Problems & Solutions -
by Emma Worrall
I am going to look at the problems that my pre-intermediate
students might have with vocabulary; identifying the problems
and suggesting ways of overcoming the problems. I will begin
the assignment with a brief introduction to vocabulary then
I will go to look at some of the problems that students have
with vocabulary and in particular multi-word verbs. I feel
that my students need to be better equipped to deal with them
before they go on to a higher level. The few multi-word verbs
that the students have already encountered have been a challenge
for them and I want to see how I can help them cope with multi-word
verbs when they are dealing with texts inside and outside
How important is vocabulary?
"Without words to express a wider range of meanings,
communication in an L2 just cannot happen in any meaningful
way" (McCarthy 1990)
"Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without
vocabulary nothing can be conveyed" (Wilkins in Thornbury
Thornbury (2002: 13) says that teachers often underestimate
the 'communicative advantage' in developing a wide range of
As teachers I think we often find it hard to
keep up with the demands for vocabulary from our students.
However, this can be used to our advantage: students are already
motivated to learn vocabulary. On needs analysis forms vocabulary
rates highly as a student need. In my own experience of teaching
vocabulary I have found that, due to time constraints, vocabulary
sections are often rushed through and often in end of year
exams there is little emphasis on the vocabulary learned during
Despite my students' enthusiasm for learning
vocabulary, they often find it difficult to acquire vocabulary,
which is a problem I hope to assess during this research into
vocabulary in this assignment. I encourage my students to
read and listen to as much English as possible outside the
classroom. I feel there is no denying the value of exposure
to 'comprehensible input' (Krashen 1983) in expanding students
range of vocabulary. I feel, from my own experiences of learning
Spanish here in Spain, that everyday exposure to L2 can help
you to acquire language faster than having twice-weekly classes
in your native country. The more advanced my Spanish becomes,
the more I am able to infer new vocabulary through context.
What makes learning a word difficult?
Thornbury discusses how cognates are easier
to teach and should be exploited. I often use cognates to
explain or define vocabulary (without the need for translation)
and I feel that it helps me speed up the class and provides
clarity for my students. However, he advises us to be aware
of false friends .
Factors, which inhibit a learner's ability to
learn a word, are:
Pronunciation: Words that are
difficult to pronounce are more difficult to learn, for example
words with consonant clusters (for example, crisps, breakfast,
asked). I have been training my students to record words with
their phonemic script to help students remember pronunciation.
I also find it helpful to show students how word forms change
in speech, particularly with weak forms (at this low level)
and connected speech patterns.
Spelling: Sound-spelling mismatches
create lots of errors (for example, words with silent letters).
Length and Complexity: Long
words are more difficult to learn than short words. Generally,
high frequency words in English tend to be short.
Grammar: The grammar associated
with the word. Thornbury cites phrasal verbs (multi-word verbs)
as particularly confusing.
Meaning: Some words overlap
in meaning. I find it useful to present different meanings
Range, Connotation and Idiomaticity:
Problems with cultural references and words with a narrow
synonym range are more difficult to remember.
Of course, all of these factors are especially
difficult for low level learners. Not only do they not have
the vocabulary necessary to communicate fluently, but they
have to contend with all the above factors. I feel they need
to be gradually introduced to these factors to build confidence
in our students.
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