Delta Notes 3: Issues in teaching lexis

This Delta Notes series came about because I was packing up all my stuff to move out of my flat and found my Delta notebooks. I didn’t want to put them in a box (got plenty to store as it is plus it’s pointless…) and let them gather dust, so thought I’d write up the notes I was interested in keeping and get rid of the notebooks instead! The project is on-going, the notebooks didn’t get stored or binned but I am getting tired of carrying them round the world…  

Feel free to share opinions, add ideas, argue against any ideas you disagree with etc by commenting using the comment box beneath the posts. (These are just some of my notes from Delta input sessions – I may have misunderstood or missed something: there was a lot of information flying around that semester!)

[NB: The sessions during which I took these note were delivered by Dr Ivor Timmis of Leeds Metropolitan University, so all credit to him for the insightful input.]

Lexis

 

Lexis! Image taken from en.wikipedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification

Lexis! Image taken from en.wikipedia.org via Google search for images licensed for commercial use with modification

Why do we need to plan how we teach lexis?

  • It doesn’t happen automatically: 

Focus on lexis is needed for learners to remember and be able to use lexis effectively. When acquiring L1, exposure – massive exposure – may suffice but in a classroom context, the exposure available is not sufficient for lexis to be acquired efficiently without focus and careful planning.

  • It’s a big task!

To understand an unknown item in a text, one needs to be able to understand 95% of the co-text. Fortunately, 2000 words accounts for about 80% of what you hear or read. Unfortunately, there is a law of diminishing returns at work thereafter: 3000 words would that figure up to about 82%, and so on. Calculating vocabulary size is complex because it depends on whether we count lexemes only or each word of a family. (NB: Lexeme = a basic root word with no inflections)

  • It’s a vital task!

Without grammar, little can be conveyed, without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed.” – Wilkins, 1972.

How do we choose what lexis to teach? What criteria can we use for selection?

There are several criteria we can choose to apply to selection of lexis:

  • frequency
  • coverage
  • learners’ needs and interests
  • learnability
  • opportunism

Frequency

We could teach learners the most frequently used words. We have frequency lists that would enable us to do this. However, there are limitations to this approach.

  • The top 50 most frequent words are mostly grammar words e.g. “and”.
  • Frequency can clash with “teaching convenience” e.g. days of the week have different frequencies.
  • Words may have great interactional value but little referential value. E.g. “just” is very commonly used as a softener but has little meaning on its own.
  • Written vs. spoken: “though” is in the top 300 but it is used very differently in spoken discourse from how it is used in written discourse. Compare “Though it wasn’t a very good film, it was quite funny.” and S1: “It wasn’t a very good film.” S2: “It was quite funny though.”
  • Frequency lists include single words rather than collocations whereas many collocations would feature more than individual words if lists allowed it.
  • It raises the questions of whose frequency. British English frequency? American English frequency? Frequency in language used by pilots?

Coverage

We could teach learners words with broader coverage first. E.g. Teaching “go” before “walk” or “drive”; “book” before “notebook” or “textbook”, in terms of word specificity, and teaching words that appear in a greater number of different kinds of texts before those that are very specific to a particular text type. As with frequency, there are limitations to this approach:

  • Context and learner needs may mean that more specific vocabulary is required from the outset.

Learners’ needs and interests

These may be more apparent in an ESP or EAP class than in a general English class. If you are teaching in a very specific context, then this will influence your vocabulary selection more than other criteria will.

Learnability

There are a lot of factors that influence the learnability of a piece of lexis.

  • Tangibility. Is it abstract or concrete? Concrete lexis is easier to learn and remember. e.g. apple vs. distraction
  • Grammatical behaviour. How does it behave grammatically? E.g. accuse -> accuse somebody of doing something; suggest -> suggest that; depend -> depend on; responsible -> responsible for.
  • L1 aid/interference: Is it a cognate or a false friend? False friends mean meaning is easily confused.
  • Confusability: similarity of words e.g. raise (transitive) /rise (intransitive), similarity of root word e.g. take over/take after.
  • Cultural distance: How familiar is the concept? E.g. “moor” or “sleet” in North Africa…

Opportunism

What about language that emerges in class? Do we ignore “Dogme moments” because it is a low frequency item or an item with low coverage etc.? Or do we take advantage of learners’ desire to know something?

Going beyond words

There are many collocations that we use frequently: many would feature more than individual words if they were allowed in frequency lists.

Language is grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar.” – Michael Lewis (1993)

When we produce language, we go to lexis first and then use grammar to control it.

