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Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research To Classroom Teaching

This webpage is a summary of the above-mentioned book by Keith Folse, currently Associate Professor of TESOL at the University of Central Florida. The core of the book is a discussion of eight myths about learning and teaching vocabulary:

The eight myths are:

  1. In learning another language, vocabulary is not as important as grammar or other areas.
  2. Using word lists to learn L2 vocabulary is unproductive.
  3. Presenting new vocabulary in semantic sets facilitates learning.
  4. The use of translations to learn new vocabulary should be discouraged.
  5. Guessing words from context is an excellent strategy for learning L2 vocabulary.
  6. The best vocabulary learners make use of one or two really specific vocabulary learning strategies.
  7. The best dictionary for L2 learners is a monolingual dictionary.
  8. Teachers, textbooks, and curricula cover L2 vocabulary adequately.

For   language teachers the main insights from the research that Folse analyses are:

For   non-language teachers the main insights are:

Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research To Classroom Teaching

Preface

Folse notes that for many years until the mid 1990's researchers and teachers generally underestimated the importance of vocabulary in second language (SL) development. It was assumed that SL vocabulary would grow as naturally and easily as first language vocabulary, through exposure to comprehensible input.

[More on comprehensible input]

More on comprehensible input

The theory of comprehensible input was promulgated by Krashen. In summary, the theory posits that we acquire language in one way only: when we are exposed to input (written or spoken language) that is comprehensible to us. Comprehensible input is the necessary but also sufficient condition for language acquisition to take place. It requires no effort on the part of the learner. For more on Krashen's related theory of the different natures of language acquistion and langauge learning, see:

An introduction to the work of Stephen Krashen

Folse concedes that some vocabulary can be acquired via comprehensible input, particularly when the FL (first language) and the SL come from the same language family (such as English and German) and thus have many cognates. However, simple exposure to the SL does not work as effortlessly for much vocabulary - especially if the FL and SL are different (as, for example, Japanese and English are different) Today, there is a greater understanding that vocabulary cannot be left to grow organically; it benefits from direct instruction and testing.

Folse finishes the preface with by stating that the myths chapters of the book will each contain the following sections:

Introduction

In this section Folse answers two fundamental questions:

In answer to the first question Folse notes that the vocabulary task facing SL learners encompasses more than the single words that most people imagine: bright, lawyer, simultaneously, etc. It also includes learning set phrases such as once in a while, phrasal verbs such as take on and put up with and idioms such as Don't let the cat out the bag.

[More on phrasal verbs]

More on phrasal verbs

In the discussion of phrasal verbs Folse notes that: "Native speakers have no idea that they are using phrasal verbs, nor do they see why these words are so hard for ESL students to deal with." For more about phrasal verbs, see:

Important information about phrasal verbs on this website.

The second question that Folse discusses is What does it mean to say you know a word? While most non-linguists would answer that knowing a word entails knowing what it means, Folse points out that the implicit knowledge of a word possessed by literate native-speakers includes much more than just this. It includes knowledge of the word's polysemy (multiple meanings), connotation, spelling/pronunciation, part of speech, frequency, usage/register, and collocation.

Folse claims that collocation is "perhaps the single most important aspect of knowing a word for non-native speakers" (after learning its meaning). [There is more about collocation on this page of the website.]

Myth 1: In learning another language, vocabulary is not as important as grammar or other areas.

In the real world

Folse relates an incident in a Japanese shop where, despite some knowledge of Japanese grammar and much creative effort, he was unable to communicate what he needed (flour) through the simple lack of the Japanese word for it.

What the research says

This section is best summed up in the quote by Wilkins that Folse includes in his research overview:

While without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.

Vocabulary knowledge plays a fundamental role both in fluent language production (speaking and writing) and efficient language comprehension (listening and reading).

What you can do

Myth 2: Using word lists to learn L2 vocabulary is unproductive.

