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The curse of single word vocab learning

I’m not generally one to go around criticising what teachers do. If you read my blogs you’ll know that I believe many things work if they’re done well. Success is often in the quality of delivery. But one thing which gives me repeated cause for concern is the time pupils spend on learning individual words. This can be in the form of traditional printed book lists or by the slightly snazzier means of apps such as Memrise, Vocab Express or Quizlet.

You see, the research on vocabulary acquisition suggests to us that, while explicitly learning islated words can be useful, it’s not the MOST useful thing to be doing with limited time. If you read the scholars Paul Nation or Joe Barcroft on vocabulary acquisition, they will tell you that “knowing” a word is complex. It’s not just about recognising and being able to say and recall that word, it’s about, among other things, picking it out in a stream of sound, knowing the company that word keeps and the various morphological forms the word appears in. They’ll also tell you that we acquire second language vocabulary (both words and chunks) incidentally through listening and reading, so providing plenty of comprehensible input builds vocab knowledge.

Cognitive science also tells us that memorising chunks of language is more efficient than doing so through isolated words. We can hold a handful of items in working memory; that handful could be in the form of four single words or four longer phrases. Put crudely, you get more bang for your buck with phrases.

My conclusion has always been that the best way to help students acquire vocabulary is to present and practise it in meaningful contexts. How many people particularly enjoy trying to memorise lists of words? Would they prefer reading interesting texts containing the same vocab? Would they favour using new vocab in meaningful classroom exchanges? Would they derive more enjoyment from constructing their own sentences and short spoken or written texts for homework?

Now, vocab learning from lists has long been a staple of MFL homework. Learn and test. Learn and test. I sometimes used the approach myself, all the while suspecting it was dull and lazy teaching. I repeat: it’s not useless, just not the most fruitful way to proceed.

I believe vocab learning is to some extent what’s sometimes called a “proxy for learning”, i.e. it looks like effective learning but isn’t. Some satisfaction is gained by knowing pupils got 10/10, but how far does this then transfer into general comprehension or productive use thereafter?

My strong impression is that apps have reinforced the practice of learning isolated words. The digital tool may make the practice more palatable, but still doesn’t justify it. In addition, the abuse of Google Translate by pupils when doing homework, has meant that a significant minority of teachers have abandoned setting written homework at all. For many teachers homework = vocab learning.

There are ways to overcome the Google Translate issue, by the way, for example by using parallel gapped translations, or, more effectively, by establishing a culture where cheating is not acceptable. Many schools achieve this.

So my message is unusually clear on this: spend less time setting word learning and get pupils to do the many more productive tasks that will foster acquisition and spontaneous language use. Try to make all work at chunk, sentence and paragraph level. Try to make it about using language communicatively.

There! I said it.


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