Nowadays, with a high speed development of technology, knowing a foreign language has become more significant in an environment where information plays a decisive role. With English becoming the most common used language, learning vocabulary is turning out to be the basic step beyond all doubt. However, students do not know much about vocabulary learning strategies. Therefore, in order to learning vocabulary in an efficiency way, many studies are committed to come up with a result. This paper aims to critique some current ideas about how to teach second language learners vocabulary and find out the most efficient practice in terms of enhancing English learning.
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This paper will be divided into five main parts. At the very beginning, a brief introduction of this study will be taken on. Secondly, I will present the reason of how important vocabulary is. After that, some of certain vocabulary learning strategies will be analyzed and critiqued. Then, in the discussion section, I will debate on the best practice in terms of enhancing learning. Finally, an overall summary of this study will be presented to conclude this paper.
Why learning vocabulary is important?
Experiences teachers of English as a Second Language know very well how important vocabulary is. They know students must learn thousands of words that speakers and writers of English use. Fortunately, the need for vocabulary is one point on which teachers and students agree! (Allen, 1983)
But for many years, teachers did not pay much attention on vocabulary learning strategies, which means students received less help from teachers of learning vocabulary. As grammar and pronunciation were emphasized in many journal articles, teachers were also told that they should teach vocabulary until learners could flexible use the grammar and pronunciation. Cook (2008) stated his idea that ‘when you want to say something in a second language, it is the words that you feel you struggle for rather than the grammar or pronunciation’. For this reason, during these years, an increasing number of people realize that even though it is important to know how a word works together with others in a sentence, the choice of word meaning is still occupying an important position.
As Allen(1983) mentioned in his book, ‘Through research the scholars are finding that lexical problems frequently interfere with communication; communication breaks down when people do not use the right words’. Teachers know if learners do not know enough words, it would be difficult to express their ideas and to communicate with each other. McCarthy(1990) also stressed in his work, ‘No matter how well the student learns grammar, no matter how successfully the sounds of L2 are mastered, without words to express a wide range of meanings, communication in an L2 just cannot happen in any meaningful way’.
Current ideas of teaching vocabulary
Learners tend to remember a word they meet every day rather than some words they just meet once. Therefore, learners have a deep-rooted idea: if they want to remember a new word, they should repeat this word again, again and again. Of course this belief is wrong. Cook (2008) gives us an example in his book, ‘A swear word ‘****’ said accidentally when the teacher drops the tape recorder is likely to be remembered by the students for ever, even if it is never repeated’. So there are many other effective learning factors. Moreover, many teachers realize that teaching vocabulary is not only to translate or explain its meaning, but also teach learners strategies to remember and use it. Hence, finding an efficient way of learning vocabulary has been widely discussed today. Some current ideas will be analyzed as follows.
3.1 Using dictionary
‘With increasing interest in effective learning strategies and learner independence, the dictionary has come into focus as an important classroom and personal resource’ (Hedge, 2002). There is no doubt that the most convenient way of knowing a new word’s meaning is to look it up in a dictionary. When L2 learners meet a new word, a sample way of getting its meaning is translate it into L1. Therefore, translation dictionary comes in handy. This method has its own advantages, such as fast and convenient. However, from my point of view, although most Chinese students use dictionary as main resource, the application is clearly limited. The majority of English learners know a principle of learning English is thinking in English. If they translate a word into L1, they may not know the exact meaning of this word in native speaker’s mind.
Cook (2008) provided some explanations of different types of dictionaries to use. For translation dictionary, if students ‘believe that the words for the two languages are effectively kept in one joint store’, they would like to choose translation dictionary. And if students ‘believe that the word-stores of the two languages must be kept distinct in the mind’, they will prefer monolingual L2 dictionaries. It is easy to see that ‘the learning of word meanings requires more than the use of a dictionary, and vocabulary acquisition is a complex process’ (Allen, 1983).
Another disadvantage of using dictionary is that I think it is not a good idea for learners to remember a new word permanently. People just need to know the meaning of word when using dictionary. For example, in order to understand the content of the article, students may use dictionary to check some words’ meanings. After that, they will forget these words in a very short period of time, and furthermore, learners will look these ‘new words’ up in the dictionary again at the second time learners meet them.
Therefore, ‘the use of dictionaries in language teaching has always been controversial to some extent’ (Cook, 2008).
