By Jenny Hardacre
TEFL teacher and trainer with 30 years experience
If you were setting off to live in a country where you didn’t know the language and had the choice of a dictionary or a grammar book, which would you choose?
Just how much meaning can our students really ‘guess from context’?
In ELT there is a lot of emphasis on encouraging students to ‘guess meaning from context’ rather than reach for their dictionaries. The idea of top-down reading skills was keenly embraced by Communicative Language Teaching; focusing on global understanding of texts and trying to move students away from a word by word approach to reading. This is completely valid, but it doesn’t mean we should neglect the need for thorough comprehension, and that is largely arrived at through understanding vocabulary.
I’ve come to realise that those students my colleagues and I used to chuckle at with their long unwieldy lists of translated words and phrases were actually not so wrong in their feeling that what they really needed to know was lots of new vocabulary.
Whenever I give teacher training sessions on teaching reading, non-native speakers invariably exclaim about how infuriating they found it when teachers told them not worry about words they didn’t know. Teaching at a British university with high numbers of overseas students has made it obvious to me that one of the things they really need is a wider vocabulary. Attention to vocabulary is, as writers such as Dave and Jane Willis, Paul Nation and later Michael Lewis argue, much more important to learners than modern approaches to language teaching sometimes imply.
Fascinating facts about vocabulary
There are about 54, 000 word families in English. A word family is a base word and all the words that are obviously derived from it (e.g. happy, unhappy, happiness, unhappiness, happily, unhappily).
An educated native speaker of English is estimated to know about 20, 000 word families. Much of this would be receptive (passive) – that is, words you recognise and understand but don’t actually use in the language you produce. A 1996 study* concluded that to cope in an English speaking university students need a vocabulary of about 10, 000. To get a place at a British University students usually need an IELTS score of 6.5. In a talk at Anglia Ruskin University Diane Schmitt said that an IELTS score of 6.5 normally equates to a vocabulary of about 4, 500 – 5,000. This is about the same as that of a five year old native speaker child. So, if your students are learning English because they want to study in an English speaking country, they will be at a massive disadvantage. One of the things we must do as teachers is help our students learn more vocabulary. The question is, of course, how? Clearly we can’t teach them 10,000 items.
A very good starting point is to encourage your students to organise their vocabulary properly as Yolande Deane suggests in her blog on autonomous learning. I’ll look at more ideas for vocabulary teaching in my next blog.
*Hazenburg and Hulstijn (1996) Defining a Minimal Second Language Vocabulary for Non-native university Students: An Empirical Investigation’, Applied Linguistics 17 (2) OUP
2487 total views