Monday, April 23, 2012

Memory Strategies for Vocabulary – Practicing!

Based off the feedback from one of my recently-completed courses, I've decided to take a closer look at vocabulary instruction and practice methods in the classroom, starting with memory strategies and strategy training.


Until now, I've been discussing strategies for putting the words into the mind. Now, I'd like to look at some strategies for reviewing. Reviewing is time consuing, and often boring...which is why many language learners don't do it. Unfortunatly, the much more interesting “just skip it” approach isn't very effective, either.

Here are the some strategies for practicing vocabulary and making sure it sticks:

Structured reviewing:

Language learners need to be smart about their reviewing. Just learning the word once doesn't guarantee that they are permanently in the brain. On the other hand, constantly checking 5,000 flashcards is not a practical way to review, either. Vocabulary review should be structured. For teachers, this means going back over old vocabulary at regular intervals. For learners, this means adjusting the way you may have been using your flashcards. Everyday Language Learner has a good article about an effective way to use paper flashcards for structured reviewing.

Using physical response or sensation:

Movement can help the review process. For teachers, in-class games like Charades can help practice the new words (espeically verbs!), and for learners, practicing words with meaningful gestures can help cement them in the mind. I'm sure the extra oxygen going to the brain from all the movement doesn't hurt, either.

Play with words:

There are a lot of (free) games out there that can help with new vocabulary development. Word games, like Scrabble, Crossword Puzzles, Boggle, or Hangman are also good ideas. The more interactions you have with a word, the more likely you are to remember its meaning. Here are just a few word games and online practice sites I found with a quick Google search. I'm sure there are TONS more.

Any thoughts? Do you think these reviewing tips are helpful? Am I missing anything?
If you are a learner, what do you do to practice? If you are a teacher, how do you help your students practice??

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Memory Strategies for Vocabulary – Semantic Mapping

Based off the feedback from one of my recently-completed courses, I've decided to take a closer look at vocabulary instruction and practice methods in the classroom, starting with memory strategies and strategy training.

Semantic Mapping

“This strategy involves arranging concepts and relationships on paper to create...a digram in which the key concepts are highlighted and linked with related concepts via arrows or lines" (*1, p. 61). This is a good strategy to use with visual learners, because it illustrates connections between ideas and words. 

Often, I use a strategy like this in my teaching. At the beginning of class, I try to have a warm-up discussion about the topic at hand. During this time, I usually take notes on the white board or flip chart in a “brainstorm” model, where words related to a topic branch out and words related to the branches come of of those. This is also a subtle grouping method.

I don't normally use pictures in my semantic maps, but that is also a good option. The word-image association could strengthen the processing of the vocabulary.  Also, I've never asked the students to do the mapping themselves. Since I usually have fairly small classes (3-6 students), it would be relatively easy to give each student a marker, and to have them write the words on the map themselves, in the location that they feel is the most appropriate. This could also be a starting point for a good discussion and group work. 

A nice vocabulary website that shows this concept of semantic mapping is Visuwords. Every word is connected to its meaning, which in turn is connected to several other words. Again, it doesn't use pictures, but it does have the connections. 

How do you use semantic mapping for vocabulary instruction?

1. Rebecca Oxford, Language Learning Strategies, 1990. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Memory Strategies for Vocabulary - Associating/Elaborating

Based off the feedback from one of my recently-completed courses, I've decided to take a closer look at vocabulary instruction and practice methods in the classroom, starting with memory strategies and strategy training.


“This memory strategy involves associating new language information with familiar concepts already in memory” (*1, p. 60).  I've used tricks like this for myself for years, like the "I'm a genie” trick to remember how to spell imagine (im-a-gin-e) and coraz√≥n (Spanish for heart) is the core of a person. "The associations can be simple or complex, mundane or strange, but they must be meaningful to the learner" (*1, p. 41). 

My associations with the word "Fly"
Even though I use it for my own language learning, I don't know that I've ever used this strategy in my teaching. It seems like such an obvious strategy for learning words that I've just assumed that students would do it on their own. Now, after actually thinking about it, I'm not so sure they do.