3.2 Using visual aids
Nowadays, there is a heated discussion in the academic circles that is how to efficiently remember English words. Through a variety of experiments and practice, using visual aids has become the method which is mentioned most frequently. Visual aids are available in many forms. One of the most common used forms in language learning is flashcards, which is available for the students to use them both inside or outside the classroom. Students take this flashcards with them, one side is the word they do not know, and the other side is the picture to explain this word. This method is very simple, understandable, and the word on the flashcard is easy to remember. However, not all the words could be described as a picture on a palm-sized card.
Another kind of visual aids is thinking about a picture of this word. Teachers could let students do some brainstorm, think about everything of the new words in their mind. To put it in another way, this method is to ‘exploit the different memory systems in our minds for linking new information to old’ (Cook, 2008). Let’s take an example from Hedge (2002)’s book, the teacher can explain a word’s meaning or ask students to confirm by looking up in their dictionaries, like ‘irritating’, and let students draw on their personal experiences of this word. As the figure shows, students thought a slow bus, the baby crying, a rude person, etc are irritating. Hence, this activity made this word leave a deep impression on students.
The baby crying
A rude person
A slow bus
A long queue
Watching English movies is also a simple way to get in touch with native speakers’ life. Like SeferoÄŸlu (2008) found, ‘viewing feature films exposed them not only to a wide range of native speakers, each with their own slang, accents and dialects, but also to a wealth of contextualised vocabulary expressions and authentic cross-cultural information’. Teachers should tell students to take notes when they watch a movie. The students could write down the words they do not know or they are interested in, also do not just focus on the meaning and pronunciation of each word, but how to use it. Sometimes, students tend to remember the stars said.
In my opinion, using visual aids is more vivid than looking up in a dictionary. It adds interest and releases learners from a long list vocabulary learning. In addition, using visual aids improves learners understanding and increases retention.
3.3 Playing games
Among all the learning strategies, the most popular one is undoubtedly game-based learning. It can be treated as ‘a welcome break from the usual routine of the language class’ (http://www.teflgames.com/why.html). Playing games in class often show a significant improvement in the results. It ‘aims at getting people to learn about a certain subject or to acquire certain skills by means of playing’ (Garcia, R. M. C., Kloos, C. D. & Gil, M. C., 2008). In order to succeed, educational games must reach the purpose of education and entertainment.
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Many types of game can be played in class, such as crossword puzzles, hang man and so on. The image below shows how crossword puzzles work. According to the information, learners should fill in the corresponding across and down. In the course of the game, learners not only know the meaning of each word, but also have a deep impression on those words.
From my point of view, on one hand, the main advantage of game-based learning can arouse the learners’ interests in vocabulary learning. Like Garcia, R. M. C., Kloos, C. D. and Gil, M. C. (2008) found, these ‘games are learning and recreational environments that try to increase learner motivation by embedding pedagogical activities in highly enjoyable interactions’. If the learners are not faced textbooks and learning principles, but the games that interest them, then the learning efficiency will be dramatically enhanced. On the other hand, learners could also play such simple games in their extracurricular time. This method inspires the learners to maximize learning initiative, and then make learning no longer become boring.
Even though game-based learning has some benefits and also appears to be engaging to learners, there are still some dissenting views.
The games may be more distracting than a typical learning tool and that the goals of the games do not necessarily always align with the learning goals of the classroom. When using this form of instructional tool, teachers must also take into account how the game’s features might affect students cognitively and physiologically. Teachers must determine whether the content of the game is appropriate for specific age groups and whether the games are suitable for the standards-based accountability movement (http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/4970).
Moreover, game-based learning takes most of the time in class. I still remember one of my university teachers who played hang man game with us in class, used almost twenty minutes, just wanted to introduce the word ‘merchandise’. So time passes very quickly in class. If teachers use most of class time to play games with learners, they may learn very little indeed. Therefore, teachers want is to maximize the use of class time to teaching students more knowledge. On the contrary, students want more fun.
3.4 Other strategies
There are also some other strategies of learning vocabulary shown as follows.
1. Many L2 beginner learners choose to repeat a new word again and again until they remember it by heart. Obviously, this is a boring, unskillful and inefficient method.
2. ‘Guessing is a much-used strategy in a second language’ (Cook, 2008). However, this method is not an academic way, and it always goes wrong.
