Teaching vocabulary and encouraging learner autonomy
by Sam Smith

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.

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)

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.


However, a slight opposition to this teacher-led view is made by Scott Thornbury when, he points out that what the learners themselves choose to notice is more likely to become intake. (Tasks that promote noticing,Scott Thornbury, ELT Journal Volume 51/4 October 1997,329)
Considering both points, I see the most important thing for me to do as to encourage my learners to use noticing techniques when reading themselves, do something with the language they notice and record it.
Something should be done with the lexis focused on as some form of hypothesising should take place to aid acquisition. Considering that according to Lewis (M.Lewis,1993,116) even decontextualised lexis carries meaning, and something as simple as just adding to collocates found can form some form of intellectual effort, aiding acquisition and at the same time add to the learner's lexicon.

They should consciously try to add other examples... it is not wasting time and the intellectual effort involved can aid acquisition.

Many activities are suggested for doing something with lexical items, such as sorting adjective or verb collocates to their respective nouns, deciding which collocates from a list will not match, using gapped or double gapped sentences to match collocations, reconstructing texts from the collocations recorded and many many more. (Chapters 6 + 7,M. Lewis 1997. Chapter 7, M. Lewis,1993. Chapter 5, Teaching Collocations,2000)

Finally, collocations should be recorded and revisited if acquisition is to take place. They must be recorded in a principled way. Quoting Skehan, Lewis says:

If you want to forget something, put it in a list.
(M. Lewis,1993,118)

Here referring to a random L2 - L1 translation list.
He advocates using topics and semantic fields as an organising principle in an alphabetical vocabulary notebook, revisited regularly and used as a classroom resource. This in many ways will become more valuable than the soon out of date textbook. A sample way of recording vocabulary could be:






Filling the slots with collocations found as they are found and also leaving spaces for future addition.

To sum up, I would like to say that there are 3 things I would like to encourage my students to do: Read and take advantage of the vast amount of authentic English available by internet; Actively try and notice useful vocabulary; Think about it, analyse it and try to add to it and record it.


Michael Lewis : Implementing The Lexical Approach, Language Teaching Publications, 1997
Gail Ellis and Barbara Sinclair : Learning to Learn English, Cambridge University Press, 1989
(Edited by) Michael Lewis : Teaching Collocations, Language Teaching Publications, 2000
Rob Batstone : Grammar, Oxford University Press, 1994
M.A.K. Halliday : Language as a Social Semiotic, London, Edward Arnold, 1978
Michael Lewis : The Lexical Approach, Language Teaching Publications, 1993
Michael McCarthy : Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, Cambridge University Press, 1991
David Nunan : Teaching Grammar in Context, ELT Journal Volume 52/2 April 1998, Oxford University Press
Jane Willis and Dave Willis : Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, Heinemann, 1996
Scott Thornbury : Tasks That Promote Noticing, ELT Journal Volume 51/4 October 1997, Oxford University Press


Sam Smith, 31, originally from Bradford in the UK, has been teaching for 5 years, in Ukraine (2 years), Poland (1 year) and Spain (2 years) and also at summer schools in Folkestone and London. He currently lives lives & teaches in Madrid.

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