A rationale for an integration of explicit and
approaches to vocabulary
acquisition at a post-intermediate level.
by Scott J. Shelton-Strong
5. Learner strategies
As hinted at previously, in order to operationalise vocabulary acquisition from extensive reading of non-simplified texts there are several strategies that learners may benefit from. Guessing from context, while acknowledged to be perhaps 'the most important of all sources of vocabulary learning' (Nation, 2003: 232), may be problematic due to the possibility of too many unknown words being present, compounded by the presence of colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions. However, with explicit training, learners can become more adept guessers (Nation, ibid: 250-252). Dictionary use might prove to be a more appropriate support when reading authentic texts, although explicit training here may also bring higher dividends. In addition, training leaners to link new information to known information, creating mental links through a shared construction of meaning and images, and keeping a vocabulary notebook can all be viewed as effective vocabulary learning strategies (Oxford, 2011).
In the case of reading authentic texts within Literature Circles, for example, these strategies are reinforced through the scaffolding inherent in the roles directing the reading and subsequent discussions and negotiation of meaning, as is early and self-initiated use of new words (Shelton Strong, 2011). In all three of the studies previously mentioned, another important, positive strategy which was employed, and which may be the underlying, initial step to any learning (Schmidt, 1990; McLaughlin, 1990; Ellis, 1991; in Nation, 2003), is selective attention, or noticing (Oxford, ibid.). This appears to be key, as Schmitt (2008: 339) summarizes that, 'overall, virtually anything that leads to more exposure, attention, manipulation or time spent on lexical items adds to their learning'.
As teachers, I believe that this is one of the essential overriding strategies we need to engineer when adding value to extensive reading, and one which is worth being overt and explicit about with our learners so that they are aware of what they can do to help themselves. The space limitations of this paper do not allow a further detailed examination of learner strategies, but it may be suffice to reiterate their importance and point out that time employed in raising awareness and scaffolding successful practice in the classroom is certainly time well spent, in my view.
Directed and meaningful noticing, whether teacher led or learner initiated, has been brought to the forefront of our discussion and there is a broad consensus that within the number of variables learners bring to the acquisition process; that meaningful attention and sustained engagement with words both in and out of context has an important impact at varying levels of mastery, and is thought to be an essential component within a view of the incremental nature of vocabulary learning.
This overriding factor can be explicitly and indirectly brought to our learners' attention through intentional instruction, or as in the case of Literature Circles, introduced as learner-led scaffolding. Taken to different degrees, within different activities, both in the classroom and at an autonomous level, it is likely that these strategies should prove useful in promoting sustained contact, the facilitation of new associations, and encourage deeper processing of new and known lexical items, thus creating favourable conditions for acquisition to take place.
Incidental and explicit approaches to language learning, and in particular, the acquisition of lexis, have been suggested to be both complementary and self-supporting. A keen awareness of this, as learners move towards becoming more advanced, expert users of English, is crucial for teachers and learners alike. It has been suggested to be not only feasible to integrate the two, but advantageous as well, particularly within an extensive reading element aimed at higher level learners. Given the complex variables involved and the reality of the incremental nature of acquiring a diverse, and expanding command of the lexical components of the English language, an integrated explicit-implicit approach to vocabulary learning with a committed, long term focus may well deserve a more central role within the English language learning curriculum.
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Scott Shelton-Strong has been involved in teaching and training over the past 20 years and has lived and worked in Spain, Jordan, Tunisia, New Zealand, the UK, the USA , and Vietnam. He holds a CTEFLA, the Cambridge DELTA and is currently (2012) completing an MA TESOL from Nottingham University. His interests include action research in the classroom with an emphasis on building learner autonomy, teacher development and training, and using literature in ELT.
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