March 2021
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VOCABULARY INSTRUCTION IN EFL

Rob Waring, Notre Dame Seishin University, Okayama, Japan

When looking at typical EFL classes, courses and materials, it is clear that many basic principles of vocabulary teaching and learning have been forgotten, or ignored. This article reminds us of some of the most fundamental ‘common sense’ aspects of vocabulary teaching and learning and provides some suggestions for ‘best practices.’

Let us start with some of the ‘common sense’ notions about vocabulary teaching and learning.

  • There are two major stages in word learning. The learner first matches the word’s spelling and pronunciation (its form) with its meaning. Sadly, this is where most vocabulary teaching and learning stops. Rarely are the deeper aspects of a word given much attention, such as understanding its collocates or colligates; whether it is formal or informal, spoken or written; its similarity to other words; its shades of meaning; the restrictions on its use; its register.
  • We do not learn a word from one meeting. Nation (2013) shows learners need to have 5-16 meetings, or more, for receptive use. More exposures are needed for fluent, contextually appropriate productive use.
  • Initial word knowledge is fragile and memories of new words not met again soon, are often lost. If a learner has just learned 20 new words, the ‘Forgetting Curve’ (Pimsleur, 1967) reliably predicts that only one or two will be retained in the medium or long term, without review.
  • Teaching does not cause learning. Moreover, teaching and learning do not go lockstep, from the easy to the difficult. Most courses (and coursebooks) are linear in structure presenting something new in each lesson on the assumption that once the unit has been ‘done’, the learners will have ‘mastered’ the content and so can move onto the next new item. Following this principle will not provide the vital systematic recycling of words required for long term retention especially for beginners. Following a ‘one hit’ learning approach almost guarantees a low return on investment, which can lead to demotivation.
  • Nation (2013) suggests that learners need to know about 98% of the words in a text before successful guessing of unknown words can take place. Below 90% coverage, the probability of guessing the meaning of unknown words is almost zero.
  • Not all words are equally useful. Learners should first master the 1500-2000 general service vocabulary found in both general and technical texts.later they can specialize.
  • Some words are more difficult to learn than others. Research suggests that words which are more concrete and closer to a known concept, or are cognates, tend to be learned before those which are more abstract and are relatively dissimilar from the first language.
  • Most collocations and multi-word units are very rare and are not worth learning intentionally. For example, the transparent collocation strong wind occurs only three times per million words, whereas the ‘rarer’ and potentially ‘harder’ word compromise occurs 33 times.
  • Written and spoken vocabulary are different. Fewer (and often different) words are needed for fluent speaking and listening than for reading and writing.
  • Learners learn best by making sense of their own vocabulary and internalizing it. The more deeply they work with the words in conjunction with others in many different contexts and ways, the more likely they will be retained.
  • We do not have enough time to teach everything about a word, so a teacher’s role is to go beyond just teaching and should focus on developing independent word learners who build a sense of how the language fits together themselves.
  • Most vocabulary exercises test, not teach.


And now for the $1,000,000 question. In general, does English language teaching reflect these principles? The simple answer is no, not very well at all.

  • Sun and Dang (2020) show most words taught in EFL coursebooks are not sufficiently recycled later in the same book, or series.
  • Learners following a course have exposure only to words the course covers. However, coursebooks often omit hundreds of high frequency words and phrases (Schmitt and Schmitt, 2020; Nation, 2013). This ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach also ensures the learners’ individual needs are often not met.
  • Many teachers do not take a systematic approach to vocabulary selection and assume the coursebook is the syllabus and that it has adequately taught all the knowledge necessary for productive use by the end of the unit. This lack of long-term planning and careful systematic development of partial word knowledge in course design leads many learners to consider themselves bad at learning vocabulary and may give up easily, or avoid conscious word learning.
  • Most coursebooks emphasize single words at the form/meaning level only and neglect multi-word units and common words assumed to be known. Many teachers favor intensive language instruction while neglecting fluency development, especially for reading and listening.
  • Teachers who teach too many similar words at one time may not only confuse learners who get new words mixed up, but also overload the learners’ memory leading to ‘vocabulary graveyards.’
  • For many teachers, word teaching only means teaching a definition and spelling or pronunciation, not the deeper aspects of word learning.
  • Teachers leave vocabulary learning to learners and rarely teach systematic and principled vocabulary learning strategies and techniques, dictionary skills or how to keep effective vocabulary notebooks.
  • Vocabulary learning goals are rarely set.


