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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.


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