Thursday, July 5, 2007

Teaching and testing vocabulary

By Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, Beijing, China

A previous foreign teacher had taught my students to use vocabulary notebooks, which they were doing on their own when I arrived. One problem was that the very motivated students (not all students) created unfathomably long lists, then when they looked the words up, they'd forgotten the context in which they originally heard/read the words, so they couldn't use the words in context. I suppose one solution might be to make them include the context for each word they write in their notebook. Has anyone tried this? What success?

My answer was to eliminate the need to wait too long before looking words up, so in my Reading class (3rd-year univ. students), I told the students I would be their dictionary. They'd read an article in class, and underline unfamiliar words, not stopping to look them up.

When they finished, I'd ask them the main idea of the article, and they'd usually have it right. This, I hoped, gave them the confidence to read and understand passages on exams where they couldn't use a dictionary.

Then I'd ask them which unknown words they really needed to know in order to understand the key supporting details. I'd explain these words to the class, using synonyms, collocations, Latin roots, examples, additional contexts, pantomime, chalkboard drawings, etc.

I'd do the same for words that weren't vital in understanding the article, but that students wanted to know, out of curiosity and desire to prepare for CET-6. I'd like to think my explanations were more memorable than a direct translation from the dictionary. Also, using visuals and L2 (English) to explain new L2 vocabulary helps reduce the constant need to think in L1 (Chinese), then translate.

The other problem I encountered with vocabulary notebooks was that my students weren't retaining the words they wrote in them. When the top students could recite 50 words at a time, they'd move on to the next 50, quickly forgetting the first 50 (the binge and purge method). Less motivated students' vocab notebooks simply gathered dust after words were written in them.

To counter this, I told students that every word I explained would be on a quiz the next week. The format of the quiz was sometimes fill-in-the-blanks in a passage of my own creation, but more often (less effort for me) I'd have the students write a sentence using each word correctly and in such a way that the meaning was unmistakable from context. I have a sharp eye for dictionary sample sentences, and I didn't accept them. There were periodic cumulative tests as well, notably the final exam.

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