13 Feb

This blog was written to accompany a series of talks that I will be giving (or have already given) in 2011/ 2012 on the subject of wordlists in English language teaching. Its primary purpose is to act as a handout for the talk, but I hope it may turn into a platform for anyone interested in discussing wordlists in ELT. I’d very much welcome further practical suggestions, but I’ll also be happy to respond to questions and criticisms.

There won’t be any new posts on this blog (I think!), but anything new that I (or you) want to add will be done through the comments (I also use these as footnotes), so don’t forget to check there. I may occasionally edit posts to tidy them up, and so that you don’t have to scroll through the comments.

I hope that at least some of the ideas and suggestions will prove useful to you.


Learning by heart

2 Feb

Learning lists of words by heart, rote learning, is deeply unfashionable. It is associated with an approach to language teaching that focuses almost exclusively on the language input (at the expense of language use) (Nation, 2008, p.114); it is seen as uncommunicative and decontextualized, and, perhaps worst of all, it is work, not glossily-packaged fun.

Teachers, however, (especially in high schools and universities) continue to require their students to learn lists of words every week. And learners, even when not directed by their teachers, seem to prefer to adopt approaches involving word lists (Moir & Nation, p.165). Unfashionable it may be, but rote-learning is massively supported by research (see the suggestions for further reading), at least as a step on the way to building a large lexicon, although its value for long-term retention of lexical items is more limited. As there do not seem to be any real alternatives to word list study (incidental learning through exposure to texts will never be enough for most learners), a major concern of language instruction must be ‘how to enhance learners’ memory skills’ (Sharafian, 2002)

Whilst it is relatively easy to acquire many words quickly through memorization, it is much harder to establish them in the long-term memory. Memory decay sets in very quickly (cf the well-known Ebbinghaus forgetting curve of 1885), so it is vital that words that have been memorized are revisited again and again. Repetition is the key (Bilbrough, p.43) and 6 or 7 spaced repeats can lead to substantial memory gains (see Gu, 2003). The later entries in this handout suggest classroom activities that can provide lively, enjoyable opportunities for such revision.

It has also been shown that learners will benefit from strategy training (Oxford, 1990). What are good ways of recording vocabulary? What are good ways of memorizing? How often should vocabulary study be done? Initial word learning is best done at home (although there may be a case, from time to time, for allocating a small amount of class time to this). In the class, we can organise activities that will help students with their home study and we can run activities that exploit the home study that has been done. In the long-term, this will probably be a lot more beneficial than rushing through the next vocabulary section of the coursebook.

The mathematics of vocabulary learning

2 Feb

How many words do our students need to learn? A core vocabulary of 3000 words will give a coverage of 84% of the language that a learner will meet, and this is not enough to understand much. An advanced learner will need about 7500 words (Rundell, 2010) – enough to understand 92% of the language that is met. Most learners will be aiming much lower than that, especially as a level of B1/B2 is sufficient to get through most school-leaving examinations. One way of looking at the number of words that are needed for different levels is to take the guidelines used by international publishers when they produce graded readers.

Now think how many hours of classtime you have with your students. In many contexts, it’s about 90 hours per year, but the amount of teaching time is substantially less because of testing, absences, punctuality problems, etc. And, of course, vocabulary is just one area of language learning that needs to be covered in class, often taking second place to grammar. OK, now divide the number of words that students need to acquire in a year (during which they are typically expected to move up a level) by the number of hours you have available.

Research suggests that learners, ‘as a very general average, appear to gain about four words per hour from regular classroom contact’ (Milton, 2009, p.89). Learners also need to encounter a word multiple times (research estimates vary from about 12 to 16) before they really ‘know’ it. This means that the average learner would need a minimum of 100 hours to acquire enough words to move from, say, A2 to B1. In reality, they will probably only get about half that.

The inescapable conclusion is that we do not have the time that is needed to teach the words that are needed in the classroom. These words must somehow be acquired outside the class. And that means that we, as teachers, should perhaps devote classroom time to activities that promote learning outside the classroom … rather than teaching yet another set of vocabulary.

Keeping word lists

2 Feb

Most coursebooks these days come with word lists (and if they don’t, they should!), at the end of each unit or at the end of the book, organised by unit. These are only a starting point, and will never be enough in themselves. First of all, they cannot correspond  to what a teacher has done in class (teachers will choose not to do some activities in the book, and there is inevitably a certain amount of vocabulary that just ‘crops up’ in the course of a lesson – vocabulary that needs to be added to such lists). For this reason, these lists need to be editable, as they, for example, in the new editions of Straightforward. http://www.macmillanstraightforward.com/

However, even with these lists, students need to be able to use the information they contain. They need, for example, to understand the abbreviations that indicate part of speech. They also need to understand the codes that indicate frequency (e.g. the red stars that are used in some books), because this tells them at a glance which words are most important. Research suggests that most students just learn lists without prioritising and selecting (Moir & Nation, p.164), but we need to encourage to take a little more responsibility for their learning through judicious selection.

