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Category Archives: vocabulary

By R. Michael Medley, Ph.D., Professor of English, Eastern Mennonite University

Two ways that I use the Academic Word List are as follows, the assumption being that this is some sort of English language development class for those who need English for academic purposes:

1. If the students are doing a reading which contains many unfamiliar words (but the reading is interesting to the students and helping them learn about something that they want to learn about), I might use the AWL to identify which words in the passage are more worth the students’ concentrated attention.  We all know that some words are of such low frequency that it is not worthwhile for learners to spend time working to incorporate those words into that active (or even passive) vocabulary.

But if some of the new words in the passage are on the AWL, then I can devise some kind of exercise or discussion that brings those words into focus and gives learners (a) additional multiple exposures to the words and (b) actual practice using them.

2. I am in the process of writing some ESOL materials based mainly on readings representing a unified content area.  I regularly use a vocabulary profiler, LexTutor,  to help me see the relative frequencies of the words that make up the passage.  This vocab profiler also identifies AWL words.  So if I am trying to simplify the text a little, I can simplify by changing the “off-list words” — that is those words of quite low frequency, which are not on the AWL.  I will certainly leave the AWL words in the text so that the students get exposed to them. Since most of the texts in my materials will be read by high intermediate or advanced students with instructor support (and not as extensive reading by the students independently) I feel that it is adequate if 90% of the vocabulary falls into the top 2000 words of English (usually that means about 80-85% of the words are in the top 1000).  The 10% of words not in the top 2000 will be AWL and low-frequency words.

A teacher who uses a lot of electronic texts with her/his learners, could easily use this vocabulary profiler to check on the presence of AWL words in the readings–in effect, guiding the choice of readings based on their vocabulary profiles and then guiding the teacher in choosing vocabulary to bring into focus either before or after the reading.

An interesting realization I’ve had in preparing these materials is that there is a lot of specialized vocabulary for the particular subject area with which I’m dealing. Now that I am working on chapter 12, it seems that the low-frequency vocabulary for one reading has grown very large. But when I look carefully at the words, I’ll see right away that many of these words have been introduced already and practiced many times through the previous 11 chapters.  This realization illustrates the value of doing extended reading (not exactly the same as extensive reading)–that is reading a lot in one subject area or becoming accustomed to the writing style (patterns of thought and expression) of one author.


By Dick Tibbetts – Macau University, Macau, China

It might be worth considering what Scrabble can teach and what Scrabblers can learn.

Players can learn vocabulary from their peers and peers have to define words when challenged. I’d ban dictionaries for finding words and use something reputable like the advanced learners dic. as an authority for judging.

Scrabble games with NS are used to aid spelling but this isn’t so useful with Chinese learners because they learn the spelling before they learn pronunciation and before they are truly familiar with meaning and usage. NS who can’t spell often have a wide vocabulary and Scrabble gives them an incentive to hone their spelling.

Scrabble can give practice in the function of challeng- ing and querying:
“Hey, I’ve never seen that before.”
“I don’t think that’s in the dictionary”
These qualified challenges are useful subtleties in the art of argument.

Scrabble gives learners opportunities to use some of the meta-language of dictionaries in a natural situation. They can challenge by saying “That’s a loan word/archaic/slang etc.” I’m not sure how useful this is but it is there and it does happen.

(Photo: 45 college students, working in teams, playing Scrabble in Guangzhou, China. The board is projected onto a screen. Photo by Dave Kees)

>By Karen Stanley – Central Piedmont Community College, North Carolina, USA

Guessing meaning from context is a valuable skill to develop, but so is how to use dictionaries properly. I feel there is a place for bilingual dictionaries, learners’ monolingual dictionaries, and native speaker monolingual dictionaries. Of course, just as you may need to teach the skills for guessing from context to some learners, you may need to teach them how to use dictionaries in an appropriate way.

Just the other day, in a key sentence in an advanced reading assignment, I asked students what word X meant. They provided me with four or five different possibilities, ALL of which made sense in the context, but NONE of which conveyed the meaning that was key to understanding the author’s perspective.

