Saturday, April 21, 2007

iCALL guiding student vocabulary progress

By Steve Kaufmann, Canada

In my experience, it is possible, using computers to take advantage of the motivational power of free reading with the benefits of a methodical and deliberate study of vocabulary. With the computer we can offer to the learner a great variety of reading content, (or allow the learner to search the web), and then to count (and indicate to the learner) the number of words in each content item that are unknown.

It is possible to show the number of times the new words the learner is trying to learn appear in different content items. It is even possible to rank these content items by greatest(least) number of unknown words and/or recently learned words and allow the learner to choose what to study in order to maximize interest, familiarity, and minimize difficulty, thereby increasing vocabulary learning efficiency. A learner will do best if he or she choses what to read and listen to.

It is possible to
- rank recently learned words by frequency of appearance in the learner's corpus or a larger corpus and thereby guide the learner as to the possible importance of new words, allowing the learner to prioritize the new words to focus on at any given time.
- show which content items have the greatest number of these priority new words.
- collect all sentences in either the learner's corpus or a larger corpus that contain these new words and allow the learner to drill down to the relevant context.
- create a variety of lists containing the words the learner is trying to learn, for review, flash cards and other forms of study.

These lists can be referred to by learner when writing or speaking. All of this activity can be tracked and measured.

In other words the computer makes it possible to combine the benefits of free reading on the one hand and deliberate vocabulary study on the other hand. These are not two opposite paths but they need to be combined. The learner is motivated both by his/her interest in reading on certain subjects and by seeing measurable progress towards a learned words goal. I think it is outdated to see these two approaches as in contradiction. Their merits need to be combined for greater synergy.

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