* A New Slant on Vocabulary Development for a Slow-moving CSWEII Class

Burns, H. & de Silva, J. (editors): Teachers' Voices 7 Teaching Vocabulary, pp5-11, NCELTR  2001

(Report on NCELTR vocbulary research project)

1. The Question:
a) Can students in this type of class be persuaded to delay using their dictionaries in favour of analysing what they already know about unfamiliar words in a text?
b) Can such analysis, reinforced by formal testing and a variety of exercises, aid retention of newly encountered vocabulary?

2. Background:
This class was composed in approximately equal proportions of involuntary students who had been sent by Centrelink as a condition of their unemployment benefits, and others who were paying fees of various magnitudes to enroll in the class. They were all ineligible for AMEP courses, in most cases because they had already completed their 510 hours.

The fact that they were still at CSWEII level after 510 hours gives an indication that the class could be expected to be slow moving. The reasons for this, of course, fell into the usual patterns: some had had little or no education in L1; some were traumatised refugees; some had health or domestic problems…

The students came from Argentina, Cambodia, Chile, El Salvador, former Yugoslavia, Laos, Vietnam, Western Samoa, had been in Australia for periods ranging from 3 months to 30 years and had 0 - 12 years of schooling in their countries of origin.

The teachers who had taught the class in the previous term reported the students were generally jaded and unenthusiastic. Many of them had already used most of the resources available at our Centre.

 3. Strategy:

Confronted with this scenario, I felt a new approach and new teaching resources were necessary. I wanted to base the course around a reading text but could find nothing at the right level which I thought would be fresh to all of the students. So, with some misgivings, I settled on Average Dead Body 1 Baylis, Bibliography, p.11  which I knew would be extremely challenging to the class and would require very substantial teacher support. I also decided to experiment with using a technique which I had previously used only with higher level classes.

 

Although my main focus was on vocabulary development, I did not want to neglect the rest of the curriculum and, of course, needed to be able to assess approximately 30% of the CSWE competencies. My aims were therefore:

1)    To foster interest in the story itself

2)    To encourage students to recognise their own prior knowledge and use this to develop their understanding of unfamiliar vocabulary

3)    To use the newly acquired vocabulary in a variety of situations as a conscious tool for reinforcement

4)    To integrate the specific vocabulary work with all the macro skills.

 

With these aims and the class situation in mind, I retyped the text into short segments of one to two pages in length. I increased the font size to 14 point Times New Roman and double spaced. I also provided line numbers for ease of reference to specific words. The resultant text allows students with low literacy skills to read more easily and also gives room for annotation. A sample extract follows:

 

 

 

 

 

5

 

'Not that I expected precisely this,' he continued, beckoning to someone behind me for coffee, 'but I have been bracing myself for something unpleasant for the past few years. My daughter, Detective-Sergeant, liked to do things that would annoy me. It was her way of apologising to the world for having a successful father.'

''Do you know who her friends were?    What circles she moved in?'

'She worked in some kind of drop-in centre in Cabramatta. I don't

 

I established a regular routine with the class:

1)    Read the text aloud while students highlight unfamiliar words.

2)    Discuss the plot – What has happened? Why? What do you think will happen next?

3)    Analyse unknown vocabulary. Students call out words they have highlighted, one paragraph at a time. These were entered on a grid on the white board. (The grid is based on Paul Nation's work on teaching guessing.   2 Clarke & Nation, Bibliography, p.11  )

 

Line

Word

(important?)

Part of Speech

Sentence Structure

=/+; +ve/-ve

General Context

Related Words

Your guess

Dictionary meaning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1)    Vocabulary exercises based on Ellis's work.  3 Ellis, Bibliography,p.11

I chose a number of words from the text, projected them onto the white board, discussed the meanings again, and then the students used those words in the exercises.

 For example:

 

homicide

 

runway

tarmac

runners

 

frosty

divert

dew

 

curfew

 


The exercises below are merely incomplete extracts:


My children have a 9 o'clock ___________________.

It is often _______________ on winter mornings.

After the accident yesterday the policeman _______________ the traffic.

________________________________________________________________

tarmac

                                      people who run

homicide

                                      water on plants early in the morning

runners

                                      time when everyone must be inside off streets

dew

                                      flat place where airplanes take off

curfew

                                      murder

________________________________________________________________

 

What do you wear on your feet when you exercise?  I __________________

What can you do when a baby wants to touch something breakable?  You can ______________________________________________________________

 

 

1)    Summarise the text. With the aid of the table below, projected onto the white board, the students construct a summary in note form.

 

Who?

