By Jenny Hardacre
TEFL teacher and trainer with 30 years experience
About 80% of English produced is made up of the most common 2,000 words. That is to say in a text of 200 words, about 160 words will be frequently used everyday ones. Understanding 80% sounds pretty good for a fairly low level of vocabulary. However, try taking a short text and black out 20% of the words (select the more difficult ones). It is often surprising how little there is left that students could use to reliably guess meaning. In listening it is even more difficult. The problem is that the words and phrases related to the topic of a text and therefore key to its meaning are likely to be ‘low frequency’ – that is less commonly used.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition!
To make matters more difficult, it is estimated that a learner needs to come across a new item 5-16 times before they really know it. So even if you do an excellent vocabulary lesson, your students will probably forget the new words and phrases unless you make sure they see/hear them again.
Most vocabulary is learned through repeated exposure rather than conscious learning – just as well, otherwise we’d be faced with an impossible task. But the question of how to ensure that less frequent vocabulary comes up again is a difficult one for teachers.
Much language teaching theory emphasises the importance of authentic texts, but finding enough authentic texts which conveniently recycle specific vocabulary is impossible. One thing you can do is ‘tweak’ authentic texts – rewrite them slightly to incorporate specific vocabulary.
A classroom vocabulary box is invaluable. Keep a record of new words and phrases that come up in lessons, write them on cards and chuck them into the box (or better get your students to do this – one card each for homework). Put the word or phrase on one side of the card and meaning, examples, grammatical information, pronunciation etc. on the other. Put aside a short time at the end of each lesson for students to test each other using the cards.
It might seem old fashioned, but making students learn last week’s vocabulary for homework is very effective. It’s more fun if you use games (hangman, crosswords, pelmanism, word searches etc.) rather than tests. I play a game based on the British TV programme, Blockbusters, with students playing in 3 teams against each other.
We need to impress on students the importance of vocabulary learning and the fact that they cannot rely on lessons alone. They need to listen to and read as much English as they can. With the internet this is much easier than it used to be. Find websites that will interest your students, such as the BBC’s Learning English, encourage them to watch films and listen to English language radio. Graded readers are a great way of expanding vocabulary and improving reading skills.
A useful (if rather dry) resource for teachers whose students want to study in an English speaking country is the Academic Wordlist.
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