It is common practice in many current second language coursebooks to introduce words in semantic groups. For example, learners are asked to learn 20 new words on the topic “food”. These semantic groups are also called lexical sets. A lexical set is defined as a specific group of items, sharing certain formal or semantic features. Some examples of lexical sets can be opposites (hot-cold, long-short), synonyms (beautiful-nice-handsome-charming), thematic words (banana-apple-orange-peach) and are very often presented together. A lot of researchers suggest teaching words in lexical sets. Some of their justifications are:
➤ It is easier to retrieve related words from memory.
➤ It makes the meaning of words clearer by seeing how they relate to and are different from other words in the set.
➤ It reflects the way such information is stored in the brain.
However, Thomas Tinkham, a language researcher, in two experiments found that learning words grouped in semantic sets interferes with the learning of the words, if learners are given words which share a common superordinate concept in list form, they are learned slower than words which do not have a common superordinate concept. You can read more about the experiments here.
Other experiments proved that learning semantic groups is easier only in L1 learning. As for L2, it takes 47-97% less time to remember words which are not connected in meanings. Using lexical sets is more useful not while presenting new vocabulary but in recycling or organizing it, when the students have already learnt the words.
Another interesting article on learning vocabulary in lexical sets belongs to Paul Nation.
Who is Paul Nation?
Paul Nation, an American-New Zealander leading language teaching methodology and vocabulary acquisition linguist researcher, teaches in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University Wellington. He pays big attention to the principles of the assimilation of the new vocabulary and suggests some techniques on how this process can be eased. You can read about some of his approaches to vocabulary teaching in this article.
In this article, we will present Paul Nation’s insight on learning vocabulary in lexical sets, mainly the advantages and the drawbacks of this approach of presenting the new vocabulary to L2 learners.
What does he say about teaching lexical sets?
In his article “Learning Vocabulary in Lexical Sets”, Paul Nation describes how the introduction of the new vocabulary in lexical sets may interfere with the language learning process. Though at first glance it may seem that the presentation of the vocabulary items through lexical sets may be easier for learners, the research and practice show the opposite. Learners are more at ease while learning unrelated words as opposed to learning lexical sets. In reality, learning in lexical sets takes much more time from the learners, they mix up words in the set and learn with more difficulty. Several factors affect the way the interference occurs while learning words in lexical sets. Among them are mentioned those when items learnt at the same time interfered with each other or items learnt previously. Another important criterion which caused forgetting words in lexical sets was that they were not used in meaningful contexts to communicate a certain message but were used in contrived and language-focused activities.
Activities Minimizing Interference
As interference is inevitable while learning vocabulary in lexical sets, teachers need to inform learners of the danger of learning related words together. Here are three main ways of how teachers can minimize the interference.
- Present the items at different times.
The teacher presents the most useful items (according to frequency or need ) first. The next item is introduced when the first one has been reasonably well learnt. In this case, it takes extra time-management and thorough planning on the part of the teacher to present the items several days apart.
- Use widely different contexts
If the teacher needs to present items such as ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ at the same time, different contexts can be used to introduce them and thus minimize the interference level. Here different collocates can be used for ‘hot’ (weather, summer, water) and ‘cold’ (morning, meal, drink). When the teacher chooses different collocates the learners remember the difference between the words better rather than if both words are used with the same collocates such as ‘cold water’, ‘hot water’, ‘it is hot here’, ‘it is cold here’.
- Use visual aids
The use of different visual aids for each item in the set will somehow minimize the degree of interference. You can read more on learning vocabulary in lexical sets here.
Although using lexical sets is quite challenging, time-consuming and hard, it leads to better vocabulary retention and helps to retrieve the necessary knowledge from memory. The techniques mentioned in the text may help to ease the learners’ and teachers’ task while working with lexical sets.