FOR THE FIRST STAGE
It has been said, “There is one English word that is known everywhere. The word is cowboy.” This remark has a certain amount of truth. Such words as rock star and cowboy seem to be known by almost everyone (by almost every young person, at least). Indeed, such English words are usually learned without being taught, without being explained or drilled in class. All too often, however, a student who has easily acquired cowboy and rock star seems unable to master the words in the textbook, even after the teacher‘s explanations and drills. This is unfortunate, as experienced teachers know. Much of the vocabulary in English textbooks must be learned. Without it, no one can speak or understand the language. The question is what can teachers do while presenting the textbook words, so that students will learn them as well as rock star and cowboy.
In books that are intended for the first stage of English, the vocabulary lessons usually contain words for persons and things in the classroom, words like boy, girl, book, pencil, window, door. For teachers, and for authors of textbooks, it is easy to see why the beginning lessons should introduce such words. One reason is that the meanings can easily be made clear. Windows, walls, desks and doors are things that the students can see while they are hearing the foreign names for them. Furthermore, things in the classroom can also be touched. This is important, because success in learning often depends on the number of senses which are used in the learning process. When students can touch something, in addition to hearing and seeing the word that names it, there is a stronger chance that the word will be learned. Even if there are practical reasons why each learner cannot touch the object, just seeing it while hearing its name is helpful. At least those two senses (sight and hearing) are working together to focus the learner’s attention.
Teachers and textbook writers understand the value of lessons that introduce basic words, like the names of things found in classrooms and in the local community. They know that much of this vocabulary will be needed for defining more difficult words in later stages of the program. Moreover, much of the vocabulary found in lessons for beginners will be needed for writing and speaking English in future months and years.It is good to make an early start on such important words. Why, then, aren’t they learned more easily?
WHY BASIC VOCABULARY MAY BE HARD TO LEARN
Why are students often slow to learn foreign words for familiar objects? To answer that question, we must look at vocabulary from the students’ point of view. The students already have satisfactory words – in their own language – for everything in the classroom that they might want to name. They have been able to talk about such familiar objects for many years. Therefore, most members of the class feel no real need to learn other words for such things now. This is problem that does not arise when words like rock star and cowboy are being acquired outside the classroom. (Those are words for new experiences that are not already named by words in the students’ mother tongue.) But it is a problem to be solved when we teach the basic words that textbooks introduce. From the students’ point of view, such words do not seem really necessary because words in the mother tongue serve all practical purposes.
There is something else to be noticed about vocabulary learning in and out of class. Let’s imagine what happened years ago, when each of our students was learning words for familiar objects – words in the mother tongue. Quite probably, each word came to the child’s attention as part of an experience that had special importance for him. Perhaps the words for window and door were learned when he heard an adult say (in the home language), “Grandma’ s gone, but we’ll go to the window and wave goodbye,” and “Daddy’s here! Let’s go to the door and let him in.” Of course we don’t know what really occurred on the day when the child learned those words in his own language, but one thing is sure. We do know that he was not told, for example, “Here are some words to learn. You will need them someday. The first word is window. Window means…” Yet that is how vocabulary is often presented in the language class.
When we think about vocabulary lessons in this way, we become aware of five facts:
CREATING A SENSE OF NEED FOR A WORD
What is real need or personal need in relation to vocabulary learning? If a student feels he must learn certain words in order to please the teacher or to pass an examination, how real is that feeling of need? The need may indeed produce learning, especially among certain individuals and in certain cultures, but more often than not students who learn such reasons – and for no other reasons – will gain little of permanent value. Among those who still cannot speak, write, or even read English after years of instruction, there are many with fine school records. They studied vocabulary in preparation for each examination during those years, and they answered the exam questions well; but their efforts did not produce the ability to communicate. There is more practical command of vocabulary among those who have needed English words for their own purposes (for communication in business or travel, or in friendships with speakers of English).
Of course it is usually not possible to create in a classroom the same conditions that produce successful vocabulary learning outside of school. It is especially impossible to create again the conditions that once helped our students learn fundamental vocabulary in their mother tongue. Nevertheless, it is useful to think about those conditions. When we have noticed certain facts about vocabulary learning outside of class, we can make some use of those facts while developing techniques for the classroom.
To see how this can be done, let’s look at several words that are introduced in first-year textbooks, words representing nouns, verbs and adjectives. Other kinds of words (such as prepositions, conjunctions, articles and auxiliaries) are generally taught in the grammar lesson.
