Monday, October 01, 2007

vocab. project/vocab. study

What I need to do now is back off, and let my students actually write about this, because it was done for them, and done on the subject they chose. It stirred in me, though, the desire to both lay out what I consider standard fare- what I usually say about vocabulary- and, a challenge to discuss any of the various issues that the discussion raises.

These are the things I tell most students:

Vocabulary is the most important element of your language study. Your ability to pick up, retain, and use successfully and quickly a large number of words will be the key to your ability to solve grammatical problems, improve your listening, and read fast enough to survive a test situation. Nothing is more important than knowing the words, and knowing enough to make a difference.

Some teachers claim that exposure alone will do it for you- if you read it and hear it enough, you'll get it. I don't believe that. I think most learners need a system and need to commit new vocabulary to memory. Your system is up to you- and if you choose to go without one, that's up to you also. If your TOEFL score has plateaued out at about 460, though, you could have vocabulary issues. If your TOEFL has plateaued at 430, you have much more serious issues, but that's another post. If you feel like you are treading water, think about how you are learning vocabulary. Do you have a system? Does it work? Is it time to change it? The system that worked in the lower levels no longer does.

I believe your system should teach you to stay in English rather than always lead you back to your native language. Put your list entirely in English. Make sentences that use the words. Study by reading the sentences, covering up the words and their English definitions on the left. When in doubt, find the definition of the word, in English, on the left side of your list, and go back to reading the sentences. Sentences should be easy except for the words you are learning. Add words from everywhere; study the list often.

Finally, it's entirely your business. I never collect the list, though I avidly watch and question what my students do and how well it works for them. I also watch to see who passes and how well, how quickly. I actually wanted my students to study this but had to admit that the effects of stress on vocabulary was closer to the class topic.

Let's go back to the teacher that claims that exposure is enough. You know who you are- maybe 50-60% of the profession, I have no idea anymore. I freely admit that exposure is a crucial element of the picture. Our minds organize by how important we consider things to be- and we judge that by exposure. But, unless my tests, 80 questions for a high-level class of 15, were mistaken, exposure isn't enough. There's always the possibility that I'm an alligator of a vocab-test maker, but I don't think so. It may be a weakness of the communicative system that now a person with the first five out of the six communicative skills- listening, responding nonverbally, speaking, asking for help, test survival, and reading, have made it as far as they have, without reading. I gave them the words beforehand, words they'd seen and used, and they still had trouble with it. Some of the words, I said to myself, how could you sit in this class all term and not know this? Yet some could & did. Non-readers, maybe, or deliberate project saboteurs. More likely, just people who have trouble with words.

This is why I crank out those vocab. quizzes in every class, that the better students keep requesting. They aren't, in fact, alligator-tricky, they're pretty straightforward. There's one other thing I say: There's no way I could cover more than 10% of what you need. The best I can do is challenge you: bring it to your attention, that you may be learning in an inefficient way, you may want to reflect on how you hold the football when you run, as the Salukis might say. My goal is to use my time in the best way possible, so that, if enlightening you about your own methods is a possibility, I'll make that more likely. If it flushes out the non-readers, so be it. Overall vocabulary scores, over the years and terms, have been very very accurate when it comes to TOEFL scores. I heard this one time, long ago, in ESL- that vocab. mastery is the best predictor of overall language mastery- but haven't been able to find a source, or prove it.

More about exposure soon- I don't intend to let that one go. Mark my words- I like exposure- the more the better. That's partially my rationale for the quizzes- if new, simple, relevant sentences can add to their exposure to a word- that alone is good, whether they get the answer right or not. This presumes that they can read the simple sentences the words appear in, and have no trouble with the four simple choices. I'm interested in how having seen the word or not, elsewhere or in an isolated situation, affected the score. A word that came right off a list, the day before a quiz, and a stressful day at that, might be harder to learn, one would think, than one that had been committed to memory previously, and only recalled later. More later, I promise.

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