TEACHING VOCABULARY IN ADVANCED CLASSES
In Advanced classes, we have two major aims. One is to prepare students for the kind of English used by and for native speakers. (For this reason, there is less use of simplified material which is made easy for the learner; there is more use of material intended for speakrs of English.) The other special aim is to help students become independent, responsible for their own learning.
Advanced students are almost at the end of the language program. If learning is to continue beyond the end of the course, the students will have to depend on their own efforts and habits of study. Dictionaries therefore become especially important. Advanced students must be taught to use them well.
As the material which is read becomes increasingly difficult, there are many more new words to be explained. The teacher cannot ─ and should not ─ help students learn all of them. When the teacher spends an entire class period explaining vocabulary ─ writing words and their meanings on the blackboard ─ there are three unfortunate results: (1) the students remain too dependent on the teacher; (2) opportunities for learning to use a dictionary are lost; and (3) no class time is left for communicative use of the language. How then can we help students understand the many new words they meet? And what should they be taught about the use of dictionaries?
DICTIONARIES AS PASSPORTS TO INDEPENDENCE
When we speak of dictionaries for English as a Second Language, it is realistic to assume that the one most commonly used is the two-language dictionary. Students naturally turn first to dictionaries which define English words in their mother tongue. Although bilingual dictionaries are unsatisfactory in many ways, they are less expensive than all-English dictionaries and more easily obtained.
It does no harm to start with a bilingual dictionary, if the students are taught to use it properly and if they are soon taught how to obtain more accurate meanings from an all-English dictionary.
Any dictionary can serve to introduce a number of points about dictionary use. First, before opening the dictionary, students should follow these steps:
1. Think carefully about the entire sentence in which the unfamiliar word appears. Ask yourself : How much of the sentence can I understand even without knowing that word?
2. Look carefully at the unknown word. What kind of word is it? A noun? A verb? An adjective?
3. Think of some possible meanings for that kind of word in that sentence. If the word is a noun, might it name some thing? Some person? Some idea? Does it probably represent something good? Something bad?
When the student thinks carefully about the whole sentence before looking in his dictionary, he may find that he really does not need to look up the unknown word. Suppose, for instance, that the student does not know the word reward in this sentence: “One of rewards that space travelers receive is the beautiful view of the planet on which we live.”
A student who has been taught to think about the whole sentence will say to himself, “I know that rewards is a noun here, because it is used after the. The sentence tells me a reward is something that is received; and it must be something good, because the beautiful view is called a reward.”
This kind of thinking may produce enough understanding of the word reward for the student’s present purpose. More exact understanding can come later, when the word is met again ─ as it will be, if it is essential or commonly used.
But if the student does decide he should confirm his impression by looking up reward in his dictionary, he is now better able to choose from among possible meanings. Having though about the entire sentence, he can choose more intelligently from among the meanings offered by the dictionary.
There is another reason why students should be taught to think about the sentence before looking up a word. Suppose the word equipped is unfamiliar to someone reading this sentence: “Weather stations are equipped to receive direct reports from U.S. weather satellites.”
If the student looks for equipped in his dictionary, he probably will not be able to find it. However, the word equip is quite sure to be there. Those who have looked carefully at the sentence will have guessed that equipped is the –ed form of a verb and that the verb probably ends in a single p. Now the student is ready to look for equip and to find out whether the verb means something like establish, permit, or require ─ or something different from any of these. With such a question in mind, a student can make wise choices among the listed possibilities.
Thus far we have stressed the need for careful though before opening the dictionary. Imagine now that the dictionary is open. Some students may still need help in reaching the part of the dictionary where the needed definition appears. For some, the simple task of finding the right page may require instruction and practice. (This is especially difficult for students whose language uses a different alphabet and also for those with little experience in the use of reference materials.)
