By Peter McKenzie-Brown
You are studying a foreign language, you want to learn ten new words every day, and the mental task of managing your growing word list seems formidable. To put the job into context, consider the following from linguist Stephen Pinker.
“Children begin to learn words before their first birthday,” he says, “and by their second they hoover them up at a rate of one every two hours. By the time they enter school children command 13,000 words, and then the pace picks up, because new words rain down on them from both speech and print. A typical high-school graduate knows about 60,000 words; a literate adult, perhaps twice that number.”
Smaller than a toddler’s daily intake, your ten-word vocabulary list suddenly seems like a pauper in a palace. And the problem of properly learning vocabulary involves much more than remembering words. In the classroom, only a few words and a small part of what the learner needs to know about a word can be dealt with at any one time. For the common words, which often have multiple meanings and complex nuances, you can only teach a bit at a time. The more information you present, the more likely your learners are to misunderstand.
For both teacher and learner, vocabulary is a huge challenge. But help is at hand from vocabulary researcher Paul Nation, whose magisterial 480-page tome, Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, offers endless insights into the science and practice of teaching and learning vocabulary. He calls his preferred method of vocabulary teaching the direct approach.
Nation describes vocabulary learning as a “meeting” between the learner and the word, and he stresses that it only makes sense to have close encounters with common, useful words. Most teachers emphasize the most common 2000 English words. The most widely accepted list is available on the Internet by googling Michael West’s General Service List.
“Useful vocabulary needs to be met again and again to ensure it is learned,” Nation says. “In the early stages of learning the meetings need to be reasonably close together, preferably within a few days, so that too much forgetting does not occur. Later meetings can be very widely spaced with several weeks between each meeting.”
There are essentially four ways to learn and teach high-frequency words.
• One is direct teaching, mentioned earlier. For the language teacher, explaining vocabulary is a critical part of classroom duties.
• Also, encourage your students to participate in direct learning, which involves study from word cards and dictionary use.
• A third method, incidental learning, can involve guessing from context in extensive reading or through word use in communicative activities.
• The fourth method Nation calls “planned encounters.” These encounters include vocabulary exercises and graded reading – that is, using reading materials like shortened novels with reduced vocabulary for language learners.(Graded readers are available in many language teaching bookstores.)
Nation’s direct approach to vocabulary teaching is built upon three main ideas. First, vocabulary teaching should focus on high-frequency words that will be of continuing importance for the learners. As a teacher, you have a duty to pass over low-frequency words completely or with little comment. Also, you have to make sure the learners come back to the word frequently, to diminish the power of forgetfulness.
Also, when you teach a word you should focus on its “learning burden” – that is, the features of the word that actually need to be taught. These can differ quite dramatically from word to word. Take the word “think.” You need to explain that it is an irregular verb; that it includes the irregular spelling “thought”; and that “thought” can also be a noun.
Finally, direct teaching should be clear and simple. To learn a word in all its complexity, learners need to meet it many times. Don’t try to teach a complex word – for example, the many meanings of the word “right” – in one sitting. That kind of intensive vocabulary teaching takes place in boring classrooms, and it frequently leads to perplexed students.