Students also need to understand the phonemic representations of the words on the list. This is not just because the way a word is pronounced is a central part of being able to use it. It seems that the ‘sound representation of a word is much more central to the existence of a word in the mental lexicon for most learners than the written form’ (Milton, 2009, p.93). For this reason, we should encourage students, when studying, to repeat words aloud, since this ‘helps retention far better than silent repetition’ (Gu, 2003).For the same reason, activities that provide oral practice / recycling of words will be more useful than written gap-fills.

Translation equivalents will need to be added to word lists, but it is important to demonstrate to students that, contrary to commonly held beliefs, the translation is ‘not sufficient to enable effective use’ (Moir & Nation, p.164). Depth of vocabulary knowledge includes grammatical information, but equally important is information about collocational partners. Not only will this enrich the students’ ability to use these items: it also seems that collocational patterns may be easier to memorize. George Woolard (in press) argues convincingly that, rather than individual words, students should be rote-learning chunks and message frames. Word lists, then, should also be phrase lists.

Putting together useful word lists and collecting the information necessary for them entails effective dictionary use. We know from research that most learners do not make best use of dictionaries (Nation, 2008, p.89). Some training will be beneficial, and all the major dictionaries offer free support on their websites. At the most basic level, many students will need to be shown appropriate resources. Good, free online dictionaries and apps for smartphones exist (e.g. http://www.macmillandictionary.com/) and, for some languages, there are now excellent bilingualized dictionaries (e.g. http://dictionary.reverso.net/english-cobuild/).

Psychological research has demonstrated that learners are more likely to remember words that they have generated in some way (Sharafian, 2002). For this reason, teachers may occasionally want to give their students word lists to study that have to be worked on in some way first. If the list contains individual words, students could be asked to generate these words from cognates, antonyms, partially-gapped words, etc. If the list contains chunks or phrases, these could be jumbled or gapped.

When it comes to studying at home with a word list, we should encourage our students to annotate, doodle on them, use colour highlighting and underlining. If we want them to come up with examples, we should encourage them to invent bizarre examples (as they will be much more memorable) or examples that are personalized in some way (again, because this enhances memorization).

Word lists and translation

2 Feb

It’s kind of hard to imagine word lists which do not include translation equivalents. If you have a problem with the use of mother tongue in the classroom, have a look at my blog / handout on translation (see the Blogroll on the right).

Without getting into more details about this now, here are a couple of quotes I like:

  • Far from being outmoded and ineffective, the learning of lists of translation pairs can be very effective in acquiring large amounts of vocabulary very quickly. (Milton, 2009, p.231) There is evidence that retention [of vocabulary in lists] is better with L1 glosses than without . (Groot, 2000, p.61)
  • All the criticisms of translation can equally be applied to other ways of representing the meaning – they are not direct, they do not exactly represent the meaning of the word, and they take time away from using English (in the case of pictures). (Nation, 2008: 109)

Word lists in class

2 Feb
  • Put students into pairs or small groups. Tell them to focus on a selection of words from their word list. Ask them to organise the words into groups / categories. It’s important to point out that there are no wrong or right answers here. The pairs / groups then exchange their ideas, explaining their rationale.
  • Here are some ideas from Jeremy Harmer (2012, p.54). Tell students to focus on a selection of words from their word list. Ask them which five words they would take with them to a desert island and why. Alternatively, ask them to decide which words they will put in the fridge (they’ll keep them for later), the dustbin (they don’t need the words) or their suitcase (because they want to use them now).
  • And here are a couple of ideas from Nick Bilbrough (2011, p. 80). (1) ‘Learners work in pairs with about 10 language items. They write a dialogue or a very short story which uses all of the items they have picked. These are then performed or read out to the others. The pairs who are listening can be asked to guess which words the speakers were challenged to use.’ (2) ‘Learners create a wordsearch, a crossword or another type of puzzle where the words to be reviewed are the answers. This can be done with pen and paper or online at a website such as http://puzzlemaker.discoveryeducation.com/ Learners then try to find the answers to each other’s puzzles.

Word cards

2 Feb

Earl Stevick once said that if you want to forget something, put it in a list. A student’s word list should be considered as an initial tool, but manipulating this tool in various ways can aid memorization enormously. For many years, many teachers have been using, or encouraging their students to use, word cards. Research (Nation, 2001: 296-316) suggests that between 30 and 100 words can be learnt in one self-study hour using word cards. How?

The approach is simple. Students should prepare word cards from their word list. On one side of the card, they should write the target item (along, perhaps, with additional information such as collocations, examples, frequency information,  part of speech, pronunciation, etc.); on the other, they should write the translation (and any other information that may be useful, such as a picture).

Paul Nation (2008, p.106) suggests the following procedure. Learners should go through their pack of cards, looking at each English word, trying to remember the translation. If they cannot remember the meaning, they should check the back of the card. Words that are easy to remember should be put at the bottom of the pack; words cards that are harder should be stuck in the middle of the pack somewhere. After going through the pack once or twice, it should be put away and returned to about half an hour later. Students should return to their pack at regular intervals: later that day, the following day, a couple of days later, a week later … The pack should be periodically shuffled. Words that remain problematic should be transferred to a new pack, and the same procedure applied. Once students are happy with a set of words, they should flip the pack over and repeat the process by looking first at the words in their own language.