V is for Vocabulary teaching

2 06 2013

Slovenian girl and teacherA teacher educator in Norway reports on how she has used ideas from my book How to Teach Vocabulary (2002) on an in-service course for local primary and lower secondary school teachers. Mona Flognfeldt writes: ‘I have shared with my students a lot of input that I have learnt from you, and a lot of our students have put their new insights to immediate practical use in their classrooms. … As a part of their course, these students have also learnt to make their own blogs.’ These blogs have become the vehicles whereby they report on how they ‘have tried out various activities and types of tasks in their attempts to help their students enhance their vocabulary in English’.

Reading the blogs I am struck by the way these teachers have implemented, in their own classes, a reflective task cycle as part of their ongoing professional development. This has involved background reading and discussion, classroom experimentation, reflection and – by means of the blogs – sharing with their colleagues the insights that they have gained.

To give you a flavour, here is a sample of the kinds of activities these teachers tried. I have grouped them according to five guiding principles of vocabulary acquisition. (Apologies in advance to those whose blog posts I haven’t included, but readers who are interested can find them at the link below).

1. The Principle of Cognitive Depth: “The more one manipulates, thinks about, and uses mental information, the more likely it is that one will retain that information.In the case of vocabulary, the more one engages with a word (deeper processing), the more likely the word will be remembered for later use” (Schmitt 2000: 120).

I picked out 8 words from the text that I wanted my pupils to learn. Then I had my pupils identifying the words in the text. Task 2 was a selecting task where the pupils had to underline the words that were typical for India. They shared their work with a partner, explaining their choices. As task 3 they were matching the words with an English description from a dictionary. They also found antonyms and synonyms. Task 4 was a sorting activity where the pupils had to decide whether the words were nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs. Finally, as a ranking and sequencing activity I had my pupils rank the words according to preference, to decide how important they thought knowing each word was. They discussed their ranking with a partner. (Mette B.)

Slovenian  two girls2. The Principle of Retrieval: “The act of successfully recalling an item increases the chance that the item will be remembered. It appears that the retrieval route to that item is in some way strengthened by being successfully used” (Baddeley 1997: 112).

My Vocabulary activity was “Categories” … The students worked in groups of four or five. They were handed out a piece of paper where five columns were drawn up. Each column was labelled with the name of a lexical set: Food, transport, clothes, animals and sport. I called out a letter of the alphabet (e.g. B!). The students wrote down as many words they knew began with the letter to a time of limit which was around 2-3 minutes. The group with the most words won (I did not demand that the words were spelled correctly. (Gunn)

There is also pictionary, where you divide the class into two groups, and one member of each team goes to the SmartBoard. The teacher flashes them a card with a word, phrase or expression and the pupils have one minute to make their team say the word on the basis of their drawing on the SmartBoard; no other clues are allowed. (Vanessa)

 Slovenian boy student 023. The Principle of Associations: “The human lexicon is believed to be a network of associations, a web-like structure of interconnected links. When students are asked to manipulate words, relate them to other words and to their own experiences, and then to justify their choices, these word associations are reinforced” (Sökmen 1997: 241-2).

Make true and false sentences about yourself using eight of these words.

I believe this is a good activity for deeper processing of words, because the learners have to relate to the words and phrases personally. I have tried it out in class and found it a motivating activity both for me and for my pupils. We all got to know each other better by sorting out the activities they liked more and liked less. This was a concrete task, easy for them to relate to and to make up sentences from a given pattern. The activity guessing what is false and true is fun and easy to understand. They have to use what they already know about each other to decide whether the statements are true or false. (Anne Katrine)

 4. The Principle of Re-contextualization: “When words are met in reading and listening or used in speaking and writing, the generativeness of the context will influence learning. That is, if the words occur in new sentence contexts in the reading text, learning will be helped. Similarly, having to use the word to say new things will add to learning”  (Nation 2001: 80).

I showed them the list of words on the projector and introduced the task to them. Their first task was to translate the words and write them in Norwegian. … When the pupils had finished this, they were asked to use at least five words/expressions from each column to write a paragraph on US politics. The task had to be finished before the lesson the week after. This sentence or text creation task required the pupils to create the context for the given words and phrases. In addition to the meaning of the words, the pupils also needed to think about word tense, grammatical behaviour and so on. (Sturla)

Slovenian male teacher5. The Principle of Multiple Encounters: “Due to the incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition, repeated exposures are necessary to consolidate a new word in the learner’s mind” (Schmitt & Carter 2000: 4).

The class was supposed to work with reading comprehension, but before starting the reading, the pupils were given a pre-reading task related to vocabulary in the text. … After a while, the teacher went through the task with the class, asking for the matching words and the definitions. The teacher repeated the answers to model the correct pronunciation.

Then the class was instructed to read the article and use the worksheet on vocabulary while reading and after reading when they were asked to answer questions from the article. This way the vocabulary was met several times.  (Anette)

Finally, the last word goes to Mette B. ‘I have also had the pleasure of practising Thornbury’s ways of putting words to work this year. What amazes me the most is how positive even the pupils with elementary skills respond to these types of activities’.

