The Role of Vocabulary in English Language Teaching (ELT): The

The Role of Vocabulary in English Language Teaching (ELT): The Past, Present, and Challenges Ahead 字彙在英語教學所扮演的角色: 過去、現在、及未來的挑戰 Jeng-yih Tim Hsu Department of English National Kaohsiung First University of Science and Technology [email protected] Abstract In the past few decades, the role of vocabulary in English language teaching has been receiving a tremendous amount of attention and often the center of discussions as well as debates. This paper, serving as a brief review, takes the readers back to the initial point at which vocabulary regained its popularity in recent eras of ELT. It also examines how the emphasis on weighting vocabulary turns into a widely recognized teaching approach (Richards & Rogers, 2001), i.e., the Lexical Approach, which inspires researchers, classroom practitioners, and commercial textbook writers to openly embrace and prioritize ‘teaching frequency-based vocabulary.’ This growing lexis-focused trend, while bringing new possibilities, is actually creating more questions than it answered. By presenting findings and reports from some current corpus-based studies, this paper calls for more empirical studies to be done, hoping the field of ELT to respond jointly to the challenges posted while determining the status of vocabulary.


1. Historical and Current Trends Though vocabulary is prominent in language learning, it has been undervalued in the past 50 years of ELT history (Carter & McCarthy, 1988; Seal, 1991; Zimmerman, 1997a; O’dell, 1997). The role of vocabulary is typically considered in terms of the classic ELT methodologies and the theories of reading models. When the Grammar Translation Method was first introduced to teach modern language, vocabulary received limited attention and was selected only if it could illustrate grammatical rules, and direct vocabulary instruction that isolated words in the form of lists was included (Brown, 1994; Zimmerman, 1997a; Richards & Rogers, 2001). The Direct Method that came next emphasized exposure to oral language and the direct use of the L2. Vocabulary was kept simple and familiar, and was assumed to be acquired naturally through the interaction during lessons and connected with reality as much as possible (Schmitt, 2000). In the 1970’s, while the Audio-lingual Method was dominating, language learning was believed to be a process of habit formation. Systematic attentions were paid to pronunciation and oral drilling of sentence patterns. New words were then taught through drills, but only enough to make the drills possible (Larsen-Freeman, 1986). The idea that learning too much vocabulary in the early learning process created a false sense of security was even suggested (Zimmerman, 1997a). The Communicative Approach, deriving in the 80’s, once again gave vocabulary a secondary status. As the CA focused more on the meanings, the appropriate use, and the communicative competence of an L2, little explicit attention has been given to vocabulary in either theoretical or pedagogical publications (Zimmerman, 1997a). It was assumed that if L2 learning took place in communicatively meaning contexts, vocabulary would take care of itself (Coady, 1993; Schmitt, 2000). Only in the Vocabulary Control Movement and the Natural Approach did vocabulary receive significant attention. During the Vocabulary Control Movement, the first attempt to compile a list of minimum necessary English vocabulary appeared under the influence of Ogden and Richards (in Carter & McCarthy, 1988; Schmitt, 2000) whose works became “Basic English” consisting of 850 words. The second attempt, partially reacting to the Direct Method, was collectively recorded in the Carnegie Report (in Schmitt, 2000) in which word frequency was the main criterion in selecting words. This list, containing about 2000, words was eventually published as the “General Service List of English Words” by West (1953, in Richards & Rogers, 1986; Nation, 1990 & 2008; Zimmerman, 1997a; Schmitt, 2000). For the first time, vocabulary was treated as one of the most important aspects of L2 learning and efforts were given on developing a scientific and rational basis for selecting vocabulary content of language courses. Krashen’s Natural Approach, which models the natural 2