I will never forget the time, now many years (20, maybe?) ago, when a key word in a paragraph was AFLOAT. One good guesser-from-context with a knowledge of prefixes (taught in class) assumed that the A- represented “without, not” rather than “in a specified state or condition.” Nothing in the context (a real article from a magazine) indicated which meaning the prefix had, yet misunderstanding the meaning changed the answers to several questions on the test. That was the moment when I stopped forbidding dictionary use on tests (or in any type of reading assignment).

As a side note, I do encourage students to underline unknown words as they read rather than looking them up. I tell them to finish reading the whole item first, and then go back afterward to see which ones they feel they still need or want to look up.

When I am writing something, and I need a word that I can’t remember or never knew, a bilingual dictionary is invaluable. If it’s just that the word is on the tip of my tongue, a quick glance in my bilingual dictionary is often rewarded by – oh, that’s it! If I don’t see a word I know, I will sometimes use a corpus to pull examples of the word to see how people are using it in a sentence/paragraph.

Of course, you have to be careful, and I often double check a word by looking it up in the opposite direction. Also, obviously, some of this is only when I have enough time, but it can be valuable in building my vocabulary skills – especially when there are no native speakers around to help.

In reading situations, a bilingual dictionary can be helpful when I want to ensure that I have understood something correctly – bilingual dictionaries are much quicker than then having to decode the meaning in the same language as the original text.

Learner dictionaries I find especially useful when I want examples of how to use a word and don’t have time to search (or perhaps access at that moment) corpora for examples that fit the way I am considering using the word.

Monolingual native speaker dictionaries are most helpful (for me) when the word is at a level of knowledge such that it does not appear even in more extensive learner dictionaries.

Of course, there will always be vocabulary that can’t be guessed from context OR found in a dictionary!

>By Maria Spelleri – Manatee Community College, USA

I want and encourage my students to use a dictionary. At the lower levels, I like them to use a bilingual dictionary, and at intermediate and above, I prefer them to use an Eng-Eng dictionary. I get annoyed when students are assigned to read something short for homework, and the next day I ask them “Who looked up what X means?” and not one student bothered to use a dictionary. The other day in a high intermediate speaking class, I gave students a list of words to describe character and personality. The students were to work in groups, agreeing on the top three words to describe each- a successful college student, a successful career person, and a good spouse/partner. I knew that with the combined knowledge of each group, there would probably still be about 10-20% of the words on the list the students didn’t know. I reminded them to use a dictionary. (And not because I was lazy to explain the word, but because I wanted them to go through the explanation and negotiation of meaning process in Eng as a group! I will always help them refine a definition after they have given it their best shot on their own.) When students were sharing their results, I asked some “Well, why not X to describe a spouse?” and the group would reply “Oh, we didn’t know what that word meant.” Only 1 person in 1 group had bothered to identify any unknown words. I was disappointed that students just preferred to skip over a word rather than take a chance that it might be the perfect word they needed to complete their task.

I know students have to deal with words in context and that they can’t be expected to whip out a dictionary every time they encounter an unknown word, but if a college student isn’t curious enough to do define a new word encountered while doing homework, or in a relaxed, un-timed environment, I’m guessing the student will never look up words. Too many intermediate level and above students are complacent with their limited vocabulary because they function OK in their limited worlds, and it’s hard to convince them that increasing their vocabulary is anything but icing on the cake.

Naively I thought that requiring a dictionary as stated on my syllabus would result in students actually getting one and each student customizing his or her own use of it as needed, learning the words (or at least looking up words) needed by each individual. Instead I see that I need to resort to choosing the words the students will learn and providing assignments that can not be completed without the use of a dictionary. It’s frustrating when I try to treat college students as adults who are able to make decisions about what they need to learn, only to discover that many still have the “learning resistance” of a teenager and lack self-initiative, and I instead have to tell them what to learn.

>By Kenton Sutherland – Emeritus Professor, San Mateo (California) Community College District English Language Specialist, United States Department of State

A teacher in Beijing states that “in China, many English learners will learn words directly from a vocabulary book by remembering the form and one or two Chinese translations of that word” and then goes on to ask if there is a more effective way to learn vocabulary.

This method of learning word meanings does not seem to me to have much value in actual English practical usage. Chinese learners are known to have phenomenal skills at memorizing, but unless they can use the memorized words in meaningful situations, the words are stored like dictionary entries, waiting to be “looked up,” many never to be used, drifting away and getting foggy in long-term memory.