3. Learners find a new way to learn vocabulary through mobile phone or E-mail. They imitate native English speakers’ manners of speaking, and learn vocabulary during the interactions. This method is suitable for the students who have independent learning ability. Contrariwise, this is just a way to make friends.
4. Another useful strategy is to try to deduce a new word from its actual form. Then, it will be much easier to discovery its meaning. This method is not suitable for all the words. Some monosyllabic words, like tea or bed, cannot be deduced anymore.
In order to find the best practice in terms of enhancing vocabulary learning, the first step is to discover the most common difficulty experienced by learners. Almost everyone knows if you want to learn English well, at first, you should know a huge number of vocabularies. (It is of course not all they need. The vocabularies mentioned here are not only their meanings, but also how they work together in English sentences). Many learners only know to repeat new words. It is true that constant repetition could improve long-term memory. However, thousands of words will be repeated throughout the learning process. May I ask who still has the passion to learn? Therefore, how to keep students’ learning enthusiasm has become a crucial factor.
Some of the methods mentioned above give us a clear guidance. Except the repetition method, guessing is also not a mainstream learning method. Using dictionary is a basic method, learners could use dictionary to check the meaning of new word. But it is not good for long-term memory. Learners using mobile phone or E-mail to imitate native speakers’ manner of speaking is a good way to improve learning. But teachers cannot control the learning progress and also cannot get feedback from each student. By contrast, deducing a new word from its actual form is a routine learning strategy. Once students learned this method, they can easily recognize new words which are deducible. The limitation of this method is not all the words are deducible. Therefore, the learning methods discussed in this paragraph do not fundamentally solve the difficulty of students’ vocabulary learning.
Then, how to keep learning enthusiasm and also improve learning efficiency?
There is a common perception that all learning should be serious and solemn in nature, and that if one is having fun and there is hilarity and laughter, then it is not really learning. This is a misconception. It is possible to learn a language as well as enjoy oneself at the same time (http://www.teflgames.com/why.html).
Let’s analyze the method of playing games first. This method seemed more fun. Game-based learning can ‘create the motivation for learners of English to get involved and participate actively in the learning activities’ (http://www.teflgames.com/why.html). For this part, it solves the problem of learners. Game-based learning also has other advantages, like it makes students focus on certain words which are necessary to the learning progress, because of those words, the object of the game can be succeed. Moreover, ‘it allows the development of repetitive tasks. Thus, it constitutes and ideal scenario for practicing orthography and vocabulary learning, by doing simple spelling exercises of increasing difficulty’ (Garcia, R. M. C., Kloos, C. D. & Gil, M. C., 2008).
However, this method has the nature of randomness, and it has a fatal flaw: inefficiency. It wastes most of class time by learning fewer words. By contrast, using visual aids seemed more efficient. Different types of visual aids provide students a lot of fun during studying English. It really makes teaching as lively activities. It is the fundamental solution of students’ learning difficulty. Even though learners should not just use one method to learn English words, so far at least, using visual aids is the most efficient, vivid, understandable and diversified method.
People use language to communicate in the world, they express their feelings and ideas with language, use language to read and write. However, language learning is really hard work. It requires your effort every time and you must keep learning for a long period of time. As the fundamental step of language learning, vocabulary learning is coming to the front. However, students show little effort to deal with new words, because they knew little about vocabulary learning strategies.
There are a number of ways for students to enhance their vocabulary. This paper analyzed various methods of vocabulary learning. Some of them are active learning methods, some are not. In the discussion section, I debated on the best method for enhancing vocabulary learning. From the present point of view, using visual aids is the most efficient and vivid method. Actually, like Cook (2008) said, ‘effective acquisition of vocabulary can never be just the learning of individual words and their meanings in isolationâ€¦Words do not exist by themselves, however, but are always in relationship to other words’. Therefore, learners should recognize their learning purpose, not just learning a single word, but also understanding the usage of the word. In order to improve learning efficiency, learners also need to learn how to combine the learning strategies. There are much more needs to be learned. Vocabulary learning is not simply translating a word in one language to a word in another language. There are much more to be learned.
Because of the limitation of word count, this paper did not list all the strategies of vocabulary learning, just listed the most important and common used methods. I hope the result of this paper will be useful.
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