Experienced teachers of English as a Second Language know very well how important vocabulary is. They know students must learn thousands of words that speakers and writers of English use. Fortunately, the need for vocabulary is one point on which teachers and students agree!
For many years, however, programs that prepared language teachers gave little attention to techniques for helping students learn vocabulary. Some books appeared to be telling teachers that students could learn all the words they needed without help. In fact, teachers were sometimes told that they ought not to teach many words before their students had mastered the grammar and the sound system of the language. In journal articles for teachers, vocabulary was seldom mentioned. Pronunciation and grammar were emphasized, but there was little or no emphasis on vocabulary. In short vocabulary has been neglected in programs for teachers during much of the twentieth century. Perhaps we should try to understand why this is so.
REASONS FOR NEGLECTING
VOCABULARY IN THE PAST
One reason why vocabulary was neglected in teacher-preparation programs during the period 1940-1970 was that it had been emphasized too much in language classrooms during the years before that time. Indeed, some people had believed it was the only key to language learning. Learners often believed that all they needed was a large number of words. They thought they could master the language by learning a certain number of English words, along with the meanings of those words in their own language. Of course this belief was wrong. In addition to knowing English words and their meanings, one must know also how the words work together in English sentences. That is one reason for the emphasis upon grammar in teaching-preparation programs during the past few decades. During those years, teachers were told a great deal about new discoveries in English grammar. They heard much less about ways to help students learn words.
There is a second reason why so little was said in methodology courses about teaching words and their meanings. Some specialists in methodology seemed to believe that the meanings of words could not be adequately taught, so it was better not to try to teach them. In the 1950s, many people began to notice that vocabulary learning is not a simple matter. It is not simply a matter of learning that a certain word in one language means the same as a word in another language. Much more needs to be learned; and there were those who felt the complexities were too great to be dealt with in class.
According to an English/Spanish dictionary, for example, the words garden and јardίn seem to have the same meaning. Each means a place where flowers are grown. But there are meanings of garden that do not correspond to the meanings of jardίn. A garden is a place that may grow vegetables as well as flowers; whereas vegetables are grown in a huerta in Spanish, not in a jardίn. This is just one of countless possible examples to show that vocabulary learning is not simply a matter of matching up words in the native language and the target language. Often those who prepared teachers gave the impression that vocabulary learning was so complex that one might better devote most of the class time to teaching the grammatical structures, with just a few vocabulary words, since students could not be given full and accurate understanding of word meanings in class. Indeed, in some books and articles about language teaching, writers gave the impression that it was better not to teach vocabulary at all.
These, then, were some of the reasons for the general neglect of vocabulary in programs that prepared teachers during a time when teachers were getting a good deal of help with other aspects of language instruction. We will summarize the reasons here:
Each of those beliefs about vocabulary is true to a certain extent. It is true that too much time has been devoted to vocabulary in many classrooms. Often so much time goes into explaining the new words that there seems to be no time for anything else. That, of course, is unfortunate. Students who do not learn grammar along with vocabulary will not be able to use the language for communication. Even material in which all the words look familiar may be impossible to understand if the grammatical constructions have not been learned. The following paragraphs, for instance, contain very easy vocabulary; yet the meanings of the sentences cannot be grasped without a substantial knowledge of grammar:
Things always know when a person isn’t well. They know, but they just don’t care. Many times, in little ways, things make life hard for people. They have special ways of doing this.
When I’m not well, I can never find the things I need. The things I need have gone away from all the places where I look. That is one of the facts I have learned about people and things.
In classes where too little time is spent on grammar, students fail to learn how words are used in sentences; only the general meaning of a word is learned. Students learning the words emphasize and emphasis, for example, need more than an understanding of the area of meaning which those words represent. They should learn that emphasis is a noun, used like this, “We put emphasis on it.” They should learn that emphasize is a verb, used like this, “We emphasize it.” The noun use should be contrasted with the verb use, as follows:
There was not much emphasis on it. (Note the use of on.)
Few people emphasized it. ( Note that on is not used.)
It is true, then, that students must learn grammar, which involves uses of words. It is never enough to learn only the words and their meanings. It is true that in some classrooms sentence construction has been given too little attention. It is also true that students will make mistakes if they learn the meanings of many words without learning how to put words together in sentences.
Furthermore, there is truth in the belief that experience is the best vocabulary teacher. Through experience with situations in which a language is used by speakers or writers, we learn that many of the meanings of a word do not correspond to the meanings of its so-called equivalent in another language. Since full understanding of a word often requires knowing how native speakers feel about what the word represents, some meanings cannot be found in a dictinary. It is necessary to know something about the customs and attitudes of native speakers if we are to know what words really mean to them.
Take the word wall, for instance. Every language has a word for the thing that English calls a wall. But how people feel about walls can be very different in different parts of the world, and those feelings are part of the meaning of the word. Suppose someone says, “Our new neighbors have built a wall around their property.” In many countries, that statement would not surprise anyone. In those countries, it is customary to build a wall around one’s property; most people do so. In most English-speaking communities, however, houses and gardens are usually visible from the street. To the native speaker of English, the building of the wall might suggest unfriendliness.
As we have seen, then, the learning of word meanings requires more than the use of a dictionary, and vocabulary acquisition is a complex process. Fortunately, however, teachers are being given more help with vocabulary teaching today.
REASONS FOR THE PRESENT EMPHASIS
In teacher-preparation programs today, there is more attention to techniques for teaching vocabulary. One reason is this: İn many ESL classes, even where teachers have devoted much time to vocabulary teaching, the results have been disappointing. Sometimes after months or even years of English, many of the words most needed have never been learned. Especially in countries where English is not the main language of communication, many teachers want more help with vocabulary instruction than they used to receive.
Sometimes else also accounts for today’s concern with the learning of vocabulary. That is the fact that scholars are taking a new interest in the study of word meanings. A number of research studies have recently dealt with lexical problems (problems related to words). Through research the scholars are finding that lexical problems frequently interfere with communication; communication breaks down when people do not use the right words.
Such discoveries by scholars do not surprise classroom teachers. Teachers have never doubted the value of learning vocabulary. They know how communication stops when learners lack the necessary words. They do not believe that the teaching of vocabulary should be delayed until the grammar is mastered. In the best classes, neither grammar nor vocabulary is neglected. There is thus no conflict between developing a firm command of grammar and learning the most essential words.
Today, therefore, professional journals and teachers’ meetings often reflect the current concern for more effective vocabulary teaching. When teachers come together for professional discussions, they raise such questions as these:
Answers to these and other questions will be found in the chapters that follow. The answers are based on the experience of teachers – teachers working in classrooms in many parts of the world.
If you and other teachers are using the book together, you will want to discuss the suggestions that the chapters offer. A major aim is to help experienced teachers recall successful techniques which they can share with colleagues newer to the field of ESL.
Whether or not you have had much teaching experience, you know a great deal about vocabulary learning. In your own study of other languages, you have discovered much about the learning of words. As you work through the activities proposed in each chapter, you will build on what you already know.