Teaching Vocabulary

Words are more than mere individual containers with meaning. They exist in a complex structure which links them to morphemes (prefixes and suffixes), other meanings (synonyms, antonyms), other words (that is, the words that they are likely to occur with or be associated with), grammar patterns, multi-word units (groups of words that are fixed into phrases or idioms) etc.

By looking at longer stretches of texts, we can learn a lot about their internal structure and organisation. When we look at words in continuous texts, or discourse, we see that they play a key role in creating a sense of order. Words in spoken and written discourse perform important functions which help speakers and writers establish meanings with their audience. For learners, words in continuous spoken or written English pose a number of problems. For example, the form of a word may change when it is used in different contexts (giant and gigantic, for example), meanings are often highly context-specific and change from one context to another; even the pronunciation of a word changes when it appears in continuous speech.

Teaching words in texts involves giving learners appropriate strategies so that they can both process and produce new language. In reading and listening texts, students will be faced with many new words, some essential to their understanding, some useful and some which can be ignored.

One way of helping learners is to get them to mark all the unknown words in a text and then mark them again according to whether they are necessary (N) or not necessary (NN) for understanding. Another way is to get learners used to asking ‘ghost questions’ (questions inside learners’ heads which help make sense of a text). These questions will relate to both the linguistic and world knowledge features of a text. Some writers suggest that getting learners to ‘think aloud’ as they try to guess the meanings of new words is also a useful teaching strategy.

Getting learners to identify the lexical relations in a text is also a very useful way both helping them to develop comprehension skills and the skills needed to write in a cohesive and coherent way. Colour-coding a text can be very helpful: learners use a different colour to circle each member of a lexical set.

Another skill which learners need to develop when dealing with words in texts is inference, or reading/ listening ‘between the lines’. Inferring involves constructing meanings by using a combination of linguistic and world knowledge.

One classroom activity which is extremely helpful in getting learners to acquire vocabulary is a dictogloss. This is a kind of interactive dictation in which learners have to first listen to a text and then re-produce what they’ve heard. Close attention to words and their associated meanings is necessary in order to complete the task satisfactorily. Typically, the following procedure is used:

1. Select a short text (100-150 words).
2. Read the text aloud, students make notes from what they hear.
3. Working in pairs, students compare notes and make sure they have recorded all the key details.
4. Read the text a second time, students check their notes and add, amend, and so on.
5. Again, working in pairs, students re-write the text in their own words and using their notes.
6. Read the text a third time. Students check their version of the text and amend as necessary.
7. Give the original text to students so that they can compare it with their own version.

The main advantage of a dictogloss is that it offers an integrated approach to training skills. Listening, reading, speaking and writing are all practised. It also entails a considerable amount of negotiation of meaning of new vocabulary as students discuss and then attempt to reproduce the text. Texts should be relatively simple, humorous if possible and contain some (but not too many) new vocabulary items. Words in spoken and written discourse perform important functions which help speakers and writers to establish meanings with their audience.

Lexical cohesion is one aspect of this sense of order – it refers to the ways in which words give a text a kind of internal unity. In addition, the relationships between words help to establish topics and sub-topics and help speakers move from one topic to another. By promoting an understanding how words operate in texts, we can help learners to communicate more effectively.

McCarthy, M.J and O’Dell, F. (1999) English Vocabulary in Use. Elementary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McCarthy, M.J and O’Dell, F. (2001) English Vocabulary in Use. Upper-intermediate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nation, LS.P. (1990) Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.
Ur, P. (1996). A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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