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ETAS Journal Editors' Choice Number 43

Four principles for creating vocabulary

Julie Moore

ETAS Journal Volume 36, Number 2 (Spring 2019), pp. 24-25

I have chosen this article because it offers clear and concise advice along with practical ideas for how to plan effective vocabulary activities based on research.

Hannah McCulloch

Four principles for creating vocabulary

The vocabulary strand of many courses seems to play second fiddle to a grammar or functional syllabus, often consisting of no more than word lists tagged on to match topics. This article proposes four key principles that can help course designers, writers and classroom teachers create more principled vocabulary activities.

Despite everything we have learned about vocabulary acquisition in recent decades and the key role it plays in language learning, it often seems that vocabulary activities are still just tagged on to a syllabus that is centred on grammar or skills. The vocabulary syllabus, such as it is, typically consists of lists of words chosen to match the theme of each lesson. A theme determined by the grammar topic or reading text.

Having worked with vocabulary in ELT for 20 years as a lexicographer, corpus researcher, and materials writer, I believe we need to take a principled approach to vocabulary teaching. This article sets out four principles that I think apply equally to teachers planning activities for their classes as they do to writing materials for publication.

1. Have a clear aim

That any task should have a clear aim may seem obvious, but all too often the only aim of some vocabulary activities seems to be simply “teach some words”. Is that a realistic aim? What do you mean by “teaching” a word? Do you want students to understand the word receptively in context or to produce it themselves? I don’t believe you can necessarily do both in one lesson (and I’ll explore some of the reasons why in section two below).

You then need to ask whether you’re focusing on the words for their own sake, or because they’re useful for students to master. That can be a valid aim if you’ve thought about why and how the items are relevant and useful. For example, teaching English for academic purposes (EAP), you might choose to explore verbs typically used in thesis statements to express the aims of an essay: (This essay aims to) ... explore, investigate, examine, discuss, etc. by doing this, you hope to encourage students to expand the range of options they use in their own essays.

However, just as important are activities that aim to teach about vocabulary. you wouldn’t teach a grammar point by giving students ten example sentences to memorize and replicate. You’d use the examples to illustrate a wider principle. The same can be true for vocabulary. Students need to learn how English vocabulary works in order to become more observant and autonomous learners.

So, the aim of an activity might be to look at the differences between countable and uncountable nouns or to understand how writers use synonyms to create lexical cohesion in a text. It may be that the items you choose are also useful words to learn, but equally, you might go for the occasional left-field choice that will stand out as funny or engaging in a way that will stick in students’ minds. In an activity about negative prefixes, for instance, you could use unhappy and unfair as examples, but you could throw in “unfriend” or “un-American” and, hopefully, generate a more memorable discussion.

Try this:

When you’re planning a vocabulary lesson, note down the overall aim, e.g. to raise students’ awareness of formal and informal vocabulary or to focus on a specific area of interference between the students’ L1 and English.
Then, for each activity or stage, note down the rationale: how this specific task helps students work towards the overall aim.

Finally, consider what you expect students to take away from the lesson. Will they be more aware that Latinate verbs are typically more formal than phrasal verb equivalents? Will they have noticed that some nouns – which are countable in their L1 – are uncountable in English?

2. Once isn’t enough

When we learn anything, there’s a natural inclination to want to see progress and to add to our knowledge in a clear and tangible way. In language learning, this often manifests itself in a desire to keep learning new words. Leaf through any coursebook and you’ll no doubt see fairly prominent lists of new words in each unit. But the idea that students can “do” a word once then tick it off as “known” goes against everything we know about vocabulary acquisition. Most researchers agree that acquiring vocabulary is a gradual process that involves repeated exposures to an item.

When a learner first encounters a new word or phrase, their focus needs to be on the form (spelling and/or pronunciation) and its meaning in the current context. And really that’s quite enough for a first meeting. In most circumstances, it’s not realistic to expect learners to get to grips with the meaning of a new word and then grapple with how to produce it themselves within the space of a single lesson. A PPP model (presentation, practice, production) simply doesn’t work for most vocabulary. For all but the simplest concrete nouns, it takes time to get to know a word, to see a few examples of how it’s used, to get a feel for its meaning, to notice the company it keeps (collocations and grammatical patterns) and to find out about any quirks: is it formal or informal, spoken or written, is it offensive or complimentary, is it mostly used by trendy YouTubers or fusty old politicians?

Vocabulary typically starts off as part of our receptive (or passive) vocabulary, that is, words that we recognize and understand when we see or hear them, but don’t feel confident to use ourselves. Then, over time, as they become more familiar, they may (or may not) become part of our productive (or active) vocabulary and we gradually start to use them.

As teachers, then, we need to create plenty of opportunities for students to be exposed and re-exposed to vocabulary, to allow that process of acquaintance to happen without rushing learners into producing words before they’re ready, but at the same time, encouraging them to experiment with new language and not letting them stagnate. That exposure doesn’t necessarily always have to be via explicit revision activities, it can involve more subtle inclusion of target vocabulary into later lessons. Such lessons could include drawing students’ attention to items that have come up before or it could simply mean making sure that the words appear again, in a reading text or a grammar activity, so that students have to engage with them in some way.

