VOCABULARY LEARNING

A Systematic and practical methodology for young learners

by Chris Elvin

Introduction

The pedagogical purpose of this lesson is perhaps fairly obvious - structured listening and speaking practice for first and second person of the verb to be, with the topic being on adjectives of personality and emotion, and the focus being on the students' individual differences. My goal is to create a communicate environment in which repetition is a key feature in aiding the students' grammar acquisition and vocabulary learning.

Vocabulary

When I chose the vocabulary items for this lesson plan, I realized that one thing that I would have to try to avoid was cross-association. That is, avoiding items which are semantically linked, such as antonyms. (The problem is really that unless I abandon the idea that the lesson should have a focus, which I think it should, I will inevitably end up with some words that are semantically similar.)
Nation (1990, p. 45) looked at long and short in the Samoan language and noted that " some learners will cross-associate the word forms and their meanings By teaching these two words together the teacher has made the words twice as difficult to learn."
I have cold and hot in my list, which I think are acceptable because they are usually already known and don't need to be learned. I have rich and poor, which I think is okay because rich is also Japanese, so the words are not likely to be confused. I have noisy and quiet, which hopefully will not be too difficult, as many students know "Be quiet!" (In fact, if I were to drop noisy from the list, it would be because it is occasionally confused with lazy, which is phonetically similar.) Lastly, I have careful and careless, which are phonetically similar, orthographically similar, and semantically linked, so they look like prime candidates for breaking up.
Nation (1990, p 47) writes further " the similarity between items can be reduced by using different contexts, pictures, or objects for conveying the meaning of the items. Using the same visual aid for teaching several related items is economical for the teacher but not for the learners."
So if the learning experience is rich and varied, learning should take place. I have found with my students that they retain the meaning of words such as careful and careless very well if they are given time to absorb the meaning of their suffixes.
I ask them whether they know the word "homeless". I draw a picture of a house on the chalkboard and write less after it. I explain that it means "no home". I draw a full glass of water on the board and contrast it with a glass that is not full. Then we focus on care ful and care less. When I mime these words in class I make sure that there is a different context for each item. I walk on a tightrope for careless, and I thread a needle for careful.
Likewise for the other words, I try to convey the meaning in a variety of ways. I talk. I mime. I show. I draw. My students also get involved, too, and we also spend time getting familiar with the sounds of these new words. We usually have a lot of fun, and I hope that the time we spend getting familiar with these words will not only prepare them for the rest of the lesson, but also save them study time in the long run.
The other criterion for selecting the key words was whether or not they would be conducive to meaningful communication. Questions that have obvious answers, such as "Are you tall?" and questions that are embarrassing such as "Are you fat?" were not included on my worksheet. It's not that they are being censored, it's just that they are not appropriate, and besides, the students usually generate these questions when we review.

Pairwork

The purpose of pairwork is to give many students the chance to speak and to listen.
I want my students answers to show the degree of subtlety that a native speaker would want to express, so I give them four alternatives; "Yes, I am", "Yes, I am a little", "Not really" and "No, I'm not". In my classes, nearly everyone ends up speaking all the target answers quite naturally, which is very pleasing.
If you take a glance at the worksheets, you may feel that the students have a lot of writing to do. Why not have the four answer options next to each question and allow the students to circle their partner's reply? This is certainly a possibility, but I decided not to design the layout like that for this occasion. One reason for getting the students to write is that they need writing practice. Furthermore, writing repetition is a preferred learning style of many Japanese learners (writing repetition is not a particularly popular learning style in my first culture, Britain). The other reason is purely practical. I want to slow down the activity to give myself a chance to monitor and to interact.

Personalization

Once students have asked each other the target questions, they are free to generate their own ones. I want my students to enjoy the freedom to be creative, to play with the language, to socialize, and to have fun.
For me, it's an opportunity to find out just how much my students know that hasn't been taught in class. Asami has asked "Are you polite?" Izumo has asked, "Are you Mr. Iwata?" Kyoko has asked, "Are you an undertaker?" and Shiho has asked "Are you dog?" (Such errors are inevitable. They are part of learning and they can be dealt with in due course.)
It is clear, in my lessons that students do learn a great deal from each other, and I also believe that what they learn from each other has more kudos than whatever the teacher prescribes.

