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Teaching vocabulary and encouraging
learner autonomy
by Sam Smith
- 2

He incidentally finds fiction also rich in collocation but of the wrong kind for most students and financial reports incredibly rich but again of the wrong sort.

Newspaper articles, if chosen well are not only a useful source of collocations, but should be of interest to my students. Recognising that the students read the news on a daily basis, the content should be stimulating, relevant to the students' lives and also not too difficult to understand as the content crosses over cultural boundaries. Following from this, the collocations students find in this type of text should be useful for future recognition when reading similar stories within the same semantic field.

Before continuing with newspaper articles, I must point out that I do not want to dismiss in any way, other forms of written and particularly spoken text. They all can be collocationally rich, speech especially in semi-fixed expressions and multi-word adverbials which are essential for improving speech as Lewis points out in Teaching Collocations,2000,186. A balanced diet of text is needed but in this particular case, I see newspaper articles as a way my students can learn essentially on their own.

From class discussion we have established that the whole group has access to the internet at home or at work and therefore access to the news in English in written form at least. Two particularly good websites I have found are The Guardian and The Week. I have found the latter to be of excellent use as it provides news summaries of all the weekly news and being summaries the texts are especially collocationally rich, collocations providing the most succinct way of providing information.

Lastly concerning newspaper articles, they are authentic text, and being so we can provide learners with the language as it naturally occurs, seeing beyond sentence level at how it behaves according to the discourse functions within it.

As McCarthy states in Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, we should be showing students more of how language is really used and not how it is simplified and used artificially in created materials for language learning.(McCarthy,1991,1) David Nunan in an article in the ELT Journal goes on to say that by not presenting students with naturally occurring authentic text we are not helping them but are in fact making learning more difficult by not showing them how language is used in the real world.(Teaching Grammar in Context, ELT Journal Volume 52/2 April 1998,105) A further reason for using authentic text, from my own teaching experience and talking with colleagues is that particularly at this level, where students have been continuing along the intermediate plateau for many years in some cases, some challenge is simply needed. Students need to know that they are dealing with something real, that native speakers deal with every day. This point carries through to my aim to make the students more independent. i.e. By showing them that they can read authentic text, they should hopefully feel motivated to continue doing so through the many multi media sources available to them now.

So, if we are going to focus on collocations occurring in authentic news articles, how shall we bring them to the students' attention and what shall we do with them when we do?

As Michael Lewis says on numerous occasions we need to actively bring collocations to the students' attention. While he agrees in Implementing The Lexical Approach with Krashens claim that we acquire language by understanding messages, he does not agree that formal instruction has no effect on acquisition. He says:

(This) is not always so. Teaching helps, particularly when it encourages the transition from input to intake. Meaning and message are primary, but exercises and activities which help the learner observe or notice the L2 more accurately ensure quicker and more carefully-formulated hypothesis about L2, and so aid acquisition which is based on a constantly repeated Observe - Hypothesise - Experiment cycle.
(Michael Lewis,1997,52)

A view which very closely resembles noticing is consciousness raising (C.R.). This is an idea that was first explicitly brought to my attention 2 years ago at a teachers' workshop in Poland which helped me consolidate and expand my already half-formed ideas with regards to noticing. It is something which I have implemented in my teaching over the last 2 years and have noticed positive results.

Jane and Dave Willis identify among C.R.'s characteristics:

  • The attempt to isolate a specific linguistic feature for focused attention. From the wealth of language data to which learners are exposed we identify particular features and draw the learners' attention specifically to them.
  • The provision of 'data which illustrates the targeted feature'. It is our contention that this data should as far as possible be drawn from texts both spoken and written, which learners have already processed for meaning, and that as far as possible those texts should have been produced for a communicative purpose, not simply to illustrate features of the language.
  • The requirement that learners 'utilise intellectual effort' to understand the targeted feature. There is a deliberate attempt to involve the learner in hypothesising about the data and to encourage hypothesis testing.
    (Jane Willis and Dave Willis,1996,64)

For a list of suggested operations in C.R. from the same authors, see Appendix.

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