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Enabling students to become autonomous learners of vocabulary

Teaching words

I taught English as a Foreign Language for many years in Japan and also for a short time in China. During my time as a teacher I always tried to focus on teaching words. I did this for a couple of reasons. First, in my experience as a foreign language learner, I saw the value in learning vocabulary. Learning words helped me to communicate a little bit more effectively, and allowed me to understand a little bit more. Moreover, I found vocabulary learning to be motivating. I might not see the gains that I made in speaking, listening, and grammar, but I could see that I knew more words each week, and this encouraged me to keep studying. Second, I could see that my students always made an effort to learn vocabulary; in every class as I walked around the classroom I could see that students had written new words in their books.

Despite my best efforts to teach vocabulary, I was always a little disappointed by the progress of my students. However, now that I have a better understanding of the research on vocabulary learning, I realise that I was part of the problem; I could have done a better job helping my students to learn vocabulary.

There are too many words to teach!

In my webinar, I will talk about several issues that I believe are really important to teaching and learning vocabulary. The first and basis for the talk is the fact that there are far too many words to teach. Native speakers of English know about 15,000 words, and to understand books and newspapers, students need to know around 8,000-9,000 words. Students may only learn a small proportion of these words in the classroom, which means that if they are to be successful in their lexical development, they need to learn the majority of words on their own outside of the classroom. This means that one of the most important jobs for teachers is to help their students to become effective and efficient autonomous learners of vocabulary.

Vocabulary learning strategies

There are several vocabulary learning strategies that instructors can teach to help their students to become more effective and efficient autonomous learners. All of these strategies are fairly simple, which is perhaps why typically little classroom time is spent on mastering vocabulary learning strategies. However, because of their great importance, it is worth spending a great deal of classroom time ensuring that students can effectively learn words on their own.

I will touch on a couple of vocabulary learning strategies in my webinar. The most important one involves working with different types of input that students might encounter outside of the classroom to show students that they can understand and enjoy English on their own. Input that students might be motivated to learn from such as English television programs, YouTube videos, shopping sites, and songs. Initially a great deal of these types of L2 input may be too difficult for students. However, with support from teachers over a sufficient period of time, students may find that not only can they have reasonable comprehension of the input, but they might also see that they can enjoy learning with it. Essential to this strategy is showing students that there are opportunities to enjoy learning English outside of the classroom, and how making the most of these opportunities is fundamental to L2 development. With teaching vocabulary learning strategies, it is not what is gained during the classroom that is of greatest value, but rather what is gained when students are encountering and using English outside of the classroom that is key.

In my upcoming webinar, I look forward to discussing with you how to help students become autonomous learners of L2 vocabulary. I believe there are some useful points in my webinar that would have helped me do a better job of helping my students to learn vocabulary when I was an EFL teacher. Hopefully there will be some value in the talk for each of you.

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Stuart Webb is a Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Western Ontario. Before teaching applied linguistics, he taught English as a foreign language in Japan and China for many years. His research interests include vocabulary, second language acquisition, and extensive reading, listening, and viewing. His latest book (with Paul Nation), How Vocabulary is Learned was published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

 


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Learner Autonomy

Group of college friendsJanet Hardy-Gould, a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer, discusses how to encourage learner autonomy in the higher education classroom.

Learner autonomy is when students take control and responsibility for their own learning, both in terms of what they learn and how they learn it. It takes as its starting point the idea that students are capable of self-direction and are able to develop an independent, proactive approach to their studies.

In the field of higher education, learner autonomy is particularly important. Students may have limited classroom contact time for learning English but they may need to rapidly increase their knowledge and skills. It is therefore important for them to become self-reliant language learners who can continue learning efficiently outside the classroom.

At the heart of autonomous learning is the student’s perception of their own role as a learner. Classroom discussion and one-to-one conversations with the teacher can help students to understand the essential part that they play in their own success in English. Establish that autonomous, dynamic students have the potential to learn far more than passive, reactive learners. Self-reliant students can address their own individual needs and make ongoing progress.

Autonomy involves students having a range of learning strategies which they are able to apply flexibly in different contexts. Teachers can help students to develop learning strategies through learner training in the classroom and this can take many forms. One important practical step is awareness-raising on how to use self-reference tools such as English-English dictionaries and grammar books.

In the early stages of a course it is useful to demonstrate as a class how to use such resources effectively. For example, when reading a text in lessons, encourage students to choose a small number of new words which they are unable to deduce from context.  Ask them to look up the words in an English-English dictionary. If there is more than one entry for the word, discuss which one is the correct meaning for that context. Use the opportunity to highlight the rich range of information found in a dictionary such as pronunciation and word class.

Encourage students to capitalize on their dictionary work by selecting and noting down any useful words in a personalised vocabulary book or list. Set students homework tasks such as reading a text of their choice and researching a limited number of words in an English-English dictionary. Encourage them to reflect on the process in class. This can help students to transfer skills beyond the classroom and become more resourceful and autonomous learners.

Janet Hardy-Gould is a materials writer, teacher and teacher-trainer who has been in the field of English language teaching for over twenty years. She has worked for a range of ELT organizations and now teaches periodically at the University of Sussex in England. Her interests include the development of engaging reading materials for teenage and adult learners and she has written over twenty-five ELT books for OUP, including graded readers, resource books, and workbooks.

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