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Mar 31, 2015
Andrew Walkley

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.

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:



to claim



to suffer

to commit suicide



to be armed

to join someone

an exception

to intend


mental illness

to be furious

a row

to summon

to accuse

an account

to witness



to depart

lack of



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 (someone or something)’.


One immediate issue with this might be the general problem of wordlists and decontextualised 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.


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

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.


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