TEACHING VOCABULARY IN INTERMEDIATE CLASSES
What is an Intermediate class? In English as a Second Language, the terms Advanced and Elementary are easier to define. Advanced students are those who understand most of what they hear and read in the language class, although they still need help with material intended for native speakers of English. The term Elementary applies to beginners – at any age.
Advanced and Elementary are as different as black and white (as anyone who has taught on both those levels could say). But Intermediate has much in common with each – just as there are elements of both black and white in the color grey. Consequently, there is no clear line between Elementary and Intermediate vocabulary.
At the Intermediate level, we teach many of the same kinds of words that Elementary students need. Like lessons for beginners, the Intermediate vocabulary lessons include many words for things and persons in the learners’ daily lives. There is much that the two levels have in common.
Compared with beginners, however, Intermediate students have one great advantage. They have learned a large number of English words which can now be used by the teacher for defining new vocabulary. Defining English words by means of other English words requires real skill. It is a skill that is particularly needed by teachers of Intermediate classes, for two reasons. One reason is this: As a general rule, Intermediate students should hear only English from their teacher. Even in programs where the learners’ native language is sometimes used in teaching beginners, the classes for Intermediate students should be conducted entirely in English. And they can be, if the teacher has learned to make explanations that use vocabulary already known to the class.
There is another reason why teachers of Intermediate classes need skill in composing simple English explanations. Unlike most of the basic vocabulary that is taught in Elementary lessons, much of the Intermediate vocabulary cannot be demonstrated through actions or shown through pictures. However, we can usually show the meanings of Intermediate-level words by putting them into English explanations where the other words in the sentences are already known.
USING SIMPLE ENGLISH TO SHOW MEANINGS OF WORDS
Let’s take the word parent, for example. The meaning of parent can be made clear to students who already know the words person, mother, and father. We can put parent into a defining sentence like this, “A parent is a person’s mother or father.” Notice that it is the teacher – not the student – who provides the defining sentence. Defining words by means of other words is a technique needed by teachers. It is a skill that is also acquired by some students; but the ability to give a definition – or a synonym – is less important than the ability to give a definition – or a synonym – is less important than the ability to use the word for communication. Many native speakers with a full command of English vocabulary have little skill in defining the words that they use.
Defining English words by means of simpler English words is not easy. Skill in the use of the technique generally requires considerable experience in teaching English to speakers of other languages. Through repeated contacts with learners at various levels, one discovers which words an Intermediate student may be expected to know.
Fortunately, there is an excellent source of help: a book which is known as a learner’s dictionary. Two learner’s dictionaries are well known: the Oxford Student’s Dictionary of American English and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. To appreciate the helpfulness of a learner’s dictionary, compare these two definitions of an English verb which is often taught at the Intermediate level – the verb drown:
For Intermediate students of English, several of the words used in definition (2) are at least as difficult as the word which is being defined.Therefore a definition like (2) cannot be helpful. In (1), the words of the definition are quite sure to be known by students in an Intermediate class.
It is true that a definition like (1) is less exact, less complete, than definitions which are prepared for native speakers. However, such a definition is enough to introduce the meaning. (At first introduction, one cannot know everything about a new friend. One learns more from every experience with the new human acquaintance – or the new word.)
More will be said in Chapters 8 and 9 about the students’ use of dictionaries. For our present purposes, the point is this: an English dictionary which has been specially prepared for learners of ESL is an essential tool for teachers, especially those teaching Intermediate and Advanced vocabulary.
THE VALUE OF SEEING A NEW WORD IN A SENTENCE
At the Intermediate level, a learner’s dictionary can show teachers how to explain “new“ words by means of the English words the students are most likely to know. Furthermore, such dictionaries usually give helpful example sentences in addition to definitions. An example sentence for drown might be, “The dead boy’s mother was very sad after her son drowned in the river.” Often an example sentence can help the student more than a definition.No definition is needed for the verb contain (which is generally taught at the Intermediate level) when the students are given example sentences like the following:
These boxes contain chalk.
That bottle contains water
Handbags often contain money and many other things.
Although no definition or synonym for contain has been given here, the meaning of the word should be clear to students who have already learned the other words in the example sentences.
