The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Sticking to your lexical guns: 4 principles for writing vocabulary materials

I was inspired to put together a talk for the recent MaWSIG/Oxford Brookes event by a number of posts by Katherine Bilsborough about materials writers’ principles. It’s a topic I’ve been pondering for a while and one I decided to give a vocabulary slant. After lots of thought, I came up with four broad principles. And with the title of the event being about challenges and opportunities, I combined my four principles with some of the challenges I face in sticking to them when they seem to conflict with the brief I’m working to.

Principle 1: Have a clear aim in mind for every activity
This may seem obvious and a bit of a universal truth when writing any kind of materials, but I think that all too often, vocab activities get tagged on – to a grammar syllabus, to reading lessons – without any real thought about what they aim to achieve other than “teach some words” ... which isn’t really a realistic aim, is it? Because vocabulary learning isn’t as simple as “doing” a word once and then it’s known. Yet it often gets pushed into a standard PPP model:

Pack some words into a text (whether they’re ever used together or not!)
Pop them into a gap-fill (because that’s what you do with vocab, isn’t it?)
Prod students into using them (because they ‘know’ them now, right?)

In fact, most research into vocab acquisition suggests that learning vocab is a gradual process in which students get to grips with words over a period of time via repeated exposures. Which suggests an approach to teaching vocab something like below might be more appropriate.
So, in an ideal world, at the first encounter with a word (in context), the focus of any activities would be on comprehension or receptive knowledge, that is recognizing the form of the word (spelling and pronunciation) and understanding its meaning in the current context ... quite enough for a first meeting. Then, as the same item pops up again and again, the focus shifts from reception and understanding how the word’s used in different contexts to controlled production. As a word becomes more familiar, students should be encouraged to look at how they can use it – what collocations is it used in, what register is it, what are its grammatical features and what patterns does it typically appear in? Then eventually, along the line, they’ll hopefully be ready to start using it for freer production. How long that process takes will depend on the type of word and also the stage the learner’s at. And crucially, at each stage, the aims of any vocab activities will be quite different.

The Challenge:We certainly can’t have a student see a word twice!” – as Dorothy Zemach so succinctly highlighted in her IATEFL plenary earlier this year, within the world of ELT publishing, there’s very much of a focus on providing a constant stream of fresh, new vocabulary and repetition of items is actively discouraged – “you can’t have that word, it was covered at the previous level”. To be fair, this isn’t just coming from publishers. Students and teachers naturally want to feel like they’re making progress and in many people’s minds, understandably, that’s about increasing their vocab. They want to see new words to learn as they work their way through a course.

The Work-around: Exposing students to vocabulary doesn’t have to be confined to specific vocabulary sections. As a writer, if you keep a record of newly introduced vocab, you can sneak it in all over the place. A new word might pop up first in an explicit vocab activity, but it can easily be recycled in later units in different sections. If you’ve got a grammar activity to write, it’s relatively easy to look back at target vocab from previous units to include in example sentences. You could even slip some work on collocation into a revision of the present perfect, for example (this is a quickie, made-up exercise just to demo the point):

Complete the gaps using the best verb from the box in the present perfect.

do   give   make 

Jack ______ his homework, but he _____ a lot of mistakes. The teacher isn’t very happy and she _____ him a low mark. …

Principle 2: Create reasonable and memorable lexical sets
Following on from the pressure to constantly provide students with lots of juicy new vocab, a lot of ELT materials seem to regularly throw long lists of semantically-similar words at students in the hope that they’ll stick. The trickle-down of research into how useful (or not) it is to teach vocabulary in traditional lexical sets is patchy at best. From my understanding of the research (such as it is), things to avoid in materials include long lists of very similar words introduced as new vocabulary, including near synonyms, easily substitutable items and synforms (words which look very similar). The reason for this being that students easily get them confused and so find them more difficult to learn – an issue known in the literature as interference (Nation, 2000).

From a writing perspective, that means avoiding confusables in new vocab as much as possible. So, if you’re trying to write an activity and you’re struggling to come up with items that have unambiguous answers because more than one word in the set can fit in a gap, it probably means you have items that are too close together and you might want to consider tweaking your set.

Note, however, that the problem of interference is largely around new vocabulary. Researchers suggest that once words are fairly well-established, then bringing similar words together is actually beneficial. Arguably, at higher levels, it’s essential for students to understand how synonyms overlap and in what ways they differ, so bringing them together at this stage is a necessary part of learning.

The Challenge:  Especially if you’re working on a large, publisher-led project, you’re likely to have a scope and sequence document that includes vocab sets based largely on topics and often those will include sets of worryingly similar words.

