Sunday, 23 September 2012

Teaching vocabulary - an #eltchat summary

This is a summary of the #eltchat held at 12noon BST on Wednesday 19th September, 2012. The full title of the chat was:
'How should we approach vocabulary teaching and learning?  Is there a place for rote learning?  What is the current thinking about it?'
I have to say that I didn't vote for this topic, mainly because it was up against my suggestion of 'first lesson ideas'.  As it turned out, my subject won the vote and was discussed at 3am my time here in Vietnam so I missed it!  Instead, I found myself involved in a very interesting chat session on teaching vocabulary and came away with lots of food for thought.  It was expertly moderated as usual, this week by @Shaunwilden and @theteacherjames. 
Rote Learning Vocabulary - the Pros and Cons
We began by discussing rote learning and it soon became clear that we had a difference of opinion as to the effectiveness of the method. 

@teflerinha told us that she had had success with rote learning when she was learning Polish and Portuguese, particularly when using small 'crib' cards.  These cards can be created by using quizlet or other similar websites.  She also said that level is relevant - beginners need more rote learning because there is less context available.  @ElkySmith added that rote learning is easier at low levels because of the concrete nature of the vocabulary.  @louisealix68 reminded us that some students prefer rote learning ('musical intelligence') and told us that it had really helped her with German.  @rliberni suggested that rote learning can be made more fun by creating chants, songs and raps.

Personally, I have never had much success with rote learning, either as a learner or a teacher.  This opinion was shared by @cioccas.  @michelleworgan also questioned its long-term effectiveness, especially with YLs.

Several contributors, however, gave the link to an article by Paul Nation on why rote learning works, although it was pointed out that Nation himself admits that, once learned by rote, students have to use the new vocabulary in context in order for it to 'enter deep store'.
Clearly, there is a place for rote learning with some students, but it is not ideal for all learning styles.
Other Ways of Teaching Vocabulary
Most #eltchat participants agreed that we need to keep students engaged in vocabulary learning by finding other teaching methods, rather than just asking them to learn word lists.  Some of what follows has a basis in rote learning, but is much more interesting and effective.

  • Giving students context is vital to help them remember new vocabulary.
  • @rliberni reminded us that translation has a part to play.
  • @LizziePinard advised us to use quizzes and games where possible, bingo and pelmanism, for example.  She suggested that, 'if you increase the depth of processing, the lexis becomes more memorable'.  This can be achieved by getting students to use more than one kind of processing - identifying, manipulating, classifying, etc.
  • Use pictures and diagrams: for example, put house vocabulary into an outline of a house.  Combining vocabulary with visuals is always a powerful way to present and, later, recall vocabulary.
  • Get students to use vocabulary in a personal way to make it more memorable.
  • Give regular vocabulary tests or weekly revision sessions.
  • Get students to create word search puzzles for other classmates to solve.
  • Use mnemonics to make rote learning more fun - all those of us who learned 'the colours of the rainbow' or 'the planets in the Solar System' this way will never forget them! 
  • Favourite games for teaching and revising vocabulary include 'Taboo', 'Outburst', 'Say my Word', 'Blockbusters' and 'Call my Bluff'.
  • Use all of the senses to help students remember new vocabulary - think about the sounds and smells associated with words.
  • Get students to create weekly vocabulary posters which are then displayed on the wall as a permanent visual reminder.  Later in the course, these posters can be used in memory games, sentence building, story telling, etc.
  • Encourage students to read as much as possible in order to increase their vocabulary.
  • Writing is one of the best ways to revise vocabulary.
  • Encourage the use of vocabulary notebooks and urge students to be creative with them - word trees, pictures, use of colour, etc.
  • Get students to prepare wiki pages on a specific topic at home - these can then be referred to both in and out of class.
  • Don't overload students with masses of new vocabulary at the same time - 'small amounts often' is the way forward for @ElkySmith, both when presenting new words and revising what has already been covered in class.
  • Synonym posters in the classroom, which students add to during the course, are a great way to expand vocabulary.  This works just as well with mind maps which can be built on.
  • Co-operative or half crosswords are great for teaching vocabulary.
  • Remember not to limit vocabulary to words - lexical chunks are particularly useful.
  • Make students think about how words behave and not just what they mean.
  • Teach vocabulary through reading texts, where students underline the words they don't know and then use them in their own sentences.
  • Use drama activities - for example, students make up a mime using narrative verbs learned and their classmates have to call them out.
  • Teach students to understand meaning from context when reading and listening.
  • Get students to watch films in English with English subtitles so they are getting the vocabulary through both visual and auditory channels.
  • Use TPR, particularly with YLs, to help memorise directions, body parts, emotions, requests, imperatives, adjectives, etc.
  • Teachers need to remember to reuse new words as much as possible in class - students pick up on this and try to do the same.
  • Use songs, as long as you explain what the lyrics mean!
  • Relate challenging vocabulary to songs or popular films or TV shows.  The example given by @Teachersilvert was using 'Friends' to illustrate 'freak out'.
  • Only teach relevant vocabulary - words and phrases students will need.  Good dictionaries will tell you how frequently a word is used - this online example from the OUP is particularly good:
  • Have a 'word of the day' for students to use correctly in class (or even a 'chunk of the day').
  • Revise as much as possible.  A good tip is to have a vocabulary bag and use it for constant recycling activities.  This was suggested by @jobethsteel.  I would endorse this - we use them in our department and if a teacher is a few minutes late for class, it's so easy for a colleague to go in and do a quick vocabulary revision exercise using the 'word bag of the week'!!


