Difficulty in Vocabulary Learning
by Craig Smith and Akira Tajino
2. What do teachers think causes words to be difficult, and easy, for their students to learn? More specifically, do teachers agree on the reasons for the words most commonly ranked as most difficult in this survey, adopt and devise, and on the reasons for the words most commonly ranked as easiest, climb and blend?
Although the teachers agreed that adopt and devise would be difficult for their students to learn, they had different reasons for believing so. For adopt at the 2,000 word level, the responses consisted of 11 different reasons. For devise at the 5,000 word level, twelve different reasons were given. The reasons could be placed in three groups: leaning problems, syllabus constraints, and first language factors. At the 2,000 word level almost 60% of the reasons for adopt were related to six learning problems: low frequency of the word in English, the absence of the word in students’ lives, abstractness, knowledge of similar words which could cause confusion, the availability of an easier word and the difficulty of guessing the meaning from context . Eight learning issues which represented more than 70% of the reasons for devise at the 5,000 word level were also expected to be problematic: all of those mentioned at the 2,000 word level, with the exception of the difficulty of guessing the meaning from context, and with the addition of three different concerns: difficulty due to multiple meanings of a word, its derivatives, and its pronunciation. 25.8% of the reasons for difficulty given at the 2,000 word level and 15.4% at the 5,000 word level were related to teachers’ syllabus concerns: e.g. the word is not included in officially approved course books. The other responses at the 2,000 word level, about 16%, concerned the students’ first language: low frequency in Japanese, difficulty of the Japanese equivalent, and unfamiliarity of the word concept in the first language. At the 5,000 word level there was a somewhat stronger concern that first language factors, e.g. difficulties related to the Japanese equivalents, would cause problems.
Similarly to the reasons for the most difficult words, in the case of, climb, the 2,000 level word most commonly thought to be easiest, there were a variety of reasons but they were in the same three areas which tied together various reasons cited for difficulty. 40% of the responses were about three syllabus concerns: it was in textbooks, it could be used in lessons, and students had already learned it. Slightly more than half of the reasons were related to learning factors such as its concreteness, ease of use of the verb due to its primary single meaning, and its frequency both in English and in the students’ lives.
Blend , the easiest word at the 5,000 word level is a special case and as such, did not follow the pattern for the other three words. Of the responses, 92.3% were one reason: blend is a loan word and is used in Japanese. Climb at the 2,000 level was also selected as easiest by only a few teachers because of a loan word factor. It could be a coincidence that each list contained a loan word but there are a great number of words with English roots used in Japanese. Interestingly, these two words represent different types of loan words. Blend has become a universally used Japanese word in one of its meaning senses and it is almost always used with the word coffee. On the other hand, climb itself is not a loan word but rock climbing and mountain climbing are used as loan expressions in
situations with much less exposure to the general public. In both these cases, the English origin of these loan words is thought to facilitate learning of the root English word.
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