When I was a schoolboy, I had to memorize the capital cities of all 48 American states — this was in the 1940s, before Hawaii and Alaska joined the Union — and I got an “A” on the test on capitals, but today I don’t think I can remember half of them. It was all a meaningless exercise that caused me some anguish at the time, especially trying to remember whether Bismark was the capital of South Dakota or North Dakota. Sixty years later, I still can’t get them straight, nor have I ever had the opportunity to use either Bismark or Pierre until now, even though these two names for the Dakota capital cities have somehow managed to stay in my long-term memory. Wait! Is one of them the capital of Nebraska? None of this memory “learning” was ever meaningful to me, and I suggest that similar memorization exercises in trying to learn English vocabulary are equally meaningless for Chinese learners and therefore pretty much useless, yet another blind alley.

So, what’s the alternative to memorization? Mert Bland hit the nail on the head when he replied: “The more a student is exposed to a word in diverse contexts, the firmer grasp that student gets of the word.” In effect, the students needs lots and lots of different kinds of activities in which to receive and use new words — oral practices, games, songs, rhymes, jazz chants, readings of all kinds, radio English, television, DVDs and/or videotapes, film, karaoke, drama and theater games, readers’ theater, conversation clubs, internet time, chat rooms, pen pals, e-mails in English computer-assisted instruction, talking with foreigners in English, travel outside China, lectures in English, etc. Sometimes it takes several inputs before a student grasps a word’s meaning and even more inputs before a student actually understands in what situations the word can be used. That’s why Mert stressed “diverse contexts” and “the more a student is exposed.” In short, the key to effective vocabulary learning lies precisely in providing massive exposure to English in as many different situations and contexts as possible.

>Here are some ideas for do-it-yourself games with Scrabble letters. You can find a set of Scrabble letters here.

By “Peg” Margaret Orleans – Japan

Boggle – Have students draw sixteen (or twenty-five) random letters and place them in a 4 x 4 (or 5 x 5) square. Give them a reasonable length of time to write down all the words of three or more letters they can find. All letters must be connected horizontally, vertically, or diagonally in order; no letter may be repeated within a single word. After the lists have been made. Have students in each group read them aloud. Duplicated words are crossed out and the remaining words are scored: three letters, 1 point; four letters, 2 points; five letters, 3 points; six letters, 5 points; seven letters or more, 10 points.

Guggenheim – Have students suggest five categories (Countries, Fruit, Animals, Movie Titles, and Months, for example). Then draw five random letters (no duplicates). On a five by five grid, students write one word/phrase for each category beginning with each letter. Give a time limit (5 minutes is usually reasonable if the categories are appropriate). Have groups share answers. Scoring: word spelled with wrong initial letter (r/l confusion, for example), -1 point; word in wrong language, -5 points; correct word given by more than one student, +1 point; unique correct word, +5 points.

Last Word – Have cards with categories (or let students suggest them). For example, Green Things, Bodies of Water, Cold Things, Things in a Stationery Shop, Pizza Toppings, etc. Students choose a random letter, and turn over a category card. Everyone begins on a signal, calling out words in the category that begin with the letter each has chosen. The teacher calls when time is up (variable time limits, from 15 seconds to 2 minutes). The player who called the last correct answer wins the round.

PDQ – It is normally a card game. The dealer turns over three tiles in a row. Each round starts out with a different set of 3 letters. Be the first to shout out a word that contains those letters in order from left to right, or right to left, and you’ll win the tiles. For example, if the letters are PNA, you could shout PiNbAll, PiNeApple, or PheNomenAl. You could also yell ANteloPe, ANticiPate, or ANthroPology. If two players call out words at the same time, the longer word wins. If players agree that no word can be formed, another three tiles are placed on top of the previous three. The winner of each round keeps the tiles. Whoever hass the most tiless at the end of the game is the WNR!

Here are a few games that you can’t play with Scrabble letters unless you put several sets together:

Word Ladders – (as Lewis Carroll called it) or Word Gold (as Vladimir Nobokov) referred to it.

