Spew test, anyone? On teaching and learning vocabulary

niceetoileA spew test in language testing circles means one where subjects produce as many words as possible which share a feature (e.g., begin with “b”); I sometimes fear a different interpretation when my students are nervously negotiating their first academic oral presentations.

In particular I’m thinking about my first year MA students who are preparing for national entrance exams to become high school EFL teachers in France. I’m involved in preparing them for oral exams where they give formal presentations (with notes, not slides) on the cultural themes in various literary, historical or socio-political texts, images, and audio/video recordings. The idea, I imagine, is to test their spoken English, cultural knowledge of the English-speaking world, and perhaps suitability for classroom practice.

Listening to those students’ practice presentations, alongside the usual difficulties with pronunciation/intontation, errors in grammar and vocabulary, and global communication issues (presence, time management), I find myself grappling with more nebulous concerns of what we might call level of sophistication, which seems to involve register, grammatical complexity, but also precision and variety of vocabulary.  How can we help students sound more impressive to an examining panel in this type of formal assessment of their cultural knowledge and (spoken) proficiency in English?  Or to give this a more positive spin, how can we help these future teachers develop the academic register – and particularly the varied and specific vocabulary – we would like learners to hear in the language classroom?

As always, I’m looking for intersections between what research tells us about how foreign languages are learned, what teachers are doing in the language classroom, and what our learners (and perhaps future teachers) seem to need.

Implications of vocabulary acquisition research

Nation (2011) notes that vocabulary has gone from the poor relation of second language research to a major research focus over the past three decades, but uptake of findings in this area has been patchy at best. Nation, who researches vocabulary acquisition and trains ESL/EFL teachers, cites research showing teachers tend not to “have good intuitions about what vocabulary their learners know” (2011, p. 531). This means they generally do not plan vocabulary courses well, perhaps, he suggests, because they do not see the need for particular attention to this aspect of language learning. But there’s a lot to vocabulary acquisition in a second language: thousands of words to be learned (see Thornbury on vocabulary size), a lot to know about each (see Lundgaard, 2015, for an accessible overview), and of course there are many different ways of going about the business of ingurgitating these new words to bring up in subsequent intercourse (or indeed force-feeding our learners).

Nation’s first recommendation to teachers is to distinguish between high and low frequency words, and treat each differently.  He says,

The idea behind this distinction is that the high-frequency words make up a relatively small, very useful group of words that are important no matter what use is made of the language. Because each word in this group is frequent, the learners will get a very good return for learning them. The low-frequency words, on the other hand, consist of tens of thousands of words that occur very infrequently, are often restricted to certain subject areas, and thus do not deserve any substantial amount of classroom attention.

For high frequency items, Nation recommends extensive reading with graded readers. Another complementary method is direct learning. Nation claims “the deliberate learning of vocabulary using word cards is one way of speeding up learners’ progress towards an effective vocabulary size.”  Nation (2011) and Nation and Chung (2009) have concrete suggestions concerning deliberate learning, using academic word lists (see Cobb, Thomas, and Whyte references below).

However, Nation also makes a distinction between vocabulary teaching and vocabulary learning, quoting an illustrative study of direct teaching of vocabulary where “less than half of the taught words were learned” (Nation, 2011, p. 536). So for high frequency words, Nation suggests that direct learning is more effective than direct teaching.  Of this more later.

But for low-frequency items, a different approach is indicated:

From a teacher’s perspective, the best approach to low-frequency words is through training in strategies such as guessing from context, deliberate learning using word cards and mnemonic tricks like the keyword technique and word parts, and using dictionaries to help learning. These strategies are so widely useful that they justify the use of classroom time. The goal of strategy training is that learners will eventually be able to use the strategies without the help of a teacher.

Intelligent vocabulary learning: direct and learner-controlled

To me, these findings support an intermediate position between the “let it all hang out” of strongly communicative approaches, for example, and the “drill and kill” of more closely teacher-controlled methods such as grammar-translation.  To learn new words, some kind of grunt work is required, but it needs to come from their learners rather than imposed top-down by teachers. And it needs to be done intelligently.

