by Jane Herbertson
Can one teach vocabulary? To answer this one should consider
how much vocabulary second language learners need. Estimates
vary as to how many words (and indeed what constitutes a 'word')
an adult native speaker knows/uses. Twenty thousand word families
is the figure Nation & Waring (p7) cite, claiming that
students need "3,000 or so high frequency words"
(p11). After that they suggest helping students with strategies
to comprehend/learn the low frequency items.
Personal experience of learning Spanish included the discovery
of the power of reading in a second language. As a beginner
I used graded readers, employing the strategy of generally
trying to guess unknown language from context - I believe
I got to know a lot of new lexis in this way plus having frequent
opportunities for noticing. I have actively encouraged reading
for my students whereby they borrow a graded reader from the
in-house library, read it, (taking a few notes of its main
points) and we follow this up with an exchange of views about
our chosen books.
There is some debate about the benefits of learning vocabulary
from context: Nation & Waring (p11) "studies suggest
that first language learners learn most of their vocabulary
in this way" (1). Nagy (p71),
though questioning this, attests to its importance (p64),
stating that words have different meanings in different contexts
and adding the benefit of acquiring other vocabulary from
the context (apart from explicit instruction). In my experience,
giving a definition can be problematic (although for lower
levels it may be sufficient) leading to a shallow knowledge
of the item in question. To check understanding, I usually
ask students to write a sentence indicating the meaning of
the said item.
With regard to providing more noticing opportunities, when
learners are involved in a listening task, I write vocabulary
from the text on the board, and encourage students to listen
for it, guessing its meaning from context. Any occasion they
have for seeing/hearing English in context will provide further
occasions for noticing. This noticing process is believed
to be vital in getting to know a word (beginning with recognition,
proceeding through tentative production until the item is
stored in the long term memory when it is believed students
will have the capacity to use it automatically). As well as
providing chances to notice lexis in class we should encourage
students to watch films, use the internet etc. Chatting to
students, outside of a particular language focus in class,
will provide further opportunities.
Clearly, in noting new lexical items, we have to take a practical
view: what is necessary for students to know at the moment
(the proficiency level of the student will also determine
to what extent they want/need to know a word and their own
personal suggestions). Annotating all aspects of the item
(2) would be time-consuming and possibly
Some areas I currently focus on:
• record a word's family members (encourage + discourage
+ encouragement etc).
• keyword strategies (3) - students
make a note of typical word partners: sign a contract, one-year
contract etc (can be adapted for more general areas of English).
However, I have used this technique inadequately, expecting
rapid production. This has not happened, as I have not given
learners the necessary opportunities for noticing, re-noticing
and converting the input into intake.
I mentioned (4) that students should
have more time to get to know the item. Lewis' suggestions
are pertinent ie training students how to recognize chunks:
they should return to the used texts, highlighting and recording
any patterns they find. This will help to raise their awareness
of the nature of lexical items. After doing this in class,
students should be encouraged to look for patterns in their
reading (guiding them towards autonomy).
Many authorities mention the primacy of encountering a word
(expression) on at least seven occasions before it becomes
part of our permanent mental store. Recycling lexis in class
is not difficult, though takes some organisation by the teacher.
Some of the best ways are class lexical cards: students note
down an item they like, need and we put this into the store.
These items are recycled during subsequent classes. This can
be very interactive and student-centred if the items are posted
around the room - students have to move around, changing partners
to check definitions. Games such as bingo, noughts and crosses,
dominoes and pelmanism are also fun. (They are easy to prepare
and can be personalised for the group or published versions
of some of these games exist.) Acting the phrase is another
aid to memorising the item eg sign the contract, get the sack,
go on strike.
One other way of helping students increase their mental lexicon
which I will experiment with is noticing (and highlighting)
lexical sets. For example students can search for all words
connected with particular areas in a text. Another benefit
of this is that it will give them vital clues in organising
their own texts.
I have already referred to the role of lexis and how it is
inter-related with speaking, listening and reading. To help
students with writing, course books are useful providing set
phrases which learners can use as a model. Ready for First
Certificate (p10) is a good example. I have adapted this for
pre-intermediate students, whose standard of writing starts
to show an improvement by copying some of these multiword
items eg Thanks for your last letter, I´m looking forward
to hearing from you. It is unnecessary to break down and analyse
the grammar of these phrases, though students will begin to
see the generative nature of such phrases.
My Spanish students are also preoccupied with prepositions
and here too, the best way is to make learners aware of the
way they occur with other words eg go home, on business, in
the morning. If approached this way, students do not have
to think of complicated systematic rules of either prepositions
or inclusion of articles.
Lexis: changing attitudes in the classroom: involves raising
the status of lexis and changing the traditional attitudes/approaches
towards it by both teachers and learners (one of which has
been to treat it as a means to an end rather than an end in
itself ie pre-teaching it as a way into a text, then using
the text to focus on language skills/language systems - rather
than exploiting the lexical item). Teachers ought to consider
adding a lexical perspective to their teaching. As Lewis points
out "implementing the LA does not mean ignoring everything
we have done before….it does… provide a practical
tool….in an overall strategy based on principled eclecticism."
(Implementing the Lexical Approach, p141)
1 Sternberg, 1987
2 see suggestions in 'General Problems For Adult Learners'
3 Wilberg & Lewis (pages 57-76)
4 above 'My Choice of Lexis'
Lewis, M. 1997. Implementing the Lexical Approach. LTP
McCarthy, M. 2001. Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers.
Cambridge University Press
Moon, R. Vocabulary Connections: multi word items in English.
(Vocabulary Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy 1997: Ed
Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M., Cambridge University Press)
Nagy, W. On the role of context in first- and second-language
vocabulary learning. . (Vocabulary Description, Acquisition
and Pedagogy 1997: Ed Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M., Cambridge
Nation, P. & Waring, R. Vocabulary size, text coverage
and word lists. (Vocabulary Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy
1997: Ed Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M., Cambridge University
Nunan, D. 1991. Language Teaching Methodology. Prentice Hall
O'Dell, F. Incorporating vocabulary into the syllabus. (Vocabulary
Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy 1997: Ed Schmitt, N.
& McCarthy, M., Cambridge University Press)
Sökmen A. J. Current trends in teaching second language
vocabulary. (Vocabulary Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy
1997: Ed Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M., Cambridge University
Thornbury, S. 2002. How to Teach Vocabulary. Longman
Cited by other authors
Dubin, F. & Olshtain, E. 1986. Course Design. Cambridge:
C. 1958. A Course in Linguistics. New York: Macmillan
M. 1992b. English idioms in use. Revista Canaria de Estudios
Ingleses 25: 55-65
I. S. P. 1977. The combining arrangement: some techniques.
The Modern Language Journal 61 (3): 89-94. Reprinted in English
Teaching Forum 17 (1) (1979): 12-16, 20
Sternberg, R.J. 1987. Most vocabulary is learned from context.
In M. G. McKeown & M.E. Curtis (Eds.) The Nature of Vocabulary
Acquisition: 89-105. Hillsdale. NJ:Erlbaum
Norris, R. 2001. Ready for First Certificate. Macmillan Heinemann
Wilberg, P. & Lewis, M. Business English. LTP
Willis J. & Willis D. 1987. Cobuild English Course. Cobuild
Herbertson from Wales has been teaching for 7 years - 5 in
Spain and 2 in Poland. She currently works at the British
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