Vocabulary Strategy Work for Advanced Learners of English
This article suggests a set of experiential, non-pre******ive activities for teaching vocabulary consolidation strategies. These activities were used with a group of advanced adult learners of English as part of a voluntary, non-credit course the students attended at Graz University in Austria. The learners are all studying English as one of their degree subjects, either major or minor. The content of the non-credit course is negotiated between teacher and learners, and the approach is largely learner-centred. The activities described here are based on my experience with this group of learners and offered in the hope that they can be adapted to benefit students of all levels and types.
Past experience in this course, as well as a considerable body of research, has shown vocabulary to be a key concern of learners—the area they would most like to focus on—and a topic central to successful language learning. Therefore, I feel it justified to devote considerable class time to its instruction.
Why teach strategies?
There is much debate about whether an implicit or explicit approach is better for teaching vocabulary. It seems undeniable that extensive reading or substantial contact with the target language will improve vocabulary, but both of these approaches require unrealistic amounts of time for most language learners. However, research by Coady (1997), Oxford and Scarcella (1994), and Nation (2001) indicates that vocabulary learning can be enhanced when the learner’s attention is directed consciously to vocabulary items or strategies. There appears to be no valid reason for advocating any approach in isolation; thus this article argues for direct instruction of strategies, supported by extensive student reading.
As it can be assumed that advanced adult learners have already passed the “high-frequency word threshold” (Nation 2001), any new words they learn are likely to be low-frequency words. Clearly, given the mass of words potentially available to learners, there is no way they can learn them all. It would therefore be more useful to teach them strategies for dealing with unfamiliar words. Furthermore, since most vocabulary learning takes place out of the classroom setting and tends to be done alone at home, it would be beneficial if students were given guidance on how best to approach this task on their own. If we wish students to continue learning efficiently after class and to be able to cope confidently without teacher support, then we should equip them with the skills to do so. As Cohen (1998) and Oxford (1990) point out, directly instructing students in vocabulary learning strategies is recognised as a way to empower students to take control of and responsibility for their own learning.
Arguably, some students already use strategies; however, they often do so unconsciously, and vocabulary learning strategies are more likely to be effective when their use is conscious and directed. Furthermore, as Ahmed (1989) and others point out, certain strategies are not intrinsically good, but even recognised useful ones need to be practised to be used efficiently. Finally, students are often unaware of strategies other than the ones they already use. Therefore, it is hoped that some direct instruction in strategy use will benefit students by developing their ****cognitive knowledge about different strategies, by showing them how to use strategies efficiently, and by widening the range of strategies from which they can choose. As Wenden (1986, 315) says, “[T]o be self-sufficient, learners must know how to learn.” So the aim here is to encourage self-sufficiency by helping learners recognise situations where they could use strategies, become aware of the strategies that are particularly suitable for them, and use those strategies effectively.
Given the number of potential variables affecting strategy use, it seems an oversimplification to separate people into “good” and “bad” learners when, as O’Malley et al (1988) point out, no single set of specific strategies works for everyone. Indeed, Rees-Miller (1993) and others have noted the rather pre******ive approach taken by earlier researchers of strategy instruction. Thus, the aim here is not to teach a single set of strategies used by supposedly “good” learners or to exemplify supposedly “good” strategies. Rather, it is to help students, as unique individuals, become aware of their own strategy use and the range of potential strategies available for learning vocabulary. The set of activities described here is based on an experiential approach to language learning (Kohonen 1992) that provides students with the opportunity to reflect on, experiment with, and practice a range of strategies until they discover those they feel comfortable with and consider effective. These may, of course, be the strategies they already use, but learners ought to have the opportunity to learn about alternatives and develop the ****cognitive knowledge (Victori and Lockhart 1995; Wenden 1998) they need to allow them to make their own informed choices about vocabulary strategy use. The benefit of such an approach is that it takes the learner as an individual with previous experiences and beliefs as its starting point and can accommodate a variety of individual learning styles and preferences.
A taxonomy of strategies
In considering which strategies exist for vocabulary instruction, instructors could turn to the recognised taxonomy offered by Oxford (1990, 18–21), but it is too comprehensive for our purpose, although it does offer a useful way of organising strategies. However, Schmitt (1997), in distinguishing between “discovery” and “consolidation” strategies, offers a more straightforward approach specifically concerned with vocabulary. Schmitt (1997) divides discovery strategies for learning vocabulary into two types: “determination” strategies and “social” strategies. The determination strategies—widely acknowledged as important for coping with unknown words—include using cognate knowledge, referring to reference works, and inferring meaning from context. The social strategies include asking someone for help with unknown words. Because discovery and social strategies are commonly discussed in various classes, the focus in this article is mainly on the strategies that receive less attention in our teaching environment, namely the consolidation strategies.
Consolidation strategies include social strategies, such as cooperative group learning, asking the teacher for help and using native speaker contact; memory strategies, such as using imagery, loci method, grouping words, the keyword method; cognitive strategies, such as word cards and lists or vocabulary notebooks and reviewing techniques; and finally ****cognitive strategies to help students have a controlled overview of their vocabulary learning (see Schmitt 1997, 207 for a full taxonomy). Although the focus of this article is on consolidation strategies, there will be overlap with other strategies, such as guessing the meaning of a word by analysing word parts or using the dictionary. The boundaries between the categories are not distinct, and some strategies may appear under different headings elsewhere. Furthermore, the list of strategies provided here is not meant to be exhaustive; students may be able to add others of their own.
