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