Today we’re delighted to feature a guest post by Bruno Leys. Bruno works at VIVES University College in Bruges, Belgium. He’s published several coursebook series such as Breakaway, Takeaway and High Five and he regularly gives talks and workshops for teachers. Below, Bruno shares his thoughts on vocabulary lists . . .
Last spring, when I was touring Belgium to promote two new coursebook titles I had fathered, I was rather dispirited by the relentlessly recurring question “What about vocabulary lists? Aren’t there any vocabulary lists in the book?”
I usually started my reply with a reference to Earl Stevick, an American linguist, who memorably said: “If you want to forget something, put it in a list” (cited in Lewis, 1993, p. 118). In the context of this article, we could change that to “If you want to forget a word, put it in a list”. I hope to clarify that this quote is more than just a witticism.
Let us first try to find out why teachers (and, according to them, learners) are so fond of vocabulary lists. Is it mainly because teachers and learners recognise and value the importance of lexis in the process of language learning? I have my doubts.
Based on what teachers and learners have told me, I can only conclude that vocabulary lists are so much in demand mainly because of their learnability. Learners know what they have to study for the test and what to expect; viz. gap fill, translations or similar non-contextual test types – easy for most learners to memorise, and very practical for teachers to correct, so everyone’s as happy as can be. Meara stated back in 1995 that: “presenting vocabulary in list form is an efficient study method in which students can learn large numbers of words in a short time” (Meara, 1995). Others (e.g. Schmitt and Schmitt, 1995) have suggested that learners should write new words on index cards, so that they are more engaged in their learning process and use the list more effectively for their own purposes. They can file away words they remember and focus on ones they’ve yet to master. However, it seems more than likely that after a short time, in both cases, learners will forget these words, stripped as they are of all context-based meaning.
The main difficulty with these lists remains the absence of context. In an attempt to remedy this, present-day vocabulary lists are often tied to a reading passage that provides context. The result is a format which is still easy to memorize, and is then believe to give exposure to meaning in context, resulting in longer retention of the words learned in this way.
Still learners are always confronted with that same sentence (or longer stretch of text). By no means is any kind of real transfer to new contexts guaranteed by these supposedly “contextual” vocabulary lists.
In order to find alternative and more successful ways to expand the learner’s vocabulary, we should look at what else we know about learning and more specifically, vocabulary learning. The most influential publication on lexis in the past decade was, without doubt, Michael Hoey’s Lexical Priming (2005). Priming, which was not originally a linguistic but a psychological concept, is a factor that influences the accessibility of information in memory. Hoey’s Lexical Priming theory suggests that our prior experience of words leads us to expect words to recur in the company of other words (collocations), in certain grammatical situations (grammatical colligations) and in certain positions (textual colligations).
If we try to transfer this to vocabulary learning, the question is: what can help us retrieve learned words from our memory and thus what can help us to effectively store new words in our memory?
More is more.
The more learners are confronted with a word in changing contexts, the more lexical primings learners will store – or at least have the chance to store – in their minds. Let words frequently reappear in texts (readings, listenings, videos) so that collocations and colligations collect in the learners’ minds.
If we take the learners’ and teachers’ adjuration for vocabulary lists seriously, which I think we should, the above also has its consequences for those lists. Let me conclude with a few principles for more useful vocabulary lists.
- Don’t list isolated words (no meaning is linked to them).
- Don’t list words with translations only (no context).
- Don’t list words with a single context (no transfer, limited collocations and colligations)
- Do add several contexts, which stimulate transfer, collocation and colligation.
- Mark useful collocations and colligations in the sentences.
- Add a translation and / or definition of the word, so that any possible ambiguity is eliminated.
- Add antonyms and closely related synonyms. They work as lexical primings.
- Provide ample opportunity for wide contextual learner practice that primes retrieval of words from the list.
A vocabulary list entry for the word ‘decency’ could then look like this:
behaviour that is good, moral, and acceptable in society (+ translation)
correctness, propriety, good manners, virtue, etiquette
indecency, bad manners, impoliteness, rudeness
- She didn’t even have the decency to tell me she was going.
- It’s a shame you haven’t got the decency to do the same.
- People out there just don’t have any common decency any more.
- Unconsciously, we expect our church membership, correct doctrine or moral decency to pull us through.
- It is all about keeping up standards of decency, having respect for women and setting a good example to children.
- What can politics do when a growing number of families fail to teach their children a set of common decencies?
- She was wearing a loose dress, rather too low-cut for decency.
This vocabulary list entry is naturally only part of the story. It is only a means to gather vocabulary that learners are expected to go on and master. As mentioned above, it is especially learners’ frequent encounters (in and outside the classroom) with words that will store memories in them. The above vocabulary list entry can only help to link the words to all possible primings that will help retrieval when really needed.
Critchley, M. (1998) Reading to Learn: Pedagogical Implications of Vocabulary Research. Retrieved from: http://www.jalt-publications.org/tlt/files/98/dec/critchley.html
Hoey, Michael. (2005) Lexical Priming. A new theory of words and language. London: Routledge.
Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a way forward. London: Heinemann.
Meara, P. (1995). The importance of an early emphasis on L2 vocabulary. The Language Teacher, 19 (2), 8-10.
Schmitt, N. & Schmitt, D (1995). Vocabulary notebooks: theoretical underpinnings and practical suggestions. In ELT Journal 49 (2), pp 133-143