Such sentences are helpful to all students. They have a special usefulness when we are teaching students whose home language is related to English. For those students, an example can say, in effect, “The word which is introduced in this example is very much like a word in your language; and their meanings are very similar.” On the other hand, where the meanings of similar-appearing words are different, the example sentence can call attention to the difference.
In Spanish, French, Dutch, and German, for instance, there are many words that look very much like English words and that have the same origin. Such words are called cognates. Yet the usual meaning of the English word may be quite different from the meaning of the cognate in another language. A series of simple examples can show students the differences between the two cognate words. For instance, let’s take the English word parent.
In Spanish, and also in French, there is a word that looks like the English word parent; yet the relationships which are represented are different. We can show the difference through example sentences like these:
I have two parents. My mother is one of my parents. My father is my other parent. My sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles are my relatives, but they are not my parents.
For a speaker of German, the English word gymnasium (among several other words) may require careful teaching because gymnasium in German means a school in which older children receive preparation for university study. In English, a gymnasium is a room or hall with apparatus for climbing, jumping, and various kinds of sports. To show the difference, we might use such example sentences as these:
In an American school, the gymnasium has to be larger than the other rooms of the school because students from several classes sometimes meet there at the same time for physical exercise. There is usually a gymnasium in every school as well as secondary schools.
Skill in composing clear, simple example sentences is especially needed by teachers of Intermediate classes. Often there is an unexpected need for an example while the lesson is being taught. The teacher cannot spend class time thinking about the best way to explain the meaning of a word; an example must be offered immediately. İntermediate students need such help more than students at the Elementary level, where more of the vocabulary can be taught by pointing, or by using pictures, or by demonstrating an action.
MORE WORDS FOR COMMON AREAS OF LIVING
Like the Elementary student, the Intermediate student needs to learn words for common areas of living: words related to food, clothing, shelter, and so on. In classes for beginners, however, only a few words from each of these categories are taught. There is no attempt to teach all the English words for furniture (for instance) – or even all the most important words in the category of furniture. In Intermediate classes, on the other hand, there is a more systematic attempt to include the most commonly used words in various categories: categories like buildings parts of a house, furniture, occupations, transportation, weather, health, and many more.
In the Intermediate textbook, words from several different categories are usually introduced together in each lesson. Perhaps they are presented in connection with a simple story; perhaps they are taught because the grammar part of the lesson requires them. To make vocabulary learning more systematic, therefore, the Intermediate student should keep a notebook. In the notebook there should be different sections for different categories of words – several pages reserved for weather words, other pages reserved for health words, and so on.
As words are presented in any lesson, the students should add each new word to the appropriate section of the notebook. Soon each student’s notebook will have a useful list of words for buildings (house, school, bank, post office) and still other lists for words related to other areas of living. From time to time during the school year, the students should be given special opportunities to use this new vocabulary. We will now look at an activity that is designed to accomplish this.
An Activity for Learning Several Categories of Vocabulary
The class is divided into teams. Each team should consist of about four students. The teacher appoints a leader for each team and explains the next steps:
The slips which have been prepared by the teams should not be destroyed. They will have other uses, such as in a “category guessing game.”
A Category Guessing Game
From time to time during the school year there is instructional value in playing a guessing game that requires the use of English words. One such game is conducted as follows:
THE VALUE OF GAMES FOR VOCABULARY LEARNING
A number of chapters have suggested game-like activities for teaching vocabulary. One such activity has just been described.
In recommending games for vocabulary learning, the aim has not been to suggest pleasant ways of passing time. Time passes all too quickly in most classes, and the entertainment of students is not a teacher’s responsibility. But language teachers are responsible for creating conditions which encourage vocabulary expansion, and a well- chosen game can help the students acquire English words.
Games are helpful because they can make students feel that certain words are important and necessary, because without those words, the object of the game cannot be achieved. Guessing games, for example, create conditions in which the use of the target language is necessary for leading the players to the correct guess. Here is a guessing game which encourages students to learn the English names for animals.
The Animal Game
Some of the animals are often found in a zoo. The elephant, lion, giraffe, and monkey are found in zoos. Others live on farms or in woods or fields. The ox and the goat are farm animals. The mouse sometimes lives in a field, but sometimes it lives in a house. The biggest of these animals is the elephant; the smallest is the mouse. The goat is bigger than a mouse but smaller than a horse.
