What vocabulary to teach?

IMG_20170720_154242In the title of the post, I deliberately ask a question I’m actually not going to answer. The reason why I’m not going to do so is that it’s not easy. However, by answering a slightly different question (and by throwing in more questions), I think I will partially satisfy the somewhat disappointed reader (presumably an ELT teacher) who was originally expecting to get some valuable insights into vocabulary teaching.

Now that I think about it, I’m not even going to speak from the perspective of a teacher most of the time but rather from the experience of an autonomous language learner. Let me stress first that I believe that creating autonomous learners is one of the most important goals (if not the most important one) of any educator because once you achieve this, your job is actually done.

Ironically, we English teachers can’t take the full credit for the fact that our students become autonomous learners. These days, most of our students are exposed to English outside the classroom all the time, and thus they, totally unaware of any research into SLA, learn it exactly the way which is most desirable – they focus on meaning and communication and thus they unwittingly create opportunities for incidental learning.

I think I can hazard a guess that fully autonomous L2 learners know what they need. Before I go on, I’d like to draw attention to the dichotomy of what one wants and what one needs. When I was younger, one of my ultimate goals was to reach a native-like proficiency in English – not because I thought it was something everybody should strive for but because I believed that the more one knew as a teacher, the better. However, I’ve recently become more realistic and practical in terms of my expectations; I’ve come to a conclusion that achieving a native-like proficiency is actually not what I need. I simply don’t need to know every English word to be able to teach English effectively. By the same token, I don’t need to know everything about the language to enjoy my life as a blogger.

What I’m trying to say is that over time, I’ve become very selective as far as vocabulary learning is concerned. In the past, while still on the hunt for a native-like proficiency, I would jot down every unknown word I’d come across (which inevitably made me feel depressed in the end), but now I only concentrate on the bits of language I think I’m going to need in my own context, i. e. in my writing and/or in the classroom. So when I come across a word I’ve never seen before, I don’t panic anymore – I quickly look it up and then go on. Only if I happen to see the same expression used again in a context I’m interested in, I keep my eyes open. In other words, over time, I’ve learned to ignore the enormous amount of what I don’t know and instead I started to focus on the relevant and achievable. This discovery has some significant implications for my teaching.

Also, I no longer have to rack my brains in order to solve the question of sequencing in the learning of vocabulary because my needs analysis was done a long time ago. By myself. I simply learn stuff as it emerges. In other words, I learn what I need to know as (or if) I encounter it. Needless to say, this observation also has some implications for my teaching.

Having said that, one important question still remains open: What happens before one becomes an autonomous (or proficient-enough) user of the L2? I’m driving at my experience with teaching adult beginners, who tend to feel very insecure when language is NOT treated as object, as well as with very young learners who, on the other hand, don’t look at an L2 as something outside of them and thus treating the language strictly as a means of communication seems to perfectly suit their stage of development. In any case, is there any core vocabulary to be learned/taught? How can you navigate through the vast land of the English language (or any L2) when you know next to nothing of it? What teaching approach is suitable then? Might treating the language as object be legitimate at a particular stage?




About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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6 Responses to What vocabulary to teach?

  1. Rachel says:

    I usually just bookmark interesting posts and move on to the next one, but the struggle I have had trying to create autonomous learners at very low levels made me want to reply. I have a few ‘osmosis’ students.

    It would be interesting if you could expand on what you mean as ‘treating language as an object’. And, from a language learner’s perspective, when you come across a new piece of vocabulary which you deem relevant and worth retaining, how far do you think it’s worth learning the different forms of that vocabulary? So often, I find students come across a different form of a word they already know, but don’t recognise it as such. Irregular verbs or even word families with irregular endings, for example.
    From a teaching point of view, how far do you find word building activities help with this? At low levels, the problem I have is getting students to recognise what type of word they are looking at and I am continually searching for ways to increase their noticing skills and move towards the autonomy of higher level learners.
    As for your initial question, I think we need to teach language they can use immediately, if they are in a place where they can use it, or language they are likely to come across again – and not just in the course book. I sometimes feel that course books choose items which are easy to teach and learn over those which are useful.
    Finally, for my upper intermediate students, many of them who are becoming much more autonomous, I am going to pass on these refreshing comments of yours.
    “I simply don’t need to know every English word to be able to [teach English] effectively. By the same token, I don’t need to know everything about the language to enjoy my life as [a blogger].” No one can claim to know every English word. With mobile phones and translators in class, I am presented daily with unusual, unknown English words!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for your comment, Rachel. You ask some interesting questions. I strongly recommend that you read this post: https://criticalelt.wordpress.com/2017/07/21/against-walkley-and-dellars-lexical-approach/ by Geoff Jordan. He explains (succinctly) some of the concepts I mention in my post, such as what it means to treat a language as an object. He elaborates on the role on ‘noticing’ as well. Also, he’s not a big fan of coursebooks, so he’d probably agree with your assertion that ” I sometimes feel that course books choose items which are easy to teach and learn over those which are useful.”.

      Do come back here if you have some more comments. 🙂


  2. Lina says:

    Hi, Hana!

    That’s a very interesting question you ask. Every time I have to teach a vocabulary lesson I struggle deciding which words to teach. So that’s what I found useful: I usually start with selecting a topic and then think which words students are likely to use outside the classroom in the context of this topic. For example, emotions are things we talk often about. We evaluate everything that happens to us and define it with some emotion (like ‘I was thrilled to get that job offer!’). However, apart from basic ones (e.g., happy, angry, stressed, satisfied, excited), there are more high-level ones (miserable, furious, anxious, content, ecstatic respectively). So the content of any topic can be adjusted to the students’ level. For me, it makes everything much easier!
    Another situation when my students learn some new vocab is during reading and listening lessons. In this case, they always understand why they need to learn these particular words – that is to be able to understand fully what they read/hear. Since the texts and videos I choose for my lessons are authentic, I often hear that my students keep using some of the words they’ve learnt when doing reading/listening in other lessons!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lina says:

    (Sorry, pressed ‘Post Comment’ button too early!)
    Therefore, they either learn the words that they’re likely to use outside the classroom or those words they need right now in the classroom.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your tips, Lina. I really like your approach to teaching vocabulary. It is student-centered (you clearly take your students’ needs into consideration) as well as pragmatic (you let your students know why they need to learn particular words ). I also appreciate the fact that you choose authentic videos for your lessons. It seems you are doing a great job! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lina says:

        Thank you, Hana 🙂
        I’m only at the very beginning of my professional development, but reading blogs like your helps me to learn a lot!

        Liked by 1 person

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