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