I’m going to think of one of these animals. You’ll try to guess which one it is. First you must ask questions like, ’Does it live on a farm?’ After you have discovered where it lives, then try to guess its size by asking ‘Is it smaller than a horse?’ and similar questions. Finally, when you think you can guess the name of the animal I‘m thinking of, you may ask a question like, ’Is it a giraffe?’ or ‘Is it an ox?’ All right. I’m thinking of one of these animals. Ask me some questions about it. I’ll answer only when you ask me in English.”
There are several things to notice about the game which has just been described.
Not all games are helpful for language learning, of course. Board games like checkers cannot do much for vocabulary expansion because they do not require the players to speak any language during the game. Many games that involve physical activity are unsuitable, not only because they are too noisy for the classroom but because – in the excitement of the game – the players feel they must express their emotions in the native language.
Games which do not help students learn English do not belong in the English class. When we are considering possible games for use, we should ask, “Will this game help to make several English words seem interesting and important to my students?” That is a question to ask about anything we consider doing in class, including the use of pictures.
USING PICTURES IN THE INTERMEDIATE CLASS
In addition to game-like activities, there are other techniques for encouraging students to use English words while communicating information or ideas. Pictures (which have already been discussed in connection with vocabulary for beginners) can also be used at the Intermediate level in several helpful ways.
Pictures which show human situations (a child in a dentist’s chair, an old couple on a bench in a park, several young people at the scene of an accident) often interest students at the Intermediate level. Students enjoy imagining who the pictured persons might be, where they are, what happened before the pictured moment, what might happen next.
A picture that suggests a story or a situation can be very valuable in the language class. In discussing such a picture, students will feel the need to learn English words for expressing their ideas; and we have already emphasized how desirable it is to make students feel words are needed.
There are, however, certain reasons why some teachers prefer not to engage the class in free discussion of a picture that stimulates student’ imaginations.Teachers who are not native speakers of English sometimes avoid such discussions because they lack confidence in their ability to supply all the words the students might need for expressing their thoughts. Furthermore, even a teacher whose native language is English may prefer not to invite free discussion for the following reason: very often only two or three eager members of the class actually participate, while the rest pay little attention to what is being said.
We can avoid difficulties that may arise from using interesting pictures for class discussion if we ask students to write about the situations which the pictures represent. A few of the better students may be invited to write about a picture while the other members of the class are doing less advanced work with the teacher.
The more imaginative students enjoy stretching their English while writing stories. It is good for them to try new uses for the English they have been learning. Naturally, the stories they write will contain many errors. But when the papers are handed in, we should not worry about those errors and we should not make the writer feel ashamed of them. Most of the mistakes should be ignored. A few suggestions will be helpful to the writer; but mainly we should just show interest in the story and praise the writer’s attempts to use English words. Even if the writing is far from perfect, the student will have learned vocabulary through his efforts to communicate. There will be other activities designed to produce correct sentences. In those activities we can improve students’ grammar, punctuation, and other language skills. When students are invented to stretch their English, to do as well as they can with what they already know, we should permit them to write without constant fear of making mistakes.
At the Intermediate level of instruction, students should be given many opportunities to try to communicate in English, even when their efforts lead them to make errors in language use. Unlike begginers, Intermediate students know enough English to experiment with ways of expressing their ideas in the target language. They should be encouraged to do so.
In this chapter we have described activities that require Intermediate students to use English for communication.We have noted that learners at this level can understand definitions that make use of English words which have already been taught. We have stressed the importance of example sentences, such as those found in learner’s dictionaries that have been specially prepared for students of ESL.
This chapter has drawn attention to the kinds of words to be learned at the Intermediate level. Like beginners, Intermediate students need words pertaining to common areas of living. In contrast to begginers, however, Intermediate students should make a more systematic study of those life-areas and categories.
We have considered in this chapter the value of notebooks in which students keep separate sections for various categories of vocabulary. This recording of words by categories has a practical function, which becomes clear when we engage the students in activities that require the use of words from various categories. (Such activities include contests and games. As we have noted, however, game-like activities belong in the classroom only when they help the students master the language.)
In addition, this chapter has called attention to something which is more true of Intermediate students than of those in Elementary classes. It is the fact that certain activities which are suitable for some members of the class are not helpful to others. (The writing of imaginative stories in response to pictures is such an activity.) The next chapter will say more about techniques that serve the various kinds of students often found within one Intermediate class.
A C T I V I T I E S