Defining

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Photo courtesy of  Piotr Bizior

Growing up in a bilingual country such as Canada has some real benefits. Oh sure, there is the vast spaces and the diverse landscape, but most of all, I love our culture. I love the fact that we embrace our linguistic diversity and, even though it can be difficult at times, I love that fact we have access to so much in two languages. I always find it odd when I visit the United States and find only English on packaging, signs, and announcements. I remember as a child sitting at breakfast and reading the cereal box, comparing the English to the French and seeing how word order and word choice was different between them. Even though I was required to learn French in school, I never was able to ever learn it properly (it’s a long story involving moving from one province to another and getting a nightmare of a teacher) which is really sad. There are so many times I wish I had stuck with French and had practiced it more. Ah, c’est la vie.

A number of years later after finishing my university degree, my wife and I moved to Lithuania and I started work as an English language instructor for a shipping company. During that time, we made a commitment to take Lithuanian language lessons from the university in town. We had started with an intense summer language course and then moved on into the regular program in the fall. Our teacher was extremely nice and very knowledgeable, but her experience in teaching was primarily focused on historical linguistics, especially the history of Lithuanian as an Indo-European language. Her approach to teaching us involved a great deal of time learning word lists and memorizing charts for declensions and conjugations. Over time, I was able to define a large number of words, mostly nouns and verbs, and I could spout off the declensions or conjugations for those words as they were laid out in the chart. The problem was I couldn’t speak. Someone could talk to me and I could mostly understand them (although, that took time and practice on my own) if they talked a little slower and didn’t use a lot of colloquial language. Funny thing is, I couldn’t answer making it a fairly one-sided conversation. I couldn’t even call for a taxi, but I knew all of the endings for house!

As an English teacher, I have often thought about how I can help my students increase their productive skills. It is the balance between learning and acquiring a language [see Earl Stevick’s comments on this here pp. 29-30]. In my case, I learned a ‘whack sack’ of vocabulary (or is plethora more appropriate here, Dean Shareski?), but couldn’t make the necessary connection to real life, that is, being able to acquire the language. I knew the definitions for words, but not the application of them.

In the last year or so, I have been working on reading more academic journal articles and I attempt to focus on one topic for a while to get the broader view of what is happening in that area. Lately, I have been focusing on the role of vocabulary in the language classroom. My journey started when I came across this recent article from Jim Ranalli at Iowa State University. I was intrigued by the topic of integrating computer-based tools to help students increase their personal lexicon. What followed was a lot of personal reflection on how, and even why, we teach vocabulary in the language classroom.

In the past, I was more traditional in my teaching of vocabulary. I taught students how to look up words in the dictionary (primarily English only) and then had them memorize a list of words. To test their knowledge of those words, I would use a variety of definition and synonym matching, cloze, flashcards, and other worksheet style activities. Later on, I had my Business English students create a class glossary of new words along with their definitions and in-context sentences. The result was a major disconnect in the understanding of those words (if they even remembered them) and using them in their speech or writing.

I think most of us have been through a similar process. To me, something has always bothered my about this approach. I have students, primarily asian or eastern European students, who have a large lexicon, but no idea how to use it properly. They can write paragraphs or essays with strange or archaic word usage and, for the most part, make no sense at all. Dig any deeper and you find that they have simply put in a word based on a single definition when the word meant far more than that.

Going back to the Ranalli (2013) article, I couldn’t help wonder what happened with those students following the study. To explain a bit more, two groups of students were used in this study on vocabulary-based computer activities versus in-class instruction in which students kept track of their new words using a long computer-based form. Ranalli concluded that the students who did the self-study work on the computer were able to retain more words than those who did it in class. Without getting into too much detail or to be critical of the study, I wonder if there is more to the differences than just the use of a computer program. It seems to me that the computer-based form the students use appears to me to take a long time to complete for a single word, whereas the students working on the computer-based activity can get through more practice in that same time period. There is more to this study than that, but it did get me thinking about vocabulary definitions and their usefulness.

When I was working on my MA TESOL, I was required to write a lot of academic texts such as essays, summaries, and reviews. I found that having a large vocabulary was helpful, but it was mostly contained to a few areas. What was particularly helpful was the use of synonyms. It may be that it was a single word or it also might be a stock phrase replacement. Whatever form it came in, I found myself recycling these words throughout my writing.  How did I build my lexicon? Mostly through reading other articles with the idea of looking for new ways of saying things. This was different than reading the article for content and required many passes over the text and reading a few articles on the same topic. I also made use of a reporting verbs list such as this one from the University of Adelaide. The more I wrote, the better I was of coming up with ways of saying things in different ways and the faster I was at finishing my assignments.

To transfer this idea to the classroom, I have five thoughts.

  1. Walk away from the dictionary. I think it is okay for the occasional word, but it isn’t a great way of acquiring new words. It is mostly useful to make sense of something in the moment. Instead, start using a corpus such as COCA. This helps students see words in context along with collocates.
  2. For academic and other formal writing, make use of synonyms and antonyms based around key ideas.
  3. Read lots of texts on a similar topic and start to pull out ways of saying things.
  4. Instead of hoping for 50% definition comprehension, go for 100% usage! Focus on smaller amounts of words and get students used to how they are used in various contexts.
  5. Practice, practice, practice… in context!
I know I have only touched on the topic, but I hope it helps start a conversation here on the role of vocabulary in the language classroom. Please share your experience and thoughts in the comment section, or feel free to share them with my on Twitter at @nathanghall.

Thank you.

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