Do I have the time for vocabulary?

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Paul Nation, which naturally leads to spending a lot of time thinking about vocabulary.  How do my students pick it up?  What kinds of exposure do they need to be able to infer meaning?  If you are looking to find out more about Paul Nation, I recommend Averil Coxehead’s (2010) article from Reading in a Foreign Language as well as Paul’s Teaching and Learning Vocabulary (1990).  Much of my vocabulary anxiety is do to a very short article Paul wrote on vocabulary teaching through task based activities.  Most of the vocabulary teaching I do is quite passive.  At most I might highlight words in a text I want the students to focus on, but I rarely create activities in which I expect those words to be used.  I leave it up to the students.  And as might be expected, some students take the time to learn the vocabulary, while others do not. 


So today, I decided to implement some of Paul’s ideas.  I used 2 stories from All New Easy True Stories (Sandra Heyer, 2004).  The students are second year high school students in an International Program which has 7 hours of English class weekly.  My school is a special environment in that most of the students did not/could not attend junior high school do to bullying, anxiety, family issues or a host of other reasons.  So while the amount of English classes they take in a week is probably slightly more than the average Japanese student, their starting point is slightly (or sometimes enormously) delayed.  I’ve found Heyer’s text to be just about the right level for my students.  Even the highest level students find 4 or so unknown words per ~200 word story, which averages out to a comprehension rate of 98% and the lower level students might encounter 8 or so words per story (96% comprehension).  Here are the first 4 paragraphs from the story, “Grandfather Hada’s Favorite Soup.” I’ve underlined the words that I think my students might have problems with during the class.
It is New Year’s Day in Japan.  The Hada family is eating a special New Year’s soup.  The soup has chicken, vegetables and mochi in it.  Mochi are rice cakes.
   Grandfather Hada likes mochi.  He takes a big bite of mochi.  Then he begins to cough.
   Grandfather Hada coughs and coughs.  He can’t stop coughing.  The mochi is stuck in his throat.  Grandfather Hada’s face is purple.  He can’t breathe.  Someone runs to the phone and calls an ambulance.  When will the ambulance arrive?  Maybe in five or ten minutes.  That will be too late.


One of the beauties of this textbook is the fabulous picture of a grandfather with a vacuum hose stuck down his throat that each story comes with a relatively detailed storyboard. The storyboard pictures very clearly link up the story content.  I’ve embedded one of the storyboards as an image below:


  As you might notice above, some of the vocabulary I’ve identified is quite simple.  For example the word cough is actually probably known to almost all my students.  But their reading skills are such that they might not be able to identify the word just through reading (more on that in a later post on pronunciation I think). 


I passed out a copy of “Grandfather Hada’s Favorite Soup” storyboard to the students and jotted up the underlined vocabulary words on the white board.  I then read the story out loud to the students.   I encouraged the students to point to the corresponding pictures as I was reading.  I read at a natural rate, although I did leave a little more of a gap between sense groups than I might in a higher level class.  I read the story two times and the second time around I stopped after saying one of the target vocabulary words and did a short pronunciation practice.  As a kind of off-the-cuff evaluation, I have to say that my students didn’t reach for their dictionaries the way they usually do.  I had a feeling at this point that the images and the style of the story provided them with the context they needed to infer the meaning. 

In the next task, I passed out a copy of the written story.  Students had to match sentences with the corresponding images.  Students, working in pairs, circled groups of sentences and then wrote the corresponding number of the image above the first sentence in each group.  Students were encouraged (which is a nice way to say directed) to use only English in this activity.  Here is some of the language that students produced:


           Kosukei: [pointing to picture 5] He coughs and coughs.
           Rina:  Poor Hada Ojisan (laughter).  
           Sema: [pointing to picture 6] What is kyukyusha?
                         (Ambulance in Japanese)
           Ryunosuke: Ambulance.  See, she calls the ambulance.

So it turns out that students were indeed able to infer the meaning of the vocabulary words through context and the task of linking words to images gave them a chance to put the words into action (with the usual treasure trove of grammar errors). 

Finally, I had two pairs of students join up to make a group of 4 students.  I wrote the following three questions/tasks on the board:
1.          What are the most common things that people choke on?  List three. 
2.          Give three pieces of advice to help people to keep from choking.
3.          What are some jobs which use a special kind of vehicle?  Which of those jobs would you most like to try?

Students were instructed to first discuss the task before deciding on a final answer.  Here is a sample of the language they used during the discussion of the first task:


    They choke on bones. 
    Children sometimes, you know, do with toys.
    Hotdog.  Hotdogs are easy for it.
    My mother choked on konyaku jelly. 
    I don’t like it.
    Grape.  I did once.


Students sometimes, but not always, managed to use the target vocabulary while answering the questions.  While I was listening, I noticed students using the target vocabulary about 50% of the time.  The rest of the time students were cleverly finding ways to avoid using the relatively unfamiliar words.


It’s pretty hard for me to come to any hard conclusions from one class.  Do I think students picked up the vocabulary faster and more firmly than they would have in a class where I didn’t take the time to have them focus on the vocabulary?  Couldn’t they have learned the vocabulary faster just by whipping out their dictionaries?  Probably.  But the fact that they didn’t feel the need to use their dictionaries at all is what really sticks with me.  They were processing the vocabulary in a different way than usual.  And while not all the students bothered to use the vocabulary during the tasks, some of them did and I think it resulted in multiple exposures in a more communicative way.  At the very least, I think this class gave the students some practice in inferring meaning and a few ideas about how to study vocabulary in a new way.  I will be using the same lesson structure tomorrow, so perhaps I’ll have a better handle on how useful it might be. But I’m pretty torn.  My students, considering their academic history, are not the best or most focused students when it comes to studying, so this kind of controlled practice insures some more exposure to vocabulary than might normally take place.  But the time…all that time…


Coxhead, A. (2010) “Grabbed early by vocabulary: Nation’s ongoing contributions to vocabulary
and reading in a foreign language.” Reading in a Foreign Language. 22 (1) pp. 1-14.
Nation, I.S.P. (1990) Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
Nation, I.S.P. and Hamilton-Jenkins, A. (2000) “Using Communicative Tasks to Teach Vocabulary”, Guidline 22 (2) pp. 15-19
Heyer, S. (2004) All New Easy True Stories.  Pearson Education.

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