In an EFL / ESL context, what if teaching vocabulary is actually not the same as teaching new words? Here are 5 tips to help you.
Up until fairly recently, I didn’t pay too much attention to how I taught vocabulary. My main concern was to help students understand and produce grammatical structures as accurately as possible. Teaching vocabulary was some sort of byproduct of whatever grammar or skills work I happened to be doing at the time.
Cut to 1997, when teaching vocabulary gained more prominence in my career. Way back then, I began teaching and devising courses in which grammar was supposed to play a less central role. It looked like the ever-swinging ELT pendulum had finally swung toward teaching vocabulary – or so I thought at the time. So, guess what, I had to find a way to teach words more effectively, which, in hindsight, was perhaps the wrong way to phrase the problem. I was trying to find a way to teach words when there’s so much more to teaching vocabulary than words.
When teaching vocabulary, why focus on “issue” when, in fact, it’s “address a key issue” that ought to be stressed in class? Why simply tell students that “cut down on” means “reduce” instead of practicing the whole chunk “cut down on the number of (hours online)” “cut down on the amount of (sugar I eat).”
These are insights I derived from the work of a man called Michael Lewis, whose ideas on teaching vocabulary and sheer impact on ESL and EFL will only be adequately assessed a few years from now, I believe. Though I could have done without some of Lewis’ contentious and sometimes slightly dogmatic views, especially on grammar acquisition and the role of production in class, his books have taught me something that still informs my practice to this day:
When teaching vocabulary, a lot of useful/usable, high-frequency vocabulary is not made up of “new” words, but of combinations of “old” words.
This means that having an “advanced” command of vocabulary does not necessarily mean knowing 10 ways of walking or, say, what sounds different animals make. Progress at higher levels entails mostly – though not exclusively, of course – learning ‘old’ words in new chunks and contexts. Here’s a simple example:
Way - I found a way around the problem / You have a way with words / If I had my way, I’d…/ A is way better than B.
All these phrases and sentences are made up of words students already know, of course. What is “new” is the way they’re combined. Seems logical, right? Trouble is, these “old” words used in new ways don’t usually leap off the page as much as “new” words do, so when teaching vocabulary to ESL / EFL learners, we often ignore them. And without our intervention, students are far less likely to notice a phrase like “I found my way around the problem” or “my expectations were met” than, say, “I was flabbergasted” or “He lives down in the boondocks”.
So, in this sense, when teaching vocabulary to ESL / EFL learners, part of our job as teachers and course designers is to make the invisible visible, as it were. Here are 5 simple tips:
Tip 1. When teaching vocabulary, point out patterns and ask students to write them down and find other examples. Ask questions like: What’s the verb before “expectations” in the second paragraph? Again, when teaching vocabulary, don’t assume students are noticing collocations and chunks for themselves.
Tip 2. After students have read a text and done comprehension exercises, have them choose three interesting phrases (rather than words) they would like to learn for active use. Tell them these phrases should not contain any unknown vocabulary. That way, students are more likely to notice phrases like “jump to conclusions”, “needless to say” or “I’ve been meaning to call you”, which again, are made up of “old words”, which in themselves aren’t particularly noticeable. By the way, check out this 2010 post on noticing lexical chunks – it’s a lot of fun, I promise, and it connects interestingly with this post on teaching vocabulary.
Tip 3. When teaching vocabulary, instead of asking, “Is there anything you don’t understand in paragraph 2?” try “Is there anything you’d like to learn for active use?”
Tip 4. When teaching vocabulary, take responsibility for pointing out to students which lexical items are most useful and train them to do the same. For example, choose a mix of high frequency/useful/usable and less useful vocabulary from any given text and tell students to rate each phrase as:
*** very useful ** useful * interesting for recognition only.
Then carry out a class survey to discover which lexis students found more useful.
Tip 5. When teaching vocabulary, encourage your EFL / ESL students to record their new phrases as they find them rather than in a generic form. For example: “The odds that he will come are pretty slim” rather than “odds.” Incidentally, if you have time, check out this post on the word “odds” and the overlap between teaching vocabulary and grammar.
Thanks for reading and, by the way, regardless of the contentious title (which hopefully caught your eye and gave you an insight or two into teaching vocabulary), I do believe B2/C1 students need to learn “new” words, too.
ELT has had enough of dogmas and one-size-fits-all solutions, thank you very much. Teaching vocabulary should be no exception.
Thanks for reading.