Word Lists: do They Help Learners be Fluent in a Language?

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We will probably remember our early English lessons. Especially at the beginning, one part of the lesson was when the teacher would pick up flashcards or write words on the board, drill them and then provide/elicit a translation for them. This would go on for a few words, and the lesson’s lexical content had been covered. Eventually, we would get tested on either the words themselves or their translations –if we remembered them, we were safe. When we are young language learners, this usually works, basically because traditional teaching focuses on words and, at best, sentences. Also, because the words being learnt belong to the ‘here and now’, as abstract processing is still not a part of pupils’ development. And finally, because these words have very clear semantic limits, so it is easy to categorise them in groups like ‘fruit’, ‘vegetables’ or ‘feelings’.

 
The problem begins when working with higher levels and/or older students. Is it enough to just provide a list of words to memorise every class and then hope that the learners will have incorporated them all into their repertoire? I would like to claim that this is just not enough, and may be one of the features of traditional teaching: rote learning. Why do we need to go beyond word lists in our teaching? Here I will give two reasons:
        The words are not necessarily set in context. By context, we mean a more or less natural linguistic setting –-an audio recording or a written text— where learners can see the word being used naturally. This will help them to, first, realise that the word is useful, and second, get some help to experiment with it safely.
        The words are usually given in isolation. That is, we do not encourage our learners to see the word patterns (“collocations”) they occur in. What is the point in learning the word ‘fun’if we do not show that it appears in phrases such as She’s fun to be with or It was such fun!? This is why we should check how the word combines with other words in order to make meaningful chunks.
 
What is outlined above does not only apply to general English, but also areas where apparently students are better at coping: ESP and international exam preparation. One famous example of project work in ESP consists of building a glossary of specialised terms in the L1 and L2. This is said to help students remember the specialised terms but here, if no context or collocations are given, students will be deprived of the best tool they have to internalise the vocabulary: the way in which the word is used. Isn’t it what they want to learn?
 
This includes collocation, appropriacy (is the word used among professionals, with the general public?), frequency, and even the shades of meaning in related words (What is the difference between lawyer, solicitor, attorney and barrister, when all mean abogado in Spanish?) A similar situation happens with the publications and websites offering ‘500 useful words for [Insert exam name]’. A catchy title, indeed, but with little pedagogical value for the same reasons mentioned above. Learning those 500 words does not guarantee a half-decent essay, let alone impressive speaking skills.
         
All in all, we should never forget that vocabulary is not a matter of memorising words like parrots. It involves making associations, discriminating and seeing words within chunks of language for easier use.
Now, it’s YOUR turn!
Do you use vocabulary lists in class? What advantages and drawbacks do you find when using them?
 
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2 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with most you mentioned but it is not exactly what you said. As teachers, we have to consider the students' backgrounds and that will tell us if we succeed when using vocabulary lists in class. it is totally different if the first students' language is Spanish, Quechua, or any other dialects from the forest; or, if English is the second or the third one. what's more? learning isolated words is not the same like learning them in a specific situation (I think that is the most recommendable), or the functions they have. We take more things into account and that's why we have to make students understand that English (or any other language) is not understood by the words only, it is necessary to have the context and how they are said (body language) for having the real meaning.
    So in class, when using vocabulary lists depends on the students' level and the mentioned above, in which, with intermediate or advanced students is necessary to ask them to search more uses of the vocabulary given (a task using the words in different situations or the same words having different meanings and functions) but this also have a great disadvantage when talking about elderly students or with the ones who are not familiarized in the use of technology (internet).

  2. Dear Christian: thanks for sharing your ideas with us. Certainly, vocabulary/lexis should always be taught within a context to foster meaningful learning. There are some other aspects to take into account though. One of these is what you have mentioned: language family. To be aware of the similarities and differences between languages can be a huge advantage and help, to some extent, students identify close meanings and false friends. However, I would suggest using this strategy in more advanced levels since word analysis requires a more in-depth knowledge of language patterns.

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