Thursday, July 19, 2007

Helping students with vocabulary

Terry Pruett-Said - English for Academic Purposes, Macomb Community College, Michigan, USA

In my extensive/academic reading class, students have to hand in a short book report each week. As part of that book report, they have to write down 4 new vocab words with its definition, and the sentence it came from in the book. Advanced students have to also find another example sentence and write a sentence of their own.

Sometimes when we are reading in class, I just ask the students to stop and share a word with the class. At other times I ask students to write down two words each on a piece of paper I hand around. Sometimes I ask students to share one thing they've learned from what they are reading, and they often give a word.

From these methods I choose words that I think will be useful often based on the academic word list. I make a crossword puzzle. I already have many of the definitions because the students have written them. When I don't, I use my online Longman dictionary to quickly look up the definition on my computer while I'm making the crossword puzzle.

I also make questions with the vocabulary words that students have to discuss in class. Some of these usually show up on their vocabulary quiz. My vocabulary quiz usually consists of a matching exercise, a true/false exercise, a fill-in-the blank
that usually comes from sentences that I get and sometimes modify from my online Longman dictionary too. Then I add some of the questions that they had in their list. Having students choose their own words to some extent is time-consuming, but seems to be motivating.

In my writing/grammar classes students don't choose the vocabulary words. I choose them from readings in their grammar books. Again I try to choose words that will be useful to them, and I find the academic word list a good start. I give the students a dictation using sentences with the vocabulary words. Usually just three at the beginning of class, but I often try to get 2-4 vocab words in each sentence.

Sometimes I then assign homework with the vocabulary words--usually I have them write sentences with the words and sometimes definitions too. The definitions and sentences have to be the same meaning as in the reading which seems to be one of the biggest challenges. I also require students to use 2-3 of the new vocabulary words in their paragraphs and essays. The vocabulary shows up again on unit tests.

I teach at a community college and most of my students aren't in my class because they want to be, but because they have to be. These are not the students who are going to improve their vocabulary on their own. I feel in these circumstances it is really necessary to create a situation where students have to notice and learn new words. It's like chipping away at an iceberg, but every little chip adds up.

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