Van Gogh’s ear and wordlists

We’ve had a suggested adaptation of some material from a teacher, Amber Nowak, in the Netherlands. It’s a little bit different to what we initially envisaged here in that Amber has already exploited the material in the book, Go for It 3, by David Nunan by extracting and focusing on vocabulary in a text about whether Van Gogh really did cut his own ear off.

Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Self_portrait_with_bandaged_ear_F529

The text is around 1000 words long and judging by the vocab I’d guess that it would be at intermediate level. I’m going to focus on a wordlist exercise at the beginning of the material Amber sent. There are several stages to Amber’s lesson which, for reasons of space we can’t publish here. However, what interested me was the starting point of a word list which so many books have but I have the feeling are often under-exploited. Note that due to the formatting of our website here, including her table seems to be beyond my limited technological powers! As a result I only include the list of words from the text on which the exercises are based. They are as follows:

 

events

violence

to claim

evidence

temper

to suffer

to commit suicide

overwhelming

liar

to be armed

livelyto join someone

an exception

to intend

rapidly

mental illness

to be furious

a row

to summon

to accuse

an account

to witness

suspicious

haste

to depart

lack of

possible

probable

to withdraw

to be attracted to

 

The exercise

The words have alongside them a translation and then in a third column and Amber’s first exercise based on the list is a matching exercise with 30 synonyms for the words in the first column. So for example an exception is matched with ‘outside of the rule’ and to be attracted to is matched with ‘to be drawn to (smn or smth)’.

Wordlists

One immediate issue with this might be the general problem of wordlists and decontextualized words and phrases mentioned by Bruno Leys in his post. However, it should be noted that as well as being derived from a text, this particular exercise is then followed by a number of others, including comprehension questions, a gap-fill, a dictation, a story retelling, and a choice of post-reading speaking tasks, so there’s a fair amount of different priming going on. What to do – as is so often the case – there isn’t anything else?

Vocabulary choice – and more is more

The other thing to say is that Amber has made a great selection. Only two words in her list fall outside Macmillan’s top 7500 words and they are haste and liar. I also like the fact that there are high expectations. Thirty items seems like a reasonable number to me based on a 1000-word text, especially as some of these (e.g. probable, possible, etc.) are likely to be at least half-known. There is often a fear of overload, but I’d suggest that a more common problem is students being left with a lack of lexis.

However, one thing we would do differently from Amber is avoid synonym matching – especially if you have given the meaning through a translation (a good thing in our view). This is partly because a key point of the theory of priming is that we use each word in particular ways so exact synonyms are rare – see Leo Selivan’s presentation here. We would say students need to get better at using the words they’re learning rather than learn how to say them in another way – something of the overload of choice Hugh talks about here. Again, please note that I am not saying never give a synonym – just that there are many other ways to explore words.

Exploiting the wordlist: find, add and translate

So the first thing I might do is ask students to look back at the text and add any words or phrases that go with the words in the list. I’d then ask them to adjust the translations accordingly too.

Re-group

Ask students to connect each of the words in the list to one of the four key words from the list shown below. Tell them they have to use all the words, and can choose only one word to connect each to. Students then compare their lists and explain their choices.

evidence      violence      suffer      join someone

Obviously, there will be no one correct answer, though the explanations of choices might reveal misunderstandings of certain words. However, it gets students engaging with meaning, repeating the words, making new connections and so on. Changing order is also important as there is apparently a tendency to remember better the beginnings and ends of lists.

Questions about the words and words over the lesson

636px-20_questions_1954

With either of these tasks, I would ask some further questions to explore the usage of words and the network of connected words (not just synonyms) as I go through. Having the fuller context in which each was used in the text would make this easier, but we can also illustrate other collocations / usage through these questions. For example:

Events: Why might the events of a night be unclear? What might be the events leading up to a car accident? Who might you explain them to?

I shall provide a fuller list of questions in a follow-up to this post, but in the meantime, please comment.

Alternatively, suggest other ways of exploiting the list or other questions you could ask about the vocabulary in it.

  • MuraNava

    hi

    some Qs!

    – is the wordlist in your example based on the frequency of occurence in the text?

    – confused about 1st activity find, add and translate? is it a synonym task?

    the regroup or categorization activity is interesting there is one called list, group, label e.g. http://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/list_group_label

    ta
    mura

    • Andrew Walkley

      I can’t tell you if it’s based on frequency of occurrence in the text as I haven’t got the book. I think in terms of long term language development it seems a good choice for the level in terms of frequency.

      Find, add, translate is NOT a synonym task, which personally I wouldn’t do – though most of Amber’s definitions / synonyms were good for the level. The idea is that students look in the text for the additional words that go with the words given in the list here. So I’d imagine events may be the events of that night or even there’s still mystery / debate / uncertainty surrounding the events of that night. (Again, don’t have the text to know). Students would then translate the collocations or chunks. The point is to encourage the noticing of words with words, understand that the translation depends on the surrounding words, and provide a better basis for exploiting chunks and asking questions as the next stage.

      I considered the re-grouping this morning – probably from some long distant memory (Morgan and Rinvolucri’s Vocabulary perhaps?).

      Thanks for the link though.

  • AndrewWalkley

    I can’t tell you if it’s based on frequency of occurrence in the text as I haven’t got the book. I think in terms of long term language development, it seems a good choice for the level in terms of frequency.

    Find, add, translate is NOT a synonym task, which personally I wouldn’t do – though most of Amber’s definitions / synonyms were good for the level. The idea would be that students look in the text for the additional words that go with the words given in the list here. So I’d imagine events may be the events of that night or even there’s still mystery / debate / uncertainty surrounding the events of that night. (Again, don’t have the text to know). Students would then translate these collocations or chunks. The point is to encourage the noticing of words with words, understand that the translation depends on the surrounding words, and provide a better basis for exploiting chunks and asking questions as the next stage.

    I considered the re-grouping this morning – probably from some long distant memory (Morgan and Rinvolucri’s Vocabulary book perhaps?).
    Thanks for the link though.

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