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Technology Tip of the Month

February, 2000: Approaches to Teaching Vocabulary


by Deborah Healey

How important is direct study of vocabulary? Like so much in language learning, it depends. Ask someone who speaks a Latin-based language about how much emphasis to place on vocabulary when learning English, and you'll probably get an answer indicating that learning vocabulary from context is fine. Ask someone who's coming to English from a non-cognate language like Chinese or Arabic, and suddenly there may be far more emphasis on the need to memorize words and just focus on vocabulary in early stages of language learning.

Even with cognates, there's going to be a certain amount of work required to

  1. recognize that a string of letters is a word;
  2. be able to recognize the meaning of a word in context; and
  3. use the word appropriately in speech and writing.

James Coady (1997) offers a synthesis of research on second language vocabulary acquisition. He suggests these implications for pedagogy:

Three main principles appear to underlie effective vocabulary teaching. First, learners hsould be provided with both definitional and contextual information about words. In the case of L2 learners, this could be related to their often-felt need for dictionary access. Second, learners should be encouraged to process information about words at a deeper level. Among L2 learners this could be reflected in the current emphasis on authentic communicative activities. Finally, learners need multiple exposures to words. ... Extensive reading is the most often cited remedy for this lack.

Brown and Perry (1991) describe different vocabulary learning strategies, focusing on the keyword method and semantic processing techniques. The cognitive basis for both of these is the concept of "depth of processing" (Craik and Lockhart, 1972; Craik and Tulving, 1975). Simply put, the idea is that when more cognitive resources are used in processing a word or phrase -- more attention is paid, basically -- that the word or phrase is more readily remembered. When a learner's eye passes over a word and letters are recognized, that's one level, and a very shallow one. The keyword method has the learner associate a word with an image or aural cue -- some sort of mnemonic device, producing s a deeper level of processing. When context is brought to bear, the learner's past experience is associated, and schema are active, semantic processing takes place -- a very deep level. What Brown and Perry found in their research with Arabic-speaking EFL students learning English was that a combination of keyword and semantic processing methods worked best, depending in part on the language level of the student.

So many words, so many approaches. The Tech Tip this month addresses some methods and some software programs that use different methods to teach vocabulary. The emphasis will be on inexpensive software and websites, where possible.

The Classic Method: Drill and Practice

This is one we've all seen, and is a favorite of software developers because it's easy to do. From Plato to Apple IIe to DOS to graphical computers, drills for vocabulary have abounded. They're common not only because they're easy to create, but also because they're useful in a couple of major ways:

Unfortunately, drills are also limited in application; you don't learn to use language creatively in speech and writing with plain slot-and-filler drills.

Drills can be better or worse. For example, multiple media delivering the same message can create multiple paths in memory, speeding information retrieval. Multimedia drills offer text, images, sound, and motion to suit different learning styles and enhance memory. Most of the commercial offerings and many shareware/freeware programs come in game formats that encourage quick response, group work with competition or cooperation, positive attitudes (the fun factor), and habit formation. Where the message and the medium are in synch, learning is more likely to occur.

Context has a large role to play, too, both in helping students learn new vocabulary and in establishing how words are actually used in speech and writing. Most drills, unfortunately, tend to take a shotgun approach to vocabulary. Words seem to be grouped into lessons according to frequency rather than according to meaning. When drills can be customized, teachers can select words that fit into a context, preferably one introduced in the classroom. A few of exceptions are ones that incorporate some reading into vocabulary, such as the SuperCloze/Hangman/Hangword in Context suite from Vance Stevens and Steve Millmore for MS-DOS (available through the CELIA archive) and NewReader from Nameless (formerly Hyperbole) Software for the Mac. These have various exercises built upon a text that learners have selected and read. Some of the quizzes at ITESL-J also have a reading or other context built in. None of these have error-checking in any major way, but they're very easy to set up and use.

A heralded advantage of computer-based over paper-based drills is the ability to offer immediate feedback to learners. This is another area where not all drills are created equal, and where most vocabulary drills don't come up to speed. Most web-based drills offer only "right" and "wrong" in feedback, a distinct limitation. As teachers/drill authors become more skilled in HTML and Java, web-based drills should improve.

Context Mapping

Creating context or semantic maps is a way to activate deeper processing of vocabulary. It's messier to do, both on paper and on the computer. A word-processor or graphics program will work, but they're easier to create with something like Inspiration from Inspiration Software. There's an interesting freeware program for Windows called Lingonets that has quite a few concept maps for different topics that students can work on.

Creating Multiple Paths with Multimedia

Multimedia, with its use of text, graphics, sound, and sometimes video, offers opportunities for a variety of learning styles. Where the same content is offered in multiple media, it also builds multiple pathways in memory. More routes to the information makes it easier to recall. DynEd's Dynamic English and Dynamic Business English and Learn to Speak English from The Learning Company are ESL-specific commercial multimedia products with see-listen-record possibilities. Check for demos on the company websites. Dynamic Business English and Learn to Speak English include short videos and extensive activities in addition to vocabulary work. All of these programs set the vocabulary into a clear context.

Vocabulary Games

Many commercial multimedia programs include vocabulary games, and most of the freeware and shareware available is in game format. The "arcade-style" games encourage quick recall and response, while more contemplative or multiple-player games encourage group work with competition or cooperation. The fun factor helps build a positive attitude toward learning while habit formation is going on. Examples of games abound in the freeware and shareware arena, as well as in the commercial sector. Interesting games include Lettris, a form of Tetris where instead of geometric shapes, letters fall and must be assembled into words. Arcade-style games such as this work best with one person at a time.

Working with Schema

Concordancers also work on getting at context for words, but in quite a different way. Students type in the word or phrase they want to look at, and are presented with a series of sentences from a textbase made up of as much authentic language as possible. They can click on an individual word to see the full context, or just get a sense of usage from the series of examples. Some concordances are MonoConc from Athelstan, both in Windows (commercial) and Mac (freeware) form, Conc from the Summer Institute of Linguistics, available from CELIA and MicroConcord from Oxford. The advantage of this type of data-driven learning is that words are seen in context rather than separately, and learners are operating at a semantic as well as syntactic level of processing.

This has been a very quick tour of possibilities for vocabulary with computers. As always, I welcome your comments and suggested additions!

References and Additional Readings

Brown, T.S. and Perry, F.L. Jr. (1991). A comparison of three learning strategies for ESL vocabulary acquisition. TESOL Quarterly, 25, 655-670.

Coady, J. (1997). L2 vocabulary acquisition. In J. Coady and T. Huckin (Eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Craik, F.I.M. and Lockhart, R.S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.

Craik, F.I.M. and Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 268-294.

Seal, B.D. (1991). Vocabulary learning and teaching. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

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If you have questions, comments, or for more information, contact Deborah Healey, dhealey AT uoregon DOT edu
Last updated 26 June, 2009