A different kind of Beginner-level book 3: choosing which vocabulary to teach

Making choices about vocabulary: teaching what’s relevant to most students, responding to individuals

In our last post, we looked at how we’ve tried to ensure that Outcomes Beginner provides students with just enough grammar to have the kinds of basic conversations they’ll want to have. Today we want to explore another way in which we’ve tried to enable a greater variety of basic conversations, and that is through the choice of vocabulary we set out to teach and encourage students to learn. Time in class is limited – and it’s limited for most students outside of class as well. Therefore, we want to make choices that help everyone make the best use of the time that’s available. What this means for us as writers is that when we choose language to teach, we try to ask these questions:

  • How many different conversations do I enable by teaching this language?
  • What can I leave until a higher level?
  • What vocabulary can I leave for an individual students (or for teachers) to focus on for themselves?
  • How can I leave space in the material for students / teachers to do that?

After thinking about these questions, we made a number of choices that were different to most traditional beginner courses. In terms of grammar, we decided that teaching and practising short answers with auxiliaries is not the best idea at low levels. Similarly, with vocabulary we decided not to teach the names of  letters or to make students practise spelling words out, and we don’t have tasks teaching lists of different countries or nationalities. From our point of view, exercises that focus on these sets of words are asking students to learn around 40 words of limited value at this stage of learning. In addition, spelling words out is not actually something we do that frequently; instead, we’ll often ask people to write down names etc., to avoid the process. And, of course, no beginner students would choose to independently use the telephone in English!

More importantly, spending time on such exercises and language limits the variety of conversations students can have. Spelling words out IS worth teaching with regard to some scenarios, just not in a beginners’ course (we actually do it in Outcomes Elementary and Pre-Intermediate – and also practise it at other higher levels). As teachers, we do have to try and teach the pronunciation of words, but this is a different issue and we’d argue that teaching the names of letters (as opposed to their sounds) can actually be confusing for students at this level, especially if they don’t use the Roman alphabet in their own L1.

In the case of nationalities, for classes taking place in non-English speaking countries, students at this level do not generally need to reply with a country when asked ‘Where are you from?’ (they’d say the name of their town or just ‘here’) and, if they do want to say their own country as an answer, it’s very likely to be one which isn’t taught in most books (Slovakia? Somalia? Venezuela? Pakistan? Indonesia?). These words are best taught for the individuals who need them and not as a collective set for the whole class to learn. Other nationalities may come up elsewhere during the whole course which teachers can translate or illustrate in that moment. Students may then choose to remember them or not.

So what could we replace these 40 words with? What could we fill the time with if we’re not going to get students to practise short answers with auxiliaries? Well, how about a range of question words for starters. We teach the questions how (are you), what, where, what time, how much, who, how long in the first unit of Outcomes Beginner. Very early on, we also teach relationship words (friend, doctor, teacher, son, daughter, brother, sister, wife, husband), and numbers up to 99. The benefit of teaching these words is that they are far easier to recycle and re-use in a variety of exchanges than spelling things out or nationalities are.

When combined with the verb be, students can ask What time is the class? What time is it? How long is it? Who is he? Where are you from? How old are you? How old is your brother/son, etc? And introducing these questions at an earlier stage means we can also teach a wider range of questions with the present simple, which in turn means we can help students have more realistic conversations. Note that these words are generally explained through the material rather than tested (e.g. by using pictures to illustrate meaning), and many questions are just given to students and illustrated in short dialogues on the page. In all cases, the answers can be numbers or the names of places (cities / places local to students), yes, no or other single words that we have already presented. Students initially just copy and repeat and then substitute their own names or numbers when personalising. It’s not difficult!

However, when students are given the chance to personalise what they have learnt, they may of course try to manipulate what they’ve already seen and create new questions. They may also want to give answers that aren’t just numbers or names or single words like OK or good. They may get things wrong. They may not have the language they need. Some teachers I talk to say these things to me as a reason to NOT give students the chance to personalise language in anything but the most restrictive of senses. It is as though getting things wrong or not having sufficient language will mean a failure to communicate, total confusion on the part of the students and, therefore, somehow a total failure of the lesson!

In reality, what generally happens is

  • students / teacher will understand the ‘wrong’ grammar and will respond accordingly (e.g. How old you son?  18)
  • the speaker will use gestures – or maybe even drawings – that are sufficiently clear for communication to happen (and the other speaker / teacher may well then provide the correct words)
  • the speaker will try and use L1 (which a teacher or other student may be able to translate for them)
  • the speaker will use a bilingual dictionary to find the word (which the other student / teacher may need to correct in some way)
  • there will be effort from both speaker and listener which will end in a shrug or smile without communication happening and the class moves on.