When finding the needed word is a problem, we show the class how to use the key words at the top of each page. We assign such tasks as these:
1. Give the number of the page where each of the following is defined: fog, loaf, lope, roly-poly.
2. Arrange the following words in alphabetical order:
slump, sluggish, shadow, slope, spate
Careful thought is also required after the possible meanings have been found. Working together, students and teacher should consider the possible definitions, discussing their appropriateness to the sentence and the paragraph where the word has appeared. Such a discussion takes time, but it is often a necessary part of the students’ training.
When many words need to be looked up, it is often possible to divide the work among several students. Two members of the class may take responsibility for the difficult words in one paragraph, while other paragraphs are assigned to different pairs of students. Each team is instructed to list the unfamiliar words in the team’s paragraph and to think about the sentence in which each of those words appears. Team members next decide which meaning in their dictionary best fits the context. After working in this way for a few minutes, the teams come together to share their findings, with approval or corrections by the teacher.
This sort of activity helps the students develop initiative and responsibility. When just two students are held responsible for “teaching” certain words to their classmates, the words become important to them. Sharing the responsibility with a partner encourages careful selection of meanings from those offered by the dictionary. The report to the class gives the teacher a chance to see how efficiently the individual students are using their dictionaries.
What if the bilingual dictionary offers no meaning that seems right for the word in that sentence? This often happens. Many small two-language dictionaries give only one or two meanings for any English word. When there is no helpful definition to be found in the dictionary used by the students, an important fact has been made clear: some dictionaries are very poor; certain dictionaries are much more helpful than others.
Special Learner’s Dictionaries
The best dictionaries for English as a Second Language are learner’s dictionaries, such as the Oxford Student’s Dictionary of American English and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Both contain much valuable information in addition to their helful definitions of words.There should be at least one copy of a learner’s dictionary in every English classroom, and students should be encouraged to use it.
To show students the advantage of such a dictionary, we can compare the help it offers to the meanings found in bilingual dictionaries. Here, for instance, is some of the information students can find in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English when they look up the word reward. Two possible definitions are given, including “something gained as return for work or service.” To illustrate this meaning, the dictionary gives the following sentence: “He will expect some reward after working so hard.”
Example sentences (which generally are found only in all English dictionaries) often do more than definitions to make the meaning clear. In addition, an example sentence often has another advantage for learners of English. It shows which word or words usually accompany the word which the student has looked up. For instance, the following sentences illustrate the use of depend (in the Oxford dictionary):
Children depend on their parents for food and clothing.
You can always depend upon John to be there when he is needed.
These sentences show that depend is often accompanied by on or upon.
When a learner’s dictionary is available for students’ use, we can give students a list of verbs or adjectives, along with the following instructions:
1. In the dictionary, find an example sentence for each verb or adjective on this list.
2. Copy each example sentence.
3. Draw a line below the preposition which is used with the verb or adjective that the sentence illustrates.
The list should include such verbs and adjectives as these: consist (of), divide (into), substitute (for), ashamed (of), interested (in), opposed (to), different (from).
In class the next day, students may study the sentences together, testing each other on the preposition to be used with each of the listed words.
In addition to simple definitions and illustrative sentences, the learner’s dictionaries contain many other helpful features, including pictures (like the picture below, reprinted from the Oxford Student’s Dictionary of American English). When students are given the opportunities to use such a dictionary, they quickly recognize its value for increasing their comprehension of unfamiliar words.
Such dictionaries can be even more helpful with words that look familiar ─ common verbs, for instance, like get, put, and take in combination with other familiar words like in, on, up, over, and with. Such combinations are sometimes called phrasal verbs.
Often a sentence that contains only familiar words will not be understood because certain combinations of those words have special meanings. Take this sentence, for example, “They soon got around to bringing up the question of calling off the meeting”. Students who know all the words in that sentence may still fail to understand it. When they have been properly instructed in the use of a learner’s dictionary, however, they will know that special meanings for phrasal verbs like get around (to), bring up, and call off can be found in the all-English learner’s dictionary.
