A great deal of the meaning of language resides in the meanings associated with individual words and phrases. By learning a few basic words and set phrases, a beginner can get some meanings across. Language learning syllabuses almost always specify vocabulary items or areas for learners to concentrate on. The following suggestions should enable you to help your learners to work effectively with the vocabulary of their target language.
Table of Contents
- Distinguish receptive and productive vocabulary needs.
- Consider teaching new vocabulary in related sets.
- Vary your explanation techniques.
- Teach the grammar of vocabulary items.
- Encourage awareness of collocations.
- Spend some time on connotative meaning.
- Help learners to be aware of register.
- Look at word formation.
- Use direct translation carefully.
- Teach conscious vocabulary learning strategies.
Distinguish receptive and productive vocabulary needs.
Some learners, who intend to read extensively in English, may need to recognize a lot of words that they may never have to use themselves. Others, for example, general English beginners, are probably hoping that the words they learn will be available for both recognition and use. Try and tailor your teaching to these different needs.
You could choose sets of hyponyms (eg, names of family relations), or sets that are linked to the same context (eg, subjects studied at school). Most people find it easier to learn lots of new words if they are presented in a related set. If you are teaching a set of nouns, you can include some verbs which are typically used with them (eg, study English/maths/geography at school, take an exam).
Vary your explanation techniques.
There are many possibilities for clarifying the meaning of words that your learners don’t know: definitions, examples, visuals, mimes—to name but a few. If you use varied techniques, you show your learners that there are many ways of understanding and remembering a word.
Teach the grammar of vocabulary items.
This idea refers to the word itself, or to the word in a phrase. For example, in the case of a verb, does it have an irregular past? In the case of an adjective, is it usually followed by a certain preposition? Some of this information may be available in the text where your learners meet the word, and you can give extra information yourself. Understanding how a word ‘works’ is an important part of knowing that word.
Encourage awareness of collocations.
Even when teaching basic vocabulary, you can show how words often combine in certain ways. For example, Spanish learners studying colours would be interested to note that English says ‘black and white’, whereas Spanish says ‘blanco y negro’. Set phrases, such as ‘hard work’, can also be particularly useful to point out.
Spend some time on connotative meaning.
You can turn connotation into a window on the target culture. Take a simple item like ‘train’. For many British speakers, this item has the connotation of a fast and frequent, though also expensive and unreliable, mode of transport. The item probably would not have these connotations for someone from a country without a developed railway system.
Help learners to be aware of register.
Is the target vocabulary item usually associated with either written or spoken language? Is it formal, informal, literary, technical, slang? What clues does the context of the word give about its register?
Look at word formation.
An understanding of common prefixes and suffixes, for example, can open up the meaning of many words. How much conscious emphasis you place on this will probably depend on the learners’ first language. Speakers of Latin languages will understand many English morphemes immediately; speakers of languages less close to English will need to spend more time on these aspects.
Use direct translation carefully.
Learners often request translations, and if you can give them this it is an efficient way of explaining a word. But it’s also worth drawing attention to the ways in which words are not equivalent. Perhaps the ‘translations’ differ in terms of connotation, register, grammar, collocation? You can use dictionary study activities to emphasize this point.
Teach conscious vocabulary learning strategies.
This is one of the areas of study where it is particularly beneficial for learners to apply their own ‘techniques’; to remember items or work out the meaning of new ones. It’s especially useful for you to show them strategies that they can use outside class. For example, they might: keep a vocabulary notebook; classify new words they have seen; revise new vocabulary at intervals. Your role can be to explore various techniques with the class, and help each learner to find out which ones suit them.
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