Articles for Teachers
Over the past decade or so, the focus in English language teaching has been on the 'lexical approach'. There were three issues that led to this concentration on the lexical element in language. One was a recognition coming out of the communicative approach, that to be understood speakers of a second language did not need to produce grammatically perfect sentences. This is connected also to the study of pragmatics, which shows us that the implications of a particular structure often have little or nothing to do with its overtly ascribed function. A second awareness was that the lexical phrase, or chunk, was seen from computational studies as 'an ideal unit which can be exploited for language teaching' (Nattinger and DeCarrico, 1992) and from this came the realisation that syllabuses could be devised around lexical material with organisational principles that would be just as valid as those used for structural syllabuses.
While these developments have by no means persuaded language trainers to abandon more traditional approaches to grammar teaching, they have thrown an emphasis on the importance of taking a systematic approach to the lexical content of the course. In this article I want to discuss some of the issues you might consider when planning your approach to teaching vocabulary.
1. External and internal worlds.
Words can refer to phenomena in the world we perceive:
ice cream ship sun elephant
or to the concepts by which we organise our world:
Wednesday night hundred
but also to the relationships between words within the syntactical structures we use:
the if under unless.
Lexical chunks bridge the gap between these external and internal worlds by offering us 'prefabricated' lexical items for specific functions:
for the most part (qualifier) once and for all (summariser) as I was saying (topic shifter).
2. Selection criteria
Published courses invariably apply selection criteria based on such principles as frequency, coverage or distribution. Unfortunately this can throw up anomalies. For example, the word vehicle appears to be more useful on the basis of coverage than the word train. But native speakers always select the appropriate word over the more general one. One of the problems with artificial selection criteria is that they ignore the influence of collocation by which words co-exist in specific patterns. Take the sentence below:
my sister is always trying to ..... her cast-off clothes on me.
The word for the gap is 'foist' but it would hardly feature in any lists of frequency or coverage. It is specific to the context, but native speakers have no difficulty with such unusual collocations.
Lexical chunks can be associated with certain rituals, telephoning for example. They help us to predict certain set expressions that recur in this activity:
who's calling? hold on who shall I say is calling?
Often these chunks are impossible to translate directly into another language:
c'est de la part de? ne quittez pas.
4. How words work
The most frequently asked question in the English language classroom is 'what does x mean?'. The reader will infer from the points above that the answer to this question depends on a number of variables. If you have looked at my series of articles on 'how words work', you will see my discussions of how such factors as collocation, connotation, register, position etc. affect meaning too.
5. Classroom approaches
So, we can probably accept that lexical material deserves to take centre stage in language teaching but how can we best order the material and facilitate learning? The first choice we have is whether to embed the lexical material in other parts of the programme such as grammar, reading, writing, speaking, listening or whether to isolate it and focus on vocabulary for its own sake. In fact each approach has its place.
When new topics are being explored, it is useful to focus on the individual lexical items as well as the chunks associated with the topic. When teaching reading strategies, for example, the approach to the new vocabulary can be part of the way help learners make deductions about meaning. But one point above all seems to be essential in how we deal with vocabulary and that is to raise the learners' awareness of the complexity of the concept of 'meaning' and simultaneously to help them develop successful techniques for dealing with that complexity. I leave with you with an example of the sort of exercise I find useful in this respect.
How can the words in the column A combine with a word in column B?
The interesting outcome of this exercise is that learners invariably know all the items right- column B but have enormous difficulty with the column A. When we have done the exercise, we discuss the conclusions they draw from it.