Conditions for strategy use
One precondition for successful strategy instruction is the willingness by students to explore their beliefs about vocabulary learning. The Graz University students who were taught the strategies described here were highly motivated (as evidenced by their voluntary attendance of a non-credit course) and were from a cultural background open to explicit exploratory work. It therefore seemed likely that some direct teaching of strategies would suit their academic learning style and be welcomed by them. In teaching these strategies, it is important to make explicit to the students the rationale and purpose of tasks given to them and to provide them with adequate time to consolidate and reflect on their learning. A further dimension to these tasks that is worth mentioning is the rich language generated for the genuine communicative task of discussing and developing students’ own learning strategies.
What follows is a coherent sequence of activities for vocabulary consolidation strategies,as carried out in my setting. These activities are not a perfect solution to vocabulary instruction, nor are they intended to be used in isolation. Rather, they are intended to serve as a framework for teaching vocabulary-building strategies suitable for this particular context.
Principles guiding the activities
• A pre******ive approach is inappropriate because learners have their own learning styles and preferences.
• Learners researching their own learning style can raise their awareness of themselves as language learners and the role of vocabulary in language learning.
• Reflecting on and discussing strategies with peers is an essential part of learning.
• ****cognitive knowledge is crucial for helping students make conscious, directed, autonomous, and efficient use of strategies.
• Learners should be actively involved in tasks and personalise strategies to meet their own learning style and preferences.
• The rationale behind the various approaches and tasks should be made explicit to students.
• Students need to be given adequate examples of and guided practice in using the strategies if they are to consolidate them and use them independently and efficiently.
• Teachers should work in collaboration with students to guide them towards discovering and developing their own personal set of vocabulary consolidation strategies.
Stages in strategy work
Stage 1: Preparation
Before doing class work on strategies, students need to be aware of the strategies they currently use. So at the start of the course, the students were asked to keep a journal of their vocabulary encounters. A journal is easy to maintain and can be kept anywhere. To ensure that the students would understand the purpose of the task and where they should direct their attention, they were given some general guidelines. The original intention was to allocate regular class time for a discussion and review of points raised in the journals, but time pressures necessitated that this was done only sporadically. Nevertheless, students reported that keeping the journal caused them to reflect on vocabulary’s role in language and their encounters with English vocabulary; helped raise their awareness of strategies they use, hence of themselves as language learners; and made them aware of their own learning styles. As noted earlier, such awareness is essential in developing ****cognitive knowledge about one’s own language, which in turn is important if students are to become independent, self-directed learners.
The next step is to ensure that students understand the fundamental principle that knowing a word does not simply mean knowing its meaning. (See Nation 2001, Chapter 2, for a detailed analysis of what is involved in knowing a word; look under the key headings, form, meaning, and use.) Therefore, the class began with a task to clarify what is involved in knowing a word. In small groups, the students drew up a list of at least five features they believed essential to knowing a word and provided an example of each. After brainstorming, they reported back to the whole group, and on an overhead projector (a laptop computer would work even better) we collaboratively constructed a list of all these features, including examples. This list was then made into a handout to guide the students throughout their studies. Providing the opportunity for whole group feedback ensured that I, as the teacher, had the opportunity to mention and illustrate points not raised by the students. The students came up with the following list of features required to know a word: pronunciation, translation, spelling, collocations, register, grammatical patterns, word class, synonyms, and different meanings depending on context.
Stage 2: Discovering current strategy use and developing a taxonomy of vocabulary strategies.
To uncover the vocabulary strategies they were already using and the role vocabulary plays in language learning, the students, in groups, drew up their own lists of vocabulary strategies, drawing upon their journal entries and prior experiences.
After this initial group activity, the students examined and discussed a taxonomy of consolidation strategies (see Appendix A), which we discussed, using examples. The students then categorised their list of strategies, either according to these headings or their own. (The distinction between categories may be unclear to students, and there may be overlap, depending on their perspective. The taxonomy I provided was simply a way to help the students organise their own list of consolidation strategies. If they find a way to categorise the strategies in a way that makes better sense to them, that is fine.) After a feedback session involving the entire class, the resulting list of categorised strategies was made available to the students as a handout. They could use the handout or devise a version of their own. The list they chose provided an essential link for measuring their changes and development. At this point they ticked any of the strategies they were currently using. (At the end of the course they returned to the sheet and repeated the process to see whether at the end of the course they used any more or different strategies than at the outset.)
Stage 3: Exploring and experimenting with various strategies
The list of strategies described above was then taken as the basic structure for a series of lessons to follow. Clearly the strategy list could provide months of potential practice, but in our case, time restricted our programme of activities to three sessions. To remain as learnercentred as possible, I asked the students which strategies they wanted to learn more about, but here I will just illustrate a method for each main strategy area.
Before doing so, however, it should be noted that to give the class a real sense of purpose and coherence, it is desirable to have a topic to serve as a framework for all work throughout the semester. Usually, my students choose from a list of topics at the start of the term. However, for certain tasks in the particular set of activities described below, it was necessary to select words that the learners would not be likely to know. In those instances we used the University Word List (Nation 2001), a list of decontextualized words covering academic vocabulary and including frequency ratings for each word. This is a relevant and valid source from which to choose words for students in this particular context.