Friday, April 18, 2014

We Found It, Now What?

Last time, I noted how cultivating curiosity about language in learners will produce a lot of "found language". Learners are bringing in interesting examples, questions about meaning, and so forth, and we discuss them at the beginning of each lesson. In the past, I have not followed up much on incidental vocabulary, but now that we're generating a lot of it, I wonder:

What should I do with our growing list of new words and phrases?

This is the hardest kind of post to write, because I'm not starting with an observation or opinion but rather with a question. It's also the most useful, because in the process of writing and revising my thoughts some of them gel into ideas! Here's what I have so far ...

1) Not every new word has to be studied with the same intensity.
Some words and phrases are more equal than others. In our vocabulary project, we selected only a few words to spend a lot of time on (around 5 words a week). We verified that the words were either on a high-frequency or academic word list, or that the words/phrases could be reused frequently in the context of the topics we had planned over the 12 week program.

I don't have to give equal attention to every item on our found language list, but I should identify any high-utility language and explicitly include it going forward. In addition to frequency, I should consider the topics we are likely to be exploring in the near future.

2) Everyone in the class doesn't have to study the exact same words.
I can take a few words from the found language list to emphasize, but individuals can always make personal choices too. That's a kind of autonomy that I would be delighted to see!

3) Learners and I should discuss the rationale for our choices.
I should think aloud about my selection process as a model for learners. If learners choose extra words, it would be nice to hear the reasons for their choices. Sharing personal choices would benefit  learners because we could support their studies. (If learners are drilling each other with flashcards, why couldn't a learner include his or her own cards in the process?)

4) A word's definition is not actually the most important thing to study.
Sure, everyone writes a definition or translation into their notebook when they run into a new word that they want to learn. That's fine. But there are other things that get in the way of being able to use a word freely and fluently.

- I think connecting the word to a picture or symbol could be more useful than to a definition. Not long ago, a group of high beginners played "concentration" where they matched vocabulary words to pictures. (I made the cards from current vocabulary using clip art.) Months later, I could show a picture to this group and the word would come forward instantly! I don't think the same would be true if I flashed a definition. John Fanselow proposed letting learners come up with mutually-agreed upon symbols for words and then using them together in class. (Sign up for the May Advanced Teaching Skills Course at iTDi and hear all about it from Professor Fanselow himself!) An activity like this could be especially useful for conceptual language in my higher level group. Just discussing what symbol to choose and why would be good practice!

- Learning a definition doesn't help a learner with using the word in a way that sounds natural. This is where a corpus can be very handy.

Recently, we learned "go around" in the sense of having enough of something for everyone. MacMillan defines this as an intransitive phrasal verb, so a learner might logically try a sentence like: Does the pizza go around? Hmmm, something's not right there ... I think this verb should really be learned at the sentence level. After looking at COCA, I would use sentences of the form

There is not enough [something] to go around. There is plenty of [something] to go around.

After learning to use sentences like these, a learner would be more likely to try "Is there enough pizza to go around?"

The corpus also shows that this verb is used most often to talk about money or food, so I would be sure that these were featured heavily in our examples. With good word curiosity skills, I think learners could discover other variations on their own. In the meantime, they would have this vocabulary in an immediately usable form.

5) Flashcards!
Learners need practice remembering language and using it. I recently made a word-gap exercise featuring vocabulary from the past. I did not include a word bank.  This was a huge challenge to my higher level group!  They looked through their notebooks to find as many words as they could, then discussed with each other.  As the answers came to light, learners said "Oh yes! I know that!"  This tells me that there is not enough productive recall practice going on.  Flashcards can help.

Again, definitions are overrated. I would prefer symbols, an example sentence, or maybe an opposite word. How about "Is there enough [picture of a slice of pizza] to ________?" (hint: phrasal verb)

I have just discovered Anki, which looks to be very useful. I can post flashcard decks and learners can take those and add their own words. The prompts can be pictures, cloze, or even audio and can include hints.  Actually, they can be all of these things (more than one card for the target word).  Best of all, Anki presents the cards using spaced repetition. It takes learned words out of heavy rotation, but brings them back for review periodically.  There are also many shared decks for learners who can't get enough drilling.

Frankly, I like paper flashcards. If you make them small (3" x 5", cut in half), there's no reason you can't carry up to 10 new words around with you for a quick, discrete review while waiting for the bus or whatever. A methodical learner can follow a routine for spaced repetition using cards, too.  Plus, Anki is free for laptops but the app will cost ya. (It might be worth it, but that's up to the learner to decide. I can't require it.)

6) Games!
Maybe sometimes we can have a language game or other activity at the beginning of class instead of our found language discussion. It could feature our incidental vocabulary. There's tic tac toe, where partners or teams have to make a grammatically correct sentence with the word(s) in the square. Or learners could be given awkward-sounding sentences and rewrite into more fluent language.

7) Google Form and Spreadsheet
As I started pondering the question of this post, I realized that I should be keeping better track of all of this new language somehow.  I decided to start up a spreadsheet and that got me thinking -- what if learners and I could use a Google form to add vocabulary to a communal spreadsheet? What if I could output from the spreadsheet directly into Anki? If I come up with something, I'll share about it here!

PS: It looks like Blogger is weirdly unhappy with me.  It won't let me post pictures and it includes some odd-looking characters in my posts.  Sorry if this post looks goofy.  I may shift to Wordpress. (How annoying!)

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