As with all EFL teaching, there is no 'one size fits all'.  Rote learning has its place, but it doesn't work for all learners (or teachers!).  The key is to use a variety of approaches, tasks and activities in order to provide multiple experiences of, and exposures to, new vocabulary.  Whether you use rote learning or not, students need opportunities to notice new words and lexical chunks as well as situations where they need to use them.



Sunday, 16 September 2012

How do we generate language from a topic? - A practical example

A picture is worth 1000 words
This was the title of a webinar presented by Adrian Tennant as part of the MacMillan series.  What follows is a summary of the session.

Adrian began by telling us that two or three 50-word texts should generate five or six hours of teaching.  This was quite a surprising claim and had us hooked from the off!

We were then shown that we don't even need 50 words.  For example, we should treat a picture as a text.  Remember the saying: 'A picture is worth a thousand words'.

Another place to start would be with a newspaper headline.  For example.

Youth Badly Hit in Jobs Market

The ambiguity of headlines like this make them rich pickings for language analysis:
  • Who or what does the word 'youth' refer to ?
  • What is a jobs market?
  • How was/were the youth hit?
  • Who or what hit the youth?
  • What was the youth hit with?        etc., etc.
This could easily be adapted for low level students:

Young People Can't Get Jobs

Here, you could focus on modals, negatives, the verb 'get', and so on.

A five or six word text can generate 15-20 minutes of teaching and/or discussion, so how much more can be generated from a 50-word text? 
With a 50-word text, you can
  • pick up on collocations and do vocabulary matching exercises
  • isolate the grammar - tenses, comparatives, etc.
  • teach a particular part of speech - adjectives, articles, prepositions, etc.
  • highlight referencing words - like this, this kind of, these, they, etc.

An example of a short text

Usually in course books, the higher the level, the longer the text.  Remember:

Short, complex texts can be much more useful than longer ones.
What else can you ask students to do with a short text?
  • You can ask students to paraphrase or summarise the text. 
  • Use it to increase vocabulary.  For example, you could get students to replace every adjective with a synonym, thus teaching them to avoid repetition in their own writing.
  • You can use the text as the basis for a class discussion.
  • You can ask students to generate questions from the text for their classmates to answer.
  • You can get students to prepare two-minute presentations based on the text.
What is the difference between using short texts and using a coursebook?
  • The texts are bite-sized.
  • The language emerges from the topic, NOT the topic from the language.
There are thousands of topic-based lessons for all levels freely available on the internet, covering subjects such as: crime, family, weather, politics, travel, work, relationships, environment, culture, education, transport, etc.
There is no such thing as an authentic text in an EFL classroom.  The minute you take a text into class, it loses it's authenticity!  There are only authentic tasks!
How do you create a topic-driven lesson?
  1. Choose a topic.
  2. Find (or write) short texts about the topic.  These can be like short newspaper articles.
  3. Start looking for the language - DO NOT try to write a text to illustrate a grammar point or a particular type of vocabulary.  The text should never be contrived - the language should emerge from a naturally-written text.
  4. Design your activities - don't forget to record audio versions of your texts to be able to add listening activities.
  5. Always have the topic at the forefront of your mind.
Extension activities
  • Higher level students can generate their own texts (this is good for error correction, too).
  • Texts written by higher level students can be used in lower-level classes.
  • Give students a similar text to the original as a gap-fill - articles, linkers, etc.
The most important thing is getting students to notice language through exploring and analysing a text.  We need to teach students how to learn and give them the curiosity and the tools to take control of their own learning.
Further reading
'Uncovering Grammar' by Scott Thornbury