David Dodgson: More Than a Word - The Green Cross Code and Other Vocabulary Tips

I am currently taking the online component of the Trinity Dip TESOL course and our current focus is on Unit 1 ‘Language and Methodology’.

As this week’s topic is lexis, it seemed only natural to contribute to this month’s vocabulary topic.

One of the most beneficial things about doing a course like this online is the chance to reflect on your immediate practice and reassess exactly what you and your students do in class and why. The most important thing to get students (and teachers sometimes!) to understand about learning vocabulary effectively is that they need to do more than just learn a word. Studying word lists, matching words with pictures or definitions, and repetitive drills may help at elementary levels and with young learners but these techniques can only ever be enough when we are dealing with concrete words. Once we get onto more abstract terms and idiomatic, non-literal language (and there is a lot of that in English!) different ways of learning (as in understanding, processing, and starting to use the vocabulary) are requires.
And so, here are some of my tips for learners to help them not only learn vocabulary but focus on lexis and the language as a whole.

1. The Green Cross Code

Anyone who grew up in the UK will surely know what the Green Cross Code is (a guide for crossing the road safely for those who are unfamiliar). Well, it can be applied to decoding unknown words in a text as well. First you STOP and THINK (maybe you have seen this word before and it will come back to you). Next you LOOK LEFT AND RIGHT (the word does not exist by itself – look at the words around it, examine the phrase or the sentence and you could work out the meaning from context). Also, LISTEN (‘sound out’ the words in your head – when you hear them, you might recognise them). If necessary, SEEK ASSITANCE from a responsible adult (ok, your teacher will have to do!) Now you are ready to cross to the text. ☺

2. Flexible phrases

Once our students are used to the idea that words exist in phrases (or chunks if you prefer), they have to learn to recognise that some phrases can be flexible. Different words can be substituted in or they can be used positively and negatively. Take a phrase like I’m looking forward to seeing you. Our students ask about it, we explain, they understand. Great! But why stop there? Substitute in other words (I’m looking forward to… meeting you / catching up with you / talking to you /spending some time with you or just simply I’m looking forward to it) and help your students learn more than just a word or a single phrase. Instead, equip them with multiple possible alternatives and uses. Of course, changes of meaning (including quite subtle ones) will have to be explored but that’s even better for helping them get to grips with the language.

3. Don’t take it so literally

It is also important to get students to recognise that English is full of idiomatic language. And that doesn’t just mean silly phrases like ‘raining cats and dogs.’ A simple but thought-provoking example that one of the tutors on my course gave was Can I just say a few words? Would you then expect that person to say four or five words and then shut up? Of course not – this may be the introduction to speech or the start of an opinion expressed in the middle of a debate. Hang on a second! is another one – ıt’s never just a second. Highlighting these things is important even at an elementary level (actually, I should say especially at an elementary level) as it helps prepare students for the fun world of complex non-literal terms they will come across as they delve deeper into English.

4. Noting the register

Awareness of alternative phrases and non-literal meanings is, of course, still not enough. Whenever students come across new phrases it is very important that they think about the circumstances in which they might be used. When I was at university, an international student from Norway always made me chuckle when he talked about ‘alighting’ from the bus. He had learned the term, the meaning was accurate, but the register was completely off. It took him a very long time to get used to saying ‘get off’. As well as meaning, collocation, and alternative expressions, students need to be aware of when and where a phrase might be used and, perhaps more importantly, when and where it might not be used.

5. Give it some time

This is all a lot to take in. Students can get overwhelmed or frustrated by failing to recall a word that they have used many times before or by using it inaccurately. It is important that they realise that this is part of the learning process. Assimilating all the phrases and chunks of vocabulary takes time. Reproducing it with the right meaning and register takes even longer. There must be an element of acceptance to ensure that this doesn’t become an obstacle to learning. In the meantime, the best thing to do is engage with the language. Read. Watch TV shows and YouTube clips. Listen to songs and dialogues. Pay attention to English in and out of class. And converse. Practice. Be patient.

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