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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

April 27, 2010

A companion piece to "Face Value Not Enough for Choosing Vocabulary" -Daily Yomiuri article of May 03rd

Today's post marks a sharp departure from previous entriess.

It connects to my Daily Yomiuri article of May 03rd. The article I originally wrote was much too long and therefore I had to cut a series of reflective questions which had punctuated each section. So now, the original article is in italics below whereas the original commentary is bolded.

What I'd like to propose today are several scales that may help teachers decide which vocabulary items might be prioritized for teaching. I'm going to start with a sentence I came across in a medical drama as our model: "What's the matter? Look, if you want to get used to using the defibrillator, you've got to keep working at it or else." Now, which three items from this sample would you be most likely to focus on for teaching intermediate-level post-high school aged students?

I'm assuming that the answers will depend upon your perceived level, needs and experience of your students as well as, to some extent, your understanding of what intermediate level means. But I'd like you to justify your choices even further. What was the rationale behind them? Were they based upon a sound understanding of lexis or merely the fact that your students don't know that word yet? If you've employed some of the following scales in making your choices you have probably made wise decisions.

1. Teaching vs telling
I've often been confused as to what teachers mean when they say they "taught" a word. Was it just that they told learners what a word means? Or was some kind of deeper explanation and subsequent practice required to absorb it? It seems to me that "telling" refers to cases where you translated, used a picture or some visual prop, or otherwise provided a quick gloss of the word. "Teaching" would seem to imply a more indirect process, perhaps one where learners gradually notice how an item works within a text and have their consciousness raised about it.

Question- For which items and on which occasions might you choose ‘teaching
’ over ‘telling’? And when might ‘acquisition’ of an item be preferred
to ‘learning’? (keep in mind the old maxim that that which is taught is not
necessarily that which is learned)

Scale 2:Meaning vs function

Some words don't have meanings but rather, functions. Think of modals such as "would" or "may." They don't mean anything but they add mood. Think of grammar words like the perfect tense "have." Think of prepositions. Other words have very specific meanings, with clear real-world referents.

A large number of words run between these two categories, items that we might refer to as being semi-lexicalized. "Get" or "keep" are good examples. They may appear to have core meanings (corresponding to the notions of "receive" and "possess," respectively) but they also serve grammatical functions and notions, making them rather difficult to master. Both learners and teachers often mistakenly think these words have been learned or mastered when in fact they haven't.

Question- Which would you say is the more frequent usage of ‘get’- meaning
‘receive’ or ‘become’? How about ‘keep’, ‘possess’ or
‘continue/repeat’? Are your students aware of all these senses?

Scale 3: Frequency

It might seem obvious that we should "teach" the most frequent items first (based on a large and balanced corpus), but it's not quite as simple as that. Generally speaking, the most frequent items are function words that can be hard for beginners to grasp fully. They need constant scaffoldlike reinforcement. Such items tend to be the workhorses of the language and since many of them have both lexical and grammatical functions, it is the mastery of these items that leads to not only understanding of how English grammar works but also an awareness of how vocabulary can affect grammar and does not merely fill in lexical slots.

Question- Do you really think your students know, or have mastered, the most
frequent items? Or do they have an inordinate knowledge of infrequent items
that they can’t put together into cohesive English communication? If the
latter, it could be that there is not enough focus upon mastering frequent
items. The student knows a lot of words but they don’t know English.

Scale 4: Meaning range (low density vs high density; valency):

"Defibrillator" might look like a difficult word, but it really isn't. It has a specific, singular meaning making it very easy to translate across languages. The technology behind a defibrillator may be complex and it may be hard to spell, but the item the word represents is itself very precise. In other words, it is a high-density item and as such has a narrow meaning range. Lexically dense items tend to be less frequent, and are generally related to more specialist topics or subjects.

However, "get," being a low-density item, is hard to pin down. It can mean receive, become (get cold), arrive (when we get there), must (got to), begin (get going), movement (get in; get back), and appears in numerous phrasal verbs. It has what is known as wide valency, the ability to attach itself to many forms in many environments. Mastery of such items leads to mastery of a language as a whole.

Question- Do you focus as much upon low density items as you do upon high
density items in your classroom, as befits their frequency and utility? Yes,
new, unknown words will often be high density items but how often will these
consolidate overall second language acquisition (for non-specialists)?

Scale 5: Intrinsic vs instrumental purposes

We might want to ask ourselves why we are teaching certain words. Is it for the short term only, for recognition or immediate recall (instrumental)? Or as part of the learners' overall, holistic second language system development (intrinsic)? "Defibrillator" is almost certainly an instrumental item; it won't stay in the active lexicon of anyone who isn't involved in cardiology

Question- Do you change your teaching method according to whether an item is
considered intrinsic or instrumental? Connected to this is…

Scale 6: Decoding vs encoding

Are we noting an item only to help students get through a single text or a section where the item appears (decoding)? Or do we wish the item to become a part of the learners' intrinsic overall vocabulary--something that will be entrenched in long-term memory and be readily retrievable for production (encoding)?

Question- Are you actively aware of dealing with vocabulary for both
encoding and decoding purposes, and do you change your method accordingly?

Scale 7: Single words vs chunks (set phrases)

So far we have talked as if each word is a separate entity, that vocabulary teaching is a matter of mastering individual words. Not so. Single meanings or usages are often applied to groups of words. Idioms and proverbs are one type. Phrasal verbs are another. (think about how much you use phrases like ‘shikata ga nai’, ‘so desu ne’ or ‘ii ja
nai” in Japanese without noticing the individual ‘words’ involved).

Prefabricated set phrases (or "lexical chunks") are perhaps the most interesting for our discussion. Note items like, "what's the matter?" "work at it," "get used to," and "or else." We process these as singular units, as if they were one word run together. (Think how much you use phrases like "shikata ga nai" or "so desu ne" in Japanese without noticing the individual words involved.)

Question- There are thousands of phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions in
English. How would you go about choosing which ones students to make the
effort to master?

Scale 8: Denotation vs connotation

Lexically dense items generally have clear real-world referents. Lexically lighter items often both denote and connote, in which case simply applying a headword from a dictionary does not make for a suitable translation. Understanding the connotations of an item, how it is actually used and understood in discourse, is just as important as knowing a "core" meaning. For example, "working at it" connotes a continuous application of diligence, and does not merely denote "doing a job." Some such items also have important signaling or rhetorical cohesion functions; "Look," for example, often connotes a follow-up explanation.

Question- When helping students to master new items do you help them to
become aware of connotation as well as denotation?

Now let’s put all this together. Can you see certain common denominators
running through these scales? Although it is not entirely uniform or
consistent I think we can patterns like these:
1. low frequency- high density- narrow meaning range- meaning based-
instrumental purpose- denotative- telling
2. high frequency- low density- wide meaning range- function based-
lexico grammatical- valent- intrinsic purpose- connotative- teaching
(consciousness-raising; noticing)- acquisition

Question- In which of these two groups have your emphases and priorities in
vocabulary teaching been?

And given our discussion above, would you change
any of the choices you originally made regarding our sample sentence?

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