On the fourth day of Geekmas, some blogger gave to me:  fo(u)r recalling words

Welcome to the teflgeek Christmas celebration!  Themed around the classic Christmas carol – but going backwards, mostly because it’s more like a countdown that way:

and fo(u)r recalling words – or at least four areas to consider for helping students to recall words.  The term vocabulary is not used in this post to denote only single word items, but also includes multi-word items, chunks, short phrases….  it’s all good.  As you’ll see from the mind map below, I think there are four stages to maximising vocabulary learning:  Encounters / Recording  /  Revisiting  and Producing – and within these stages there are things to be thinking about and ways we can help learners through these stages.

Encountering Vocabulary

The importance of the item to the learner promotes intake.  If you don’t need to know it, why bother remembering it?  My daughter has, for example, perfect mastery of the chunk “Shaun The Sheep”, but can’t tell me what she wants for breakfast.  Everyone’s priorities are different – is it any wonder our classes wallow turgidly through the lexical mire, when half of what we teach them is irrelevant to their needs?

“Lumbago”.  A great word, once used in a seminar as an example of a low-frequency word.  If you’ve not already met it, you might be struggling with an idea of its meaning.  How about “My lumbago’s acting up.”?  Now it could be a part of the body?  An Italian sports car?  So how about “My lumbago’s acting up.  The Doctor’s told me to go see a chiropractor.”  Assuming we have knowledge of the other items, we can now deduce it’s a problem relating to the spinal column.  Thus the context clarifies all!  Exposure to an item in a variety of contexts helps this.

Our relationships to items is also worth considering.  This may sound slightly odd as most people think of our relationship to words as typified in the “master-slave” dynamic, yet because we encounter words in different contexts, words hold different values for us and these values skew our perceptions of the meanings.  For instance:  define “happy”.  OK, so that’s a loaded example, but think for a moment of the word “house” – what did you visualise?  The connections are there to be made and developed – forging these connections can help learner retention.

Recording Vocabulary

The written record is surely the cornerstone of any classroom?  At the end of the day if it doesn’t get written down, does it get remembered?  But this does put a certain onus on us teachers to make sure that the language on the board is relevant, meaningful and useful – not just random collections that arose out of whatever else happened to be going on that day.  Not that there isn’t a place for that, but keeping things in touch with the topic can help.  Partly, because if you do ask learners to make a written record, then if they write down everything that goes up on the board, they might end up doing little else – which would be a shame!  But the written record – the simple question “Can you write that down please?” is another step along the path to retention.

Having written the day’s selection of useful items down in their class books – it would be interesting to find out from learners what they do with the language next.  Do they review it regularly or does it just sit there?  The problem with only recording vocabulary in a class / lesson  based notebook or folder is that the language is essentially grouped chronologically – and this makes it hard to associate items to each other.  Walters & Bozkurt (2009) have demonstrated that keeping vocabulary notebooks, as distinct from class notebooks, has a significant effect on learner retention of items and on learner use (production) of the target items.  A good study habit for learners to adopt therefore, and something we as teachers should encourage, is for learners to create their own vocabulary notebooks and to transfer items from class book to vocabulary book on a regular basis.

This brings up the question of systemic organisation of notebooks.  If you have access to the teacher’s books for the Cutting Edge series, then somewhere at the back in the photocopiable resources section are some learner training worksheets designed to help learners choose a suitable system. They’re definitely in the back of the “classic” Cutting Edge Intermediate teacher’s book – not sure about the others.  There are any number of systems available.  There are mind mapping techniques (see above graphic),  bubble diagrams,  picture labelling, diagram labelling, alphabetical lists, translation lists, timelines (not sure about this one myself), parts of speech organisation…  and it goes on!  The trick is for the learners to find a system that works intuitively for them, and not to have a system imposed upon them.  An alternative to the vocabulary notebook per se, is the learner vocabulary diary – Simon Thomas provides a template, discusses how to use them and provides a series of activities in this excellent post here:  Vocabulary Diaries for Language Learners.  For more ideas on organisational structures – here’s a link to the “Periodic Table of Visualisation Techniques” which may provide some inspiration!  Thanks to @Marisa_C via facebook for that one.

Revisiting Vocabulary

There is the old adage that a learner needs to “meet” a vocabulary item seven times before it moves into their active lexicon, I don’t know where this comes from, whether it’s based in fact or just one of those taken for granted tefl truths – in any event simply seeing a word once and writing it down is only the start.

