Training Students To Efficiently Learn Vocabulary

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Successful vocabulary learning depends on both the learners' efforts and on the methods teachers use during their vocabulary lessons. A good teacher is not the person who only transmits a volume of information, but the person who trains students how to assimilate the information given. A good teacher is aware of the fact that the learning process does not end with his classes and that students need to be prepared to continue their learning at home. For this reason, this chapter will revolve around some techniques that can help both teachers in designing their activities so that they can train students to efficiently learn the vocabulary they present in the classroom and also students in their autodidactic learning process.

Whenever teachers are supposed to teach a vocabulary lesson, they must be aware of the fact that the new words should not overstretch the learners' capacity to remember them. In addition to that, teachers must take into account whether the words they want to introduce are teachable, that is, if they can be easily explained or demonstrated. Another important aspect is that the presentation of the new list of words should not extend so far into the lesson because, in this way, no time will be available to practise the new words. However, teachers' role is that of facilitating the learning process of her students. It is the students' responsibility to make big efforts to learn the words presented to them. In what follows, I will present some techniques meant to help learners acquire more easily new words.

Using Word Cards

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Teachers will do a great job if they can teach their students to prepare and use word cards. This technique involves writing a word to be learned on one side of a small card and its mother tongue translation on the other. Learners can test themselves on how well they remember the meaning of the words by looking at each new word and then checking their understanding of each one by looking at the word's translation. Then, students can reverse the process, that is, they can use the translation to trigger the form of the new word. The word cards should be shuffled periodically, so that to avoid remembering words because of their order. Students should seriously organize their sequence of learning and reviewing the words on the cards. As some words are learnt, they should be discarded and others should be added to the set.

Teachers that want to train their students to adopt this technique and to convince them to always carrying the word cards with them need to first supply them with blank cards until they get into the habit of preparing their own. Teachers can use this technique during a vocabulary lesson. They can prepare word cards with the vocabulary they want to elicit and during the lesson they can use them in order to repeat the vocabulary with the students. Teachers can show one side of the card, for example, and ask students to provide the translation of that particular word on the card and vice versa. In subsequent lessons, teachers can encourage students to produce their word cards and invite them to have a discussion on their usefulness, how many words they have learnt and how productive their learning was. Teachers need to continue including word card activities into their vocabulary lessons until the majority of students are persuaded to use them.

Teachers can use word card sets to incorporate some relaxing games within a vocabulary lesson. For example, each learner lays down one card at the same time, with the English word face up. The student that manages to make a coherent sentence including both words gets a point. If no association can be made by any student, two more word cards are to be dealt with. Another game using word cards is the following: one student picks up a card and does not show his colleagues the word on the card. The student with the card starts describing the word he hides, like for example: “It is a noun. It begins with the letter B. It has five letters. Can you guess my word?” The student that guesses the word gets a point. Many other games can be made up using word cards. The advantage of incorporating such games is not only that they give color and fun to the lessons, but that they also challenge students to use these word cards when learning vocabulary.

Guessing Words from the Context

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Irrespective of how many words students learn, they will always come across unfamiliar vocabulary when reading a text or when listening to a tape, etc. This is the reason why they will always need to make intelligent guesses to the meaning of the unknown words. Guessing from the context is one of the most useful skills that learners can acquire and apply both inside and outside the classroom. Moreover, it is a technique that all students use, maybe unconsciously, when reading and listening in their mother tongue. The only problem is that students tend to pay more attention to the words on the page than to the message of the text they read. For this reason, vocabulary guessing should be integrated as often as possible into text-based activities such as reading and listening for comprehension.

Teachers need to work a lot with students who are not used to rely on the context of their reading. They should strive to discourage students to read with the aim of pronouncing the words correctly. This latter purpose is also important, but when speaking of vocabulary, the focus on pronunciation will distract students from understanding the message of the text. This training will also help students prepare for examinations where they are not allowed to use dictionaries.

Using Dictionaries

Dictionaries can be used productively as resources for vocabulary acquisition. Teachers should encourage students to use dictionaries as much as possible especially at home in their free time because they constitute an important source of information which students will always use. In the classroom, the accent should fall on using the other strategies because, as I have already mentioned, students will not always have dictionaries with them when speaking or listening.

There are two main types of dictionaries: bilingual, that is, the ones that contain English words and their mother tongue translation, or vice versa, for example, English-Romanian and Romanian-English and monolingual, that is, the ones in which the English words are also explained in English. For students of advanced level the best dictionaries are those monolingual because they train students better for speaking, reading, listening and writing activities.

Some positive effects that dictionaries can have on the learning process are: discriminating between the different meanings of a word, especially a word with many polysemes, such as “book” or “fair”, using synonyms, antonyms, and other information to narrow the choice of the best word for the meaning intended, inferring the spelling of an unknown word from only having heard it in order to check its meaning, checking the spelling of a certain word, etc.