Better to have tried and failed …

Perhaps the references to L1 above also scare teachers, particularly if the teachers are in a situation where they don’t know their students’ mother tongue. Note that in the situations above the students still have other ways to convey their meanings and sometimes L1 may have cognates in English that help as well, but still, as a teacher of low-level students in the UK, I do obviously understand that there can be frustration. I guess failure sometimes can be disheartening, but I also feel that this is just an unavoidable feeling for the beginner-level learner and an unavoidable step in learning. We do need to reassure students in these moments and redirect them to what they have successfully communicated: “You can’t say that yet, but you do know this”.

However, I absolutely do not see this potential frustration as a reason to restrict opportunities to try to say something new, because in fact it is remarkable just how much can be communicated with very little. One of the reasons I like low-level teaching is the sheer joy and laughter that comes from simple communication: it feels more special almost because of the greater effort needed by both speaker and listener. And note that I mean joy in communicating, in saying something real, however ‘badly’ – not in saying something pointless in a grammatically correct way!

Focus on common words.

It should go without saying that the choices we make about language to teach should focus on the most common words in the language as, by definition, these make up a good proportion of the most common things people want to say (beginners included!). One of the problems with teaching the lexical set of countries and nationalities is that they are not among the most frequent words in English by a long way. I think beginner coursebooks obviously do teach lots of frequent words, but it is also interesting to note what most of them don’t have. Take the word ‘way’. It is the fourth (or fifth, depending on the corpus you look at) most common noun in English, yet if you look in the wordlists of the biggest-selling UK-produced coursebooks, not one teaches it at beginner level. We’re talking about wordlists here. This literally means it does not appear in any part of any text in these books. Then check out what language is often actively presented and practised in vocabulary sections!

Which of these other nouns from the top 100 can you find in the vocabulary sections of your low-level course? Which are focused on at other times?

life, world, state, group, hand, part, case, point, system, program, government, area, story, fact, eye, side, kind, head, service, power, line, end, member, law, community, president,  team, idea, kid, body, information, back, parent, face, others, level, health, art, war, history, party, result, change, reason, research, air, force, education

If you consider the most common verbs and adjectives, a similar story of frequent words being absent from vocabulary sections or even the entire book emerges. You may be asking why it matters that these words don’t appear in vocab sections. Well, it’s because it is these sections that are generally reviewed and tested, whereas words that appear in texts are often overlooked at the moment of reading and not actively learned or re-used.

I should say that while we were conscious of this when writing Outcomes Beginner, and while I feel we cover more of these frequent words, we do also fall into the same trap sometimes, meaning that some frequent words don’t appear much (result and side appear once each, for example, force not at all). That’s partly because of the fact that teachers/publishers are quite wedded to the idea of ‘coherent’ lexical sets. Some of those sets may be justified – such as food and drink (people do need to eat!) – but the final choice of vocabulary is also on us as writers. We could sometimes have made different choices. There are plenty of other beginner conversations and texts that we could have tried to teach, and when you ask the four questions we started this post with, you may well come up with quite different choices to ours. All we can say, is go for it!

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2 Responses

  1. Keith Folse says:

    Excellent information.

    The content of materials should be based on actual learner needs, not a teacher’s or book’s need to cover a certain verb tense. Your idea of not focusing on “Yes, I do” and “No, she isn’t” is right in line with actual needs. That’s a lot of attention on a grammar point when, in my opinion, students would gain a whole lot more from key vocabulary (words and phrases). In addition, as you explain, the grammar around short answers is not something that allows students to do much (since YES and NO will suffice).

    The research against teaching whole semantic sets is clear, yet teachers and (publishers as a result of the teachers!) are not ready to teach vocabulary without semantic sets in the materials. They expect it, and I would say that learners even expect it.

    Thanks for this post!

    • Andrew Walkley says:

      Hi Keith,
      Your comment is very much appreciated, especially as we are both fans of your book Vocabulary Myths. I find the focus on semantic sets increasingly problematic when writing. We have tried to adapt them a bit to at least think about the things you might say with the words in a set. Sometimes we look at short exchanges within the topic and sometimes we can draw in frequent words and mixed word forms which might not otherwise have been though of as part of the set. And of course, texts need to exploited more for lexis. For those readers who are interested, I recently wrote an article about the problem of lexical sets for the ETAS journal
      https://www.e-tas.ch/journal/issues/spring-2019. It features a good number of interesting articles on vocabulary.

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