How Many Words Do You Need To Know Site Language-Learners.Org Teaching Vocabulary to Learners of English As a Foreign Language

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Teaching Vocabulary to Learners of English As a Foreign Language

Vocabulary is clearly an essential part of language learning and teaching vocabulary productively is something that should be at the forefront of our minds as English teachers. Teaching new words to students of English as a foreign language at first seems like a fairly simple proposition. Provide the appropriate word and meaning as an automatic dictionary and move on. However, the teacher is much more than just a talking dictionary.

There are many things to think about when teaching vocabulary.

How many words should you try and teach students in a class? How do you decide which new words to teach your students? What criteria do you use to decide which words are most useful? How to guide the students themselves to recognize the words that are most useful for them? What is the importance of active and passive vocabulary? Why are frequency and coverage important? Why is the registry important? Do all students need to learn the same words?

How many new words should you think about teaching in a class?

There’s no definitive figure here, of course, since every student is different, but lower-level students can usually manage about 5-8 new vocabulary words a day. At higher levels usually a few more.

What new words should you teach your students?

Even if you wanted to, you clearly cannot teach students every word in the English language. There are over 500,000 words in English, so clearly you only know a fraction of them yourself. A typical B2 (Upper Intermediate) student dictionary contains about 55,000 vocabulary words. The average native speaker probably uses less than 20,000 words actively. Reducing huge amounts of words to manageable learning is a significant challenge for ELT and one of the big challenges for teaching vocabulary is which words to choose.

What criteria do you use in choosing the words to teach?

Frequency and Coverage:

Choose words to teach that are often used. Telling students how often words are used or in what situation you can use them (formal, informal, academic, spoken or written English, etc.) is something invaluable that they often cannot get from a dictionary. Clearly, the most frequently used words will be the most valuable to learn. The words taught should also be evaluated in the light of the topic, function, structure, teaching, needs and desires.

Polysemous Words and Word Construction:

In English, many words are polysemous – they have more than one meaning – and can be used as nouns, verbs or part of a phrasal verb. It is important to keep these alternative meanings and uses in mind when teaching new words. It would be logical to learn these polysemous words as a priority. The important point to remember when explaining the meaning is that the context will show which of the different meanings and uses is intended.

Word formation is an essential part of teaching vocabulary, for example, the way the root forms of words change to form adjectival and adverbial forms with the addition of prefixes and suffixes. Learning about word formation increases students’ awareness of the language they use. Teach students word building skills. For example, if you teach the verb “advanced,” you can also teach the adjective “advanced” and the noun “advancement.” This gives the learner extra vocabulary immediately, but also points out wider patterns in the language. For example, you can indicate that “ment” is a common noun ending. (Others include ‘ness’ ‘ence’ ‘ation’ ‘ism’ etc.) Typical adjective endings include ‘ed’ ‘ing’ ‘ent’ ‘ive’ ‘ical’ etc.

How do words lead to other words? How can you point students towards patterns in the language?

Another important aspect of teaching vocabulary is the “grammar of the words”, some words activate/place certain grammatical patterns. Countable / uncountable nouns are an example of this, the first can be used with singular and plural verbs, while the latter with only singular verbs. The other nouns are neither countable nor uncountable, but have a fixed form and are collected only with singular or plural verbs, for example people (plural), the news (singular).

Register:

Register refers to a particular style of language relevant to a particular situation or context. For example, the way a doctor talks to a patient about a prognosis/diagnosis will differ in style from the way the same doctor will report the same information to a colleague. Likewise, the way we speak in a job interview will differ from the language style we use in conversations with close friends. Students need to know how certain words fit into different registers. When explaining vocabulary, keep in mind that explanations need to include relevant aspects of context and usage, for example, “mate” is a synonym for friend, but is used colloquially typically for males.

Topic Area Words:

You can choose a topic like “time”. The following vocabulary includes: rain, sun, cold, wind, etc. This is particularly useful if the student is interested in a particular topic or if a topic has a direct relationship with his life or work. Not all vocabulary or subject matter is of equal importance to every student.

Passive and active vocabulary:

New words enter the students’ passive Vocabulary. Students can understand the meaning, especially in the specific context where they see a new word used, but still cannot use the word independently. To ensure that words enter the students’ Active Vocabulary, regular review in meaningful situations is essential. It is estimated that a student needs to encounter a word 10-12 times before it enters their Active Vocabulary. Lexicon, like Grammar, is learned through use. It is therefore very important to give students the opportunity in the classroom to use the new vocabulary themselves. The recall of students’ words is related to the degree that they have used the word, so the more we have students use words in a task of some sort – finding opposites, transformations, etc. – the better they will remember. Similarly, if the students participate in the presentation of new words, the better they will remember them. Therefore, implementing the definitions in a dramatic way – travel, internship, etc. – should lead to deeper learning of words. Sensory memory is involved, taste, smell, touch, etc., which also increases recall. Discovery techniques where students have to discover the meaning of the words themselves will be more effective than the teacher’s standard presentation of new vocabulary.

There may be many words that students do not need to actively use themselves at a particular stage in their learning career and therefore may remain in the students’ Passive Vocabulary. For example, at the beginner level it is enough to know “big” and “small”. At intermediate levels, you can start using “huge” “massive” “small” “minute” etc. At Advanced levels, you can use words like “vast” or “minuscule” to convey a different nuance of meaning or to adopt a more formal or academic tone. The point is that at the Beginner level it is clearly not practical or useful to spend time trying to get the student to use a word like “vast”.

Vocabulary test:

Vocabulary testing takes many forms, and as with all techniques in ELT, the more variety in the classroom, the better.

Examples include:

1. Multiple choice questions

2. Correspondence (opposites / complements)

3. Strange outside

4. Write sentences

5. Dictatorship

6. Close / gap-fill (with and without word list)

7. Sentence completion

Conclusion:

In the classroom, the teacher remains the center of the effective acquisition of new vocabulary. Every student is different, so their language learning needs and vocabulary needs are also different. As a teacher, you interact with students face to face on a human level. You have an understanding of who the student is and what is useful for them to learn that no dictionary or computer program could ever have.

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