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A better way to learn vocabulary?

Vocabulary learning - setting words to memory at home using word lists or apps - is a staple of much language learning practice in schools. The advent of Google Translate has meant that teachers are even more likely to set vocab learning than they used too. When I was teaching it was a common rule of thumb homework policy to have two homeworks a week, with one devoted to learning words for a test. (I rarely stuck to this for three reasons: learning words is boring, running vocab tests is dull and I was aware that less conscientious students wouldn’t do the task well enough, if at all.)

But the reality is that learning vocabulary is widespread and even gets official support from NCELP whose schemes of work and lessons include regular Quizlet exercises. Apps have made the process a little more palatable, and no doubt many students enjoy the routine and challenge of learning words. In addition, keeping a separate vocabulary book may be much rarer than it once was, but the practice still exists.

Could vocabulary learning be made more productive and enjoyable? 

First, it’s only fair to say that research lends support for the efficiency of word learning when it comes to simply knowing what words mean. But it’s well established in the literature (notably through the work of Paul Nation), that ‘knowing a word’ is much more than knowing its meaning or knowing how to write it down accurately in a test. Really knowing words also means knowing what they sound like, what other words they keep company with, when and how they are used, how they relate to other forms of the word (e.g. play - player - playing), not to mention their relationship with synonyms, antonyms and first language words. Gianfranco and I have written a good deal about this in our books and blogs.

In addition, every minute spent learning isolated words could be spent using these words in context, in connected, meaningful sentences or chunks. Rehearsing this language in this connected way is more likely to enable students to later retrieve useful chunked language in order to make meaning. This sort of ‘chunking and chaining’ of language is one way we speak and write fluently. Learning words together with other words in meaningful multi-word units or whole sentences builds a deeper understanding of vocabulary and produces more ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of communicative usefulness. Put differently, memorising chunks and sentences provides better ‘surrender value’ - more learning for the time spent.

In addition, it may be actually more enjoyable, creating more motivation, more self-efficacy and more learning.

In practice, here is one way to do it. Provide pupils with a sentence builder they are familiar with, or even one similar but not identical to one you have used in class. Tell the class to practise reading aloud as many sentences as they can in, say, 15 minutes. Suggest they record their work on to their phones. Suggest also, that within the time they allocate, they close their eyes and say the sentences from memory. (Closing eyes is a good way to avoid distraction.) Advise them, furthermore, to divide their time up so that their practice is spaced out, e.g. between other bits of homework.

Then, in class, tasks could include:

From memory, producing as many sentences as possible to a time limit.

Working with a partner, each student gives a sentence until one can’t (competitive element).

Write down as many sentences from the SB as possible.

As above, but add new, adapted sentences , slotting in alternative words.

Doing a gap-fill activity using sentences from the SB.

Doing a traditional L1 to L2 written test (harder) or L2 to L1 test (easier).

Giving sentence starters. Pupils much finish the sentence.

Harder: asking questions, the answers to which can be supplied by students from their SB.

You could no doubt think of more variations.

To me, this process seems more enjoyable and productive than the traditional single word vocabulary test. All the practice done in the process will leave long-term memory traces - chunks of language students can call upon when trying to converse or write. As I sometimes say, the alternative approach of learning isolated words which may later be glued together using grammatical rules doesn’t work for most learners.

It was famously said by David Wilkins that you can convey meaning with words alone, but not grammar alone. It’s also true that you can convey much more meaning when words are strung together and rehearsing lots of sentences helps achieve that goal.


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