Music to my ears!

Again, heartfelt thanks to Mona and her trainee teachers.

Slovenian girl studentReferences:

Baddeley, A. (1997)  Human Memory: Theory and Practice (Revised edition), Hove: Psychology Press.

Nation, I.S.P. (2001) Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schmitt, N. (2000) Vocabulary in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schmitt, N. & Carter; R. (2000) ‘The lexical advantages of narrow reading for second language learners’, TESOL Journal, 9/1, 4-9.

Sökmen, A.J. (1997) ‘Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary,’ in Schmitt, N. and McCarthy, M. (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornbury, S. (2002) How to Teach Vocabulary, Harlow: Pearson.

Illustrations from Grad, A. (1958) Vasela Angleščina, Ljubljana: DZS.

Mona’s blog, with access to her trainee teachers’ blogs, can be found here: http://monaflognfeldt.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/vocabulary-acquisition-and-development/

S is for Small Words

2 01 2011

In an extract from his recently published (and long overdue!) autobiography, Mark Twain recalls how, as a child, he was once reprimanded by his mother: “It was a simple speech, and made up of small words, but it went home.” And he adds, “She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small words do effective work…” (‘The Farm’, in Granta, 111, 2010, p.237).

‘Making small words do effective work’ might in fact be a definition of English grammar. Not being a highly inflected language, English makes use almost entirely of function words (or functors), such as auxiliary verbs, determiners, and prepositions,  in order to convey all manner of grammatical relations, including definiteness, quantity, possession, duration, completion, volition, voice, futurity, habit, frequency and so on.  Small words also serve to make connections across stretches of text (e.g. and, so, but), to connect utterances to their context (here, now, this), and to manage speaker turns (well, oh, yes).

Not surprisingly, therefore, small words are everywhere: the twenty most frequent words in English are all functors, and together comprise a third of all text, while on average around half the words in any single text are likely to be function words. (Thus far, of the 200 odd words in this text, over 80 are functors).

What’s more, it’s the small words that have the highest degree of connectivity with other words: Nick Ellis (2008) cites research that shows that “the 10 most connected words of English are and, the, of, in, a, to ‘s, with, by, and is” (p. 235). The most frequent patterns that are formed by these connections are what we know as the grammar of the language. As Michael Hoey puts it:

Small words on the march: from Palmer's New Method Grammar (1938)

Grammar is … the sum of the collocations, colligations and semantic associations of words like is, was, the, a and of, syllables like ing, er and ly, and sounds like [t] (at the end of syllables) and [s] and [z] (likewise at the end of syllables)
(2004, p. 159).
It follows (arguably) that learning about the behaviour of these small words, including their constructional properties, is the key to learning the structure of English.  This is an insight that predates even corpus linguistics. In 1864 a certain Thomas Prendergast wrote:
“When a child can employ two hundred words of a foreign language he possesses a practical knowledge of all the syntactical constructions and of all the foreign sounds.”

Not just a child, but any language learner, I’d suggest. In fact, if you take just the top 200 words in English, and for each of these words you display the constructions most frequently associated with it, you cover all the main grammar structures in the language.   Just think of how many structures incorporate the verbs have, be, and do, for example. Or the adverbs ever, more and still. Or the conjunctions if, while and since.

Not only that, if you memorised just one or two common idiomatic expressions whose nucleus was one of these high frequency words, you’d be internalising the typical grammar patterns in which these words are commonly embedded. For learners who are not well disposed to generating sentences from rules, these memorised chunks offer another way into the grammar. What’s more, they provide the building blocks of spoken fluency. Think of the conversational mileage provided by these expressions with way (one of the commonest nouns in English): by the way, either way, to my way of thinking, the wrong way, no way, way to go! etc.

This is the thinking that underpins books like Harold Palmer’s Grammar of English Words (1944) which details the meanings, collocations and phraseology of 1000 common English words.  It is also the theory that prompted me to write Natural Grammar , published in 2004 by Oxford University Press (the working title of which, by the way, was The Secret Grammar of Words). In this book I take 100 high frequency words and explore their associated patterns. Predictably, this word-level view of grammar provides coverage of all the main ‘coursebook’ structures, plus a good many more.

One argument for organising a grammar around ‘small words’ is that their very smallness – and the fact that they are typically unstressed and often contracted –  means that they have low ‘perceptual saliency’. That is to say, learners simply don’t notice them. Making them salient, by devoting a double-page spread to each one, would seem to be a helpful thing to do, I figured.

Which leads me to wonder – if this was such a good idea, and so well-grounded in theories of language description and acquisition – why the lack of uptake? In short, why has this book been less than a runaway success? 😉


Ellis, N.  2008. The dynamics of second language emergence: cycles of language use, language change, and language acquisition.  Modern Language Journal, 92, 232 — 249.
Hoey, M. 2004. Lexical Priming: A new theory of words and language. London: Routledge.

Prendergast, T. 1864.  The Mastery of Languages, or, the Art of Speaking Foreign Tongues Idiomatically.