 

 

 

When?

 

 

Where?

 

 

What?

 

 

 

 1)    Paragraph writing. Students put the original text away and write a paragraph using the summary, which is still on the white board. They are encouraged to provide topic and concluding sentences and to exclude minor details.

After they have written their paragraph, I provide a sample version on OHT which most students like to copy. I point out my topic and concluding sentences, as well as any linking words I have used. I relate the parts of my paragraph to the summary the class composed earlier.

 2)    Listening exercises. By this time students are very familiar with the text, both its meaning and vocabulary. The listening exercises are provided at three levels of increasing difficulty to allow for the very wide range of listening skills found in almost every class. The aims of the exercise are to reinforce, yet again, the new vocabulary, and, at the same time, develop detailed listening skills, particularly for unstressed function words which are crucial to the sense but are often missed or misheard by students.

To construct these exercises, I make a copy of the original text. In the "easy" version, I delete every second word and replace by dashes. (See below)  I insert 5 spaces before and after the words to be inserted by the students; each letter of the omitted words is replaced by the underline character (not the hyphen); there are 2 spaces between each dash.  This gives the students plenty of room to write. (This is particularly important for those with low general literacy skills.)

It is important to keep the key stoke icon on while you type these exercises so that you can see exactly what you have done, as the computer does not recognise the ends of words which consist of dashes and spaces!

Then I make another copy of this version and replace 3 out of every 4 words with dashes for the "medium" version.  And finally, I make a copy of that and replace almost all the words by dashes, leaving proper names and an occasional word as a marker in the text of the "hard" version.

Students choose for themselves which version they want to use.

Listening, Easy

 

It     _  _  _    an     _  _  _  _  _  _  _    dead    _  _  _  _.    Nothing   
 _  _  _  _  _  _  _    in    _  _  _  _  _  _.     As     _    homicide    
_  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _    I've     _  _  _  _    too     _  _  _  _    of    _  _  _  _.    

________________________________________________________________

Listening, Medium

 

It     _  _  _     _  _     _  _  _  _  _  _  _    dead    _  _  _  _.   
 _  _  _  _  _  _  _      _  _  _  _  _  _  _    in    _  _  _  _  _  _.      _  _     _    homicide     _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _     _  _  _  _     _  _  _  _    too     _  _  _  _    

________________________________________________________________

Listening, Hard

 

_  _     _  _  _     _  _     _  _  _  _  _  _  _     _  _  _  _     _  _  _  _.    
_  _  _  _  _  _  _      _  _  _  _  _  _  _     _  _     _  _  _  _  _  _.      _  _     _    homicide     _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _     _  _  _  _     _  _  _  _     _  _  _    

 

 4. Research methods:

To obtain some triangulation, I used 5 different methods of recording data:

1)    Formal testing of the words which were selected by the teacher as a basis for the various exercises above.

2)    Discussion with two focus groups of their impressions of the course & teaching techniques.

3)    Whole class informal discussion.

4)    End-of-course client satisfaction forms.

5)    Teacher's impressions.

The results are shown below:

 

Vocabulary Research Project - Test Results

Student

 Wk 1

 Wk 2

 Wk 3

 Wk 4

 Wk 5

Average

1

40

0

0

60

70

34

2

100

80

60

40

70

70

3

50

40

 

40

60

47.5

4

80

50

40

80

80

66

5

70

50

60

100

 

70

6

10

40

80

40

 

43

7

100

 

 

60

100

86.7

8

70

80

80

90

80

80

9

90

 

80

80

100

87.5


10

40

0

0

40

 

20

11

 

 

0

40

 

20

12

 

100

80

90

100

92.5

13

 

75

60

80

40

63.8

14

 

 

 

60

50

55

15

 

 

 

50

60

55

16

 

 

 

60

90

75

Average

65

51.5

49.1

63.1

75.0

60.3

 Formal testing was discontinued after week 5 because excursions and other events interrupted the flow.

 0 indicates the student took part in the test but had no correct answers. A blank indicates the student was absent when the test took place.

 Each test consisted of 5 items, some where the teacher provided the meaning and the students were asked for the new word, others where the word was supplied and students were asked for the meaning. The tests were short so that they could be completed quickly without causing undue stress to students or taking a significant amount of time out of the learning cycle.

Focus Groups

 

1)    Students with highest test scores:

These students reported high satisfaction with all segments of the programme. They said they believed that each segment helped reinforce their vocabulary learning. One commented that she did not need to learn the new words at home because the class work ensured that she remembered them.

