Vocabulary learning is one of the most challenging aspects of foreign language acquisition. There is a wealth of theories and techniques which foster better acquisition and assimilation of the vocabulary items. In this article, we will touch upon the principles of vocabulary learning suggested by Paul Nation, an American-New Zealander leading language teaching methodology and vocabulary acquisition linguist researcher.
What is ‘Learning Vocabulary in Another Language’?
‘Learning Vocabulary in Another Language’ provides a detailed survey of research and theory on the teaching and learning of vocabulary. It provides pedagogical suggestions for both teachers and learners and contains a lot of vocabulary learning strategies which are justified and supported by reference to experimental research, case studies, and teaching experience. It also describes what vocabulary learners need to know to be effective language users.
Language Learning Principles:
Teachers will not only know how to teach target vocabulary but also understand the details of the acquisition process if they follow the principles and techniques suggested by Paul Nation. Let’s start with principles.
- The ‘What is it’ technique (Nation, 1978) is a useful way of teaching new vocabulary. The main idea is that a teacher communicates the meaning of the word by using it in a sentence so that the learners guess its meaning from the context. If the teacher is describing the word ‘precise, he/she may use the following explanation. “If you tell me your precise age, you will tell me how old you are in years, months, and days! When you give someone precise instructions, the instructions must be clear, concrete and complete …”
While using this technique teachers need to repeat the sentences several times if necessary and think of sentences which reveal the meaning of the word as much as possible.
- Noticing occurs when the learners see the word in the textual context, look it up in the dictionary, guess from the context or realizes that the word feels a gap in their knowledge.
Noticing encouraging activities include highlighting or underlining words, finding examples of a particular form or grammatical patterns, etc. Read more about noticing in this article.
- Retrieval (the process of getting stored information from memory) happens in two main forms: receptive retrieval which involves perceiving the form and having to retrieve its meaning when the word is met in listening or reading, and productive retrieval which involves the desire to communicate the meaning of the word and having to retrieve its spoken or written form as in speaking or writing.
Activities encouraging retrieval: reading the story several times; serialize the story (learners meet the word in different parts of the story and remember it better); read newspaper stories on the same topic; listening to the same story several times during the week
- Creative or generative use which occurs when previously met words are subsequently met or used in ways that differ from the previous meeting with the word. For example, if a learner has met the word ‘cement’ used as a verb as in “We cemented the path” (in the meaning of claying to materials to each other) and then meets “We cemented our relationship with a drink,” (in the meaning of fostering) the learner will need to rethink the meaning and uses of cement and this will help firmly establish the memory of this word.
Activities encouraging generative use: storytelling with pictures or drawings; retelling the story; brainstorming; role-playing.
Some other Activities Fostering Vocabulary Learning:
1) Making decisions
The activity has four stages.
Step 1: The teacher presents the topic which is expressed as an alternative question, for example, “Should children continue to live with their parents after they finish school or should they leave home?”
Step 2: The learners are divided into groups of four. Each group has to list reasons to support one side of the question. While the learners do this, the teacher goes around the groups, provide necessary vocabulary and reasons that include useful vocabulary. The teacher gets the learners to note down the vocabulary so that they use it later.
Step 3: The groups of four then join together to make a group of eight, four students have prepared reasons for one side of the question and a small group of four have prepared reasons for the other side of the question. They must explain their reasons to each other and must reach a decision. They should deliberately try to use the vocabulary that the teacher provided to them during the activity.
Step 4: The groups of eight now report back their decision and reasons to the rest of the class, once again using the provided vocabulary.
2) Information transfer activities
Learners should turn diagram, chart, table or form into written or spoken text. For example, a learner may have a map of a country with a route marked on it. The learner describes the holiday route to another learner who marks it on his own map. The learner should use the vocabulary labelled on the diagram.
3) Learning from cards
A learner writes a foreign word on one side of a card and its first language translation on the other. The learner goes through a set of cards looking at the foreign word and trying to retrieve its meaning. If it cannot be retrieved the learner turns the card over and looks at the translation.
Taking a systematic approach to vocabulary learning, teachers can make the best use of class time and help learners get the best return for their learning effort.
You can read more on Paul Nation’s theory here.