You have to look some of these up on the Internet or work some out yourself to set as puzzles for the students and once they get the idea, they can create some of their own to challenge your and/or their classmates. The game involves choosing two words of the same length and generally opposite of each other. You move from one word to the other by changing one letter at a time, making sure that you always have an actual word. For example, you can move from LASS to MALE in the following steps:

Word Mastermind – Students play this in pairs. One thinks of a five-letter word in which no letter is repeated. (If playing with tiles, the player selects the tiles while the other player closes her eyes, and keeps the word covered or turned face-down.) The partner then attempts to duplicate the target word by guessing five-letter words (also without duplicated letters). After each guess, the first player indicates with an X each letter that is in the target word in the same position and with an O each letter that is in the target word, but not in the same position.

You can see why this is easier to play with paper and pencil–or just mentally.

For example, the partner guesses
BREAD and the score is XOOO

Of course, it usually takes a lot more guesses.

Before and After – Students find this game amazing when I demonstrate it to a class. I tell one student to think of any English word he/she likes and I will guess it.
Then I guess a word and the student tells me if my guess is before or after his/her word in the dictionary. With students who have a vocabulary of 1000 words or so, you can generally arrive at their word in about ten guesses.

After one demonstration, students can pair off and play. It’s good alphabetization practice and spelling review.

>By Mert – Dr.M.L.Bland, Arlington, VA, USA

A teacher wants some tips on teaching vocabualry without translation.

Well, this is, of course, less of a problem for TESL teachers who deal with a class of students from many nations than for TEFL teachers who usually deal with a classroom of students from the same language base.

Comprehension means building what I call concept pods for each item. In the native language the baby, in his babble stage, compresses his lips and expells a little air and repeats the process. Suprise! He is picked up and cuddled by a creature saying, “Oh, you called my name.” This is what we call positive reenforcement, so the baby repeats the process. At this point the concept pod means, “I want attention.” But the concept pod gets refined as it doesn’t work all the time. If no one is in the room he doesn’t get picked up and cuddled. If the creature in the room has a mustache and growls, “Wassa matter? Cant you say ‘Papa?’ it doesn’t work. If the small creature giggles and says, “tee-hee, I’m your big sister,” it doesn’t work. All this negative reenforcement narrows the concept pod to: “I want to be cuddled by that one creature in the world who will cuddle me.”

The concept pod is changing its configuration all the time. When our hero is two, his playmate says “Mama” and a strange creature picks him up. What, are there two mamas in the world? Usually he will go up to her and try a tentative Mama? “No, I’m not your Mama, I’m his Mama.”

Over the years the concept pod will grow to include motherlode, mother of pearl, Mother Goose…the mental image of the birth process, and much more. Your concept pod will never match mine since we had different mothers.

Your job, as a language teacher, is to help your students form these concept pods in the target language. You can do this through context, imagery, paralinguistics, or whatever works. But if you use translation you become counterproductive. For one thing, no concept pod in one language ever replicates exactly a concept pod in another langage. So you have to teach exceptions. For another thing, translation impedes communication since the student has to go from hearing the question in the L2, translating the question into the L1, formulating the answer in the L1, translating the answer into the the L2, and, finally articulating the answer in the L2. Duh! Instead, you want to bifurcate the languages. Indeed, brain scans show that true bilinguals have the two languages in opposite sides of the brain.

So that, in brief, is why we don’t allow the L1 in our classrooms.

>By Margaret “Peg” Orleans – China

Some games that students with very little vocabulary may be able to play and enjoy:

1. A Visit to Grandma

Students sit in circles of four to six. The first one starts with a pattern sentence like, “I’m going to visit my grandmother. In my bag I will take” and names an item (no matter how ridiculous–no need for it actually to fit in a suitcase) that begins with the letter A. The second student repeats what the first has said, adding an item that begins with the letter B, and so on around the circle and through the alphabet. (Lots of chance to practice pronunciation and listening, but students have some control since they are choosing words they understand.)

2. Dictionary Before and After

Working in pairs, one student chooses any English word she knows. The partner attempts to identify it by guessing words. After each guess, the student who has chosen the word responds with before (meaning “My word comes before your word in the dictionary) or after. One demonstration before the whole class in which you guess a student’s work is usually enough for everyone
to catch on.

