Current Research and Practice in Teaching Vocabulary
In this article, these three approaches--incidental learning, explicit instruction, and independent strategy development--are presented as seven teaching principles.
The incidental learning of vocabulary requires that teachers provide opportunities for extensive reading and listening. Explicit instruction involves diagnosing the words learners need to know, presenting words for the first time, elaborating word knowledge, and developing fluency with known words. Finally, independent strategy development involves practicing guessing from context and training learners to use dictionaries.
Although all of these approaches and principles have a role to play in vocabulary instruction, the learners' proficiency level and learning situation should be considered when deciding the relative emphasis to be placed on each approach. In general, emphasizing explicit instruction is probably best for beginning and intermediate students who have limited vocabularies. On the other hand, extensive reading and listening might receive more attention for more proficient intermediate and advanced students. Also, because of its immediate benefits, dictionary training should begin early in the curriculum.
Before proceeding, it is necessary to clarify the definition of a word. In this article, a word (also called a base word or a word family) is defined as including the base form (e.g., make) and its inflections and derivatives (e.g., makes, made, making, maker, and makers). Since the meaning of these different forms of the word are closely related, it is assumed that little extra effort is needed to learn them (Read, 1988). While this may be true, a recent study of Japanese students showed that they did not know many inflections and derivative suffixes for English verbs (Schmitt and Meara, 1997). Thus, these forms should be taught.
Although this definition of a word is convenient and commonly used in vocabulary research, it should be remembered that vocabulary learning is more than the study of individual words. Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) have observed that a significant amount of the English language is made up of lexical phrases, which range from phrasal verbs (two or three words) to longer institutionalized expressions (Lewis, 1993, 1997). Because lexical phrases can often be learned as single units, the authors believe that the following principles apply to them as well as to individual words.
Principle 1: Provide opportunities for the incidental learning of vocabulary.
In the long run, most words in both first and second languages are probably learned incidentally, through extensive reading and listening (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985). Several recent studies have confirmed that incidental L2 vocabulary learning through reading does occur (Chun & Plass 1996; Day, Omura, & Hiramatsu, 1991; Hulstijn, Hollander & Greidanus, 1996; Knight, 1994; Zimmerman, 1997). Although most research concentrates on reading, extensive listening can also increase vocabulary learning (Elley, 1989). Nagy, Herman, & Anderson (1985) concluded that (for native speakers of English) learning vocabulary from context is a gradual process, estimating that, given a single exposure to an unfamiliar word, there was about a 10% chance of learning its meaning from context. Likewise, L2 learners can be expected to require many exposures to a word in context before understanding its meaning.
The incidental learning of vocabulary through extensive reading can benefit language curriculums and learners at all levels (Woodinsky and Nation, 1988). According to Coady (1997b), the role of graded (i.e., simplified) readers is to build up the students' vocabulary and structures until they can graduate to more authentic materials. Low proficiency learners can benefit from graded readers because they will be repeatedly exposed to high frequency vocabulary. As many students may never have done extensive reading for pleasure, it may be initially useful to devote some class time to Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) (Pilgreen and Krashen, 1993). Once students develop the ability to read in a sustained fashion, then most of the reading should be done outside of class. More information on extensive reading can be found in the May, 1997 issue of The Language Teacher (Cominos, 1997). ##
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