With the large amount of vocabulary we cover in class, is it a good idea to spend time elaborating on words during our time together, or is it better to model the strategy and to leave the responsibility for using it with the students?

For in-class strategy use, I think a free association exercise might be helpful (there is a good explanation of an activity here). After listing associations, students have to explain the connection to the target term. For more advanced students, maybe a Semantic Feature Analysis activity would be helpful. A Semantic Feature Analysis chart “can examine related concepts but make distinctions between them according to particular criteria across which the concepts can be compared.” There is an example here with presidents and features of their candidacy and campaigns, but the same structure can be applied to words that are similar in meaning, or related in topic.

For out-of-class activities, the association/elaboration strategies could be a good homework assignment to populate a vocabulary list of the most difficult words to remember. Have the students choose one or two words each from the discussion and then create an association or elaboration device for it. Pull everyone's words together to make a list for everyone to study.

Do you know any other ways to incorporate association or elaboration strategies into vocabulary learning? What's worked for you?

1. Rebecca Oxford, Language Learning Strategies, 1990.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Error Correction in the Classroom

One thing my EFL students ask for again and again is error correction. I have been teaching English in the classroom for about a year now, and I have been trying to find a way to incorporate helpful error correction into each lesson. Recasting and explicit correction are pretty common ways to provide some level of feedback to the students, but I find that these methods aren’t always so helpful.

Recasting with emphasis on the corrected element.

Recasting has been my primary error correction technique, but I have come to realize its shortcomings, both through classroom experiences of my own while learning German and through the lack of apparent results with my EFL students. Recasts are often confused with confirmation of correct production, and if the corrected part of the recast isn’t made obvious (through intonation or a gesture), even after recasting a feature several times, the whole effort is lost.

Recasting does have its benefits in the classroom, though: it’s quick and doesn’t entirely interrupt the student’s production, and doesn’t seem discouraging. (Which may be due to the misinterpretation of the feedback, as stated above.)

Explicit correction is a step up from recasting and may be far more effective in clarifying a particular error, but it has some disadvantages. In contrast with recasting, explicit correction seems to disrupt the flow of conversation in the classroom, directing attention away from production.

Explicit correction in the classroom that occurs too frequently in one session or over a few sessions can be discouraging for students. It is especially tough when one student needs more correction than the other students and subsequently disengages from the lesson or even from later lessons. However, if the need for correction is widespread in the class, it is a good indicator that the teacher needs to reexamine the suitability of the material for the students at their particular level.

Another problem with explicit correction, and even recasting, is when the student misspeaks, making a simple error. It is hard to decide which errors, no matter how small, slip by. When students ask for intense feedback, which errors do you focus on and which do you let slide?

In my own practice, I tend to avoid correcting things that do not confuse the student’s message, such as minor pronunciation errors or adverb placement, to name a couple. Instead, I make sure students use the right verb conjugation with the proper person and an accurate verb tense. When it comes to errors with word selection, I like to first ask the class if they might have a more suitable word for the student and rely on my own vocabulary as a secondary measure.

There are different levels of error correction, I have only focused on two here. I want to talk about other methods after a bit more classroom use. Check out the interesting articles below for more information.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Memory Strategies for Vocabulary - Grouping

Based off the feedback from one of my recently-completed courses, I've decided to take a closer look at vocabulary instruction and practice methods in the classroom, starting with memory strategies and strategy training.


“Grouping involves classifying or reclassifying what is heard or read into meaningful groups” (*1, p. 58). Possible group categories include meaning, word gender, grammatical category, conceptual similarities, or whatever other type of separation becomes obvious. Oxford also mentions that the "power of this strategy may be enhanced by labeling the groups, [by] using acronyms to remember the groups, or [by] using different colors to represent different groups" (*1, p. 40). 

The idea behind grouping is that it creates a link from one idea to another, and in that way, a word becomes easier to remember than when it is decontextualized and alone.

