This is a report of a session conducted at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate in April 2006

Teaching Vocabulary: We’re wasting our time         Morgan Lewis 

It’s time we started … 

- The time we have with our students is short … 

- We must make the most of the time that we have with them . 

- We must allocate more time to explaining the partially known and reduce the amount of
  time spent on
the brand new .. 

- Introducing and practicing new words takes up valuable time which is better spent 
  extending vocabulary, especially with intermediate and more advanced learners… 

- … and we can’t waste any more time doing more grammar 

There’s so much to learn – is there enough time? 

Time is short – a few hours a week, perhaps – maybe even 20 hours a week. But there are hundreds of thousands of lexical items to be learnt.

Traditionally we learn a finite set of grammar rules and slot in the vocabulary that fits. But the complete lexicon of English is enormous. Let’s look at what knowing a word entails: 

                                                  make a complaint
                                                  make an official complaint
Complaint                                  deal with a complaint
                                                  deal with a legitimate complaint
                                                  receive a string of complaints 

But not do a complaint / a group of complaints
We know what we allow and don’t allow 

The learning load is far bigger than we previously thought. So we have to make the most of the time we have. Therefore: more input and less output. 

We should spend more time emphasizing quality input than getting students to talk.

Is there any chance they can acquire the lexis they need? 

                                                                   Less emphasis on traditional 
                                                                   grammar (sentence grammar) 

Learners need different input?               Less emphasis on new words 

                                                                  More emphasis on exploring the
                                                                  collocational fields of words learners
                                                                  already ‘know’

 Make the most of opportunities as they present themselves
 Use materials that teach collocations

Making the most of opportunities: 

  • Less explaining and more exploring e.g. grant
    – define it
    - look at the co-text (applied for a grant at the last minute)
    - elicit/add more get/obtain a grant / qualify for a grant / was awarded a grant / a generous grant / a substantial grant / a miserable grant 
  • No pressure to remember all this – students need to be exposed to it. 
  • Use a dictionary of common collocations to help you 
  • Don’t just correct – collect! e.g. Learner says I have to make an exam. Ask questions to elicit and input
                               Pass                           an exam
                               Scrape through

Task for participants: Imagine a learner in your class says I’m too fat so I’m going to make a strong diet. What could you say/do?
Suggestion: We don’t say make a diet.  What words go with diet? Elicit/input 
Go on a diet/abandon a diet/ a stick to a diet/ a strict diet.
This is a better, richer teaching incident

More examples:
There are very good possibilities for improving my job – There are excellent promotion prospects
It was a very important moment in my life and everything changed then – It was a major turning point

We are helping learners to be more precise and succinct. Plus:

As collocational competence increases, grammar mistakes decrease

We need to revise our priorities.
Students may know revise and priorities, but not necessarily how to say we need to revise our priorities

Mental Storage
We don’t put words together, word after word. We store chunks, almost formulaically when we can e.g you can say that again; Ladies and Gentlemen
Sometimes there is some generative flexibility: sorry to bother/disturb/interrupt you

At other times it is less formulaic: This is a dangerous corner – but it’s still a chunk for an educated, fluent native speaker. Morgan admitted that sometimes he’s stuck for a collocation in class and suggests taking in and using a good collocation dictionary

Telephone numbers are stored in a particular way e.g. 288 264. when people repeat your number in a different way, you’re sometimes confused. The intonation/stress pattern is also stored.

The aim of the study was to examine the relationship between what pupils ate for lunch and concentration levels in the afternoon lesson
If we focus on new words, all the concentration goes on these, and distracts from noticing the collocation.


Published materials:
Key words for Fluency
Dictionary of Selected Collocations

Is it time for your priorities to change??

© Malta Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language