Principles for Vocabulary Teaching (with Hugh Dellar)

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Hugh Dellar talks to us about the principles behind vocabulary teaching in EFL, ESL and TESOL classes and why we might be better off teaching students fewer new words and helping them do more with the words they might already know.

Principles for Vocabulary Teaching (with Hugh Dellar) - Transcript

 Ross Thorburn:  Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the podcast. Today we're going to talk about vocabulary. Tracy, was this a useful topic?

Tracy Yu:  David Wilkins, long time ago, he said something like, "Without grammar very little can be conveyed. And without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed." I really like that because for grammar I think, of course ‑‑ in the grammar for meaning, grammar for accuracy and better vocabulary ‑‑ I would say is the foundation for other skills.

Also vocabulary change often. When new things came out, for example, like a new technology or Internet and then there will be more vocabulary added onto. Of course, and there will be words dropped out if it's not being used very frequently.

Ross:  Today we have Hugh Dellar on the podcast. He's a teacher, trainer, co‑founder of Lexical Lab, and author of the course books, "Outcomes and Innovations" and I asked you about teaching vocabulary.

I'm here with Hugh Dellar. Hugh, thank you very much for coming on. Hugh, just start off with, not why is vocabulary important, but what's important in vocabulary teaching.

Hugh Dellar:  It's first and foremost being aware of the context in which language is being used. I read this book recently called "Lexical Analysis" by Patrick Hanks, who's a lexicographer. One thing that really struck me in there was, how even professional lexicographers recognize that basically, words don't have fixed denotation or meanings. None of them do, even a word like fire.

You might think a fire is something that happens when things burn, but even then, if you change call occasions like if you have a raging fire and a cozy fire, those are two very different kinds of fires. But one is a kind of out of control thing that requires the fire brigade to come and try and put it out and one is something in a pub on a cold day that you sit in front of and warm your hands by.

Yes, they both involve things burning, but they're different measures or qualities of things. You can only determine that by looking at the context in which you're using things. I guess for me, first and foremost, it's thinking about not trying to teach everything at once.

Very much the same as with grammar, actually. Not making the mistake of trying to do everything at once and accepting that what students and all of us, in a sense, know about words is always going to be provisional, but always going to be developing and working on little bits at a time.

Maybe you think you know the word "problem", but then you learn it's "a perennial problem'' or maybe you learn a different verb that goes with the word "problem". It's just thinking about layering your knowledge of how words work with other words and with grammar over time.

It's also in terms of teaching particularly, and I guess I also think about this as a writer. It's thinking about what vocabulary do you need in order to perform particular communicative tasks. When I was a younger teacher, I made the mistake of teaching things because they were easy to teach rather than because they lead to anywhere particularly useful.

I would do naming 50 things in the house because it's easy to match them to pictures and you can do info gaps where you can say, "Have you got a sofa?" "No, I haven't." "Have you got an armchair?" "Yes, I have." You can do all that kind of stuff.

On one level, it looks like they're easy to sort of deal with the meaning of and to practice in the classroom, but I later came to realize that this didn't really lead to any particularly interesting or useful outcomes.

Often when you're thinking about what you want students to be able to talk about better, you have to think about vocabulary beyond the single word level. You have to think about it in terms of things people might say. Once you start thinking about things people might say, that involves thinking about the grammar and the other words together.

In a way, it's how I learned my Indonesian as well, so I guess this is also a wash back effects on all of that, where, I learned, first and foremost, how to say things that I wanted to say. I learned to kind of deploy the vocabulary in a particular communicative context and then later to do more with the vocabulary, as I started reading a bit more and listening respectively a bit more to things.

Initially, it was all just, rather than being able to walk around your kitchen and say kettle, microwave, excellent. I was basically learning how to say, "I'll put the kettle on. Stick it in the microwave." Because I didn't have any needs to say anything else about kettles or microwaves apart from those things.

I think about vocab teaching very much in terms of, "Yes, he needs to know what a kettle or a microwave is, but what are you going to do with those words?"

Ross:  That's such a common thing to do, isn't it? To teach a set of vocabulary around a theme, rather than actually thinking about what the student is going to do with the words in that theme or in that lexical set?

Hugh:  Yeah, rather than just training students to be human naming machines, which seems rather perverse.

Ross:  That's one principle that in vocabulary teaching. Do you want to tell us what are some others that you think teachers might need to think about before teaching vocabulary or when they're teaching vocabulary?

Hugh:  The main thing is thinking about what potential communicative outcome or what students are either going to need to do or might hear done with the words they're learning. Beyond that, it's not trying to tackle every meaning of a word at once. It's dealing with the language and context.

Part of the other problems ‑‑ course books can exacerbate this problem sometimes ‑‑ is moving beyond traditional lexical sets. Traditional lexical sets exist because of ease of teaching and familiarity from a teacher's point of view, but they lead to treating frequent and infrequent items as equally useful, and they lead to dubious communicative outcomes.

