This appeared at eltnews.com in May 2001 but I can't find the link anymore ...
Dr. Rob Waring
Notre Dame Seishin University
Vocabulary instruction is one of the most misunderstood aspectsof language learning and language teaching. Research shows thatmost teachers deal with vocabulary in a haphazard and rather unprincipledway, and most teachers leave the selection of vocabulary to thecoursebook. This need not be so. This short article will presenta few points that teachers should be aware of when dealing withvocabulary.
Luckily for language teachers and language learners, not allEnglish words need to be learned. We do not have time to teachall the words, nor do we have time to look at many more than afew words in each class. This is extremely important because itmeans that EVERYTHING we do as vocabulary teachers has to be focusedon:
a) building the learner's 'start up' or initial vocabulary,and
b) developing the learner's understanding of what learning wordsmeans, and
c) showing the learner how to learn the words most effectively.
The ultimate aim, of course, is to develop the learners asindependent word learners.
Research shows that learners need about 3000 'word families' to be good at English. (A 'word family' is a group of words that share the same meaning such as 'help', 'helping' 'helped 'helpless' etc.). Teachers should concentrate on the most frequent and useful words first, as it is these words the learners will meet very often. Hereis a link to list of very useful words which you can download and usewith your learners. (Both Peter and Setsuko seem to be againstword lists and rote memorization, but it is a very important stagein vocabulary learning, as we shall see below). Many teachersfocus on rarer words assuming that the basic words like 'get','make' and 'bring' are known. But it is these words which areamong the most troublesome, with their multiple meanings and idiomaticuses. Therefore, teachers and learners should work VERY hard onthe highly frequent words.
But what is a word?
We all know 'traffic' is a word, but is 'traffic light' oneword, or two? 'Traffic light' has a single meaning which is differentfrom that of 'traffic' and 'light' but it is made up of two 'words'.How about 'by and large' and 'the day after tomorrow', or 'howdo you do?' and 'of course'? All languages are full of shortphrases made up of several words, or chunks of language, and teachersshould focus on these as well as the 'word' itself.
Words are almost never found in isolation, they nearly alwayshave partners that together form meanings in certain restrictedways. For example, we say 'beautiful woman' or 'handsome man'but we do not usually say a 'beautiful man'. The same goes for'black and white' (not 'white and black'), or 'here and there'(not 'there and here' - but achi kochi in Japanese). These wordrelationships, often called collocations, are very important forlearners. If learners do not know these word relationships thenthey will sound strange and say things like 'weak cheese' (mildcheese) or 'yesterday night' (last night). Thus, in order tospeak and write well, teachers need to introduce lots of wordrelationships not only single words, and learners need to be taughthow to notice word relationships on their own.
How should learners learn vocabulary?
The most fundamental idea that should underlie any method is that'the most important vocabulary to work on, is that the learnerslearned yesterday'. The nature of human memory dictates thatvocabulary (like all item and system learning) will probably beforgotten, especially if the word has just been met. Peter demonstratesthis point well with his 'car parts lesson'. Vocabulary loss happensbecause it is at the initial stage of word learning that wordknowledge is so fragile. This means that words and phrases needto be recycled often to cement them in memory. Introducing aword and not recycling or revisiting it, means that it is highlylikely that it will be forgotten. Coursebooks are usually verybad at recycling, so the teacher must work out ways to recyclethe vocabulary that is introduced in the course book.
Stages in word learning
There are two main stages in learning words. The first stageis achieved when a connection is made between the meaning andthe form (its spelling or pronunciation) of the word. The secondstage is much more difficult and involves knowing when to usethe word (and not use it), its word relationships, its shadesof meanings, and so on. The first stage of learning a word isquite easy and some ideas how to do this are presented below. This can be done most effectively by rote memorization such asby using word cards (the word on one side of a piece of paper,and its translation on the other). Research dating back over100 years clearly shows that this is VERY effective (if not veryenjoyable) and learners can learn hundreds of words very quicklyespecially if mnemonics or memory tricks are used. Many peoplemisunderstand this kind of learning saying it is boring and behaviorist.Indeed many teachers misunderstand this too by forcing their learnersto learn only in this way, which made life very difficultfor Setsuko. True, rote learning can be boring and tiresome, butit IS very effective if done in a principled and systematic way.Later we shall look again at strategies to deal with both stagesof word learning.
Learning with or without context?