Usually, in the material provided for my courses, there is a short section on topical vocabulary or on vocabulary related to a specific language function. It would be very easy for me to write down sub-categories for words in class while we are having a discussion to elicit and practice the vocabulary, but I wonder if the grouping is more salient when the students do it themselves. Is the deep processing of vocabulary activated more by personally choosing the different categories for the words?

My plan to incorporate this language learning strategy in my teaching:
  1. Co-create a vocabulary list from the discussion topic or the text, etc. (or, maybe, bring in a list collected from the last class session)
  2. Put students in groups and have them categorize the words in any way they would like
  3. Have the groups compare their categories, and list the words that belong to each group
  4. Have a discussion about other possible categories or about more words that could be added to the existing categories
Here is a document explaining another list-group-label activity, very similar to the idea I wrote about, above. In the explanation, the author suggests that the grouping emphasis should be on meaning: “It is cautioned that semantic, meaning-oriented groupings be emphasized rather than those that focus on surface commonalities of words chosen for a grouping.” However, this activity was created for reading strategies to help young learners (in, what I assume, is their native language), and I imagine that even if meaning-based groups are better, that groups based on the type of word (nouns, verbs, etc.) would still be very helpful for language learners. 

Have you heard of any other ideas for grouping? Do you know any activities or games that incorporate this memory strategy?

1. Rebecca Oxford, Language Learning Strategies, 1990

Monday, April 9, 2012

Teaching Vocabulary Through Memory Strategies

As I mentioned in my previous post, I often look back with dread to the days I spent memorizing thematic vocabulary lists when I was a beginning-level Spanish student. As a teacher and as a learner, I don't see this practice of receiving a printed list and repeating the words and definitions to be very helpful in the long-term retention of vocabulary (but, don't get me wrong, it can definitely be helpful for getting 100% on any vocabulary test that takes place in the following 15 minutes!).

Everyone knows that there are better ways to remember vocabulary than to just repeat the words to yourself. You make flashcards, you use the word in a sentence, you make a mnemonic device. These are some memory strategies.

If there are better ways to learn it, then there must be better ways to teach it, as well. And, I think, this is where memory strategies for language learning come into play. If they can help you learn vocabulary, they can help you teach vocabulary.
“At the early stages of language development, decontextualized vocabulary has been shown to be more effective in building a fundamental vocabulary than the contextualized reading [method]” (*1). 
(On a side note, a recent EAPchat focused on Academic Word Lists. Although this was specifically for an academic context, I think the arguments made regarding word lists extends further than just English for Academic Purposes. Additionally, this document discusses the myth (#2) that word lists are not useful.)

At the same time, deep processing of vocabulary (assigning meaning, making connections, thinking about word relationships) is also shown to have an impact on the ability to recall the words, as well: 
“In the short-term, information can be maintained at any level, but in the long-term information is most likely to be remembered if it is processed at the deep, meaningful way” (*2). 
This deep processing comes more naturally with contextualized vocabulary acquisition, but in the early stages, learners don't have the foundation they need to make the contextualized vocabulary salient. 
“Thus, deeper, richer semantic processing [of decontextualized vocabulary], such as memory strategies will be more likely to enhance learning than shallower processes such as rote repetition” (*3).
Peter at Creativity and Languages mentioned something similar to this in a recent post, where he discussed the importance of meaning to memory and learning: 
“Think about a telephone number but also a word in a language that is not related to other languages you know. In the first case the number is certainly meaningless, in the second case the word is meaningless for us because we lack the knowledge to make it meaningful. In both cases we can improve our ability to memorize the new data by imposing to them an arbitrarily meaning.”
And, to summarize this entire post, a quote from Rebecca Oxford's Language Learning Strategies
“Though some teachers think vocabulary learning is easy, language learners have a serious problem remembering the large amounts of vocabulary necessary to achieve fluency... Memory strategies help language learns to cope with this difficulty. They enable learners to store verbal material and then retrieve it when needed for communication” (*4).

