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Vocabulary in your students’ writing: the Bottom Line

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WritingCheryl Boyd Zimmerman is the series director of Inside Writing and vocabulary consultant for Q: Skills for Success. In this article, she takes a look at vocabulary development in the classroom.

Isn’t it obvious?  In order to write well, we need to know a lot of words, and we need to know a lot about each word so we can use it to say what we mean.  In fact, without the knowledge of many words, our writing is stymied – or should I say crimped? impeded?  blocked? snookered? A word choice transmits not only meaning, but tone and subtleties of meaning such as familiarity or distance, precision or vagueness, certainty or ambiguity, earnestness or light-heartedness and more.  For academic writing, this becomes especially challenging. In order to communicate as I intend, I need to know the ways in which words vary and then I need a wide variety of words from which to make my choices.

Why isn’t vocabulary development included in every writing class?  Perhaps we underestimate the difficulty of this task and prefer to spend precious classroom time on other issues.  Or perhaps we don’t know how to integrate word learning into writing in a way that is relevant to the writing task.  But by not spending time developing our students’ vocabulary, we are hindering their writing development and academic success.

This article suggests some techniques that address vocabulary development at each stage of the writing process: pre-writing, drafting, revision and editing, and gives you the bottom line when it comes to explaining the role of vocabulary to your students.

Pre-writing

This is the stage in which we gather ideas, develop thoughts and analyze the writing task.  First, what type of writing (genre) is to be used:  newspaper article? persuasive essay? summary? blog?  This helps sort through the topic, choose how to focus attention and be clear about purpose and audience.  Next, focus on finding a topic and exploring it with a purpose in mind. Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. To help students with both genre identification and topic development, use high-interest readings to provide clear models and to spawn ideas.

A focus on vocabulary can illuminate the topic and guide the planning.  Pre-writing activities with a lexical focus might include:

  • Brainstorming:
    • Students read the writing prompt or a short passage about the topic, and identify 1-2 words that stand out as central to the topic. For each one, students generate as many related words in 5-10 minutes without censoring themselves.
    • Pairs or small groups compare lists, and explain their choices, keeping the topic and genre in mind. Encourage students to share words and add to their lists.
  • Freewriting:
    • Students write non-stop for 5-10 minutes about whatever comes to mind that might relate to the topic, again without censoring themselves. Next, students reread what they wrote and circle words that seem important to what they want to say. Include words that describe facts, important names, opinions and feelings.  Include synonyms that are related words in different registers.
    • Using these selected words, describe your plans to a partner.
  • Paragraph Analyses:
    • Select a paragraph that is written in the same genre or on the same topic as the assignment. Provide copies or project on a screen.  Read  together as a class, drawing attention to vocabulary with questions such as:
      • Which academic words are used here? (See examples here).
      • Which everyday words are used here?
      • Focus on one well-used word at a time; what is behind the author’s choice of each word? Select another paragraph and repeat this activity. Pairs work together to answer the same questions as above.  Compare answers.

        Bottom Line for Your Students
        Different types of writing use different types of words.  Even very academic papers don’t use a large number of academic words, but they use them effectively.   Academic texts contain an average of 10% academic words (Coxhead, 2006).

Drafting Stage

In this stage, vocabulary activities can evolve from a focus on meaning to a refinement of meaning, always related to whom you are writing for and why you are writing.

  • As your students begin their first draft, refer to the words they identified during prewriting. Organize the way these words relate to each other as they develop their first draft.
  • Return to the source text for the assignment or other relevant articles on the same topic. Identify words that stand out to your students as interesting and important to the message.  Use these words in the writing.

    Bottom Line for Your Students
    Word learning doesn’t just mean to learn new words, but also to learn to have confidence to use words that you recognize but don’t use often.  Writing gives you a chance to use partially-known words and to build your knowledge of these words.

Revision Stage
The revision stage is a time to check that your students’ writing responded to the prompt, and that it focused on the purpose and audience as intended.  Examples of doing this with a focus on vocabulary include:

  • Ask your students to re-read the prompt and then re-read their papers. Do they address the prompt? Are there any words in the prompt that can be added to their papers for the purpose of congruity?
  • Read through the papers and look for vague words (good; nice; very). With purpose and topic in mind, change them to be more specific and clear.

    Bottom Line for Your Students
    A study of 178 university professors found that the greatest problem with the writing of non-native speakers in their classes was vocabulary.  They said vocabulary (more than grammar) kept them from understanding the meaning.  (Santos, 1988)  Your word choices are very important.

Editing Stage

The editing stage can be used as a guided opportunity to check for details of word-use including subtleties of meaning, lexical variety, grammatical features, derivatives and collocations. With this stage, students work with a final or near-final draft.  Guide students to read through all or part of the paper, focusing on one task at a time.

  • Lexical variety: Did they over-use any words?  Did they repeat the same word in the same sentence?
  • Noun use: Check their accuracy: Are they plural? singular? countable?  uncountable?
  • Verb use: Do they “agree” with the nouns in plurality? Check for verb completion.  Do the verbs need to be followed by an object?  Do they need a “that clause?”
  • Academic word use: Underline each academic word used.  Has the student used them correctly?  (when in doubt, check a dictionary)  Do they have enough? Too many?

    Bottom Line for Your Students
    You may have been taught to focus on grammar when you edit your paper, but grammar and vocabulary often overlap. Take time to focus on individual words; do they say what you mean and say it accurately?

Please leave your ideas in the comments below.Writing instruction and word learning belong together.  These are some examples of ways to engage vocabulary development in writing. As you reflect on your writing classroom, what else can you add about vocabulary and writing?

References

Coxhead, A. (2006).  Essentials of teaching academic vocabulary.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Santos, T. (1988). Professors’ reactions to the academic writing of nonnative-speaking students. TESOL Quarterly 22(1), 69-90.

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3 thoughts on “Vocabulary in your students’ writing: the Bottom Line

  1. Vocabulary is use to students writing practices very helpful.A good vocabulary is an indispensable tool. If you have several synonyms in your repertoire you’ll be able to choose the best word for the job.

  2. Many good ideas here. I especially like having students write for several minutes without censoring their words so
    they can elicit words more naturally. Also, we often concentrate so much on grammar that we overlook asking for
    new vocabulary in revision.

    Thank you for this very useful essay. I definitely will try her techniques.

    Carol

  3. Nice post. The points you have covered are very interesting and will surely help doctorate student in their research. I am a PhD myself and now I provide thesis writing help to PhD doctorates who are lacking behind in their research.

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