Hand in a pool of generosity

The other month, while my wife was planning a charity event for an educational fund in Tohoku, I was getting ready to present on vocabulary word cards at a teacher training in Tokyo.  We were up late most nights, but not as exhausted as one might expect.  My wife said that planning the event was like dipping her hand into a big pool.  Every email she sent off, every favor she called in, resulted in wave after wave of generosity and she was just enjoying watching how far those ripples moved along.  I wasn’t feeling quite so positive, but I learned bunches about how to teach vocabulary, which has never been one of my strong points.  The training went well enough, especially since I had great sources to build on.  A bunch of the ideas came from John Fanselow and included the following ditties:
  – When deciding on a word’s meaning from context, start simple.  Within the passage, does the word have a positive or negative connotation?
– It’s easier to remember and recall a word which has been placed in a category.  Let the students devise categories.  After all, they’re the ones that have to personalize the word.  Student’s might take a word like coffee and categorize it as black, hot and cold, adult, whatever.  The more ways they can categorize a word the better.
– Don’t let students write the entire word down on vocab cards.  Partial information, which results in more effort for recall, is going to lead to a better chance of the word sticking around in long-term memory.  This is related to Craik and Lockhart’s (1972) “Depth of processing hypothesis.”
I also lifted some key points from Scott Thornbury’s (2002) How to Teach Vocabulary.  Great book.  If you’re looking for word card activities for helping students hold onto new vocabulary, here are just a few:
       Word chain: groups are given a set of 4 word cards which are placed in a row.  The must make a chain of sentences which naturally progresses from the first to the last card.  There is no limit of the number of sentences they can make to get from one end of the chain to the other.
       No vowels: Students take a bunch of word cards and copy the words down on a separate piece of paper leaving out all of the vowels. They then exchange lists with another student and try to guess their partner’s words.
And then I tried to come up with some very 2012 activities which included:
       What’s That Word, Twitter Style: write a series of tweets to other people in the class using your vocabulary words.  Students read the tweets and make a running list of which word in each tweet they think is the target vocabulary word.
I also introduced the General Service List to the teachers.  So why is this list so important?  Well, not only does Paul Nation consider the GSL to be, “the best of the available lists,” but with those 2000 words, students would know 90% of the words in a teenage novel (Waring and Nation, 1997).  Which is pretty good, but not quite good enough for easy comprehension of a text written for native speaking high schoolers.  In fact, in order for students to learn new words from context, students would have to get up to the 98% level of recognition (Hu & Nation, 2000).  Still, just the first 1000 words of the list would be enough to comprehend the first three levels of most graded reader series.  So, for any extended reading program which uses graded readers, the GSL can help students focus on the words they need to steadily improve their comprehensions skills. 
Now there are some great Internet sites which let you check if a word (or even a full text) is on the GSL.  My favorite happens to be Joyce Maeda’s Frequency Level Checker. But some of the schools in my private school system have strict cell-phone policies.  And not all the students have smart-phones.  Most of the PDFs of the GSL on the internet are small-fonted, long, hard to read things which my students would happily lose soon after I passed them out.  So imagine my surprise, when I got to school today and in my email in-box, I found this:

Vocabulary (GSL) Alphabetical 1st 2nd 1000 Words

That’s right, the GSL broken down into the first and second thousand words and alphabetized for easy use.  Trent, one of the teachers at the Nagoya Campus whipped this up.  And with an easy to use GSL list, students can make much more productive use of their time. 
Now let me just add that I’m not saying students should only study words that are on the GSL.  Students are attracted to words for all kinds of reasons.  Usefulness is just one of them.  I know that when I was actively studying Japanese I made a conscious effort to learn a whole bunch of low frequency words just because the way they rolled around in my mouth felt good.  ‘Toriaezu’ is a fine example.  Love that word (kind of means, “anyway, for now…”).  If a student falls in love with a word, they should learn it, GSL or not.  But for words that don’t entice passion, the GSL is a great time management tool. 
And just one more caveat, Trent’s version of the GSL only contains the root vocabulary word.  If you use it, you might have to do some work with the students around word families.  And of course, don’t expect your students to be using their dictionaries properly.  They probably aren’t.  Some serious dictionary training is probably in order.  But that’s a totally different post.
The training up in Tokyo was a three-day affair and I used it as the basis of my action research proposal for my dip TESOL.  But I kind of tried to noodle my way around having a clear evaluative component.  I got nailed on that.  And I also decided one evening that that I had done enough reading for my literature review simply because I had gone way over my word limit for the proposal.  And I got nailed on this as well.  My mentor Dana was very gentle and tried to assure me that any feedback was meant to be constructive (and boy was it), but that didn’t make me feel any better about the fact that I had pretty much known I was slacking when I wrote the proposal.  And I’m grateful that she didn’t just say, “Come on Kevin!  There are no short cuts.  You are going to be using this proposal to shape your class.  Do the best you can for your students, not the minimum you need to do to pass a dip TESOL unit!” 
I’m going to fix the proposal up.  I’m going to make sure that there is no doubt in my mind that it will positively impact what and how my students learn.  And I’m going to be thankful for the chance to make it better.  But I’m also going to try and be a little kinder to myself and remember that the whole process is kind of like dipping my hand in a pool.  I’m sending out the ripples and watching as they spread.  I have a shiny new GSL list for my students and a chance to share it with all of you.  I have a team of teachers who are willing to see how we can use the GSL and word cards effectively across a bunch of schools.  And I have the time and support of my PLN to help me put together an action research which puts the students first and let’s me develop as a teacher as well.  That’s a lot to be grateful for, and much more than I realized I had when I started studying for my dip TESOL eight moths ago.

(just a word about the whole “support of my PLN” thing.  That is actually a desperate cry for help.  Help which can be delivered in comments, emails, tweets or cryptic messages attached to pigeons.)

(Oh, and my wife managed to raise $1,000 for Tohoku.  Probably why she enjoyed dipping her hand in the pool more than I enjoyed writing my vocab presentation.)

Craik, F.I.M & Lockhart, R.S. (1972) Levels of processing: a framework for memory research.  Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11, 268-284.
Hu, M. & Nation, P. (2000) Unknown Vocabulary Density and Reading Comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language, 13 (1), 403-430.
Nation, I.S.P & Waring, P. (1997) Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists.  In N. Schmitt & M. McCathy (eds) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition,and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Thornbury, S. (2002) How to Teach Vocabulary.  Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

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