One question that is often asked, is whether words should be learnedwith context (e.g. from reading) or without (e.g. in a word list).My answer is both. Many teachers, such as Setsuko, suggest thatwords be learned only in context. Typical reasons given for thisare that it is more 'natural', or more 'enjoyable' and that wordsare met with their collocates and derive meaning and nuances fromthese relationships and thus words should be learned in the contextwith which they are found. This is all true, and at this levelI agree with Setsuko. However, research also shows that rotelearning is several times faster than learning from context (i.e.from just reading lots of books) and it would be a good idea ifwe could use this rote learning to build a quick 'start up' vocabularyfor our learners. Learners need lots of vocabulary at the earlystages so they can work out the patterns in the language. Theimportant point to remember is that the rote learning part isonly the initial stage and MUCH more work should be done to deepenthis knowledge. However, rote learning can quickly empower learnersto have a command of several hundred words within a few weeks(Research shows this is easily within the reach of most learnersif the learning is systematic and principled). One very effectiveway to use the rote memory capacity of our brains is to use 'wordcards'.
In defence of rote learning - the effective use of wordcards and rote memorization
'Word cards' are pieces of paper with the English on one sideand a translation or picture on the other. Learners are givena list of words which they need to learn (highly frequent, usefuland common words) and they make word cards for the words theydo not know. It is useful to test the learners on these wordsfirst so they will find out which words they do not know. Thelearning needs to be systematic because learning is better thatway. This is how it is done. First, the learner breaks the wholepack of word cards into manageable groups of about 8-12 wordsper set (words starting with the same letter, or that are similarin meaning or sound to other words in the group, should be avoidedas this can interfere with learning). Secondly, the learners numbereach set. Then the learner learns words from set 1 by lookingat one side of the card and trying to recall the other. This forcesretrieval of the meaning (whereas learning from a list does not,as both the word and its meaning can be seen). Then the learnerlooks to see if the recall is correct or not. Words that are knownare put in one pile, the words that are not recalled are put onthe other. When she has gone through the full first set of wordsone time, the learner picks up the words that were not recalledand tries again. As before, the words that are recalled go onthe 'recalled' pile and those that are not go back to the 'unrecalledpile'. The learner works like this until the whole of set 1 isknown. Then, set 1 is put to one side and the same procedureis done with set 2. Set 2 is then put to one side.
The next bit is the important step and the one that is mostoften missed. The learner should now go back to set 1 andrecall them again. This is essential because of the steep forgettingcurve that is a natural part of the way our short-term, or working,memory (doesn't) work. If the learner goes to set 3 without returningto set 1, the learner will be starting to forget words in set1, so she MUST return to it. Each time a set is picked up it isimportant to shuffle the order of the words in the set and tolearn from English to the mother tongue, and vice versa. Whenshe has re-learned set 1, she goes back to set 2 and only thenon to set 3. The important part is to always go back to the startand go through the sets and only introduce a new set once allthe others prior in the sequence have all been recalled. Thisis called scaffolding' one's knowledge. Thus the sequence is
1,2 1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3, 4 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ......etc.
Note that as the number of sets being learned increases, thereis greater time gap between the return to set 1. This is perfectbecause our memory works best by 'increased spaced rehearsal'(ie greater and greater time between subsequent recalls) becauseit tends to reinforce it into longer term memory. Just learning100 words in one big pile will lead to little learning as thereis no scaffolding and no 'increased spaced rehearsal' and forgettingis high and boredom soon sets in. Most learners who use word cardsdo not learn in the correct way and it is here that word cardlearning can fail. By using small sets of words each little'goal' can be quickly achieved and this gives a positive senseof achievement. Once set 1 has been completely remembered say5 or 6 times, it can be safely called 'learned' - but only atthe initial stage of word learning. Now the learner needs todeepen this knowledge and meet it time and time again in context(see below).
Why word card learning is better than list learning
Many learners try to learn words in lists which is much less ineffectivethan word card learning. List learning is probably what 99% ofpeople think of when they think of rote learning, and it is listlearning which gives rote learning a bad name!!
List learning is not as powerful as word card learning forseveral reasons. Firstly, it is systematic and system is key toeffective learning. Haphazard learning, such as from reading ora coursebook, is much less focused and effective. Secondly, withword cards, learners can set learning targets and measure andsee their own progress over time. Thus it is highly advisableto require learners to keep records of which sets they are learningso they can keep track of where they are and how well they areachieving their goals. It is very important for the teacher toget the learner to set her own learning goals and determine herown rate of recycling. Goals that are too ambitious initiallywill soon fail, so a modest target is best. Thirdly, the learningis motor-manual. It is well known that the more parts of the brainwe use when doing an activity increases the chances of learning. Fourthly, it is not serial in nature (i.e. words are not recalledin order as in a list) because words can be shuffled and movedbetween packs if need be (problems words can be moved to set onefor extra practice, for example). Learning in the same order(serial learning) such as from a list is a problem because oftenlearners know some words and not others and waste time meetingones they already know. But with word cards, learners are onlygiving each word the right amount of attention it needs. Moreover,when working with lists, learners can often remember the nextword on the list before they even see it. Fifthly, list learningtends to be bound by the type of activity it is. Studies showthat people can remember well in lists, but do not recall wellin tests that are not a list of words. The old adage says 'learnit in a list and you shall only remember it in a list'. This seemsto be less so for word card learning.