In the Oxford Student’s Dictionary of American English there are two pages giving definitions and examples of the verb get. In that dictionary, students can find special meanings for get across, get ahead, get along, get around to, and over fifty other combinations where get is used.
Most students will never find those pages without help, however. Students do not usually think of looking up a familiar word like bring, call, or get. When we introduce techniques for using dictionaries, we should teach students to look up even a word that seems familiar, when it appears in a sentence that is hard to understand.
Even when the familiar word is not part of a phrasal verb construction, it may cause difficulty. The word head is known by language students who have learned to name parts of body; but for many the word will cause difficulty in a sentence like this: “He was the head of the company.” It is very possible that the word for head in the students’ language would not have this metaphorical meaning.
Students should be given sentences where familiar – looking words are used for representing unexpected meanings ─ which should then be found in dictionaries.
The habit of looking up such words will be needed if students are to read the English of academic fields. The word square, for instance has a special meaning in mathematics; market has a meaning in economics that is different from its use in other contexts. Ordinary meanings are not enough to know if one wishes to read English for science and technology.
In fact, technical terms which are used only in specialized fields are sometimes less troublesome than vocabulary that looks familiar. Students recognize the need to find meanings for technical terms, and most dictionaries define them. On the other hand, students assume they already know meaning of an ordinary word, so they do not try to find a specialized meaning for it.
In Advanced classes, students need to increase their vocabulary through the use of vocabulary that they have already acquired. One way of doing this has already been mentioned: the students learn new meanings for old words like head, square, and market. They learn that a solution is not only associated with a problem; it is also what results when some substance like sugar is mixed with water.
WORDS WITH MORE THAN ONE GRAMMATICAL FUNCTION
Advanced students’ vocabulary can be greatly increased by awareness of the fact that certain English words have different grammatical functions in different sentences. Students at the Advanced level should learn that the word book is not only used as a countable noun (in familiar phrases like a book or three books); it also functions as a verb in expressions like to book reservations at a hotel or to book space on an airplane.
Particular attention should be drawn to this important feature of English, which is sometimes called functional shift. Often a word that is usually a noun (like book) may also function as a verb. The following sentence illustrates further possibilities of functional shift: “That is one the benefits which result from space travel.”
In other contexts, one may find benefit, space, and travel used as verbs (to benefit from something, to space words on a page, to travel somewhere); and the word result ─ which is a verb in the above sentence ─ is often used as a noun.
In Advanced classes, students and teachers should look together at such a sentence, with these questions in mind:
1. Which nouns in this sentence may also be used as verbs?
2. Which of the verbs may also be used as nouns?
3. If such a shift in function occurs, does the meaning also change? (The meaning of to book, for instance, is quite different from the meaning of a book. On the other hand, travel means much the same whether a noun or a verb.)
It is useful for students to know which of the words they have learned as verbs may also function as nouns without any change of form ─ to know that one can say, for example, “That is my hope” as well as “I hope so.” To learn a new function for a word one already knows is to expand one’s vocabulary in an efficient way. It is a kind of vocabulary expansion that may need to be pointed out if the students’ own language always signals different grammatical functions by means of different endings, or by some other change in the form of the word.
Of course English, like many other languages, also has special endings and word forms that signal the grammatical function the word performs. The correspondence between forms and functions must be learned. Having learned the verbs accept, allow, and appear, the class learns the related nouns: acceptance, allow- ance, and appearance. (It is helpful to teach a group of –ance nouns like those three together, then on another day teach nouns like announcement, encouragement, and enjoyment, which have the -ment suffix in common.)
In addition to learning related verb and noun forms (like those mentioned above, or like connect and connection, inspect and inspection), Advanced classes must also learn to distinguish between noun and adjective forms, like blood/bloody, glass/glassy, health/healthy, and milk/milky. Having learned the nouns advantage and courage, they learn the adjectives advantageous and courageous.