3. Be Write Back

Students form equally-numbered teams of about seven to ten people apiece. They line up Indian file and the last person on each team is given a slip of paper on which is written a four- or five-letter word. At the start signal, these students silently trace the word on the back of the student in front of them with their forefingers. Those students can request a repetition, if necessary. When they understand (or think they understand) what the word is, they trace it on the back of the person in front of them, and so on, until the first students race to write the word on the blackboard. (Nice change of pace for tactile learners.)

4. Tillie Williams

Maybe they won’t have enough vocabulary to be able to join in when they catch on, but even the youngest of my students like this game. When I have to fill in at the last minute for a junior high teacher, I generally play this game. I begin by describing a fictitious friend named Tillie Williams, who has very strong likes and dislikes. I tell students when they understand Tillie, they should join in. Often half the class will be in on the trick, while the other half will still be baffled, but everyone can be playing actively. For example, Tillie likes swimming pools but hates lakes. She likes yellow but not orange. She’ll eat apples, but not bananas. She plays tennis, but not badminton. You should frequenly repeat a refrain like, “Her name is Tillie Williams. She may be a little odd, but she’s not very strange.” (The trick, of course, is that she likes only things with double letters.) The clues offered above were all generated by students, once they had caught on. I try to save those with easy words for students, but Japanese has the advantage of thousands of loan words from English, so that I can use fairly high-level words that I know students will understand. You may not have that advantage with Chinese students.

Anyway, I hope some of these are useful activities for giving students a chance to speak up and feel some success with English.

>By Betty Lee – Shengda College, Zhengzhou, Henan, China

There is a game called Celebrity Heads – or something like that. In its original form the names of famous people are used and the object is to discover which celebrity you are. It is usually used by teachers as an end-of-year activity. I have used a modified version of it in all sorts of classes – maths, science,… even oral English in China.

Normally you have 3 students at the front facing the class – I think it is preferable to have seats for them.

Someone writes a word on the board behind each student. They are not to see the word.

The first student now asks the class a question requiring a “yes” or “no” answer. If the class answers “yes” the student may ask another question but if they answer “no” then the next of the 3 students may ask a question.

Continue in this manner until the first person guesses the word on the board behind them. You may continue until each guesses their word or finish then.

Reward the winner by having them write the next 3 words down or have each student who has just been “in” write the new word for the person to take their seat.

There are some skills to be learnt about choosing “good” words and also about how to ask the questions.

It lends itself well to learning new vocabulary.

My college students only had one session with it but really enjoyed themselves.

>By Dick Tibbetts – University of Macau, Macau

We try to teach ESP to low level students and beginners and it doesn’t work. Employers and administrators demand results. They have students with little English and they need English users who can conduct business in English or get degrees etc. and so they give them to us. If we tell them that NSs have a vocabulary of 20K word families and that in real business and academic situations a lot of these words come into play, even if infrequently, they will reject our 5 year immersion courses and find someone who will promise the earth.

I don’t do much ESP but I do run courses with an EAP bias. I try and keep them general but the university has some students with 1800 words or less studying business admin. and humanities subjects so they want them to write academic reports and papers and to be able to communicate sophisticated ideas.

What happens? Well, firstly, they are expected to write in a genre that they cannot read. They do not have the vocabulary to read academic journals and papers and can barely understand their textbooks. We have a textbook that tries to get around this by using texts from newspapers and magazines and then asking the learner to write essays full of “nevertheless” and “moreover”.

I firmly believe that you cannot write in an academic genre unless you can read and understand that genre. Each academic genre is special to its subject. Some social sciences have more use of first person pronouns than more technical papers. A scholar who is an authority in a field can use more first person pronouns than a student. And there are many other differences.

A second problem is that if the learner has a small vocabulary they find it difficult to place the meaning, context and collocations of the sophisticated words they are being taught. They also find it difficult to see the rationale behind the “rules” they are taught to write by.

Even with more advanced students there is still a real problem. Take a learner with 6000 words plus the EAP list and subject specific vocabulary. They can read academic material and with a 95% comprehension can often guess unknown words from context. However, these unknown low frequency words they come across are not there for trivial purposes. Most of them are there because they are necessary for meaning and expression of the topic. When it comes to writing, the poor student is expected to write with the same sophistication as the NSs they compete with in the international job market and with a similar degree of expertise as found in the articles they read. When they write they will find that every 20 words there will be a word
they need but do not have.

It’s a mess.