Expanding your vocabulary

Teachers and students should devote sufficient time to the art and skill of creating word cards

Learning new vocabulary is a challenging task that is further complicated when habits that students use to take an unknown word from passive use to active use are not effective.

A Thai student from the Wat Mahan Bilingual School, left, shows a vocabulary card to her new friend from Singapore in this file photo. The city-run school and Singapore’s Xin Min Primary School jointly launched an education and cultural exchange programme. APICHART JINAKUL

By giving students tips on which words to study and offering advice on how to practise using flash cards, teachers can help by making learning new vocabulary easier and lifelong vocabulary acquisition more rewarding.

Vocabulary card preparation

As new words are added to a list that students need to learn, either teacher- or student-created-and-utilised cards can be used. While teacher-created cards are useful, with careful planning and clear instructions on how to create and use cards, student-generated cards are more effective.

In the beginning, students should be given time to create their own definitions before looking in a dictionary so that they can see if they have guessed the meaning correctly.

To make vocabulary cards useful, only the target language should be used. This is one area where teachers need to control very carefully as many students, even at higher levels, believe they need to translate definitions to really learn a new word.

Third, as it is often difficult to define the exact difference between synonyms and antonyms, each card should offer clues on how the highlighted word relates to other, similar vocabulary.

Finally, students need to check for collocations, or words that go together. Sometimes included in more-advanced dictionaries, collocations are also found in sample sentences provided in dictionaries that list collocations.

When they have been prepared by the students, the cards with definitions, synonyms and antonyms and collocations need to be checked for accuracy.

While it might take students a lot of time to produce each card, the activity itself is an excellent learning process in acquiring new vocabulary.

Vocabulary card study

Although it might seem unnecessary, students need to be shown how to do that with sets of card. Far too often, they create huge lists of words and cards and try to learn them all at one time. This leads to confusion and increased learning stress.

Students should be encouraged to read their cards whenever they can, and as words become known, such words should be removed from the "to learn" pack and added to a "to use" pack.

Each student will have different sets of cards as each person will find that some words are more difficult for him or her to learn and take more time. Meanwhile, new cards can be added as new vocabulary is encountered and the card-making process for each item has been completed.

Vocabulary practice

As the primary aim is to increase passive and active knowledge of the new vocabulary, students should be encouraged to use the vocabulary in their "to use" pack.

Words being studied can be tested using gap-fill exercises in which a list of words must be used, matching exercises in which meanings and words, or words and collocating items, are matched, marked as true or false, inserted in multiple-choice questions and required to be used in short essays that give their definitions.

Again, these exercises can be created by teachers, but more will be gained if students are asked to prepare these questions for the words they now know.

Alternatively, cards can be laid out during conversations and removed once a word has been used. Students can use familiar words in their writing. This provides a further chance for teachers to offer feedback on the use of new vocabulary words.

Learning new vocabulary takes time and demands effort from both students and teachers. However, if words are carefully selected for their importance, often based on the frequency encountered, carefully described in terms of meaning, related items and collocations, students should be able to build their active knowledge of the vocabulary that they need with a minimum of false starts and inefficient study habits.

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 http://thaiednet.org, through his web site speechwork.co.th , at tim@speechwork.co.th  or on 081-834-8982.

About the author

Writer: Timothy Cornwall, PHD, DTM
Position: Writer