Two recent posts by Jordan on vocabulary research and the involvement load hypothesis also lend themselves to this kind of interpretation.  Drawing on Yongqi Gu’s (2003) review on vocabulary research, Jordan (2015a) makes the following observations about teaching and learning vocabulary:

1. Intentional reading should supplement incidental reading.
2. Dictionaries help vocabulary learning
3. Rote Rehearsal is good for Vocabulary Learning
4. Beware Mnemonics
5. Organised learners learn faster
6. Research is needed on learning lexical chunks

Jordan (2015b) also cites a study of the involvement load hypothesis in relation to vocabulary acquisition (Hulstijn & Laufer, 2001) which he interprets thus:

This hypothesis suggests that classroom reading tasks, using a relatively-short text and various well-established activities pertaining to the text, can be manipulated in such a way as to induce a high involvement load, which in turn results in dramatic improvements in vocabulary acquisition.

If teachers want to manipulate the involvement load of classroom vocabulary learning activities, they should bear in mind learners’ motivation (or need) to use words, the effort required to understand their meaning (or search), and the contexts in which new words are compared to others (evaluation):

(0) Absent: Learner doesn’t need to understand or produce word.
(1) Moderate: Learner is required to learn the word by external source (teacher).
(2) Strong: Learner makes decision to learn or produce the word.

(0) Absent: Meaning or translation of word is provided.
(1) Present: Learner must look up meaning / translation of a word.

(0) Absent: Words are not compared with other words.
(1) Moderate: Words are compared to other words in provided contexts.
(2) Strong: Words are compared to other words in self-created contexts.

The involvement load hypothesis seems to support Nation’s positioning of the learner, rather than the teacher, at the centre of vocabulary acquisition efforts: if the learner makes the decision to learn, goes to the trouble of looking up words, and places them in a personalised context, then learning is improved.

So what does this mean for language teachers and language learners? Put simply,

  1. learners need to take vocabulary acquisition into their own hands
  2. teachers should […] focus on strategy training instead of the direct teaching of vocabulary (Nation, 2011: 533).

And more practically, some places to start for teachers and learners:

  • a simple word wall (Harris)
  • extensive reading (Bard) versus narrow reading (Roberts)
  • suggestions for the classroom and homework activities (storytelling, corpus tools, study skills; Braddock, Renshaw)
  • word lists and corpus tools (Cobb; Nava; Thomas; Whyte).

Like successful dieters, learners should consume new vocabulary with discernment and moderation; with luck some of this wisdom will help us all keep the urge to regurgitate under control …


[ Being of the old school where names and dates carry their share of meaning, I can’t help wishing bloggers always had first and last names on their about pages, and posts were dated 😉 ]

Bard, R. (2015). Looking at Extensive Reading through TALO and TAVI lenses. Rose Bard’s ELT diary. https://rosebardeltdiary.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/looking-at-extensive-reading-through-talo-and-tavi-lenses/

Braddock, P. (2014). Building and retaining vocabulary. Teachingenglish. http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/teacher-talk-building-retaining-vocabulary

Cobb, T. The compleat lexical tutor. http://www.lextutor.ca/

Gu, P.Y., 2003. Vocabulary Learning in a Second Language: Person, Task, Context and Strategies. TESL-EJ, 7 (2).

Harris, R. Word wall. Fabenglishideas. https://wordpress.com/read/post/id/61393592/526/

Hulstijn, J. & Laufer, B. (2001) Some Empirical Evidence for the Involvement Load Hypothesis in Vocabulary Acquisition. Language Learning, 51(3), 539–558.

Jordan, G. (2015a). Vocabulary learning. Critical ELT.

Jordan, G. (2015b). The involvement load hypothesis. Critical ELT.

Lundgaard, G. (2015). What is it to learn a word? California Language Teachers’ Association conference presentation http://toolsfromtexas.wikispaces.com/file/view/What+Does+it+Mean+to+Learn+a+Word.pdf

Nation, I.S.P. (2011). Research into practice: Vocabulary. Language Teaching, 44(4), 529–539 doi:10.1017/S0261444811000267

Nation, I.S.P. & Chung, T. (2009). Teaching and testing vocabulary. In Long, M. & Doughty, C. (Eds.). Handbook of language teaching, pp. 543-59. Blackwell.

Nava, M. (2012). How to explain a word using corpora. EFL notes. https://eflnotes.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/how-to-explain-a-word-using-corpora/

Renshaw, J. Learning twigs.
Vocabulary activities http://jasonrenshaw.typepad.com/jason_renshaws_web_log/vocabulary-activities/

Roberts, R. Learning vocabulary through reading. http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/rachael-roberts/rachael-roberts-learning-vocabulary-through-reading

Thomas, J. ELT methodologies
– Academic writing resources
– Vocabulary

Thornbury, S. V is vocabulary. http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/v-is-for-vocabulary-size/

Whyte, S. Resources for academic speaking/terminology for teachers of English language/culture.


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