Monday, July 1, 2013

Individual Words

(Recently I've been posting reflections on a book, please click "Graves" in my tag cloud for other related posts. This isn't a book review or a report on the contents, just a personal response to what I've read!)

Chapter 4 of Teaching Vocabulary to English Language Learners is called "Teaching Individual Words".
From Wikimedia Commons
Off the top of my head, here are some typical vocabulary-teaching activities:
  • matching a word to a definition
  • completing a sentence with the word
  • using the word in a sentence that shows an understanding of meaning (and which uses correct inflection, syntax, spelling, etc.)
  • unscrambling a word
  • Using or finding the word in a puzzle
  • Associating the word with synonyms, antonyms, collocations or pictures
Do you have some other favorites? Do they tend to be related to spelling or reading the word and connecting it to a definition? In teacher culture (from what I see in textbooks and lesson plans, including my own), I think we consider a word "taught" if a student can do those two things. I suspect that this is the assumption behind many studies as well. For example:
... a study by Giambo and McKinney (2004) found improved vocabulary for ELL kindergartners with phonemic awareness instruction ..." (Graves, et al, 2013, p. 18)
How was "improved vocabulary" measured? Did kindergartners match a word to a picture (i.e., a definition)?

Yet, participants in my classes will say things like, "I know the word when I see it or hear it, I just can't remember it when I need to use it." or "I know that word, but I can't say the meaning in English." They certainly know something ... What is it that they know?

After reading this book (and the previous one, see "Folse" in my tag cloud), I'm ready to make a distinction between vocabulary teaching and vocabulary learning. I'm seeing the first as outcomes-focused: we focus on helping students connect a word with its definition. We can check that by giving a test. But the second is a continuing process, not so easily measured. Does what a learner knows help her to participate in communication better than before? Certainly, associating a word with a definition is an early step in the process, so the teaching thing is useful. But it doesn't stop there.
  • Why does learner want to know this word?
  • Did the new word introduce a new concept?
  • Does the new word open the door to a new context?
  • Can the learner build on the word, or even innovate with it?
  • Did the learner notice a pattern that can be applied to other words, improving how well those words are understood as well?
I'm realizing that It's not only beneficial to spend a significant part of each lesson on vocabulary and to recycle words often and intentionally over a long period of time, but also to show and encourage an interest in words beyond definitions. For one thing, include first languages in the discussions about words. And how about letting learners play a role in deciding what words to study? Learners can bring in words they think the class should study and explain where they found the word and why they want to study it. This ties in with another tip: have learners be on the lookout for words outside the classroom. Obviously, they can look for current and past words or words they want to learn. Why not look for phrasal verbs, a certain suffix, when people say "um", adjectives, words with 5 syllables, unusual spellings, etc.?

This chapter is chock-full of other useful ideas and suggestions, such as what to consider when choosing words to teach explicitly, providing student-friendly definitions, techniques for teaching in-depth, and ideas for recycling and review. I can tell I will be referring to it regularly!

(PS: I'm posting for the first time from an app called Blogsy. Apologies if things look funky!)

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