Try this:

Keep a running list of vocabulary that you focus on in class (use a notebook or maybe a spreadsheet). Then, when you’re planning other activities, be that a grammar practice or a speaking task, look back at the class vocabulary list to see if there are any items you could include. If you’re practising, say, the present perfect simple, look for verbs that you’ve covered as vocabulary to go in your example sentences.

3. Create memorable lexical sets

Linked to the pressure to provide students with a regular diet of “new words” comes a tendency to feed students long lists of semantically-similar words and phrases – personality adjectives, phrasal verbs with get, idioms to do with the weather – in the hope that they’ll stick. While there isn’t clear agreement in the research about exactly how many new words a learner can absorb in one go or about the best way to compile a lexical set, there are a number of general themes that come through and which are worth bearing in mind when putting together a set of vocabulary.

Things to avoid include lists of similar items introduced together as new vocabulary. That might include near synonyms, easily substitutable items and synforms (words which look similar, like maintain and contain or economic and economical). Students can easily get these words confused and find them difficult to remember, an issue known as interference (Nation, 2000). Instead, thematic sets that draw together a variety of words and phrases to talk about a topic may prove less easily confused and more memorable.

Of course, there are exceptions to this principle. There are some sets of words, especially at lower levels, that just feel natural to teach together and some types of words may be less readily confusable than others. It should also be noted that the advice about avoiding similar words applies to vocabulary you expect to be new to your students. When revisiting vocabulary, there are, of course, considerable benefits in bringing together similar words in order to build up links, for example, between different forms of a word (patient, patiently, patience) or to explicitly explore differences between synonyms or synforms.

Just how many words to include in a lexical set will depend on the level, whether you expect the items to be completely new or partially familiar, the cognitive challenge of the topic and tasks, and the attitude of your students. One interesting piece of research into vocabulary learning found significant differences between a group of motivated, diligent, and competitive students in Hong Kong and a group of Israeli students who took a somewhat more relaxed and more global approach to their language learning and focused on overall comprehension rather than trying to memorize specific words (Laufer and Hill, 2000). You need to find the right balance for your class, providing enough vocabulary to create engaging activities but without overloading them.

Try this:

When teaching vocabulary around a theme, include words from a range of different parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) and also consider including phrases, phrasal verbs and occasional idioms as part of your lexical set. For example, instead of a set of personality adjectives (patient, considerate, honest, reliable, gentle, etc.), a mixed set (patience, consider other people, honest, rely on, wouldn’t hurt a fly) might be less easily confused and also encourage students to use a range of structures, not just he/she is + adjective.

4. Work beyond the level of the word

Between 30% and 50% of any English text is said to be made up of chunks of language: fixed or semi-fixed combinations of words that expert speakers draw on as pre-processed units, rather than constructing each utterance afresh word by word. These chunks include collocations (make a mistake), phrases (by the way), idioms (get to grips with) and longer sentence frames (no sooner ... than ....). Clearly, given their prevalence, helping students both recognize and produce these combinations is an essential skill; yet the focus of many vocabulary activities is still on lists of individual words and these chunks, that fall between vocabulary and grammar, often receive scant attention.

Building phrases and common collocations into vocabulary activities encourages students to view these as not just native speaker quirks that they need to understand receptively, but as a vital part of their own productive vocabulary which will not only bring processing gains in the long run, but will also aid communication. One study (Millar, 2011) found that the use of atypical collocations by L2 student writers slowed down readers, causing them to hesitate and reread the unexpected combinations, thus putting an extra load on the reader.

By keeping these four principles in mind when planning vocabulary activities, I believe we can take a more systematic and principled approach to the vocabulary strand of any course and give vocabulary the status it deserves within the language learning process.

References:
Laufer, B., & Hill, M. (2000). What lexical Information do L2 learners select in a CAll Dictionary and how does it affect
word retention? Language Learning & Technology, 3/2, 58–76
Nation, P. (2000). Learning Vocabulary in Lexical Sets: Dangers and Guidelines. TESOL Journal, 9/2, 6–10
Millar, N. (2011). The Processing of Malformed Formulaic language. Applied Linguistics, 32/2: 129–148

Try this:

Design activities in which students have to make use of collocations in order to answer the questions. For example, in an activity that involves matching sentence halves, as well as matching according to meaning, ensure that the target word is in one half of the sentence and there’s a key collocate to match it to in the other half. Then ask students to underline the collocation either as part of the activity or during feedback.

Biography:

Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer, lexicographer and corpus researcher based in Bristol in the UK. She works on a whole range of ELT materials, but her first love is vocabulary. As well as contributing to a number of learner’s dictionaries, she was senior editor for the Collins COBUILD Key Words for IELTS series and (co)author of two Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice titles.