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Vocabulary profiles & memorisation

Reading through the blogs this week, I came across Emma Harrod’s “Two Week Vocabulary Blogging Challenge“.  It and a couple of responses by Cecilia Coelho (“I Propose a Vocabulary Bank“) and Vicky Loras (“Word of the Week“) inspired some contemplation on teaching vocabulary.  In fact, Emma’s three springboard questions are loaded, so I’ll tackle the first two now, since they address practical in-class activities and in the next post, her third–a further discussion related to the learning outcomes–receptive and productive.

Q: “As teachers, how can we best advise students on this important area of language learning and encourage greater learner autonomy and vocabulary retention?”
In my experience, university and adult students tend to be fully aware of the fact that vocabulary is a necessary part of their learning process.  It’s often lumped in the general category of “speaking”, which for the most part is one of the more desired skills students want to practise.  I encourage the use of Vocabulary Profiles (the basis of which was introduced to me by a colleague), like this one (Word, PDF), which helps students record all aspects of the new words and organise them in their notebooks.  The first page includes a template and the second, two examples of how to fill them out.

Vocabulary acquisition is not simply associating one definition with the word itself, however adequate it may be for beginner students.  Each box in this profile represents an aspect that needs to be addressed in order for students to receptively understand and improve productive accuracy.  With this profile, the intention is to take words from contexts that students are exposed to in class.  It’s this context that we focus their profiles on.  Through dictionaries and in-class usage, students are challenged to notice not only the contextual definition (ie. Meaning #1), but also alternative meanings, class, family members, pronunciation, collocations and the oft-forgotten word grammar.  Keep in mind, acquisition never happens on the first go, so students will still produce awkward uses.

One way to reinforce importance is to begin lessons by demonstrating gaps in their knowledge.  Let’s take the word project.  Write it on the board and ask students to compose a sentence using the word.  Undoubtedly 99% will write something along the lines of My friends and I are working on a class project together. Tell them that they’re all wrong.  The gasps are deafening.  Tell students that without context, they couldn’t have known that you were actually looking for its use as a verb.  This usually grabs their attention and opens their eyes to the importance of context.  Then go on to show contrasting pronunciation by word class (eg.  as noun vs as verb), multi-meaning words (eg. The next edition of the book is projected for publication in March. / Images are projected onto the retina of the eye. / She projects an air of calm self-confidence.1), word grammar (eg. transitive, most usually used in passive form), and common collocations (eg.  project + onto, project + out, etc).   I’ve found lumping all this together can overwhelm them, so spreading these aspects out over time can lessen the burden.

Useful links: 
1Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online
Oxford Collocation Dictionary online

Lextutor’s Familizer
Vocabulary (Garnet Education) – a great many online resources – if you’re in North America, you can get it from English Central

Q: Have you had particular success with any memory techniques in the classroom and how did you use them?”
Another good resource for helping students find ways to help them memorise is to give your students a list of fairly difficult (or remote) words you think they won’t know, their definitions and word class to memorise.  Allow them 10 minutes to do so in any way they feel works for them.  Then take the definitions away and quiz them (with my Chinese students, who are remarkably efficient at memorisation, nearly all of them would get 7+/10, but with definitions verbatim.  Ask them to rewrite in their own words and the scores retreat to 2 or 3!). Have small groups compare their memorisation methods.  After this, I usually go through some standard memorisation techniques and have them try again with new words using these techniques.  Finally, we evaluate as a class which were more effective than others and which they’d try to adopt themselves.

Wow.  Maybe these should have been two posts themselves!

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Anything that gives context and embeds the word in syntax is good. I saw a girl on the metro the other day memorizing a list of words and it reminded me of learning French in school. What a terribly inefficent and soulless practice. Isloated words have nothing to hang on to and without regular use they drop from memory. It would be nice if we could learn language from a dictionary but it’s just to passive to stick.

[…]  This post is for Emma Herrod’s The Two-Week Vocabulary Blogging Challenge. Here you can also find great ideas to teach, store and learn vocabulary. You can read and reach more from Tyson’s posts […]

Emma Herrod

WOW! You have answered my original questions perfectly, just the kind of meaty, practical content I was hoping would come out from the original post 🙂 It pleased me no-end that you had looked at each of the questions and I’m looking forward to reading the third aspect too.

You’re right, the majority of adult and university students so accept the need for a concentration on vocabulary, particularly when moving on from an intermediate plateau level to work at a more advanced language. Accepting this seems to be just a small part of the challenge however in my experience. I’ve found it’s then necessary to equip learners with a tool belt of techniques they can use to mine for and retain new lexical items.
Certainly recording new items is a fundamental skill and one which really seems to stress some people out (like me – the Type A personalities :)). The templates that you link to are ideal for such organisation and wider explorations of new items and as you rightly point out, they encourage a wider curiosity about new language.

Your response to the memory techniques have really got me thinking – I’m going to write something further on this as part of this same series. I found it really interesting that students can be left to use whichever memorising technique they find effective (have I got this right?). When I think back to my own language learning, rote learning with the only way we knew (or rather were told) how to remember vocabulary. I’m really interested in the other possibilities that are out there for our students. Rote learning certainly works for certain people, yet others find it boring and that it doesn’t help them to actually recall the items for use in real context. Your memorisation techniques sheet is interesting. The words I myself was able to recall were the ones with pictures. Maybe this can be just one stage of the memorisation stage. So, in the 10 minute slot, they look for five minutes at pictures and words, then definitions and words and see if their recall is much improved? Just for me however, especially in a second language, I find my brain goes fuzzy and frustrated very quickly (about definition number two). This however probably says more about my abilities to concentrate than it does about the notion of rote learning and definitions!

I didn’t quite mean to write this much but your post has really hit the nail on the head in terms of tangible classroom practicality and this is what we can work with, try out in our own classrooms and feedback n’est pas? 

Thank you and I’m sorry that it has taken me so long to adequately respond to your thoughtful post.


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