February 2022
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ACADEMIC VOCABULARY CLUB: A CREATIVE SPACE FOR LEARNING

Ariadne Miranda, INTO USF, Florida, USA

Vocabulary research has shown that “most L2 students who aspire to academic studies in a country where another language represents the medium of instruction-and is required for all academic writing tasks-need to have a vocabulary of over 5,000 words, which includes academic words that have to be systematically and persistently learned” (Hinkel, 2015, p.83). It is not enough, then, to expect students to acquire academic vocabulary on their own without explicit instruction. Of course, the most motivated students who are also avid readers will very likely learn many vocabulary words on their own, but for the great majority of students, explicit instruction is an important way to ensure adequate exposure and meaningful opportunities to practice words from the Academic Word List (AWL). Language teachers do not need to be familiar with vocabulary research to know that academic vocabulary is an area in which many multilingual students for whom English is an additional language need more support and practice. While we offer vocabulary electives for our students in our program, we know that the more academic vocabulary exposure students have, the better their speaking and writing will be.

In light of the importance of vocabulary development for academically bound students, in Fall 2021, I envisioned and offered an optional extracurricular activity for students in the Academic English Program. I called this activity the Academic English Vocabulary Club. My vision for the club was to make it a relaxing space for students to learn together without the pressure of grades. I wanted this space to be devoid of hierarchy where I would not be seen as the one with all the answers; rather, I wanted to create a space where we would all feel comfortable to learn from one another. My ultimate goal was to help students feel excited about vocabulary and language in general.

I first sent a survey to all students in the Academic English Program to gauge the level of interest. Since we had students both online and in person, I provided students several options for our meetings. The level of interest in this activity surprised me. I received about 20 responses from all levels in the program. Since there are no classes on Fridays in our program, we decided to meet on Fridays at 11 a.m. I offered an option for students who preferred to meet online and for those who preferred to meet face-to-face. At our first meeting, we talked about what we envisioned the club to be. Students agreed that we all owned the club and that it was up to us to make it work. Students liked the idea of equal participation, and the emphasis on learning together without worrying about making mistakes.

I mainly used the Academic Word List (AWL) located here: https://www.eapfoundation.com/vocab/academic/awllists/ I gave students the list divided into sublists. Each week we focused on 10 to 12 words from a different sublist. There are a plethora of activities and resources for vocabulary learning online. I found sites with vocabulary worksheets, but activities were not contextualized, so I concentrated on the words from the AWL. I also incorporated NPR episodes for students to listen and identify words that were new to them. I identified AWL words in advance and would share sentences from the listening with students. Seeing the word in context helped students guess the meaning of the word, and it also helped students remember the word later on.

A Typical Meeting

A typical meeting would have 6 to 7 students and lasted one hour. My vision of giving students ownership of the vocabulary club did not work out as well as I imagined. Students were not very receptive to the idea of making the club their own. I did not want to be the leader of the club, and I also did not want to make the club into another class. Rather, I wanted students to help me lead the club by coming up with ideas for activities or sharing interesting words they had heard during their daily activities. But, this was not to be. Students would share new words every so often, but as hard as I tried to get volunteers to lead a session, I ended up leading all of the sessions. In a typical meeting, some students would join in person and others would join online. I would ask students to share any new words they had encountered with the class. Students were responsible for explaining the meaning of the work and to share an example. We would then go over the words from one of the AWL sublists. We would first discuss any words they were already familiar with, and all participants would have to write an example using the word. After confirming the meaning of the word https://www.wordhippo.com/ we would spend some time reviewing variations of a word. In all cases, students had to write a sentence with all the words discussed in class. Since the meetings were small, every student had a chance to share their sentences, and there were lots of opportunities for feedback. While I was responsible for giving feedback, students felt very comfortable asking questions about meaning and usage. This was my favorite part of our meetings because I was able to ascertain that students were thinking critically about language and that they were comparing the mental maps they had about a word with the information shared in class. These were the moments when I really felt that our time spent together was fruitful.

Lessons Learned

I learned some important lessons through my experience with the vocabulary club. First, it is a great idea to have this type of activity. Students appreciated having a space to learn new words and to practice language in a stress-free setting. Setting the expectations for the club early on is critical by reserving time during the first meeting to come up with the goals for the club. In retrospect, I would spend more time engaging with students to hear their vision for the club and co-constructing a set of guidelines as to how to structure the meetings. II would also integrate more games in club meetings. I did this a couple of times, and students enjoyed it. It takes a little bit of preparation to become familiar with each resource, but with a little planning they can be incorporated easily. Using readings and listening to excerpts from the Internet is something that I would do more. This would allow students to see the words in context and would encourage more participation. The importance of using activities that take into account context cannot be overstated. Using sentences in isolation is not as exciting or effective. Students will benefit from reading academic prose or from listening to interviews or other sources where they can notice new words and reflect on how they are used. The use of advanced language expressions such as collocations is something that needs to be explicitly taught. Because these words do not occur in everyday conversations, it is important to set time aside to devote to them.

The time I spent with students in the club was extremely valuable. Students interacted with students from different levels. They got to practice their speaking and writing skills, and they also had to engage in critical thinking. As I do not teach as often as I would like, it gave me the opportunity to spend time with our students and witness the development of their language proficiency.

References

Hinkel, E. (2015). Effective curriculum for teaching L2 Writing. Principles and techniques. Routledge.


Dr. Ariadne Miranda, the current associate director of the English Language Program for INTO USF, holds a Ph.D. in communication and over 20 years’ experience managing intensive English programs in higher education. She is passionate about teaching, teacher development, and curriculum design.
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