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On vocab learning

I don't remember if I had to learn lists of words at school, but I have the feeling I didn't. My teachers used a target language, structured, oral approach (Cours Illustré de Français) where vocabulary was limited to frequently used words, systematically practised in context and regularly revised.

I sometimes think teachers learn a lot about methodology from the way they were taught themselves, so when I began teaching my gut instinct was that vocabulary was best picked up "naturally" and that vocab learning was boring - there were better things students could be doing in class and for homework.

I was also aware that because learning vocab was dull for most students, they would avoid doing it, or do it in a cursory fashion on the bus to school. Some children with poorer recall find it really hard. You had to really raise the stakes of the test to make sure it was done well.

I'm sure there are students who enjoy the rigour of vocab learning and whose proficiency is improved by it. They may have very good memories. I would surmise that adult learners respond quite well to this type of learning. The current popularity of online programmes and apps such as Vocab Express and Memrise may be giving a boost to learning individual words. Is this a good thing? Is this an example of technology leading a dubious methodology? It's cheap and relatively easy to design vocab apps, much more expensive and difficult to make interactive comprehension material (e.g. Mylo, which cost a fortune). So my doubts remain...

If you have a limited time to acquire some skill in a modern language I would rather students were working at the level of whole sentences/utterances/ paragraphs. It's in this way that they develop their comprehension and, ultimately, fluency. Learning words is fine, but there are so many more interesting things they can be doing.


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