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Vocabulary in English Language Teaching and Learning

  • Vocabulary in English Language Teaching and Learning

The following blog post was written by Greg Danowski, a faculty member at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA). This blog post is part of our Conference Reflection blog series. The blog series is an opportunity for Centre faculty to share a key finding or teaching technique learned at a conference.  

This year’s ATESL Conference in Edmonton provided its participants with many opportunities to become familiar with current research and practice in various areas of ESL methodology. Perhaps in a deliberate attempt to respond to a growing need, a considerable amount of time and attention was given to the teaching and learning of vocabulary (a total of five presentations).  

Conference presenter John-Paul Baker rightly pointed out that vocabulary learning is usually seen as merely a supplementary - and not an essential - part of language teaching. His presentation, as well as those by Dr. Stuart Webb, Dr. Scott Douglas, and Denise Lo, emphasized the centrality of lexical competence to the English language learning process. These presentations covered a whole gamut of issues pertaining to the learning and teaching of English vocabulary.

Vocabulary learned gradually through repetition

In addition to stressing the fact that vocabulary learning should be integral to language teaching, Baker’s presentation “Vocabulary Knowledge and Reinforcement” was aimed at showing that words can only be learned gradually through repetition and successful mental processing of limited input. In Baker’s view, the teacher’s main task is to help learners increase their level of familiarity with words along a continuum that begins with “unfamiliar” and ends with “very familiar.” To that end, she or he needs to make sure that learners use target vocabulary productively (where risk-taking is praised by the instructor), that they learn how to define words in English (this requires teaching the language of definition), and that they have repeated encounters with words through reading and developing vocabulary lists.   

The instructor's role in vocabulary learning

According to Webb, the teacher’s role in vocabulary learning is not limited to simply teaching words...

Dr. Webb discussed vocabulary in two separate sessions: his keynote address titled “The Teacher’s Role in Vocabulary Learning” and a more hands-on, workshop-style session “How Effective Are Different Vocabulary Learning Techniques.” In the first presentation he argued that although much had been written about vocabulary in general, there was a dearth of publications dealing with how vocabulary should be taught. According to Webb, the teacher’s role in vocabulary learning is not limited to simply teaching words, but includes - among other tasks -selecting words to be learned based on their frequency of use, explaining to students the rationale behind learning specific words, helping them learn to process words faster, and providing them with adequate opportunities to use target vocabulary in speech and writing. Building on the keynote, the second presentation explored the efficacy of a variety of activities and exercises used to teach vocabulary, such as cloze activities, collocational matching, and multiple choice activities. By involving his listeners in a number of guided tasks, Dr. Webb tried to help them understand that teachers should choose vocabulary learning activities wisely in order to make efficient use of class time.

Vocabulary in EAP classrooms

In "Rubrics that Inspire: Assessing Vocabulary in EAP Writing Classrooms,” Dr. Douglas discussed the complexity of evaluating the knowledge and use of vocabulary in the context of writing in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) programs. The speaker explained the various criteria that need to be considered in assessing vocabulary use in writing. According to Douglas, a good rubric should be able to capture not only the extent to which EAP students use vocabulary from the Academic Word List, but also their overall communicative language proficiency, control of essential word forms and variations, awareness of culturally appropriate vocabulary, as well as their ability to use abstract words. The presentation also included a short workshop in which participants were invited to analyze and discuss authentic writing samples containing problems related to incorrect meaning, miscollocations, and various idiomatic and derivational issues.

Learner autonomy with an online dictionary

Similarly to Douglas’s, Lo’s presentation offered some insights into teaching vocabulary in an EAP program. Titled “Promoting Learner Autonomy with an Online Dictionary in EAP,” the session dealt with the use of the online version of The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English in and out of an EAP classroom. Lo showed her audience how this particular dictionary could be used to help ELL students become independent learners of words through building their own vocabulary awareness, learning the different aspects of vocabulary (word forms, pronunciation, stress), applying collocations in writing, and expanding their lexical repertory for contexts such as discussing facial expressions or agreeing and disagreeing in everyday English. Lo demonstrated that, if used consistently throughout an EAP course, the online Longman can be a very powerful tool for learning vocabulary.