A LOOK AT A TEXTBOOK LESSON
Suppose we are about to teach from one of many textbooks where a vocabulary lesson looks more or less like this:
boy door girl picture wall
clock floor person room window
To the right of each listed word, we may find a corresponding word in the students’ language. Somewhere on the page there may be a picture showing a boy and a girl in a room with a clock on one wall. With those aids to learning, the students will be expected to read (and perhaps to translate) the following sentences, which appear next in the textbook:
This is a picture of a room.The room has a door and two windows. There is a clock on the wall. There are two persons in this room. The boy is sitting near the clock. The girl is sitting near the door.
That is how a page may look in a fairly typical textbook. As we consider techniques for teaching such a lesson – and as we compare it to vocabulary learning outside the school – we look first at the alphabetized list. What kind of help should we give students here? When words are learned in the real world, they are not met in alphabetical order. Early in the lesson, we must be prepared to take these words out of the list and to group together words that belong together in real life. This is not to say, of course, that alphabetical order can’t serve other purposes. Without alphabetical order, for example, dictionaries and telephone directories would be useless. Even for a list of new words (as on our sample textbook page) alphabetizing may be appropriate in helping students to find a word during periods of study at home. At any rate, the alphabetized list is there, on the page. And if consider it only one part of the lesson – if we are ready to move on quickly to other activities – the list does no harm. Let’s consider techniques for dealing quickly with such a list.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE LIST ON THE TEXTBOOK PAGE
Some teachers read aloud each word from the list while the students’ books are closed. Other programs permit students to look at each word while the teacher is pronouncing it. Each procedure has advantages and disadvantages. Many times the sight of a word has a bad effect on students’ pronunciation, as English spelling sometimes has little relation to the way the word sounds. Sometimes, however, pronunciation is considered less important than the rapid growth of vocabulary. At such times, students are encouraged to look at the word while hearing it pronounced, since learners tend to remember a word more easily if they see and hear it.
There is no harm in having students say each word after the teacher says it. Some students find it helpful; many enjoy saying the word as soon as they hear it .Hearing the word, seeing it, and saying it – all of these may be aids to learning. But they are only part of the learning process. More is needed, and the harm comes when there is no time for anything more. There are classes in which every student is asked to say every new word before anyone knows (or cares) how the word is used for communication. In such classes, too much time goes into this repeating of words as words.
When too much time is given to seeing and saying words (without relation to their normal use), too little time remains for more helpful activities. And as such, the alphabetized list of words at the top of our sample vocabulary page is not very conducive to that activity. Yet before leaving that list of words, let’s think about ways of showing their meanings.
SHOWING THE MEANINGS OF WORDS
Everyone has seen English textbooks where meanings are shown in the students’ mother tongue. In such books, the English word appears first, then the word in the students’ language. In books without translations, the teacher is expected to provide a definition after reading aloud each English word. In classes where no one language is known by all the students, the teacher needs particular skill. The teacher must provide definitions in English, using words the class can understand. Vocabulary lessons for the first stage of English instruction (like the one we are describing now) use pictures for showing many meanings. In some classes for beginners, teachers use all three ways to show the meanings of vocabulary words:
In a later chapter we will consider other ways of showing meanings.
At this point it is worth noting something about these common kinds of vocabulary presentation.In all three cases teachers call attention to the meaning after calling attention to the English word.But let’s think about that order of presentation.Is it really best to drow students’ attention first to the new word and then to its meaning? It is interesting to compare this order with the order of events in the learning of vocabulary in one’s mother tongue. During a child’s early years, what happens first is this: the child has an experience with some object (perhaps a new toy truck).While his attention is on the truck, the child then hears the name of the object which has attracted his interest. (Perhaps some adult says, “What a nice truck!” or “Put away that truck and come to dinner.”) First the child’s attention is drawn to the truck; then the child gets the word that names it.
In second-language classes today, some teachers are trying to apply what has been discovered about the acquisition of first language vocabulary. Whenever possible, they offer their students some sort of experience with an object for which the English word will be taught. They try to draw students’ attention to an object before spending much time on the English name for it.
Let’s see how this might apply to our sample vocabulary lesson.
DRAWING ATTENTION TO MEANING BEFORE DRILLING WORDS
As we prepare to teach the textbook lesson, we look at the list of new words: boy, clock, door, floor, girl, person, picture, room, wall, window. We decide that there are at least two groups of related words here. One group contains words for people: boy, girl, person.