As teachers, the easiest way to recycle vocabulary is simply to use it again – and the simplest way to do that is to incorporate it into future teaching materials.  Thus every lesson / every day becomes part of a building process in which the learners encounter some old familiar friends, draw some new acquaintances closer and meet some items for the first time.  In fairness, most coursebooks do work like this and grade their input from the early modules to the later modules.  But not all – some coursebooks are produced “at level” and are intended as a target for learners to aim at.  And in either situation it’s not uncommon to find coursebooks using language, especially in the rubrics, that learners wouldn’t even begin to understand!  Know your coursebook!  It’s relatively easy to find out this kind of information from the publisher websites, most of will be given on the back of your book (or will turn up fairly rapidly in a quick internet search.

There are also specific class activities that you can use as warmers or fillers which recycle vocabulary items.  Backs to the board is a great warmer, but also handy for reinforcing incidental vocabulary at the end of the lesson (if you have time).  Also on this site is “Pointless“.  Maria Zabala Peña has 5 quick games for vocabulary revision on her blog.  Taboo, where learners have to describe an item without using the target item or five associated keywords (e.g. try describing Santa without using the words snow, reindeer, sleigh, north pole or elves) is another alternative.  Learner lesson bingo – where learners create a bingo card for the whole lesson based on items they think will arise from the lesson topic and tick them off as the lesson progresses….  I’m sure you have your own favourites – feel free to add them below (via comments)!

There are also self-study activities – a friend used to write down his vocabulary items on blank business cards.  He’d put the target language on one side, his own language on the other and used to flick through them on the bus on the way to university in the morning.  Every day he’d add new cards to the pile, but he’d go through the pile and select “known” items to go into the archive.  Once a month he’d go through the archive and any items he’d forgotten would come back into the working pile.  That was almost 20 years ago and I think it’s now possible to purchase apps for your smart phones that do more or less the same thing!  If learners do have a vocabulary notebook, simply reviewing the pages every now and again will help.  Simon Thomas’ vocab diaries (mentioned earlier) includes a revision timetable that aims to optimise the intake of new items.

Producing Vocabulary

It is a constant source of amazement to me the number of times you get a truly excellent vocabulary presentation section in a coursebook, followed by the standard practice phase – and then nothing further.  It is one of those unwritten rules of teaching that learners will consistently fail to use the target items in any activity that has been designed for their production – but still, give them a chance!  If nothing else it helps create a meaningful context!

It might be helpful here to differentiate between “Spontaneous” and “Considered” production.  Both types can be either written or spoken – I would characterise the difference as the amount of planning or forethought that went into developing the utterance / text.  So for example, the difference between answering the question “How was your holiday?” at the office water cooler and sitting down to write your mother a postcard as you sip cool drinks by the pool!

The difference is worth highlighting for two reasons – firstly to help characterise errors and secondly to help think about activity types and providing opportunities for spontaneous and considered production in the classroom.  As regards errors – my theory (and I should stress I have no evidence for this!) is that “mistakes” occur more frequently in considered production and “slips” more frequently in spontaneous production.  I posted back in October on error types – so take a look here for more background.  But the point is that if a learner has taken the time to think about what they want to say and how best to say it, and they still make an error – it’s more likely to be evidence of a systemic lack rather than a performance error, and consequently in more need of correction.

The other point to make is to remember to include opportunities for both types of production in lessons.  Again, it seems obvious but it’s easy enough to follow coursebook programs and processes which don’t always include production opportunities.  Dogme types will no doubt be nodding along to the request for spontaneous production opportunities – and the informal general chat is a good way, possibly the only authentic way, of providing such an opportunity.  It can be a nice way to welcome learners to the class as you wait for everyone to arrive – and by building social chat opportunities into the lesson, you can (sometimes!) reduce the amount of L1 social chat that occurs during other parts of the lesson (especially with teenagers!).

Considered production tasks might be more structured and offer the learners more support.  These might be tasks where the learners know they are meant to produce a language type, or not.  Either way, these are usually outcome based, have a clear objective or goal, and would be followed by some type of feedback (both language and content).  They could range from a pyramid discussion to a formal essay.

Almost done…

The main point here is not that anyone should dogmatically follow each and everyone of these recommendations – I don’t.  The idea is more that effective vocabulary learning happens when an integrated approach is taken by the teacher and when the learners are made aware of how they can best help themselves.  As such, I hope this post provides a few ideas to take forwards, try out, discard, adapt and with any luck adopt – as a useful way forwards with this process.