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Vocabulary

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Why is vocabulary so important? The simple reason is that words are fascinating, and they constitute a complete history of the ideas people throughout history have considered important enough to name. 

They are also very tangible elements for instruction. We know and can tell when a word has been taught, making vocabulary a very clear way to determine if certain instruction goals have been reached.

Importance

The importance of vocabulary is seen every day in and out of class. Because of the verbal nature of most activities, knowledge of words and the ability to use language are essential to success.

Learning new words, that is, words not in our oral or reading vocabularies, is one of the greatest word-related learning tasks we face once we leave the primary grades. It is not clear how many words the average high school graduate knows, but estimates range from 20,000 to 60,000.

The key to meeting this learning need has two elements. First, we must make certain we have, or will have, the strategies needed to learn new words. Second, we need to identify and teach those words that might cause problems if we tried to learn them on our own.

Teaching students, whether in their native or second language, how to deal with unknown or troublesome words requires teaching pupils phonics, structural analysis, context clues and how to use the dictionary.

Helping pupils learn

Regardless of the vocabulary presented, basic criteria need to be considered when presenting and expecting students to remember new words.

First, students need to have a cognitive grasp of new words. If vocabulary is presented as isolated units, they will need to memorise every item, which can require a great deal of work, only to be quickly forgotten.

For students to retain vocabulary, they should be presented in a context students can relate to and one that adds to their ability to learn and remember. This would mean ensuring vocabulary is presented in contexts students find personally important or meaningful.

Presenting students with alphabetical or thematically-based groups of words is difficult for students as the interference between words increases.

In particular, lessons at the lower language levels are filled with vocabulary grouped into themes, making it difficult for students to learn and retain words and their correct meanings.

How to teach vocabulary

When teaching new words and taking into consideration what is known about difficulties that students encounter when processing new words, three useful techniques are available.

- When teaching a new word, use mime and gestures to demonstrate its meaning, as they should help create a visual memory as well as a lexical one. This could also include providing students with pictures or ideas of pictures that they could use, rather than translated terms.

- Provide a number of different contexts. This would mean providing additional examples of new vocabulary in both oral and written examples provided to students. It can also include repeated use by the teacher during initial presentation and during later classes when the item is reviewed.

- Finally, provide synonyms and simple definitions and, if possible, insist on students not translating from the target language into their own.

As learning a new language involves acquiring a massive amount of vocabulary, any effort that improves word retention in passive memory or actually incorporated into active memory will benefit students as it will expand their ability to express themselves with increasing confidence and gradually open up their English world.


Dr Timothy Cornwall has been teaching EFL for 30 years and is part of the Shinawatra University faculty. Co-founder of Thailand Educators Network, he can be reached through thaiednet.org , through his web site www.speechwork.co.th , at tim@speechwork.co.th  or on 081-834-8982.

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