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Making Vocabulary Activities that Stand Out | Nick Michelioudakis

I have always felt that we teachers we are a bit like cooks – thinking about what we are going to serve our children the next day, worrying about how varied their diet is, the ingredients etc. Increasingly, however, I feel there is a problem with the way we approach our task: do we worry far too much about the nutritional value of our meals? The result is that our dishes are bland and our students go ‘Oh, not that again’. And what is our response? ‘But it’s good for you’.

In this short article, I would like to argue that if we have a sound knowledge of spices (psychological principles) we can select activities which are both nutritious and tasty – by which I mean useful and fun.

Activity 1: ‘Colour in the Passage’ Look at this activity. What could be wrong with it? The teacher has been teaching her class about adjectives (see the first paragraph) and now she has given them a consolidation activity where they have to fill in the gaps (see the second one).

‘One sunny day, my little puppy jumped onto our red couch and played with his fun new toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so lively and excited, so full of life. Soon, my playful puppy yawned. He was an exhausted puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his soft, round bed. Soon my sleepy puppy was snoring away’.

‘One ……… day, my ……… puppy jumped onto our ……… couch and played with his ……… new toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so ……… and ………, so full of life. Soon, my ……… puppy yawned. He was an ……… puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his ………, ……… bed. Soon my ……… puppy was snoring away’.

[ playful / sleepy / sunny / excited / round / fun / little / soft / exhausted / lively / red ]

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the activity is bad, but it’s just not interesting enough. You get all your vitamins, but you can just picture the expression on the students’ faces.

Now, what if we were to tweak it a little? What if we were to give students the paragraph without the adjectives OR the gaps and we asked them to add some colour to it (‘What is the puppy like?’ / ‘What is the bed like?’ / ‘How was the puppy feeling?’).

‘One day, my puppy jumped onto our couch and played with his toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so full of life. Soon, my puppy yawned. He was a puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his bed. Soon my puppy was snoring away’.

Students might then come up with something like this:

‘One day, my lovely puppy jumped onto our long, comfortable couch and played with his new, stuffed toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so excited and care-free, so happy and full of life. Soon, my cute puppy yawned. He was a young puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his cosy, warm bed. Soon my adorable little puppy was snoring away’.

Principle 1: The IKEA Effect. Why is the latter activity better than the previous one? The answer is that students are free to imagine the scene for themselves and to add something of themselves to the task. They are free to invest. Psychologists have discovered that when we work on something ourselves we endow it with special value; that’s why we so often think the salad we make is so much better than the fancy risotto someone else has prepared (though of course others may well disagree). Activities where students can contribute something or better still, make something themselves are likely to be better than ones where they simply manipulate language. The moral: get students to create things.

Activity 2 – ‘AQBL’:  Let us say that (for some reason best known to yourself) you have been teaching your students vocabulary related to cars, car engines, and car characteristics in general. To practice the vocabulary, you do a drill where students in pairs practice asking each other questions. You give them the second table, so they have to come up with the vocabulary themselves when constructing the questions.

Top Speed 230 km/h
Acceleration 7 sec (0-100)
Fuel Capacity 68 litres
Consumption 9 litres/100 km
Engine Output 180 HP
Boot Capacity 640 litres
Reliability Rating 7 / 10
Performance Rating 9 / 10
  …… km/h
   …… sec (0-100)
  …… litres
  …… litres/100 km
  …… HP
  …… litres
  ……  / 10
  ……  / 10

So the interaction might go like this (S1: Prospective Buyer / S2: Car Salesman):

S1: What is this car’s top speed?

S2: It’s 230 km/h.

S1: And what about its acceleration?

S2: It goes from 0 to 100 km/h in 7 seconds.

S1: I see. How much petrol does the tank hold?

S2: Its fuel capacity is 68 litres.

S1: Does it have a powerful engine? ….etc.

By now you know what my objection is going to be… But what if we were to tweak the activity a little? The new activity is called ‘Answer the Question Before Last [AQBL]’. When S1 asks a question, S2 says nothing; when S1 asks the second question, S2 answers the first one (!) etc. etc. For example:

S1: What is this car’s top speed?

S2: (…says nothing)

S1: And what about its acceleration?

S2: It’s 230 km/h.

S1: I see. How much petrol does the tank hold?

S2: It goes from 0 to 100 km/h in 7 seconds.

S1: Does it have a powerful engine?

S2: Its fuel capacity is 68 litres…. etc.

Principle 2: Incongruity. I am prepared to bet money that students are going to like the second activity far more than the first one. The principle behind it is that of ‘Incongruity’. Psychologists have discovered that when things unfold the way we expect them to, our brain switches to autopilot; we almost fall asleep, a bit like that puppy in the previous activity, and consequently, we learn very little. However, if something unexpected happens, then our brain goes ‘Ooops! What was this?’ and then we are wide awake, we pay attention and we remember things (no wonder advertisers love this idea!). To get your students to pay attention, break the script – get them to do something unexpected!

Five New Recipes for your Vocabulary Cookbook: So this is the idea behind my upcoming webinar. I hope to demonstrate five activities which both help our students learn vocabulary better and which stand out in some way. Each task will help illustrate a principle of Psychology which I believe is worth bearing in mind when cooking our Lesson Plans.

Here is an extra insight: How can you tell if your idea has worked? Well, how do you know if your dishes taste great? If the diners are licking their fingers, you know your food is good. Similarly, you know an activity is good if, when it is over, the students want to keep going.

 

 

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Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has travelled and given seminars and workshops in many countries all over the world.

He has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles in which he draws on insights from such disciplines as Marketing, Management and Social Psychology and which have appeared in numerous newsletters and magazines.

His areas of interest include Student Motivation, Learner Independence, Teaching one-to-one, and Humour.


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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.