Alice Savage and Colin Ward are professors of ESOL at Lone Star College – North Harris in Houston, USA. This article is adapted from their presentation ‘Beginning Writing Students and the Vocabulary-Grammar Continuum’ at the 2014 International TESOL Conference in Portland, Oregon.
Words are powerful things. When we look at research-based word lists, such as the General Service List or the Oxford 3000, we come across many useful words that can inform our teaching of vocabulary in the classroom. We know these words are the most important for our students to learn. Yet, from the perspective of the student, the task of acquiring these lists of words can be daunting.
One challenge is length. How can students learn hundreds, or even thousands, of words when learning only a select few at a time? And once new words are introduced, how can they be internalized without a sufficient amount of recycling and repurposing?
Another and more interesting challenge is meaning. Meaning turns out to be a complicated notion when dealing with high-frequency words. For example, the Oxford 3000 includes three main categories. The first includes content words such as red, car, fast, which are obvious and easy to teach. The meaning is sharp and clear, so it can easily be demonstrated with a white board, a photo or pantomime.
The second category includes grammar words. The words so, is, the, of, and their high frequency siblings hold a prominent position on the list and yet resist attempts to be neatly defined as solitary words. These worker bee words have become so directly associated with specific functions that they have become grammar (Larsen-Freeman, 2013). Their place on a word list is obvious, and they get much treatment in grammar syllabi.
Then there is a third more elusive category, which we call shadow words. Words such as join, thing, important and place are extremely useful but difficult to teach because they hide in the shadows of other words. Rather than being specific in meaning like the content words, shadow words tend to be abstract, vague, and flexible. They may not call attention to themselves, but they are important because a great number of other words like to partner with them in collocations. (Schmitt, 2000).
As a result of their accommodating nature, shadow words can be very useful when taught in phrases. For example, become is quietly helpful. Phrases such as become an engineer, become friends, or become rich illustrate the supportive nature of become. When become is taught with other words, learners can better pick up the meaning of both. Become does not like being alone. It needs friends.
Shadow words can also have multiple personalities. They take on different meanings depending on their context. Have appears on high-frequency word lists because it collocates with so many other words—have fun, have a sister, have to leave, have an idea, have enough money—yet each pairing has its own personality.
So, in looking at all these different types of words that populate high frequency word lists, it becomes clear that vocabulary is not just one thing. While some words can meaningfully stand alone, many of the most common words prefer to be in groups. These words unleash their full power when paired with other words in collocations (word partners), lexical chunks (groups of commonly occurring words that include grammar), and prefabs (fixed expressions that allow students to frame ideas by slotting in different vocabulary) (Hinkel, 2004).
Perhaps it is possible to conceive of teaching language a third way, not to present vocabulary lists, word form charts, and grammar items separately but together on the same continuum.
There are many benefits to this approach. If students are exposed to words in these groupings, they have more opportunities to gather and use words in their natural environments. Furthermore, these distinct environments can help classroom participants make decisions about which meaning or meanings to focus on (Hyland, 2004). For example, play means one thing when talking about children and toys, and another when used in an academic setting as in, Teachers play a role in helping students choose vocabulary.
Teaching words in phrases also mitigates the difficulty of learning parts of speech because students see adjectives being used before nouns, and nouns as objects of verbs or the subjects of sentences. They can establish cognitive hooks for storing the words in the same manner in which they will be used (Schmitt, 2000).
Finally, words in phrases maximize vocabulary learning by providing whole unit chunks of meaning that clarify individual words at the same time. A list of 12 phrases includes more language than a list of 12 individual words. For example, the lexical chunk blew snow in our faces can be visually depicted in one go while teaching 5 different words, including content words, shadow words, and grammar words.
The following example activities demonstrate how vocabulary and grammar can support each other in providing useful language for specific writing tasks. While each activity has a specific aim, the basic structure can be adapted for different topics and purposes.
Having students attend to the boundaries beyond individual words can begin to help them see vocabulary and grammar on a continuum and may be one approach to making vocabulary learning more meaningful and efficient. Collocations, lexical chunks, and prefabs can be used to introduce not just content words, but also grammar and shadow words. Through scaffolding, students can then learn how to mix and match these words to produce new lexical strings. They will see that words are not just dynamic, but do in fact have many friends.
Hinkel, E. (2004). Innovative and Efficient Construction Grammar. Selected papers from the 21st International Symposium on English Teaching. English Teacher’s Association, Republic of China (ETA-ROC), Taipei, 51-59.
Hyland, K. (2004). Genre and second language writing. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (2013). Transfer of Learning Transformed. Language Learning 63:Suppl. 1 pp. 107-129 Language Learning Research Club, University of Michigan DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9922.2012.00740.x
Schmitt, N. (2000). Lexical chunks. ELT Journal, Volume 54 (4), 400-401. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Savage, A. & Ward, C. (in press). Trio Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.