“..standardisation is a reasonable way of maintaining minimal standards, not the best way of ensuring the highest possible ones. Establishing minimally acceptable standards and imposing them on everybody, even on those who can exceed them, can create a powerful but stultifying myth about what constitutes ‘good’ teaching. Creativity in teaching is then stifled in favour of conformity to the set model”

(p. 35)

Allwright , D. & Hanks, J. (2010). The Developing Language Learner. Basingtoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan

A vocabulary test in which the students merely have to vomit the words onto the page, and once purged walk away fresh with no memory of the incident, is no good to anyone. How can we ensure our students LEARN words, rather than just REMEMBER them.

  • Learner Autonomy – Are students more likely to learn words if they are relevant, personal and useful?
  • Learner Training – Is it better to teach students how to study vocabulary, rather than teach them vocabulary?
  • Language – What does it actually mean to learn a word? When can you truly say “Yes, I KNOW this word”?

I’ll point you in the direction of two excellent resources, and bear in mind that quite a few academics offer pdf downloads of scholarly articles on their websites these days. Both names will be familiar if you know a little about vocabulary. The first is Norbert Schmitt ‘s staff page at the University of Nottingham, the second is Paul Nation‘s page at the University of Wellington. Both are chock full of reading, but if you wander about halfway down each I’d recommend two particular articles (citations after the jump). Nation suggests self-selection of vocabulary, and Schmitt recommends a system of whole-word study.

I decided to try an experiment with a couple of reading classes I teach. As the students are focussing mainly on their extensive reading, and thus encountering completely different vocabulary, it seemed a good fit. Each student would compile a list of new words encountered in their reading (or anywhere else), and check for synonyms, definitions, antonyms, translations, word family and collocations. I also pointed out that they should check how useful a word is before studying it – most modern dictionaries (certainly the electronic ones my students use) will tell you if a word is amongst the top 1000, 2000 or 3000 words in spoken or written English. I encouraged them to choose words they liked for whatever reason.

Every couple of weeks, I’d take in the list of words and write a code beside each. For example, (C) means collocation, (ES) stands for example sentence and so on. In the second semester, I am dropping in words from their previous lists to recycle. This pdf is the handout I gave to the learners to explain the task

How to learn vocabulary

..and this pdf is the template for the tests

Vocabulary Test Template

Both are specific to Japanese learners, so if you want a word document you can play with, email me ; D

So far, it has been fairly successful. There are a couple of question marks.

  • There is some evidence that antonyms and synonyms cause interference, if BOTH words are new. For example, it may well be wrong to teach left and right together – fix one concept first, then introduce the next.
  • Some students will choose words which are too ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ for their needs or current language level.

Working on these, but it’s an interesting experiment nonetheless.

Moir, J. and Nation, I.S.P. (2002) Learners’ use of strategies for effective vocabulary learning Prospect 17, 1: 15-35.

Schmitt, N. and Schmitt, D. (1995). Vocabulary notebooks: Theoretical underpinnings and practical suggestions. English Language Teaching Journal, 49, 2: 133-143.

I came across this article recently, about artificially intelligent marking machines. Whilst not as terrifying as the corpse-eating battlebots which have also been in the news, my initial reaction was still one of distaste. But the more I thought about it, the more ambivalent I became.

People like tests. Students like to have a piece of paper which shows how good they are. Employers and schools like to see pieces of paper which demonstrate clearly that the candidate is up to the linguistic reigours demanded of them. But the whole system is an illusion. We have the hugely popular Test of English for International Communication which requires not a peep from the examinee – a multiple choice listening, vocab and grammar test using only native speaker varieties of English. Where is the “international” or the “communication” in that?

 You might favour something from the Cambridge suite then? At least the candidate has to demonstrate a degree of oral proficiency. But if you’ve ever been through the examiners standardisation process, you’ll realise how deadly difficult it is to pick a 3.5 from a 4 in the PET Oral Exam. Those tests are rubric-ed to within an inch of their lives, effectively making the examiners robots.

As assessors of language, we are torn between two urges. We might start marking our stack of writing papers with absolute adherence to our carefully composed marking scheme, but two-thirds of the way down the pile it has all become much more impressionistic. Should we be unfailingly consistant by sucking the life out of our assessment, or mark holistically and let a few students get better or worse grades than they perhaps deserve.

Let’s face it, testing is a bit of a crapshoot. Are the placement tests we have now always accurate? I would doubt that anyone has had a class in which every student had been appropriately placed. So why not let the robots have a crack so we can get on with the teaching?