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Rachael Roberts - Learning vocabulary through reading

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When I was first learning to teach, someone told me that students have to learn a word 9 times in order for it to really ‘stick’.

I have no idea where that little gem came from, but I’m pretty sure someone made it up! Experience tells me that we grasp some items of vocabulary pretty quickly, while others slip through our fingers. There are probably various reasons for this: how much we ‘need’ the word, whether it is similar to a word in our own language or ‘makes sense’ to us in some way, how memorable the context was in which we learnt it and so on.

However, while I don’t think there’s a magic number, repetition is certainly a key part of learning, and if we keep coming across a word or phrase while reading it will either make more and more sense to us, because we’re seeing it in different contexts, or we may even be motivated to go away and look it up.

However, even if we read a lot, only pretty high frequency words will keep coming up time after time. This is where a concept called ‘narrow reading’ comes in. The idea here is that learners are encouraged to read around the same topic for a while, thus increasing their chances of coming across the same, topic-related, lexical items again and again.

In How to Teach Vocabulary, Scott Thornbury suggests one way of doing this by asking learners to follow a particular news story on different websites, or over a period of time. They can then report back to other class members on the news story they chose (thus using the vocabulary).

However, there is still the issue of whether students will necessarily ‘notice’ the vocabulary, even with repeated exposure. And even if they do notice it, they may not be able to work out what it means. Guessing meaning from context is a useful skill, but it’s a lot harder than we might imagine. Take the following sentence, for example:

‘News of the revival of the tiger population in India, from 1706 tigers to 2,226 tigers in just three years, is extremely encouraging.’

A student who didn’t know the word ‘revival’ would probably be able to guess that it meant something like ‘increase’, but that’s very much just an approximation of the meaning. And to ask students to guess the meaning of ‘encouraging’ presumes that they know that the writer thinks that what has happened is a good thing.

Students also need to understand most of the other words around the unknown item, which may not be the case if they are reading authentic texts.

And, finally, even if they do notice and understand a word, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they would be able to use it productively. They also need to know how to conjugate it, what prepositions they might need to use with it, if it’s countable or uncountable, how to pronounce it and so on.

So how can we help students to notice, understand, use and retain useful lexical items?

Be selective

The first point to make is that just because they don’t know a word in a text, doesn’t mean it is necessarily worth spending a lot of time learning it. If students are narrow reading around the topic of the environment, for example, you might consider how useful a word or phrase is in that context. You could also think about whether students are likely to want use the item themselves, or whether it is enough for them to understand what it means.

For example, in a text about volcanoes I was working on recently, I’d say that the words ‘extinct’, ‘volcano’, ‘wildlife’, ‘erupt’, ‘surface’ ‘lava’ were all probably worth learning for productive use (some in order to talk or write about volcanoes, and some because they have wider currency), whereas ‘geothermal’, ‘scalding jets of water’ and ‘geyser’ were probably useful only for understanding the text.

It’s useful to encourage students to make some of these decisions themselves. You could try asking students to choose a number of words and phrases from what they have read which they think are related to the topic. This could either be a small group task, where they study the text together, or, with a shorter text, you could do it as a kind of dictation where they listen and write down any topic related words or phrases. They then have to decide together which they think are the most useful a) to talk about the topic b) f0r general use.

[A good dictionary should give some indication of how frequent a word is, but this doesn’t necessarily tell you how frequent it is when talking about a particular topic.]

Give opportunities for students to explore and investigate the words

Students then need to work with the chosen items, ideally in several different ways, so that they learn more about how the words work, and to help them internalise them. Obviously a coursebook will/should have plenty of pre-prepared practice activities, but if you’re working with your own texts and vocabulary, here are a few activities that don’t require much preparation.

Categorising activities are always useful. Students can sort items into different word classes, more and less formal words, topic related categories and so on. Mind-maps can also work well. For example, with the umbrella topic of the environment, you might have sections connected with the climate, wildlife, nature and so on.

Or try getting students to create their own ‘odd man out’ activities, where one of a group of 3-4 words is different from the others. For example:

erupt /  lava / extinct / endangered

Here the answer is probably endangered, because the others can all be used to talk about volcanoes, but if the students have a logical reason for choosing a different word in the group, that’s fine too.

Getting students to use the items in sentences is also a useful way of testing what they know about a word. You could then ask them to write a short text using as many of the words and phrases as possible and, once you have checked this, it could then be turned into a gap-fill for another pair or group to tackle. If the gaps are too hard to guess (context not rich enough), they could give alternatives for each gap.

Next steps

When, following the principles of narrow reading, students then read another text on the same topic, as well as any comprehension work, you can set them the task of finding any words and phrases in the text which they looked at in the previous text. They can then add any more useful ones, and carry out some similar focused tasks.

After reading several texts, the students should be ready to start writing more complex texts about the topic, perhaps an IELTS style essay question on the environment, for example and/or carry out more in depth discussion, using both the ideas from what they have read, and the language.

As they read each other’s work, or listen to mini presentations, one of the tasks you could set might be, again, to write down all the topic related vocabulary they hear, thus recycling it once more.