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Words with pictures: help or hindrance?

First, I'm going to assume that most of you do teach vocabulary explicitly to novices and that you often do so with pictures. There are good reasons for doing so - memorability, avoiding interference from the first language, holding pupils' interest to name three.

When you show pictures to beginners or near-beginners on a PowerPoint or hand-held flashcard do you prefer to show the written word with the picture or not? At what point do you like pupils to see the written word? Here are a few thoughts on the issue.

Now when I began teaching I was encouraged (in the good old direct method - avoid English - way) to introduce spoken words before written ones. The rationale was something like this:

  • When we learn a first language in early years we do so almost solely without the use of written words. If we believe second language acquisition is fundamentally the same as fist language acquisition, why not try to match the way caregivers "teach" their children?
  • Speech is primary, writing secondary. Our brains are "wired" to acquire language orally. Teach sounds first, written words later.
  • Seeing the written word can lead many pupils to mispronounce because of interference from the first language, so avoid showing the written word until pronunciation is accurate.
  • Not seeing the word may get pupils to fully enjoy the phonology of the language without distraction from orthography.
I largely stuck to this approach throughout my career, but became gradually just a little less enamoured with it. I became a tad less ideological and a tad more pragmatic, if you like.

The recent focus on phonics (matching phonemes and syllables to graphemes) has meant that more teachers these days may be keen to show pupils the equivalence between oral and written language at an earlier stage. This might mean, for example, displaying the word alongside the picture immediately and highlighting particular letter combinations, particularly ones which might cause difficulty (e.g. in French "oi" "au" "ou" "u" "er" and so on). The rationale for showing the written word from the outset might go something like this:
  • Seeing the word and the picture together might lead to better retention.
  • Pupils quickly learn sound-letter matches so become better readers and pronouncers in the long run (e.g. they might be able to pronounce nonsense words accurately as they do in those L1 primary school tests).
  • Seeing spellings might remind pupils about cognates and similarities or differences in spelling between the target language and English.
  • Seeing the word early on may avoid subsequent spelling errors (as pupils guess the spelling from the sounds they have heard (e.g. in French 5 = sank).
I'm not sure there are any right answers here and if I had to recommend anything it would be to delay showing the word or phrase initially to try to establish good pronunciation, then quickly show the spelling soon after. Get pupils to repeat both from the sounds alone AND by reading the written word aloud. This allows you to have another pass at a picture with an added element, thus providing more repetition in a slightly different way (generally a smart language teaching approach). To reiterate, we don't really want pupils to guess spellings, but we also want them to repeat sounds as accurately as possible.

Some readers may prefer to avoid teaching vocabulary in this way at all, e.g. by not using pictures or always teaching words in the context of sentences or short paragraphs. Some may even believe that vocab is best learned implicitly through general listening and reading, but research (e.g. the vocabulary "gurus" Paul Nation and Batia Laufer) supports explicit teaching of words and chunks to both beginners and, to a lesser extent, more experienced learners.

I wonder what you think. Feel free to comment!

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