What does all this imply for language teaching and learning?

Firstly, teachers should carefully select words to teach, focusing on the most frequent and useful words as they carry the most meaning senses. Similarly, those which will be relatively easy to learn, such as cognates and high frequency words, should be introduced early to build a start-up vocabulary base. An early emphasis on vocabulary growth within language teaching will help kickstart their learning (Meara, 1995).

Secondly, the most important vocabulary to focus on is yesterday’s vocabulary. Because we can all but guarantee that most words we teach will soon be lost to the Forgetting Curve, it is essential that the new words are repeated not only soon after the initial learning, but repeated at spaced intervals many times and in many contexts thereafter to cement them in memory. As our coursebooks do not seem to consciously recycle important vocabulary, the 5-16 times needed for fast recognition, teachers have to ensure there is enough exposure. One easy way to achieve both these goals, and one that takes little classroom time, is to require learners to read graded readers (or other texts not dense with new words) out of class, or ask them to listen to long simplified recordings at their fluent listening and reading level. This will expose the learners to massive amounts of vocabulary from which they can discover new collocations, build a sense of how words and grammar interact, and improve their reading and listening fluency in an enjoyable way (Nation and Waring, 2020).

Thirdly, learners should not be faced with material that is too difficult because they will not be able to guess successfully from context and will struggle to integrate new knowledge. Reading and listening material that is a little easy is beneficial for language learning as it provides the conditions for building reading speed, fluency and lexical access speed.

Fourthly, the ultimate aim of teaching is to make learners independent. This can be achieved by providing systematic instruction in how to use their dictionaries well, and how to learn vocabulary effectively. For example, rather than teach multi-word units individually, we need to train learners how to notice them in their input and guess what they mean, as well as learning how to record words well, and how to sequence their learning to fight the Forgetting Curve. At first, only very high frequency vocabulary items with a wide range of meanings and coverage, highly frequent lexical chunks and faux amis need intentional learning time. Most collocations, phrases and multi-word units should be picked up through massive exposure to comprehensible texts. 25% of their learning time should each be spent on intentional learning, building fluency, meaning focused input and meaning focused output (Nation, 2013).

Lastly, vocabulary exercises should focus on deepening and internalizing the knowledge of words, and should not just be tests. They should promote high quality mental processing by focusing beyond the ‘form-meaning’ level of single words preferred.. Learners should learn how to deal with collocations and multi-word units, and develop word attack strategies to build derivational knowledge in interesting and varied ways to network all aspects of word’s form, meaning and use, receptively and productively. The type of practice in these activities should allow the learners to notice new lexical items, build up partial word knowledge, while forcing them to internalize them. Learning should avoid too many simple gap-fill and matching exercises that manipulate only meaning and/or form which only develop relatively shallow mental processing.

Readers are encouraged to follow up this brief article by reading Nation (2013) and Schmitt and Schmitt (2020).

References

Nation, P. 2013. Learning vocabulary in another language (second edition). Cambridge University Press.

Nation, P. and R. Waring. 2020. Teaching extensive reading in another language. Routledge.

Meara P. 1995. The importance of an early emphasis in L2 vocabulary. The Language Teacher 19, (2): 8-10.

Pimsleur, P. 1967. A memory schedule. Modern Language Journal. 51 (2): 73-75.

Schmitt, N. and D. Schmitt. 2020. Vocabulary in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sun, Y. and T.N.Y. Dang, 2020. Vocabulary in high-school EFL textbooks: Texts and learner knowledge. System, (93) October. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2020.102279.


Rob Waring is professor at Notre Dame Seishin University in Okayama, Japan. He is a well-respected expert in extensive reading and vocabulary and recently published Teaching Extensive Reading in Another Language with Paul Nation.
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