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Teaching Vocabulary

Vocabulary is considered one of the vital communication skills one needs to learn not only to study but to master the language and be considered fluent in it. Vocabulary is intertwined with the other vital communication skills which are grammar, reading, listening, writing and speaking and therefore interdependent and cannot be treated separately.

Vocabulary transcends the four skills as it is applied there. In grammar, they are applied when one constructs as sentence and the words need to be in its proper places depending on its role as a part of speech, one will be exposed to words when listening and speaking and will apply it when writing and speaking. There are at least four problems encountered when teaching and learning vocbulary.

These are 1) the sheer number of words needed to be learned; 2) the gap in levels of word knowledge, especially among children; 3) the gap in levels in word knowledge starts even before children begin formal schooling and 4) on the part of teachers, teaching vocabulary the traditional way lacks word-learning strategies and the appreciation of words. In the first one, learning a lot of words can be very daunting and intimidating even for adults.

It is unrealistic to expect one to learn all the words in the (English) language, let alone use them all considering that one does not only learn that particular word, but also its synonyms. Another thing to take into consideration is that there are new words added to the vocacbulary on a regular basis and dictionaries even include archaic and obsolete words as well (Hiebert & Kamil 2005: 96-97; Schmitt 2000: 55,166).

There are even dictionaries, especially the prominent ones like Webster and Oxford that also “import” words from foreign languages that are also used in English in a certain context such as “coup d’etat” (French), “blitz” or “blitzkrieg” (German) or “kamikaze” (Japanese), not to mention words used by various subcultures, especially of the hip hop generation such as “chill” (relax), “crew” (groupmates), and “homey” (friend). In the second problem, not all children are equal when it comes to the ability to learn something quickly.

Some will be slow to catch up while others can learn a lot of words in a very short time. The former will have limited vocabulary and will have difficulty keeping up in classes. The third problem is all about learning “academic” language. This is the language used mainly in school and is rather different from the ones they pick up at home. It is said that the more words one uses is a sign of intelligence and gives the practitioner a sense of empowerment over others.

What makes academic vocabulary challenging is at this point, learners discover that although there are synonyms, they cannot be used liberally and need to be used in a specific context (Hiebert & Kamil 2005: 98-99; Schmitt 2000: 55). The fourth problem is the teaching process itself. Usually, teachers put a lot of time and effort teaching one particular word to a student and teaching a particular word entails taking a different appraoch as one method cannot be applied to the next.

For instance, there are words that denote complex or abstract concepts such as “liberty,” “love,” and “democracy” teaching these words is different from teaching words that be explained with examples or context such as “challenge,” “harp” or “betray. ” The former is too profound to teach and will require a deeper sense of understanding on the part of the learner, especially if it is a child who still lacks the maturity to comprehend such profound words (Hiebert & Kamil 2005: 101).

At this point, how can a teacher help make learning easier and interesting to the learner? The most obvious solution would be to do away with the “traditional” rote learning and come up with innovative ways of teaching it, not to mention the method to be employed must be appropriate to the given situation and not applied to everything. One common method used is the point contact teaching where the teacher simply gives the definition point blank and if applicable, give the proper pronunciation as well (Hiebert & Kamil 2005: 101-102; Flohr 2010: 5).

For instance, if a student encounters an unfamiliar word in a text such as “famished,” the teacher can simply say that it means “(very) hungry. ” According to Susanne Flor, “the teacher should give a concise definition of the new word using only a few words and not to use the word in context at this point . ” (5) This will make it easy for a student who is very young to understand it. Esentially, these are words that will stick and require no further elaboration. That is left to the learner to discover on his or her own as they use the word themselves.

The next approach would be extensive teaching. This is usually reserved for much older students who want to learn words meaningfully. This is based on three principles: 1) Effective teaching of vocabulary provides not only the denotation of a word, but also its connotation; 2) this requires children to go into deep processing, especially the ability to relate a newly-learned word to the knowledge or information they already possess; and 3) Effective instruction entails multiple exposure to each word.

(Hiebert & Kamil 2005: 102). By the time a learner reaches the right age, preferably high school age, they should be able to possess the maturity to understand the deeper meanings of the words they learned. Not only to they limit themselves to the literal meaning of the words but also its figurative meaning and anything associated with it. As Hiebert and Kamil puts it, “To learn a new word, we must not only learn how that word relates to other words, but also how the word changes in different contexts.

” (Hiebert & Kamil 2005: 103) Therefore, one needs to take into consideration the synonyms, antonyms, categories (common and proper noun), and comparing it with other words that are similar to it. For instance, a “pig” is literally and animal but figuratively, it has a more deeper meaning which can mean slovenly, messy and even greedy and stubborn, depending on the context it is being used. The learner also needs to do their part in trying to digest the information and internalize the words learned.

Rather than try to memorize it, they should integrate the word into their psyche where they understand its meaning but that is only the half of it, this also calls for repeated exposure of the word. This means encountering it regularly when reading and listening as well as using it whether saying it or using it in a (written) sentence. It follows that the more the learner uses the word, the more familiar they will become to the point that it will become second nature to them and using it will become instinctive without the need to retrieve it from their memory which will take time.

Furthermore, opportunities should be created in learning a word. This also includes using it which is also regarded part of the learning process as well. One such technique is group activity or games be it pair or with the entire class. This is considered better than learning on one’s own and is considered fast and easy to organize and eliminates gaps in learning since learning is interactive (Wright, Betteridge & Buckby 2002: 3). The rationale behind this is that it would be a mistake to leave the learner alone.

This to get the student to actively participate and employ all the communications skills rather than focus on one as group work will also involve speaking especially if the activity calls for a (simulated) conversation. Onr example of this activity would be the “feely game” where the purpose is to develop the ability to identify something through discrimination, guessing and speculation. There are many variations to it. One variation is “touch and describe. ” For instance, the word to be learned is “newspaper” one learner will describe it (hard or soft).

The other will ask a question (What is it made of? ) and his partner will give the answer (paper). Then the other partner will ask another question (Is it heavy or light? ) and the partner will answer; once enough information is given, the group will have gathered enough hints to be able to figure out the answer by then (Wright, Betteridge & Buckby 2002: 95). In conclusion, learning and teaching vocabulary need not be laborious or tedious for both the learner and the teacher.

Words do need to be learned indeed but one needs to understand that learning is not limited to the classroom. It extends beyond its walls. The learner needs to apply what is learned in the outside world and only then can he or she consider himself or herself familiar with that particular word. Memorization is not and should not be the sole method of learning. In addition, learning it can be fun as demonstrated in group activities which also energizes the class.As Mary Poppins once put it, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. ”

List of References

Flohr, S. (2010). Presenting and Teaching Vocabulary in the EFL Classroom. Nordenstedt, Germany: Druck und Bindung. Hiebert, E. H. & Kamil, M. L. (2005). Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Schmitt, N. (2000). Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Wright, A. , Betteridge, D. & Buckby, M. (2002). Games for Language Learning. Cambridge:

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