Sure, learners will complain about how long it takes to makeword cards and teachers may be reluctant to require learners todo this work, but what is the alternative? The alternative isslow haphazard acquisition of vocabulary and high rate of forgettingleading to boredom and disinterest in English. Worse still, isthat it instills or reinforces a culture of failure to achievein English, which can dampen any desire to learn.
The bad news (for the learner)
Of course, the teacher MUST test the learners on the words, orthe learners will not do it. I test them till they hate me (wellnot quite) - I'm not in a popularity contest, but I AM paid tomake them learn. Even the most highly motivated learners maytake time to adjust to this system, but once it is a habit, learningis fast, effective and efficient. However, there is some goodnews.
The good news
As time passes, learners will know more and more words andwill have built a 'start up' vocabulary. They will be meetingthese words in their coursebooks and readings and the teachercan start to de-emphasize rote learning and spend much more timeon vocabulary learning strategies and other activities to deepenthe knowledge of the 'start up' vocabulary.
How do learners deepen their knowledge of words?
This can be done by word study exercises and by mountains of graded reading. There is a free downloadable introduction to Graded Reading published by Oxford University Press in English orJapanese.
Research also shows that learners learn best when they aremade actively involved in word learning and at different levelsof mental activity. If a learner just repeats a word over andover, the processing is quite shallow because it is just maintainingknowledge. Thus writing the word out time and time again willlead to little learning. Learners should be trained to work withwords deeply, by working with the collocates, looking at how theword is similar but different from other words, by forming 'networks'of word relationships in their minds and not just keeping wordsin isolation. Thus, learners must be given chances to noticenew words for themselves, and made to hypothesize aboutthe meaning of new words. They should also be given chances toexperiment with their hypotheses by producing the new wordsin speech or writing. Only by experimenting will they know ifthe learning has been successful. Thus teachers should try notto just present the meaning of a word to a learner, but let thelearner work it out for herself, with guidance where necessary.
Learning exercises must not only teach learners new thingsabout words. They should also, as part of their agenda, betraining the learner to become independent. This means thatexercises should not only teach but also make learners aware ofthe nature of vocabulary and how words go together. Endless fill-the-blankexercises do not achieve this aim because basically they are testsand are not developing skills and strategies for how to dealwith vocabulary. The same goes for close exercises or crosswordpuzzles and other exercises like them. These are only tests, andunless they are used wisely, these exercises are not expandinga learner's world. Remember the 3 points that vocabulary teachersshould always have in their mind that were presented at the beginningof this article. The aim of every exercise should alwaysbe to make the learner more and more an independent as a wordlearner, not more and more dependent on the teacher's or dictionary'sknowledge.
Guessing from context - the most important vocabulary learningstrategy
By far the most important vocabulary strategy to teach isto 'guess unknown words from context'. When you learned yourfirst language, most of the words were not taught to you, youpicked them up from books, the TV and from conversations. Thereis not enough time to teach thousands of words one by one in class,so language learners must also know how to guess unknown wordssuccessfully. Sadly, many teachers just expect learners to knowhow to guess well, but there are thousands of learners who couldbe helped to be more successful at guessing. So how is it bestdone?
The first thing to do when a learner meets a new word is toignore it. If it is important it will come again. If they meetthe word a second time and communication breaks down, then theyshould try to guess its meaning. Initially, it is important tomake them notice its part of speech, and then they should lookfor clues around the word to help with the meaning. If they havean idea, they should try to substitute their guess into the sentenceto see if the meaning of the sentence is clear. They will soonrealize if they have the wrong part of speech, or wrong meaning.Finally, they can use word affix knowledge to confirm the guess(they shouldn't start with affix knowledge as their guessingstrategy otherwise they will make many mistakes e.g. 'antiwar'means 'against war', but 'anticipate' does not lead to 'againstcipate'.)
However, it is vital to understand when teaching learners toguess words from context that they will not be able to guess successfullyuntil they know about 95-98% of the other words in the text. If the text is too difficult, then the large number of unknownwords will make successful guessing much less likely. Therefore,it is wide to not start teaching this strategy too early in thelearning process, because the learners will not know enough otherwords to guess successfully. Starting too early leads totoo much failure and can reinforce the idea that word learningis difficult.
It should always be remembered that 'teaching does not causelearning' so teachers should expect learners to not understandsometimes and they should not expect learners to remember everyword they teach. The aims of vocabulary instruction then shouldbe to create the conditions where the learner can learn independentlyof the teacher. The ultimate aim of any teaching is to enablethe learner to get to a position in which she does not need usanymore. Thus, teachers should teach vocabulary learning strategies,such as 'how to use a dictionary well'; 'how to learn words systematically';'how to keep vocabulary notebooks' and so on.
If teachers can do some of these things, learners will benefitmore from their classes and will not only remember more words,but will be on the road to becoming independent vocabulary learners.