We think about ways of drawing students’ attention to the ideas represented by those words (not to the words themselves). We consider a few possibilities and reject some. For instance, we could point to a boy and a girl in our class as a way of preparing students to learn the words boy and girl. In some cultures, however, this procedure would produce discomfort, and a less personal way of demonstrating the meaning would be required.
If the textbook has a picture that shows a boy and a girl, we can direct attention to that picture. (Our sample textbook page has such a picture.) To focus attention on the blackboard, however, we may want to draw a set of illustrative stick figures there.
Notice that this is not a family group. These are persons, most of them boys and girls. (We include pictures of men and women to show that not all males are usually called boys, not all females are called girls.)
If the English words man/men, woman/women have not already been taught, we do not need to introduce those words now. It is very possible, however, that the students will request the English words when they see pictured men and women. When that happens, of course, we are delighted to supply those words; that is the perfect condition for learning vocabulary. İt is also possible that some student in the class already knows the word man or woman. When that student offers the English word, many of his classmates will quickly learn it.
If we are totally unable (or unwilling) to draw, we can ask someone in the class to draw the set of stick figures on the black-board before the lesson begins. (If the blackboard is small, and we need the space for other purposes, the pictures may be made on a very large sheet of paper. An advantage is that the paper can be saved for use again in a later lesson.)
At the beginning of the vocabulary lesson, we call students’ attention to the set of stick figures. This can be done by pointing, or by covering one of the figures with a piece of paper, or by drawing a frame around the figures.
As soon as it appears that the students are paying attention, we give them the words that speakers of English use for such human beings. We point to one of the boys and say, “a boy” or “That is a boy”. We point to another boy and again say, “a boy” or “That is a boy.” İn the same way, each of the girl figures is indicated and the word is given.
Below each of those figures we then write a boy or a girl. If we wish, we may also teach a man and a woman at this time. Certainly we will wish to do so if students express an interest in learning those words. Even if the English words for the pictured men and women are not taught now, however, the figures will serve a purpose: they will show that the words girl and boy do not usually represent adult persons.
Only a very short time (perhaps three minutes) should be given to this presentation of meanings and then of words. Now it will be important to give the students some experience with the use of these words for communication. It can be a very simple experience, but it must require the use of the word girl, boy, or person for giving and receiving information.
Communication Experience 1
The students are asked to take paper and pencil, and to see how many stick figures can draw before the teacher says “Stop”. (If the words men and women have not been taught, the students draw only boys and girls.) While the students are drawing, the teacher walks around the room and chooses a student who has made several particularly clear pictures. (We’ll call him Mario.) The teacher asks him to come to the front of the room with his paper, which he does NOT show to any of his classmates.
Teacher: Mario has several persons in his picture.
How many? How many boys are there?
How many girls are there? Let’s guess, in English.
As various students offer guesses (ten persons, four girls, three boys, five persons, six girls, etc.) Mario (and the teacher) look at his picture and accept the guess if it is correct. If the number is wrong, Mario corrects it. (For example: “No, tⱳelve persons.” “No, six girls.” “No, four boys.”) Finally, Mario shows his set of pictures to the class. If the figures are small and the class is large, he should copy the picture on the board while other students are telling the teacher about their own pictures. Before returning to his seat, Mario points to the figures he has drawn and – in English – says what they are.
Communication Experience 2
When there are both boys and girls in the classroom, the teacher writes the following dialog on the board, using names of girls in the class where blanks appear:
THE FİRST SPEAKER: I’m thinking of a girl in this room. You
have three guesses.
THE SECOND SPEAKER: Are you thinking of ____?
THE THIRD SPEAKER: Are you thinking of____?
THE FOURTH SPEAKER: Are you thinking of____?
THE FIRST SPEAKER: I’m thinking of____?
The teacher shows how this dialog will be used for a game. First, the speakers are the teacher, who is thinking of some girl in the class, and three of the best students. After that, a student is the First Speaker, who thinks of a boy or a girl, and the dialog is used in a similar manner. If someone loses a guess by naming a boy when the players are trying to guess which girl is being thought of, the response to that guess will quickly teach both of these English words.
In classes where there are only boys, or only girls, it will still be possible to use this technique. The teacher introduces the dialog by indicating that the First Speaker is thinking of some person in literature – a boy or a girl in some story that everyone knows.
In this chapter we have noted the following points:
A C T I V I T I E S
Describe a simple classroom activity which would require the students to use the words circle, square, and triangle for the exchange of information.