More hardships (and joys) of an advanced L2 learner

My students and friends often ask me if I could give them some tips on how to improve their English, vocabulary in particular. I always say it’s dead simple and that there’s no better time than holidays when one has plenty of free time on their hands.

In one of my previous posts I described some of the pitfalls I experience as an advanced L2 learner. Over time I’ve come to realize that no matter how much I’ve learned there are still some areas I constantly need to work on, such as my L2 vocabulary. First of all, I need to keep pace with my students who never cease to surprise me with their immense knowledge of specialized vocabulary. Also, I feel that the more proficient I become, the more lexical, as opposed to grammatical, the nature of my learning becomes.

Once I finally acknowledged the inevitability of digital technologies, I started to spend more and more time reading things online. It drives me crazy when I stare at a word which I’ve seen several times before, in plenty of different contexts, and I can’t recall its meaning. It’s irritating but not surprising; I can’t retrieve it from my memory because it’s actually never been there. In other words, I never really strove to make the word become part of my active vocabulary, which is why even the passive knowledge is so feeble. So I keep telling my students that in order to truly master a word, they need to learn it consciously and systematically, since a cursory glance at the word, even if on a multiple basis, is not enough.

Like back in the olden days, I still use a traditional notepad to record new words when I read a paper book. I usually have one separate notepad for each book I read. But when reading stuff online, this ‘old-fashioned’ method of recording vocabulary items is rather slow and tiresome. That’s why I’ve developed a new, systematic (and quick) method of vocabulary note-taking – via Quizlet. I usually introduce my students to Quizlet at very early stages of learning English. Young learners in particular love playing the games it offers but it’s a great tool for learners of all levels – especially if they are left to their own devices, i.e. responsible for their own instruction, and/or if like me, they spend lots of time online. Yes, I use Quizlet myself but I’d like to stress that this post is not primarily about Quizlet; I’m not going to glorify this fairly popular online tool. What I wish to do is to let the readers peek inside my mental processes regarding learning vocabulary. If the readers happen to be L2 learners themselves, the better. Basically, this is what I do:

Let’s say I’m reading this intriguing article called Why Grammar Lessons Should be Renamed ‘Understanding Language‘. This is something that really interests me – the first prerequisite of successful learning. I anticipate that I’ll come across a few words which I’ll want to note down, either because I haven’t encountered them before, but more probably because I feel I only have a passive knowledge of them and I want them to enter my active inventory. That’s why I open Quizlet. I usually create a new vocabulary set for each day – no matter how big it’s going to be (I actually never know in advance; it can be just a couple of words or thirty items depending on how much I’ve read that day). Here’s an example: first, I give the set a name and I add a short description, i.e. the title of the article. If I read more articles that day, I later edit the description box by adding another title/link or whatever. This kind of tagging helps me contextualize the vocabulary.

 While reading, I come across an unfamiliar word, say, ’eminent’.

As I use the Chrome browser, all I need to do is to click a word for a direct L1 translation or double-click for a definition. I check the pronunciation if necessary and I also scan the synonyms. Then I add the vocabulary item to the set I created on Quizlet.

I sometimes add the L1 alternative along with the definition in the English section on the right. Sometimes I type in a synonym in the left-hand column and in some cases I add the most frequent collocation or a short example sentence. This helps me to learn the word with all the nuances (at least the meaning I encountered in that particular context). Although I do this seemingly tedious procedure for all the unknown words from the article, it’s pretty quick and it doesn’t spoil the joy of reading the text itself.

When I come back to the words later on, I first use the Flashcards tool because I can listen to the pronunciation, click to flip the cards and the best thing is that I can do so in a random order, which is beneficial for learning.

Honestly, I don’t really play with Quizlet very much. I’m familiar with most of its functions but I find the majority of them quite useless for my purposes. I know, for example, that it’s possible to print out the sets in all sorts of cool formats and I imagine it can come handy in some situations, but I never use this option for my own language development. 
What I find more interesting about Quizlet is the fact that as a learner I can easily keep track of how much I’ve learned over a specific period of time. I know where I was at a certain point of time and where I’m now, which I find highly motivating. Also, I can tell which days or months were the most prolific and when I was pretty idle. This is good if I want to manage my time more effectively and create an action plan. In addition, I can see how much time and how many repetitions it’s taken me to learn a word. I can identify which aspects of the word I still need to practise; sometimes it’s just the spelling I tend to mess up, sometimes I’m only not sure about the pronunciation, etc. So this particular method of recording new vocabulary is not just a learning technique but it’s also a useful monitoring device which helps me (and my students) become fully autonomous language learners.
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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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