On the other hand, if an adjective (sad, dark, or clever) has been learned before the noun which represents the same area of meaning, we show how a suffix (-ness) can be added, forming sadness, darkness, cleverness. The -ly suffix for adverbs is taught by showing that safe and safely both share the same meaning, but perform different grammatical functions. To demonstrate those functions, we give the class example sentences like the following:
That is a safe place to swim.
You can swim safely there.
For vocabulary expansion at the Advanced level, it is important to introduce the students to word families like safe/safely/save/safety, and dead/die/death (to mention just two of many such families). Yet we must also be careful to teach students which member of such a word family to use for various functions in a sentence. A student who says or writes, “Their plan did not success,” has not yet learned how to choose among the members of the word family that contains succeed, success, successful, and successfully. When someone says, “He could not buy any equip for the store because of the lose of his money,” there is a clear need for examples which show the respective functions of equip and equipment, lose and loss, as follows:
1. He must equip (verb) his new store.
2. He must buy some equipment (noun).
3. Did he lose (verb) his money?
4. Who told you about the loss (noun) of his money?
When we direct attention to new words that are related to words the students have already learned, we offer the kind of help that is particularly needed at the Advanced level. At this chapter has pointed out, our two chief aims at this level are to prepare students for the kind of English used by native speakers, and to enable students to continue learning independently after their formal studies have ended. In order to accomplish those aims, the Advanced class works intensively on vocabulary expansion. Much class time is also devoted to instruction and practice in the use of a dictionary. Students should be taught
In addition, we should help students discover the special aids which are offered by all-English learn’s dictionaries: pictures, example sentences, simple definitions, grammatical information, and explanations of phrasal verbs (among many helpful features).
The next chapter will suggest further techniques for preparing Advanced learners to understand ─ and to use ─ the English of native speakers.
1. Answer these questions about a class that you have recently visited or taught:
I. During how much of the class period did the teacher give explanations of vocabulary words?
II. How much responsibility did the students assume for discovering word meanings?
III. What evidence did you have of the students’ ability to
a) analyze a sentence before looking up an unfamiliar word in that sentence?
b) find the best meaning among several possibilities offered by the dictionary?
2. Using a dictionary that is available to your students, choose at least three symbols and/or abbreviations your class should be taught to understand.
3. Examine a copy of a dictionary (particularly the Oxford or Longman dictionary intended for ESL, if available). Find at least five features of the dictionary which could be helpful to your students.
4. Add five other verbs to the list (on page 87) of verbs usually accompanied by prepositions. Choose especially verbs which, in your students’ language, would not be used with anything like prepositions.
5. Here are some English phrases in which common words are used metaphorically: the arm of a chair, the leg of table, the eye of the storm. Add a few more phrases that illustrate the metaphorical use of common words. (Think of phrases like the ____of a needle, the ____of a bottle, the long ____of the law.)
6. Indicate whether each word in the following list is a verb, a noun, an adjective, or an adverb; and underline the part of the word which shows its grammatical function.
Example: emphasize (verb)
1. recognize 9. possible
2. careful 10. healthy
3. suggestion 11. friendship
4. humorous 12. foolish
5. dirty 13. noisy
6. punishment 14. attractive
7. sadness 15. fortunately
8. finally 16. lucky
Suppose you are teaching students to take responsibility for their own vocabulary learning. How could you use the paragraph below in a lesson intended to accomplish that purpose? (Which words in the paragraph might be unfamiliar to your Advanced students? Which words should they be able to understand from the context, without looking them up? How could you instruct them to use their dictionaries for the words which they should find there?)
The earth is a place. It is by no means the only place. It is not even a typical place. No planet or star or galaxy can be typical, because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold, universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely. If we were randomly inserted into the Cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves on a near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion (1033, a 1 followed by 33 zeroes). In everyday life such odds are called compelling. Worlds are precious.