  • Delexical verbs and their collocations: e.g. have a bath; make a cake; have a word; do a runner; get lost; get drunk. These verbs are meaning-light (light lexical content) but commonly used in combination. Some combinations are more common than others.They are a common source of error. E.g. doing a Masters (“native”) vs. studying a Masters (“learner”)
  • Verb and adjective collocations of content nouns: e.g. teach “set the table” rather than just “table”. In order to be able to use nouns, we need to know the verb and adjective collocations that we can use them with.
  • Exploit metaphorical links: e.g. money commonly collocates with spend; make; waste; save; invest; spare – and so does time!”Bet” – the metaphorical meaning is more common than the literal meaning – “I bet you’re right.”
    “See” – used more commonly to mean “understand” than for its literal meaning.

“far more general utility in the recombination of known elements than in the addition of less easily useable items” (Sinclair and Renauf, 1988)

– do we need to rethink our priorities? It could be better to teach learners to use what they already know in a wider range of uses.

e.g. instead of just “enjoy” – enjoy, enjoyable, enjoyment, enjoy a reputation (different word types and different combinations)

Processes in lexis building

Here are a range of processes we can engage learners in, as we help them to learn lexis:

  • recognise – do they know it when they see it?
  • identify – do they know it when they see it within a text?
  • match – can they put it together with its definition? with common collocates? with synonyms? with antonyms?
  • categorise – can they link it with the correct word type? topic? metaphorical v literal? etc.
  • retrieve – can they remember it without a visual or aural stimulus?
  • contextualise – can they use it in a sentence or as part of discourse?
  • activate – can they use it without prompting?
  • extend – can they use it in a variety of ways?
  • manipulate – can they convert it into a different word type? can they use it in combination with other words?
  • rank – can they compare it with other lexis?
  • deduce – can they guess what it means when in an unfamiliar combination?

Depth of processing

This refers to the number of times the brain touches the word: identify and rank = two processes. The more processes used, the greater the depth of processing becomes. The greater the depth of processing used, the greater the chances of retention. It is important for learners to use a variety of processes when learning lexis.

Teaching lexis

There are two main approaches to vocabulary teaching: “Front door” and “Back door”

“Front door” teaching means identifying a group of words and teaching them. This can be done in two ways.

  • “verbal”: by eliciting, explaining or defining, using a matching activity (NB: this must be carefully graded to be of any use!), translating, getting learners to deduce the meaning from context (NB: learners must be able to understand a lot of the co-text)
  • “non-verbal” : using pictures/images (e.g. photos, from the internet, flashcards), symbols, actions (mime, gesture, facial expression), realia, drawings, sound effects.

“Back door” teaching means using a text-based approach, in which you highlight/draw attention to words/chunks within a text.

Elicitation

Elicitation is a commonly used technique in the language classroom. It is when we get learners to provide information rather than simply telling them something. Like many techniques, it has benefits and limitations. This means we need to keep certain things in mind when we want to use elicitation.

Benefits: 

  • It can be engaging for learners.

Limitations:

  • You can’t elicit what learners don’t know.
  • Can be time-consuming

To remember:

  • You must be precise.
  • You must ensure that the language you use to elicit is well graded.
  • You cannot use terms that are more difficult than the concept itself when defining/explaining it.
  • Once you have explained or elicited something, you must check that a learner has understood. (Concept checking questions are a common way of doing this – for more on this see Jonny Ingham’s detailed post on it.)

Review

How often should we review vocabulary? Very frequently, otherwise vocabulary books become “word cemeteries” – long lists buried and forgotten!

  • Students are very tolerant of recycling and revisiting, more so than we tend to assume.
  • It is useful to use the concept of expanding rehearsal: increase the gap between recycling each time. E.g. review after a week, then after two weeks, then after a month etc.

There are many ways of reviewing vocabulary, but that’s for another post!

References:

Lewis, M. (1993). The lexical approach: The state of ELT and the way forward. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.

Sinclair, J. M., & Renouf, A. (Eds.). (1988). A lexical syllabus for language learning. In R. Carter & M. McCarthy (Eds.), Vocabulary and language teaching (pp. 140-158). Harlow: Longman.

Wilkins, David A. (1972) Linguistics and Language Teaching. London: Edward Arnold.

 

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8 thoughts on “Delta Notes 3: Issues in teaching lexis

  1. Thanks for the comprehensive summary on teaching lexis. You have an extraordinary talent in summarising, I have been following your summaries on the IATEFL conference, as well as your DELTA diaries and your blog.

  2. Pingback: Delta Notes 3: Issues in teaching lexis | CELTA...

  3. Pingback: Autonomous skill development (3) – text mining | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

  4. Pingback: Useful links for Delta | Sandy Millin

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