Teachers can include the work with dictionaries within their classroom activities. Many enjoyable activities can be designed for the work with the dictionary. For example, they can ask learners to devise word chains using dictionary entries, that is, students, working in groups, are given a starting word and are left some minutes to produce a chain as long as possible, choosing only words that are somehow meaningfully related, for example: happy-joyful-elated etc. When they are done, students can explain the list of words to their colleagues and at the end of the class, teachers can organize a contest in which each group is supposed to remember as many words as possible from a list belonging to another group of students. The group that remembers most of the words is the winner.

Dictionaries can help students to enrich their vocabulary and they are a valuable source to be used for life-long study. However, teachers should not use too often dictionaries in the classroom because this might lead to students' refusal to actually learn English words. If they keep on looking up the words in the dictionary, they will not strive to retain their meaning and this will have a negative influence especially on their speaking and listening activities, where students need to be spontaneous and original. Being dependent on dictionary will also lead to negative results at the examinations where students are not allowed to use dictionaries.

Translating Words

Translation has been the most widely used method of presenting the meaning of a word in traditional teaching. The advantage of translating words is that a direct route to their meaning is given. It is very economical and suitable for dealing with incidental vocabulary that appears in a lesson. However, an over-reliance on translation might lead to learners' failure to develop an independent English lexicon since they always access English words by means of their mother tongue equivalents. Moreover, since students are not trained to work hard to access meaning, they are likely to be less capable of efficiently memorizing English words.

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Concerning the advanced learners of English, they are supposed to use translation of English words into their native language as little as possible. Any other above-mentioned strategy is better for them to use than translation. Teachers should also avoid translating English words into the students' mother tongue. In their, translation is allowed only when the meaning of a certain word cannot be rendered by using the other strategies. If under no circumstances do students understand the meaning of a word, it is advisable that teachers translate it rather than let it unclear.

Other Strategies

Guessing the meaning of unknown words from the context is a technique that helps students to deal primarily with reading and listening. But learners must also deal with their gaps in speaking and writing. In this case students need to adopt certain strategies to get round the problem of not knowing a word, or not being able to recall it in time. In these situations, advanced learners should be prepared to use paraphrasing, word description, synonyms, using gesture and mime.

Paraphrasing is a helpful strategy that renders our communication fluent and our listening concrete. It is the device in which students, not knowing the form of a word, try to explain as clear as possible its meaning so that their listeners understand what they mean. For example, if they do not remember the word “elation”, students can paraphrase its meaning and say: “extreme happiness.” Thus, the communication is no longer broken by a missing word. Learners can develop this strategy by extensive reading and by communicating as much as possible. Teachers in the classroom can also help their students to acquire this strategy by activities in which they ask them to read a paragraph or a sentence and then speak freely about what message it renders.

Describing the meaning of a word resembles very much paraphrasing. The only difference is that when describing, students aim to create a picture of that particular word in the mind of their listeners. Thus, when not knowing the form of a word, students can compare it to something else and add some features or simply state its characteristics. For instance, if students do not remember the word “stool”, they can describe it in the following terms: “it is like a chair with four legs, but without a back.”

Using the right synonym at the right time will make learners' communication impeccable. The best thing that students can do is that, when they do not remember a certain word, they should quickly search in their mind for an equivalent. For example, if they do not remember the word “to assess,” they can replace it by its synonym “to evaluate.” The only problem with finding synonyms is the fact that it demands good training. Learners need much reading to be able to quickly find equivalents that do not change the meaning of the message they want to convey. Teachers can train students to acquire this strategy. They can incorporate within their classroom activities exercises that focus on working with synonyms. But, since the time is limited, teachers need to prepare their learners to perform more activities of this kind at home.

Gesture and mime might come in handy when learners cannot use words to make their message clear for their listeners. If, for example, they want to highlight the importance of having a saw when cutting the grass and if the word “saw” cross by no means their mind, students can use gesture and mime to help their listeners understand them. Using gestures and mime in their classroom activities will help teachers to both train their students for such a useful strategy and to relax them. After eliciting the new vocabulary, teachers can ask their learners to come in turns in front of the classroom and mime a word. The other colleagues will have to guess what word is being mimed.

When talking with students in the classroom, teachers must resist the temptation of supplying them with the words they are looking for in order to encourage them to integrate the above-mentioned strategies into their talk. Telling students that even the proficient speakers have gaps in their communication can prove helpful in that students might speak English without being afraid of making mistakes.

All in all, useful techniques that both teachers can apply during their vocabulary lessons and students in their further learning at home have been described in this chapter. Even though acquiring vocabulary is more of students' responsibility, teachers can actively participate in their students learning process. Teachers can help their students to develop vocabulary learning strategies such as word cards, guessing from the context, using dictionaries, paraphrasing, using synonyms, describing the meaning of the words, correctly using gestures and mime, all of which can prove efficient in the learners' attempt to acquire English vocabulary.