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Teaching vocabulary and encouraging
learner autonomy
by Sam Smith
- 1

Teaching a group of upper intermediate learners on a course timetabled to finish mid year, followed by a five month break led me to think of ways in which to help them maintain their level and learn on their own during this break.

I thought of different ways of doing this reading extensively, listening to what is available via international media such as satellite TV, watching films in English and as is quite popular here in Madrid, a conversation exchange. We have discussed these methods in class and the school's resources being available during the break, the students have responded quite positively.

What I have decided to focus on here though is maintaining and expanding the students' vocabulary as at this level, when students have a fair ability to express themselves, have a good grammatical knowledge and are reasonably competent in skills work and especially reading, expanding their vocabulary can help them noticeably. As Michael Lewis points out in Implementing the Lexical Approach, (grammar) mistakes are often made due to a lack of vocabulary. (M.Lewis, 1997,48) The number of times a student has asked me or another student ' How do you say (Spanish word)? ' or ' How do you say (lengthy description in English)? ' or simply spent a long time explaining something better expressed by a single lexical item, is countless. For example to say 'timetable' without knowing the word would involve a lengthy description of where you can find it, what it is and probably quite a few grammatical and lexical mistakes. A larger vocabulary will also help a student receptively. Expanding vocabulary is also something students will be able to do on their own.


Gail Ellis and Barbara Sinclair make some useful suggestions for extending and recording vocabulary in Learning to Learn English, and look at ways of getting students to be more active in this. They include:

  • Knowing what you need to know. i.e. What vocabulary is worth learning and how, productively or receptively, and what you need to know about the lexical item, what part of speech it is and its collocates and pronunciation etc.
  • Setting yourself goals based on real experience and working out ways of achieving them. For example, a student finding she was lacking the vocabulary to hold a conversation about nuclear accidents, set out to read newspaper articles about Chernobyl.
  • Looking at ways of remembering vocabulary by finding out what methods suit you best. For example, using semantic pictorial or personal associations, stress patterns, the number of syllables, initial consonants or final clusters or part of speech for organising and revising vocabulary.>
    (Gail Ellis and Barbara Sinclair,1989,2.1-Extending vocabulary)

I see these 3 points as important to pass on to my students. They can essentially be expressed as:

1. Encouraging learner Autonomy


2. Knowing what vocabulary is useful and in what way

3. Recording vocabulary in a way that is memorable and accessible

To aid remembering and using vocabulary it is helpful to approach it in the form of collocations. As Morgan Lewis points out in Teaching Collocations, knowing a word is much more a case of knowing how to use it and what words collocate with it than simply knowing what it means. He exemplifies 'wound' and 'injury', the difference being only their collocational range, for example 'a stab wound' but not 'a stab injury'. (Teaching Collocations,2000,13) Rob Batstone makes a similar point and applies it to grammatical correctness. You can say 'He was admired by Jane' but not 'He was fonded by Jane' (Rob Batstone,1994,8).

Halliday even goes so far as to say:

The lexical system is not something fitted into grammar. The most delicate form of grammar is lexis. As grammar becomes more specific, choices are more and more realised by a choice of lexical item than a grammatical structure.
(Halliday,1978,43)

This is something Michael Lewis sees as essential, saying in The Lexical Approach that the grammar - vocabulary dichotomy is false. (Lewis,1993,115)

To increase the learners vocabulary then is an important way of improving the learners' language as a whole. Morgan Lewis actually states it as THE way of improving at this level:

The reason so many students are not making any perceived progress is simply because they have not been trained to notice which words go with which. They may know a lot of individual words which they struggle to use, along with their grammatical knowledge, but they lack the ability to use those words in a range of collocations which pack more meaning into what they say or write.
(Teaching Collocation,2000,14)

One more thing is worth mentioning at this point. As Michael Lewis says in Teaching Collocations, collocations are concerned with the way language naturally occurs. Encountering and recording the whole is more efficient than in its constituent parts. Exemplifying 'initial reaction' he says that it is much easier to break down from the whole for production separately than to try and put it together from the two parts. By knowing one lexical item, you therefore know three.

So where can we find collocations as they naturally occur?

As Jimmy Hill suggests in Teaching Collocation, a newspaper article is really suitable. While comparing fiction, a financial report and a newspaper article for their richness of collocation and usefulness in class he says:

The 1st and most obvious point to make about factual texts …. is the high percentage of words which occur in fixed phrases and collocations. This is completely typical of such texts. Collocation is either so commonplace that it is unremarkable or so inherent in text that it should have a central place in all teaching. These texts are clearly more suited to the EFL class room than the extracts from fiction.
(Teaching Collocations, 2000,58)

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