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You’ve got to have a system: vocabulary development in EFL

vocabulary development in ESLJulie Norton, a university lecturer and materials writer, considers the benefits of adopting a systematic approach to vocabulary development and suggests a checklist for evaluating the vocabulary included in teaching materials.

Takeaway Value

All learners want to feel that they are making progress, so it is important for them to take away something at the end of each lesson. Learning new vocabulary is very motivating, particularly for adult learners, because they often feel they have learnt a great deal of grammar at school. Vocabulary is an area where they can make tangible gains relatively quickly, provided they are given appropriate guidance and support.

Vocabulary learning is more effective when it is focused and systematic rather than incidental (Nation and Newton, 2009). For example, explicitly teaching the form and meaning of a word, including its spelling, pronunciation and grammatical requirements (e.g. irregular plural, countable noun, phrasal verb etc.) is more effective than leaving vocabulary learning to chance or dealing with it on an ad hoc basis as it arises in class. Learners usually need to encounter a vocabulary item several times before they can recall it. It also helps them to see a word or phrase in a variety of contexts and to have the opportunity to use it to express their own meanings, so practice is crucial.

Coursebooks have several advantages when it comes to presenting vocabulary in a systematic way. For example, they aim to teach a certain number of words per lesson and per unit. These words are recycled in revision sections and in consecutive units of the book. Word lists and extra practice activities are often included at the end of the book.  There are also other components, such as workbooks, online practice, and apps which can usefully support and extend vocabulary development inside and outside class.

Knowing you are learning the right words

Coverage of the most important words should be a priority of a language course. Learners have a finite amount of time, so it seems sensible to focus on the most useful lexical items and the most frequent or prototypical meanings of these items first. A systematic approach to vocabulary development can assure learners that they are focussing on the right words and help them gain control over essential, high frequency items.

In recent years, computer corpora (electronically held collections of spoken and written texts) have been drawn upon to inform the development of language teaching materials to ensure coverage of the most frequent words and phrases.  The Oxford 3000™ is a corpus-informed list of the three thousand most important words for language learners which have been selected according to three criteria: frequency, range and familiarity. The keywords in the Oxford 3000 are frequent across a range of different text types and from a variety of contexts. The list also includes some words which are not highly frequent but which are familiar to most users of English (for example, parts of the body or words used in travel).

Developing awareness of vocabulary as a system

Words do not exist in isolation: they form partnerships and relationships with other words and pattern in certain ways (e.g. regular spellings and sound patterns). Presenting vocabulary as a system by focussing on word-building (e.g. affixes); the underlying meanings of words; and collocations (words that often occur together), for example, can make aspects of this system more explicit for learners, speed up vocabulary learning and develop greater language awareness.

A check-list for evaluating systematic vocabulary development

Here is a list of questions that teachers can ask to engage more critically with the vocabulary content of their teaching materials.

  1. Can you easily identify the target vocabulary in the lesson?
  2. Why are students learning this vocabulary?
  3. Is it useful and appropriate for their level?
  4. How much new vocabulary is taught in each lesson/ in each unit?
  5. Have students been presented with enough information to use the new vocabulary? (e.g. context; collocation)
  6. How many opportunities do students have to use the new vocabulary in the lesson/in the unit? Is this enough?
  7. What strategies are included for learning and developing knowledge of vocabulary (e.g. developing awareness of vocabulary as a system; recording and recalling vocabulary)?
  8. What opportunities do students have to revise and study this vocabulary outside class? Does the course package provide other components to facilitate vocabulary development?

Reference

Nation, I.S.P. and Newton, J. (2009) Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking, New York and London: Routledge.


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Teaching phrases and expressions – a language teacher’s nightmare?

Woman with hand over mouthTamás Lőrincz, a teacher and teacher trainer, shares his tips for tackling English phrases in and out of the classroom.

Do you know what Scotch Mist is? Honour bright? Before I started writing this post, I didn’t have a clue. I was off my head with joy to find a book on my bookshelf with 420 idiomatic, colloquial, and proverbial expressions, published in 1939. Have you ever entertained an angel unawares? Do you even know what it means? Before writing this post, I certainly didn’t.

A Textbook of English - W. O. Vincent

A Textbook of English
W. O. Vincent

The chief purpose of W. O. Vincent’s A Textbook of English for Foreign Students was “to provide material for practice with words and combinations of words, so that the student is able to build up an extensive vocabulary, and to become familiar with their uses and shades of meaning.” (From the jacket blurb)

In the 74 years since this book was published, English teachers are still trying to achieve the same aim. Our job, of course, has become more complex. Coursebook authors and editors are very selective as to which turns of phrase to include in their books, while teachers are also careful to make sure that the idiomatic expressions they teach their students are relevant to their lives.

Of course, corpora are very useful in making such decisions, but they are ultimately time-bound. Some of them have been based on databases that are hundreds of years old and the frequency of appearance of certain phrases are not always an accurate representation of how language is currently used.

As teachers, we like checklists. So, let’s make a list of five things we can all do to make sure that the phrases we use and teach are not outdated.

1. Search

I know – obvious. Search engines like Google are one of the best ways of checking current usage. Just check the number of hits and it will tell you immediately whether you should bother teaching it or not.

2. Read

Yes, I’m going to be even more obvious now. Tabloids, regardless of your personal opinion of them, do feature a lot of language grounded in the colourful and flexible use of English. Handled correctly, they are an interesting classroom resource that can generate discussion about how and why specific phrases and expressions are used.

3. Sing

Check out the lyrics of some of the top 20 songs. Popular music is an inexhaustible supply. Just look at this week’s top single in the UK (Katy Perry’s ROAR at the time of writing). Katy Perry starts with two beautiful phrases your students will gobble up in no time:

I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath…

4. Watch

If you don’t want to hear Katy Perry ROAR (which I find absolutely understandable), you can watch a movie with your class as well. Even the worst movies are potentially valuable sources of current usage, interesting twists and turns of the language.

If you want something ready-made and reliable. Kieran Donaghy’s ELTon award winning Film English website gives you some fantastic opportunities to teach, practice and learn new phrases and expressions.

5. Socialise

Provided your students are digitally literate and know how to safely manage themselves online, you can help them find friends on Facebook and Twitter. Interacting with online friends can cause an explosion of new vocabulary, packed with up-to-date and intriguing phrases and expressions.

Google Hangouts and Skype chats are also fantastic tools for enabling your class to talk to new people, no matter where in the world they might be. Many teachers use Skype and Google Hangouts to connect with other classrooms around the world, giving their students valuable exposure to informal English.

You may have heard these suggestions before, and they are tried, tested, and produce positive results. (And there’s no point in re-inventing the wheel, as they say). We live in an age of global connectivity and lightning-quick access to information, yet it’s sometimes difficult to remember that English surrounds us, no matter where in the world we may be. With a bit of effort and willingness, we can enable our students to interact with others in English more easily, and give them the tools they need to understand and use idiomatic English more confidently.

And if you were hoping for a bonus suggestion, here it is: keep a lookout for a pretty good-looking smartphone application coming your way from Oxford University Press. From what I have seen – yes, I had a sneak peek; the perks of guest posting 😉 – it will be great fun for teachers and students alike.

Now over to you. What are your preferred ways of teaching phrases and expressions? Please share your tips with us in the comments to this post.