Expansion

So far, all of the students have spoken half of the key words, and listened to the other half, which may be enough for one lesson. If we want to get them to use the words that they haven't practiced yet, we could flip over the double-sided print and carry on with pairwork. Of course, it's not really communication if the students can remember the questions, but it's an option to think about if you find that some of your students look as if they have time on their side. It may also be confidence boosting to those students who found the first practice difficult.
What I do on this occasion, however, is play "Find someone who"
If done properly, it can be a great activity, but there have been times when I have thought the opposite. Why does it work perfectly sometimes, and at other times it's a complete disaster?
First of all, students are smart. They know before they get up out of their chairs that the chances of finding someone in the class who has eaten liquorice and can whistle Yankee Doodle Dandy is rather remote. So why bother? Also, students are efficient. I once played "Find someone in the basketball club" with my first year students and nobody needed to get out of their seat to complete the task!
The issue, then, is one of probability. If there is a reasonable likelihood that the person can be found with a little effort, but without having to ask almost everybody in the class, students will be motivated to play. There are four possible answers in my worksheet, so the likelihood of finding someone who is in agreement with oneself, emotionally, physically or otherwise, is reasonably good, and my students are usually highly motivated to play.
To play, students should use the unused side of their doulble-printed worksheet and go and try to find the person who is the in agreement with themselves with reference to a particular question. I usually ask them to write down the name of the student who has the same answer as themselves. This gives the activity a task, and it helps me monitor it. (I demonstrate this.)
I also have some guidlines for playing that I tell my students. Guideline number one is "No Japanese, please!" Guideline number two is "No copying, please!" and guideline number three is "Don't be noisy! Be quiet! Be serious! Be happy!" (This last one is just for fun, to see if they can understand.)
Also, one of the single most important variables in determining whether this activity will be a success or not, is the teacher's facial expression. If it's smiling, the activity will probably work. If it's not, misdemeanors may be committed. What I want to convey by smiling is the message, "Hey kids, my white flag is already up. I can't possibly manage a class when everyone is out of their seats. If you want to copy or do it in Japanese, you'll probably get away with it. But do you really want to cut corners just because you can? I'm not such an oni sensei, am I?"
Students invariably respond very favorably to my non-verbal message, and they usually do the exercise properly and in good spirits.

Review

A natural and effective way to review the lesson's structure and vocabulary is for the teacher to seek opportunities to ask meaningful referential questions to the students when the opportunity arises. If the classroom feels hot, I ask them "Are you hot?" When a student drops her pencil case, I ask, "Oh! Are you careless, today, Yuko?" When the students next do pairwork, I can also ask, "Are you student A?" etc.
Of course, such spontaneity, timely as it may be, is not sufficient to guarantee that our students will learn these new vocabulary items, and clearly we need to be more systematic in the way we present and recycle such words in order to have lasting success.
The number of times that a student needs to be exposed to a word in a foreign language before it is learned is open to debate. On the low end of the scale, Salling (1959) suggests as little as five times, while Saragi et al (1978), believe it is in the order of sixteen times. The kind of attention is also important, too, but regardless, repetition is clearly very important. Pimsleur (1967) states that in order to maximize students' memory potential, the repetitions should be increasingly spaced apart. The first review should be the next lesson, for example, then the next week, then two weeks later, and so on.
For the teacher, this may mean having to keep a log of what your students have learned, and when they learned it, and also being prepared to create useful and stimulating resources such as quizzes and games.
Please feel free to photocopy and use the "Are you happy?" worksheets. Respect the copyright and enjoy! You can also view "Are you happy?" as a PDF file if you visit my website. (You will need Acrobat Reader, which is free from Adobe, and my website has a link to it.) Although PDF files often look ugly on screen, they usually print very well.
The website address is; EFL Club: http://www2.gol.com/users/celvin/.

See PDF file of worksheets

References

Pimsleur, P. (1967). A memory schedule. Modern Language Journal 51, 2:73-75.
Salling, Aage. (1959). What can frequency counts teach the language teacher? Contact 3:24-29.
Saragi, T., Nation, I.S.P. and Meister, G.F. (1978). Vocabulary learning and reading. System 6, 2:72-78.
Nation, I.S.P. (1990). Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

Chris Elvin teaches part-time at Caritas Gakuen in Kanagawa, and St. Dominic's Institute in Tokyo. He can be reached at celvin@gol.com .

Return to http://www.eflclub.com/elvin.html .