Another student suggested the teacher should always use each new word in a sentence on the board after the class discussion of its meaning. This suggestion was incorporated systematically into subsequent lessons. (Of course, words had already been placed in sentences both in the original text and in the exercises, but it was felt that an extra example would do not harm.)

 

2)    Students with lowest test scores:

More surprisingly these students also expressed great satisfaction with each segment of the programme. They said they remembered new words better than in previous courses, even though one said that her "computer didn't click"!

 

General Class Discussion

 

In about the middle of the term, several students decided that the reader Average Dead Body 1 Baylis, Bibliography, p.11  was too hard, that there were too many new words. However, those present were unanimous that they wanted to know the end of the story and that they could understand the plot.  In fact, they didn't want to abandon the text.

 

As a result, there was a class discussion of rote learning techniques and how many words a student should attempt to commit to memory each week. This also reassured them that they did not need to try to learn every word they did not know, but merely the words which the teacher had selected for exercises and testing.

 

End-of-course Client Satisfaction Survey

 This is an extract from the complete form which also deals with excursions, teacher helpfulness and clarity of speech, and asks what ideas students have for subsequent terms. (At this level, there are rarely any useful pieces of information in these comments.)

 

 

 


Interesting

 

Boring

 

Useful

 

Not useful

 

Story (Average Dead Body)

 

6

 

 

3

 

1

 

Learning new words

 

8

 

 

3

 

 

Exercises using new words

 

7

 

 

3

 

 

Summary

 

5

 

 

3

 

2

 

Writing paragraphs

 

5

 

1

 

5

 

 

Listening

 

7

 

 

4

 

 

Teacher's Impressions

 

1)    The general atmosphere in the class throughout the course was positive (despite negative reports from the previous term's teachers about the attitudes of a number of the students).

2)    All students started to think more positively about what they already knew about English words, with many contributing to the discussion of the meanings of unfamiliar words.

3)    One student who was initially unwilling to write anything, started to participate actively in the tests and ultimately in paragraph writing.
Another student who had previously always copied from whoever was sitting next to him, attempted to write his own answers towards the end of the course.

4)    About half of the class found paragraph writing extremely difficult but understood the necessity to try. Two of the students with moderately severe literacy problems made appreciable progress in sentence writing, even though they did not achieve anything which could be described in a formal sense as a paragraph.

5)    The choice of text was not appropriate (See reasons for choice above.) In retrospect, if no other text was available, this one should have been edited to cut out most of the purely descriptive background atmosphere paragraphs. In this way, a lot of the more challenging vocabulary would have been eliminated and the burden of length would have been relieved for the students. (This was in fact done in the last two  weeks of the course to ensure that the class actually finished the story which they were very anxious to do.)

 

5. Conclusions:

It is difficult to draw any safe conclusions from these results, especially since there is no basis for comparison with the effects of other previously used teaching techniques. However, some individuals performed better than either they themselves or teachers would have predicted.

 Both in the focus groups and in general class discussion, it is difficult to separate the students' real opinions from their desire to please the teacher. However, in both cases, there was a noticeable degree of enthusiasm.

There is also the possibility of the Hawthorn effect but I believe that is slight since all of our teachers normally pay quite a lot of overt attention to students' opinions. So this was not a case of sudden increase in attention producing a positive response from students.

Problems with the text choice reinforce the need for more texts for slow-moving low-level students who often stall at about this level. Teachers constantly complain that they are at their wits' end to find something new to use to cover the same ground in a fresh way with students of this type.

 

The grid for analysing new words (p.3) was of less use with this group than with higher level classes for whom I had used it on numerous occasions. In particular, the part of speech question was of little use since most of the class had no clear concept of the function of the grammatical terms and explanations would have diverted time and attention from the real aims of the course. However, the sorts of issues raised by the grid were useful to help the students analyse what they already knew about the words, both from this text and from their previous English language experience. It also helped them focus on the text itself, rather than merely on individual words. Thus they were less overwhelmed by unknown words and the habit that some of them normally pursue of looking up each word before they think at all, was to a very large extent banished.

 

In general I believe the experiment was a positive experience for both teacher and students. However, with future classes I would make some modifications in line with the conclusions drawn above.

 

 

6. Bibliography:

 

1)    Baylis, John: Average Dead Body, NSW AMES, 2000

2)    Clarke, D.F. and Nation, I.S.P.: Guessing the meaning of words from context: strategy and techniques in System, Vol. 8, pp211-220

3)    Ellis, Nick C.: Vocabulary acquisition: word structure, collocation, word-class, and meaning in Schmidt, N & McCarthy, M. Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy, CUP, 1997

 

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