#1 In the Pursue of Balance: Baby Steps

Finding the Balance between Grammar and Vocabulary Teaching

In the last couple weeks, I have been reading and reflecting on how much attention I have given to vocabulary learning comparing to grammar in my practice and what would be like to shift the focus or find the balance between the two.  

I work with two different contexts within the same school.

In context 1, I don’t work with a CB with the 9th Graders (max. 10 students per group) and I have a flexible curriculum. I can work with a variety of medias (tv series, video clips, etc.), vary the methods, and the focus is always to make students use the language, not talk about it. They are grouped by age (grade in school) not level of English. So I can have students who are total beginners in the same group as one in Pre-intermediate level or even above. Students in context 1 also study in different groups in the afternoon in context 2.

In context 2, they are grouped by language level though. In context 2, I work with CBs which are a bit grammar-based and I find it hard NOT to follow it. But although the syllabus is grammar-based, it has a variety of activities to work with which is nice.It doesn’t leave much room to explore alternatives though.

In both contexts the grammar as a content is always very obvious and students can always say what in terms of grammar they are learning and do give a lot more attention to it too. In fact, they are much more worried about getting things right then expanding their vocabulary. So when comes to lexis, most of them don’t seem to be aware of what they are learning. I have tried to make students keep a vocabulary log, but they never seem to have the interest in keeping one on their own, apart from my upper-intermediate group that finally started doing so last semester.

I feel that especially in context 1 with groups of mixed-levels vocabulary teaching was not structured enough for them to notice as they are used to in context 2 (CBs have vocabulary lists and it is clear in each lesson what vocabulary they are learning/practising).

I started my quest by checking the notions I had of exercises, actvities and tasks¹. And to help me analyse the ones I use in my classes to learn and practise vocabulary, I bought How to Write Vocabulary Presentations and Practice written by Phillip Kerr . And then I realised that apart from the traditional ways of presenting and practising vocabulary I didn’t know any other way to make it more challenging and interesting and perhaps more memorable for the students. I also noticed that CBs attempts to recycle grammar through out the coursebook, but not vocabulary as topics change from one lesson to another.

¹During my search, I came across this link which covers the following points:

1 The Importance of Vocabulary
The importance of actively teaching vocabulary.
2 Rethinking the Place of Vocabulary
Developing a new approach to vocabulary instruction.
3 Vocabulary in Français interactif
From decontextualized lists to contextualized speech samples.
4 From Input to Output
A look at in-class activities used to teach vocabulary.

Because the criteria for choosing a text, video, song, game had been in the past mostly based on grammar, from now on it will be about lexis too. I intend to give to vocabulary at least the equal importance it deserves and learn/teach strategies that will be most effective for my learners to continually reinforce and expand their mental lexicon.

Through Kevin Stein blog I learned about Paul Nation’s work. It’s a very interesting article – Thanks Kevin for sharing it and also the New General Service List link where I can find the the most frequent words and a great tool to help me check the texts.

Personal Learning Journey

My husband and I learned English when we lived in England. It didn’t take a year for us to get around with easy. When I asked my husband how he learned English himself, we both agreed that our first focus was on words we heard and connected with concrete things as much as possible. By interacting and paying attention to how words were put together in a given situation we learned how language works and tried to mimic it. My husband prefered reading the newspaper and I used to watch soap opera. We would rely on people’s patience and interest in teaching us on a daily basis. The first question I learned in English was: “How do you say this in English?”. We were not afraid to ask questions and try to interact with others in English, even if when people found it funny. We probably made a lot of mistakes in grammar, but with time we became better at it. But most importantly once we got a basic number of words we were able to at least get our message across and that helped us in the process.

A friend of mine, who traveled to London with me,  was afraid of speaking at first and took her few months to really start interacting with people in English. But even so, by the end of the year she was also able to use English and get around by herself.

Talking about vocabulary and how much it matters, why don’t you check out

EVO 2014 WONDERFUL Vocabulary: VOCABULARY MATTERS and Join us.

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4 thoughts on “#1 In the Pursue of Balance: Baby Steps

  1. Dear Rose,

    Your posts, as always, resonate so much of the reflection that you do in becoming a better teacher. I feel you here, really. At times, I find myself asking the question myself : how do I help learners retain vocabulary? In fact, I remember once when an old student came back to visit me. He came right up to our old classroom, walked around the classroom, pointed at an old activity and mentioned “You know Ms. Ratna, I really liked this activity but I honestly don’t remember most of the words here”. Which is the exact thing you’ve mentioned above.

    Vocabulary is indeed a tricky one; I vaguely remember reading somewhere that a word or chunk of words need to be used at least 7 times before it can be retained in the mind!

    Well, I have no answers to the questions above; But I’m definitely going to follow you along the journey of discovery, and learn a thing or two (or perhaps a whole lot more) from you.

    Love,
    Ratna

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    • Ratna, it is great to have you taking this journey with me. I can use your help here. Kevin gave me this wonderful recommendation which I’m reading right now.
      https://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/about/staff/publications/paul-nation/1996-Four-strands.pdf

      If you click on his name on my post, it will take to a series of post where he mentions Paul Nation. Quite few post on it back in 2012 and 1st semester of 2013. That is where I’m going to work on from now on. Then, get John F. Fanselow books (Reading right now Trying the opposite third section called Knowledge. I love how John makes us learning through conversations. And talking about that at iTDi there is a forum created for anyone who wants to break their own rules (habits) called BR Community. Have you seen it? This post is summary of my first steps but there is a lot more about it here:

      http://www.itdi.pro/ForumTopics.php?postLessonId=1&hdnForumGrpId=123

      I suggest you to go to iTDi webpage first before clicking on the link above. Log in and then click on the link. It should take you directly to the forum.

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      • Hi Rose,

        I’m in the midst of reading up the first few links on your webpage (from the website http://coerll.utexas.edu/methods/modules/vocabulary/02/. I find the website really interesting for it’s self-study nature, and how it presents review questions before we move on to the next part…
        Once I’m done with that, I’m going to get back to Kevin’s blog and go on from there. Once done, I’ll get back to you. I’m not sure how exactly I can be of help, but I think we may be able to chat about it sometime, and maybe even come up with more ideas!

        Again, the same question in my mind : HOW does Rose find the time to do it?:)

        Love,
        Ratna

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        • That is great Ratna. Well Ratna. Right now I am on vacation So that is why I have loads of time to work on this. I have to organize or reorganize myself before my husband’s surgery. And I want to leave some lessons ready for the beginning of the term as I know what some of my groups will be like.

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