Skip to main content

About vocab learning

Jennifer Wagner tweeted an interesting article about research findings on the importance of vocabulary in second language learning. There is a growing feeling that we have over-estimated the importance of grammar in our courses at the expense of vocabulary.

Keith S. Folse from the University of Central Florida writes here about eight myths regarding vocabulary. These are neatly summarised in his second paragraph, but I would like to pick up one which struck me as quite counter-intuitive. I wonder if you agree.

Folse explains that studies clearly show that it is better to present vocab lists in a non-themed way. In his words:

The commonly used organization of words into semantic groups is not a good technique. In fact, it actually confuses learners and can hinder vocabulary retention.

He adds:

Organization by semantic sets continues, however, because it is much easier for textbook writers and teachers to present vocabulary in semantic sets such as family members, animals, or days of the week than design creative vignettes to accommodate all of the words in a vocabulary list. The bottom line, though, is that research shows that learners remember vocabulary more easily when the vocabulary is presented in thematic sets such as a trip to the beach or my cousin's birthday party.

He goes on to support his claim by reference to four studies which clearly indicated that learners acquired vocabulary more quickly when the words presented were not semantically related.

So how would one use vocab lists to avoid "semantic clustering"? He gives an example passage in which semantically related vocabulary is presented within a theme, which should make it easier to recall. I'll copy it full so you can see what he means. The theme is a trip to the beach.

Last Saturday I went to the beach with my brother and cousin. My brother wanted to take his pet bird with us, but my cousin and I talked him out of such a crazy idea. My cousin called his parents to make sure it was all right for him to go with us. Of course they said yes. We had a great time at the beach. We saw lots of people and lots of fish. When we got home Saturday night, we talked about going to the beach again on Sunday. We we really tired, so we decided to get up late on Sunday morning

The underlined words are, of course, part of the semantic clusters family members, pets and days.

I confess that it never occurred to me that presenting vocabulary in semantically themed lists might be a less than optimal method. (Although I was always suspicious of vocab lists in general, preferring to teach vocabulary in the context of other language.) I remain somewhat sceptical and would like to have seen a wider range of studies into this.

It's worth noting that Folse does not argue against lists per se.

For ways of exploiting vocab lists there is a page here, which is part of my little teacher's guide.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

Making words memorable

Most teachers and researchers would agree that knowing words is even more important than knowing grammar if you wish to be proficient in a language. As linguist David Wilkins wrote in 1972: "Without grammar little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed."One of the frustrations for teachers is pupils' inability to retain vocabulary for productive use. A good deal of research has been done over the years into how pupils might better keep words in memory. Two concepts which have come to the fore are spacing and interleaving.

Spaced practice

A 2003 review of the literature by P.Y. Gu reported that most studies show that students frequently forget words after learning them just once.  Anderson and Jordan (1928) discovered that after initial learning, then one week, three weeks and eight weeks thereafter, the recall success was 66%, 48%, 39% and 37% respectively. Other studies have produced similar results. Unsurprisingly, these researchers recommend, space…

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’(http://pdcinmfl.com). The point i…