooks, I debated whether to include snuck in an advanced-level reference chart of irregular

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Singing the Way to Conversation Success!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

So, there I was, tearing through the streets of Brussels, chatting away with my taxi driver in my halting French. He was telling me (if I understood correctly) that he had family in Quebec, and I wanted to tell him that even though I am from Canada, I have never been to Quebec. As I was trying to cobble together a grammatically correct negative, the lyrics from a French song suddenly popped into my head. Non, je ne regrette rien. Thanks to French songstress Edith Pilaf, I got my negative right! Je n’ai jamais visite Quebec. As a teacher, I have been using music in my English classes for a while, but this was the first time I had a personal experience that backed up my hunch that singing is a great language learning tool.

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