In the real world

Folse relates the story of a Japanese woman who had learned English to a good standard using the audio-lingual method. He uses the story to make the point that some of the old-fashioned methods of learning a second language, that have generally fallen into disrepute, could in fact help students to acquire strong vocabularies.

What the research says

Folse discusses several studies indicating that the fairly prevalent aversion among language teachers to having their students learn vocabulary lists is unfounded

What you can do

Myth 3: Presenting new vocabulary in semantic sets facilitates learning.

In the real world

Folse writes that he has authored over 30 ESL textbooks, many of which have the explicit purpose of developing students' vocabulary. For all of these he needed to decide how to organize the words to be presented to the students. The intuitive way is to organize the words by semantic set; for example, to present body parts in one unit and clothes in the next. A looser semantic connection is by theme; e.g. holiday words. Folse relates that, while being himself a good vocabulary learner, he cannot say with any confidence that having words presented in semantic or theme-based sets helped him to learn them better.

What the research says

The intuitive way is not the best way. As Folse states:

...the research results are clear ... semantic sets are not only unhelpful, they actually hinder vocabulary retention. [p52]

A more effective approach appears to be to use themes such as holidays, cooking, etc. Folse notes, however, that the limited amount and nature of the research into thematic groupings does not yet permit a definitive assessment of its effectiveness.

What you can do

Myth 4: The use of translations to learn new vocabulary should be discouraged.

In the real world

Folse writes of a lesson when he failed to understand a Japanese word, despite the patient explanations of his teacher. He was put out of his misery when another student in the class told him the meaning of the word in English.

What the research says

Folse starts this section with an overview of the reasons why many teachers try to avoid all use of L1 in the L2 classroom. He goes on to cite recent research that he summarizes as follows:

Research is clear: Translations are not bad but are in fact a helpful tool in learning new foreighn language vocabulary.

What you can do

Myth 5: Guessing words from context is an excellent strategy for learning L2 vocabulary.

In the real world

Folse relates an incident where he failed to guess a word in context, despite applying the usual "word attack" strategies.

What the research says

We typically acquire much of our L1 vocabulary by guessing the meaning of new words from the comprehensible contexts in which they are set. Several relatively recent studies, however, have found that this method is less effective for L2 vocabulary acquisition.

Essentially, this is because L2 learners may not know several of the surrounding words in any given context. They consequently do not have enough clues to make accurate guesses about new word meaning, and thereby develop their vocabulary in the way L1 learners do.

What you can do

Myth 6: The best vocabulary learners make use of one or two really good specific vocabulary learning strategies.

In the real world

Folse relates an incident from his own teaching when a student made him realise that often a simplistic word attack strategy can be superior to a more sophisticated and specific approach.

What the research says

Folse discusses numerous studies on the various vocabulary learning strategies. His conclusion is that there is no specific strategy that can be recommended above all others. There are several strategies that may be effective depending on learner and context variables, and there are also strategies that likely to be ineffective.

What you can do

Myth 7: The best dictionary for L2 learners is a monolingual dictionary.

In the real world

Folse relates an incident when he failed to choose the right Japanese word for an essay, despite assiduous use of a dictionary.

What the research says

Folse discusses research which reveals the prevalent teacher notion that students should be discouraged from using a bilingual dictionary. Many teachers believe that students should first try to guess the word from context and, if unsuccessful, consult a monolingual dictionary. Folse notes that there is an insufficient research base to support this typical teacher aversion to their students using bilingual dictionaries.

What you can do

Myth 8: Teachers, textbooks, and curricula cover L2 vocabulary adequately.

Folse writes about a vocabulary course he taught that was demanding of both him and the students, but which was well received by the students who understood the importance of developing their vocabularies.

What the research says

Folse divides his discussion of the research into three perspectives:

What you can do

Conclusion

In this section Folse reviews the eight myths that his book has aimed to dispel. He reiterates the primacy of vocabulary in the language learning process and his conviction that language teachers should place vocabulary at the heart of teaching, testing and student learning.


Folse, Keith. Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research To Classroom Teaching. N.p.: University of Michigan Press, 2004. Print.


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