You get those kind of lessons on, I don't know, adjectives for describing people, and you get things like "curly hair", and you end up describing people in your family, "My brother has curly hair." You can, of course, create speaking around all of those kinds of tasks.

Actually, a word like "curly" is highly infrequent, when you look at it in terms of how often the word is used. The whole act of describing someone's appearance is a really bizarre thing to do, and not something you often do in the real world. I know that those words are all put together in a course book because there's an expectation that, at pre intermediate, you will have a lexical set called describing people.

If you start by thinking about, what is it you wanted to do or what is it people normally do with the language? It has these extra kind of backwash effects. One of those is, it's probably better to focus more on frequent language.

Again, I think when I was a younger teacher, I probably spent much more time on the most infrequent items in the text. Whereas now, I'm always looking at trying to help students do a bit more with the more frequent bits of language in a text or in an exercise because you know, frequent words are frequent, because they're the words that people use most.

They're the words that students are going to hear most and read most, and presumably needs to use themselves most. It's prioritizing frequency where possible. It's thinking about how words interact with other words and with grammar. It's thinking about utility and what's done with the language that you're looking at.

Then on top of all of that, I think it's thinking about ensuring re‑exposure, further encounters with the language, repeated experience of those particular items. Again, it's a problem with course books a lot of the time, which is, we've done the lexical set on describing people. Next unit is about transport where we'll do the lexical set on vehicles. Therefore the world curly will not reappear for the rest of this book.

When you've had that experience of learning language, outside the classroom, the things you pick up most of the things you hear the most and you hear them the most because they're frequent, and they get recycled in different conversations.

For me, as a writer, and as a teacher, it's always thinking about ways of trying to make sure students get repeated encounters with things that they kind of met already.

A lot of students make the mistake of thinking that vocabulary development has to do with learning words they've never seen before, rather than learning how to do more with words they have seen before, and so it's trying to capture that a bit as well.

Ross:  I can definitely remember as a new teacher giving students, for example, a news article and then asking them to underline or talk about words that they don't know, but it would have been just as useful to get them to underline the words they do know or even just not focus on words at all, but look at some longer and more interesting set phrases in there where the students might even know all the words, but they might not really be familiar with the phrase.

Hugh:  Yeah. Meanwhile, there may be a little chunk there like, "I wanted to make the most of my time." We don't spend time on that kind of thing because it doesn't contain new words.

Ross:  I wanted to ask you a bit about space practice and space repetition. I know that's something you're passionate about this idea of not cramming lots of practice of, say, one lexical set into one class, but rather spreading it out throughout a course. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to get used very much in language teaching or coursebook writing, I think, in general though.

Hugh:  No, it doesn't and part of the problem is this kind of tick box thing where it happens in many different ways. It happens in terms of, "We've done the present perfect simple. We've done talking about food. We've done lexical set for talking about work. We've done that topic and that vocabulary."

Actually a lot of the things you talk about, I'm sure you find the same when you're speaking foreign languages yourself, you talk about certain things over and over and over again. Living in Indonesia, being married to an Indonesian, 60 percent of the conversations we ever have are about food. It's just like a never ending ongoing circular conversation about food.

In the same way, I think we jump too quickly. We kind of say, "We've done work." You've done a conversation about work. Your students can now say, "What do you do? I'm a teacher." "Do you like it?" "Yes. I love it." That's great. That's a really good conversation to have. Build on that. How does that conversation develop? What else might you say? What might the responses be?

Often we don't repeat conversations enough in class because we have this idea of having done things. It's like learning an instrument and you play a song one successfully, and you say you've done it and then you move on to the next song. A math person was trying to learn an instrument like this.

This is often what we force students to do in the language classroom. I think all the research shows that with both grammar and vocabulary, you learn better when you encounter the items, whatever they are ‑‑ whether they're structural or lexical or whatever ‑‑ you encounter them frequently over an extended period of time.

That kind of spacing out of exposure and experience to things leads to better uptake of language than massed practice, which is generally what we do because of the present practice produce paradigm and the way in which the PPP paradigm has sort of imposed itself on vocabulary as well.

That we kind of expect that will present a little lexical set and students will practice it and produce it. Then we'll move on and not return to that again. You know that the research doesn't back this up. There is no research to suggest that massing the practice of things leads to better uptake or better results of the items of using in terms of using the items that you're looking at.

It's then thinking about as a teacher, or as a writer, or both, how you integrate an awareness of that into your teaching, particularly if the course book you're using doesn't do that for you. It may be that you're using a more traditional kind of course book or because you have to, wherever you are.

Then in that case, it's thinking about what kind of revision activities you can build into each class, how you can use teacher talk, how you can use board work, as a way of revisiting and recycling things that have already been presented to students.