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How can we help learners learn vocabulary?

As we all know, there is a lot to learn about vocabulary in terms of its range, the sheer number of words and phrases to learn, and the depth of knowledge students need to know about each vocabulary item. Materials can help students in two broad areas: First, they need to present and practice in natural contexts the vocabulary that is frequent, current, and appropriate to learners’ needs. Second, materials should help students become better learners of vocabulary by teaching different techniques and strategies they can use to continue learning outside the classroom. There is a vast amount of research into how learners learn best and how teachers might best teach. The next section presents some key principles that we can follow to help students learn vocabulary more effectively.

Teaching   vocabulary in  class
Focus on vocabulary.
Give vocabulary a high profile in the syllabus and the classroom so that students can see its importance and understand that learning a language isn’t just about learning grammar (O’Dell 1997). It may be worth teaching students an easier formulation of Wilkins’s (1972) view that “without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.” One of the first vocabulary learning strategies for any classroom is how to ask for words you don’t know in English, and how to ask the meaning of English words you don’t understand, so phrases like “What’s the word for  in English?,” “How do you say ?,” and “What does  mean?” are useful to teach at the basic levels. As students progress, another useful strat- egy they can use is to paraphrase: “It’s a kind of ,” “It’s like a ,” and “It’s for -ing X” etc. Focusing on these strategies puts vocabulary learning firmly on the classroom agenda. An important vocabulary acquisition strategy which Nation (2001) calls “noticing” is seeing a word as something to be learned. In this view, know- ing what to learn is a necessary prerequisite to learning. Teachers can help learners get into the habit of noticing by making clear in classroom instruction and homework assignments: which items should be learned, what each item is (a single word, a phrase, a collocation etc.) and for what purpose (active use or pas- sive recognition). And materials can help teachers in this in the following ways: J Providing clearly marked vocabulary lessons J Making the target vocabulary set stand out, including focused practice and regular review J Giving lists of vocabulary to be learned for the lesson Structured vocabulary notebook exercises which are designed to make students focus on a particular vocabulary set or feature are a good way of devel- oping this noticing strategy.

Offer variety
Tomlinson (1998) suggests a number of principles for developing success ful materials. The first of these is that “Materials should achieve impact.” He suggests that this can be done with unusual and appealing content, attractive presentations, and variety. Teachers can use different ways to present vocabu- lary including pictures, sounds, and different text types with which students can identify: stories, conversations, web pages, questionnaires, news reports, etc. In each of these contexts, topics should be relevant to students’ interests. Similarly, practice activities should vary and engage students at different levels. These should range from simple listen-and-repeat type of practice through controlled practice to opportunities to use the vocabulary in meaningful, per- sonalized ways. Offering variety also means catering to different learning styles, and as Tomlinson notes, some students may use different learning styles for different types of language or in different learning situations. So this means offering activities that sometimes appeal to learners who are more “studial” and “analytic” (those who need to analyze the language and to be accurate in their use of it) as well as learners who are “experiential” and “global” (those who are less concerned with accuracy as with learning whole chunks of lan- guage) and catering to students who prefer to learn either by seeing, hearing, or doing something.

Repeat and recycle
Learning vocabulary is largely about remembering, and students generally need to see, say, and write newly learned words many times before they can be said to have learned them. Some researchers have suggested various numbers of encounters with a word for learning to take place, ranging from five to up to twenty [see, e.g., Nation (1990); Rott (1999); Ghadirian (2002)]. Some sug- gest that an impressive amount of learning can take place when students learn lists of paired items (English word and translation equivalents); others suggest that this method of learning does not aid deeper understanding of the words or help develop fluency. However, most agree that repetition is an important aid to learning and that having to actively recall or “retrieve” a word is a more effective way of learning than simple exposure or just seeing a word over and over (Sökmen 1997). Researchers also agree that repeating words aloud helps students remember words better than repeating them silently. Another area of research is how long students can remember words after first learning them, and again researchers agree that forgetting mostly occurs immediately after we first learn something, and that the rate of forgetting slows down afterward [see Gu (2003)]. The implications for the vocabulary classroom are self-evident: Review vocabulary as often as possible in activities that have students actively recall words and produce them rather than merely see or hear them.


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