  1. Nemati, Azadeh (2009). Memory vocabulary learning strategies and long-term retention (p. 14).
  2. Nemati, p. 21
  3. Nemati, p. 21
  4. Oxford, Rebecca. Language Learning Strategies, p. 39

Saturday, April 7, 2012

More Vocabulary!

March 1st was the end of my first “free” long-term (16-week) course. By “free,” I mean that it was my first course where I was given complete control of the content, materials, syllabus design, and activities. Basically, no material was provided, and the content was expected to be based on the needs of the students.

In the last session (after the goodbye-party murder mystery game, of course), I spent some time getting feedback from the students about what I should work to improve for the next group of students. What things did they like? What things did they think were boring? What did I not include enough of? What should I skip next time?

They were very friendly in their feedback and told me that I was their favorite teacher ever (which I appreciate, because I worked my booty off for that class). I was very surprised, however, at their unanimous criticism (but I was also very grateful for it, because it was something I would not have independently realized).

And the criticism was....(drum roll)....


It really surprised me. First of all, I remember drilling vocabulary as a Spanish student, and I also remember how much I hated it. Second, I'm currently at the stage in language learning (for German) where grammar seems like the most important thing. It seems that I've forgotten that in my years as an advanced Spanish learner, the grammar was all in my mind, and that it was the vocabulary that I needed the most. As such, I can see that I've neglected a lot of explicit vocabulary instruction in my teaching, in favor of communicative grammar instruction.

On a side note, as I was drafting this post, this quotation at the top of a post from Teaching Cloggy Style resonated with me: While without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.”

So, in the next few posts, I will be exploring different ways to enhance vocabulary instruction and strategy training for my students (and for myself as a language learner). 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Should EFL teachers worry about accents?

I read this article (Perfect Accents Not Realistic for Older Language Learners, Linguists Say) today on the Education Week website about whether language teachers (and learners) should focus on pronunciation. The article has some interesting thoughts, but what caught my eye was the final question:
The piece [mentioned in the article] made me wonder how much older English-learners in public schools—especially those immigrant students who come to the U.S. in middle school and beyond—are focused on perfecting their pronunciations and trying to shed their accents. How much are their teachers focused on that part of learning the language, and what does that mean for how well these students learn to communicate effectively?  
I thought I would share my thoughts on the topic (basically, an expanded version of my comment at the bottom).

In my opinion, forcing native-speaker-like pronunciation on students is an exercise in discouragement. There are so many standard, acceptable variations on word pronunciations, even between people in the same region (route, creek, and caramel, for example) that I leave word-specific accent training out. I tell my students that everybody has an accent--even me (I do try to "sell" my generally neutral, Southern-California-Hollywood status accent as "cool" or "likable," though).

What I do teach is pronunciation of certain trouble sounds (and occasionally words, but only if they hinder comprehension). For Germans learning English, for example, this is the "th" sound (it is always /z/ or /s/). "Thought" becomes "Sought" and "Thinking" becomes "Sinking". For Chinese students learning English, one problem is often the /l/ and /r/ switcheroo. These sounds are so different to English speakers, that there is often confusion when they are switched (unlike the very similar /b/ and /v/ sounds for Spanish-speaking English learners).

It's definitely possible to train and develop an accent that is close (enough) to a standard one, even as an adult. In fact, with the right tools and the proper education in phonology, it isn't even really that hard to teach.

However, pronunciation shouldn't be the focus unless the student (AFTER understanding that his or her accent is not "bad" or "wrong") wants to work on it beyond comprehensibility issues. As an English speaker who learned Spanish, I found training the short vowel sounds (especially at the end of words) and the word-initial consonants to be the most helpful for getting rid of my "gringo" accent. Since I'm a total language nerd, this training was a very important part in my language goal achievement. However, non-language-nerds learning English (or other languages) for other, practical purposes, may not have the same goals.

The idea that no one will know you are a non-native speaker of a language because of your flawless pronunciation and impeccable grammar is a very lofty goal. Some students, however, are interested in developing a more natural sound. If they are willing to work, assistance should be provided to them.

So, that's my two cents. But since I'm in Germany, it's two euro cents, which is probably three American cents. What do you think?