Post 1 and Post 2 in this series discussed the need for secondary language users to acquire vocabulary efficiently. But how? I think one of the things that first drew my interest to teaching vocabulary was that it seemed so… teachable. If you’re in TESL/TEFL, you know there’s always a LOT of interest in teaching grammar.
But, there’s also a lot of debate about just how teachable grammar is, or, rather, whether teaching it actually makes much difference to how well students acquire the language.
Hastings and Murphy (2006) may represent the most pessimistic view when they write…
“People may turn to grammar for the same reason that people in some societies and times have turned to magic: They hope that the impossible can happen if only they say the right words.”
They write this in an article, subtly titled “The Utter Hopelessness of Explicit Grammar Teaching.”
I’m not sure it’s utterly hopeless, but most working teachers will probably agree that learning the rules of grammar doesn’t mean learning to use grammar.
They’d certainly agree that sitting through a grammar class doesn’t seem to lead to acquisition, and, probably, that testing well on grammar rules doesn’t reliably indicate an ability to produce accurate sentences in speech or writing. But the fact that grammar, or anything else, might not be best taught directly, doesn’t mean that nothing is.
Paul Nation, the guru of vocabulary teaching, says it best,
“The communicative approach has tended to emphasize that things should be picked up as you go along. Yet there’s over a hundred years of research that shows that deliberate learning is very effective. …I want people to see that it’s a question of how you balance deliberate learning with message-focused learning so that you can get the best of the two approaches” (Miura, 2005).
Nation is talking here about teaching vocabulary. And, yet, I didn’t find Nation’s work until after I’d left grad school. Norbert Schmitt (2000) laments the lack of training that pre-service teachers receive in vocabulary when he writes,
“…while virtually all teacher-training courses offer a course in pedagogical grammar, few offer a course in pedagogical vocabulary—a striking discrepancy, in that one of the few things we know about either is that lexis is to some extent teachable while the same has never been shown for grammar.”
I never had a pedagogy class specifically in vocabulary. I don’t remember any training in teaching vocabulary beyond a couple of discussions that boiled down to the handful of directives I mentioned in part 1: “Teach words in context.” “Use realia to make vocabulary sentient.” “Teach lists of words related by topic.”
This is what I’d been taught, but, when I started teaching, these methods didn’t seem to get particularly good results. The methods weren’t very efficient, and, yet, it was clear to me that when my students learned a new word, it was immediately effective and useful. The same was certainly not true whenever they learned a new grammar rule.
The fact that vocabulary acquisition is so important AND that it can, in fact, be taught was so encouraging for me as a teacher, that I started researching better methods. Post 4 will address how many words students need. Stay tuned, but, in the meantime, what has your experience been with grammar teaching? With vocabulary teaching? Do you have experience as a learner yourself?
Miura, T. (2005) Interview with Paul Nation. The Language Teacher, 29(7).
Murphy, B. & Hastings, A. (Fall 2006) The utter hopelessness of explicit grammar teaching. The International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 9-11.
Schmitt, N. (2000). Vocabulary in Language Teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.