The Work-around: Whilst sets of overly similar items can lead to confusion, that doesn’t mean you can’t have thematic sets which include a range of different vocab to talk about a topic. One really simple way to mix up a vocab set is to include different parts of speech. So, for example, if you’re doing an A2 unit on ‘feelings’ you might have a suggested vocab set that contains exclusively adjectives … *heart sinks*:
But of course, we don’t just use adjectives to describe our feelings and there are plenty of other on-level verbs and nouns you could include as well. This might involve bending the brief a little, but it’s quite possible without straying too far from the original plan. And not only does this make the items less easily confused by students, it also encourages more variety of expression – which has got to be a good thing.

Principle 3: Use research tools with a large dose of common sense
There are lots of tools that we use as writers to help us make choices about what vocabulary to include and what to leave out– wordlists (like the AWL), ‘vocab level’ lists (like EVP), text analysis tools (like Text Inspector), corpora, readability measures, etc. They all provide valuable input to complement our own experience and intuition, but they do need to be treated with care. Most importantly, I think it’s essential to fully understand any tool you use, to know what it’s based on, what it tells you and crucially, what its limitations are.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of wordlists again here, but will refer you back to my previous blog on the topic. A quick further note on text analysis tools though – whilst, they provide a really useful guide, they are automated and can’t always be relied on to get it right for every word in your text. Make sure you check for each word whether the tool has chosen the appropriate sense (the full version of Text Inspector allows you to choose the sense from a drop-down), whether it’s got the correct part of speech (a percentage of words in any text will usually be wrong here) and finally, check whether the words are part of a phrase or chunk as this won’t usually be recognized by the tool and may change the level significantly. When I put a short section of the abstract for my talk through Text Inspector, for example, I’d estimate that roughly 25% of the words were initially labelled incorrectly for level.

The Challenge: Your editor insists that you can’t use a B2 word in a reading text in a B1 book, because they’re sticking rigidly to a level list and, if they’re using EVP, have misunderstood (as many people do) that the level labels signal productive usage by students at that level which is very different from when a student might first encounter a word receptively. 

The Work-around: If you properly understand the list (or other tool) you’re being asked to use, then you’ll be in a much stronger position to argue your case – in this case, explaining that if a word is tagged as B2 for production, it’s perfectly reasonable to introduce it receptively in a B1 reading text. Of course, if you’re just one writer on a large multi-author project that’s already well in motion, then you’re not always going to win your case, but certainly for smaller projects, showing your understanding up-front might help steer things in a more informed direction.

Principle 4: Work beyond the level of the word
Research suggests that somewhere between 30% and 50% of any text is made up of phrases, idioms and other chunks of language (depending on the type of text and how you count). So understanding these chunks is vital for any language learner, as is getting to grips with how to use them themselves. One piece of research (Millar, 2011) found that atypical collocations used by learners slowed readers down significantly and made reading a text overall much harder work. Not something anyone wants when they’re trying to communicate. Yet, most vocab materials still focus on lists of individual words.

Again, students (and teachers) like to see lists of vocabulary and once you start trying to include more than the simplest of phrases, trying to compile a list gets messy. Short phrases – at least, as a result – work okay on lists, but in sb’s safe/capable, etc. hands or know better (than that/than to do sth) probably won’t fit neatly on a single line and let’s be honest, do look a bit confusing.

The Challenge: Your brief states that there needs to be a list of key vocab at the start of each unit/section and the vocab list you’re working from contains largely single words.

The Work-around: Just because you’re highlighting individual key words in your headline list doesn’t mean you can’t work phrases, collocations and other chunks of language into your activities. For example, a simple activity in which students have to match sentence halves can work for checking comprehension of the key words (one per sentence), but can also involve students noticing a collocation in the other half of the sentence. This might be explicit – mentioning the collocations in the rubric and even getting students to underline the pairs of words – or if your editor’s not keen, just leaving in the collocation element quietly for students to absorb implicitly.

So those are my four broad principles, some of the challenges I regularly face in trying to stick to them and just a few of the work-arounds I use to argue my case, to bend a brief or, if all else fails, to sneak things in under the radar.

A couple of references:

Martinez, R. & Schmitt, N. (2012) A Phrasal Expressions List, Applied Linguistics 33/3
Millar, N. (2011) The Processing of Malformed Formulaic Language, Applied Linguistics 32/2
Nation, P. (2000) Learning Vocabulary in Lexical Sets: Dangers and Guidelines, TESOL Journal

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