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Teacher to teacher

Learning words: In the communicative approach to language learning, vocabulary is often not taught explicitly. It is expected that new words will be acquired through meeting them in various meaningful, authentic contexts. There seems to be a consensus developing, however, that this approach alone is not enough to help learners aquire the words they need as quickly and efficiently as possible. There is a growing recognition of the part to be played by the explicit teaching and learning of vocabulary. This involves the presentation of words to be learned in lists, which may or may not have a unified theme. [See Folse (2004) for more on this. *] The various vocabulary lists and quizzes on this site are offered as a contribution to the explicit learning of vocabulary.

It may be objected that simply clicking on a web page, or at most writing single word answers, is not a good way of internalizing vocabulary; that students should be writing sentences to exemplify the words or put in situations where they must use the words in oral discussion. Of course, writing and speaking tasks have their own validity, but in terms of learning vocabulary recent research (Folse) suggests that it is not the manner in which a new item is treated that is critical but the number of times that the student encounters it.

With this in mind, many of the quizzes on this web site allow students to quiz themselves on the word sets in 15 different ways. It is felt that this will encourage the multiple encounters of new words that will lead to their acquisition. Click for an example of a 15 part word quiz.

Ideally, learners would sit together in front of the computer in groups of twos or three (even more ideally, in heterogenous nationality groups!). They can then teach each other the words they already know, and discuss together the alternative answers, before getting the computer to confirm their suggestion.

Authenticity: Many of the quizzes have sentences containing a gap to be filled with the target word. These sentences have been concocted by me, and are thus inauthentic. For some, to whom authenticity* is akin to the holy grail of language teaching, this approach would be suspect. I take the view, however, that in these web quizzes authenticity is subservient to efficient vocabulary acquisition. The sentences have been created, therefore, to exemplify the word in one of its common contexts, but excluding too much other vocabulary that might be new or distract.

* I have used the Collins Cobuild dictionary series to help with definitions and ideas for example sentences. I find the dictionaries excellent for the former but often unusable in terms of the latter. For example, a learner using the Cobuild Pocket Dictionary of Idioms to find out the meaning of 'to put someone's nose out of joint' will be presented with this authentic sample: 'Gillian's sons, 17 and 15, were resentful of the female invasion. Barry, the youngest, had his nose put out of joint by Lucy's aloof sophistication, although she was his junior.' It is hard to see how an authentic example of this nature is more helpful to the ESL student who wants to learn the expression and a typical context in which it is used than an inauthentic example created by a lexicographer experienced in the needs of English language learners.

Disclaimer: I am not a professional test-maker. Nevertheless, I have an understanding of the issues concerning the production of valid, reliable tests. In particular, I am aware of the limitations of the kind of tests that can be done online (multiple choice, fill the gap, etc.). The purpose of these quizzes, however, is not to arrive at some kind of diagnosis of the students' level of English, and they should not be used as such. (I have not spent a great deal of time, for example, trying to device plausible distractors in the multiple-choice quizzes). My primary intention is to help students learn, not to grade or test them.

* Reference

Folse, K. 2004. Vocabulary Myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. University of Michigan Press.

In a more recent article Folse states: "... all relevant research shows that members of a semantic set should not be presented simultaneously because students have more difficulty learning new words presented in semantic groupings than they do learning semantically unrelated words (Tinkham, 1993").

Folse, K. (2011). Applying L2 lexical research findings in ESL teaching. TESOL Quarterly 45 (2) 362-369.

In view of these insights, I have updated my advice to students on how to learn the words on this site.

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