process of L1 development (Coady, 1993) and emphasizes comprehensible and meaningful input, also highly values vocabulary as it is seen as a bearer of meaning. Vocabulary teaching methods in the Natural Approach stress the importance of interesting and relevant input, and learners’ understanding of messages (Zimmerman, 1997a). Meanwhile, L2 reading models have powerful influence on the role of second language vocabulary (Coady, 1993). The psycholinguistic, top-down approach (Goodman, in Coady, 1993) that requested reader to actively process several sub-skills, such as prediction and anticipation, in order to achieve comprehension paid a lot of attention to guessing unknown words via contextual clues. The following interactive model that used both the top-down and bottom-up processes emphasized the prior knowledge (i.e., schemata). Vocabulary is viewed in terms of the learners’ background knowledge of concepts as well as word-forms. Two decades ago, Grabe (1991) predicted that vocabulary development would still remain vital for the 1990’s. Seal (1991) affirms Grabe’s prediction as he foresees that the new focuses of ELT education would include: (1) the de-emphasis on grammar, (2) learners’ increasing needs for vocabulary in order to increase communication; (3) the perceived needs of EAP (English for Academic Purposes) students who are always disadvantaged due to their small size of L2 vocabulary. The current trend of L2 vocabulary instruction focuses on its natural occurring discourse and stresses that words should be always taught and learnt in contexts (Nattinger, 1988; Brown, 1994; Aebersold & Field, 1997; Nation, 2008). With the assistance of computer, it is now possible to record how words are actually used in English. The COBUILD Project (Sinclair & Renouf, 1988) contains a corpus of 20 million words, accounting for actual English use. New directions of the L2 vocabulary research call attention for (1) the study of word relationship, such as collocation, i.e., words’ co-occurring that happens very often and more frequently than would happen by chance (Seal, 1991; Schmitt & McCarthy, 1997; Schmitt, 2010); (2) the re-examination of former word frequency list (Schmitt, 2000); (3) the integration of a lexical syllabus into former topic-, notion-, or function-based syllabuses (Willis, 1990; Lewis, 1993; O’dell, 1997; Schmitt, 2000); (4) the integration of the Communicative Approach with a focus on naturally occurring vocabulary in classroom activities (Zimmerman, 1997a; 1997b). 2. Major Issues in the Teaching and Learning of vocabulary Main issues centering L2 vocabulary acquisition include: (1) What do we mean by ‘knowing a word?’ (2) Should teachers offer direct instruction of vocabulary? (3) If so, how and what should teachers teach first? 3

Although researchers all notice the complicate nature of vocabulary and acknowledge that the vocabulary consists of many degrees of knowledge (Channell, 1988; Stoller & Grabe, 1993, 1997), their arguments have been on the issue whether we should emphasize the receptive or productive knowledge of a word. Nation (1990, 2008) proposes that a native speaker must master the followings in order to know a word: the meaning(s), written and spoken form, grammatical behavior, collocations, register, associations, and frequency of the word. However, Schmitt and McCarthy (1997) note that such a list gives just a descriptive picture of a word, it is best to think of vocabulary knowledge as an integrated whole. Gu (1994) perhaps provides the best working definition for the minimum word knowledge an L2 learner needs to know. It should at least include the form, the referential meaning, and the basic syntactic behavior of each word. Debates on whether vocabulary should be taught explicitly/directly or implicitly/indirectly have been severe. The direct instruction of vocabulary is often tied with 2 further sub-issues: (a) the sequence of vocabulary teaching; (b) the acceptance of a core vocabulary. On the other hand, the indirect vocabulary instruction has been proposed to be best attempted via the use of extensive reading (Fox, 1987; Seal, 1991; Cho & Krashen, 1994; Day & Bamford, 1998). The current consensus can be best summarized as the followings: (1) The beginning learners need more direct vocabulary instruction before reaching a threshold level. (2) As learners proceed, indirect vocabulary teaching as well as extensive reading will gradually take over the direct emphasis of vocabulary. (3) Beyond the threshold level or the beginners’ paradox, students’ learning of new words is taken care of by conducting L2 reading directly, including free, pleasure, or extensive learning. Regarding the vocabulary teaching sequence, most researchers (Nation & Coady, 1988; Carter & McCarthy, 1988; Coady, 1993; Aebersold & Field, 1997; Schmitt, 2010) indicate that pre-teaching vocabulary will not contribute too significantly to learners’ learning. Direct vocabulary teaching benefits most if used as an after-lesson reviewing technique that widens and deepens learners’ word knowledge (Nation, 1990). However, caution is also given concerning what constitutes the most important and prioritized words that need learning. West’s General Service List (in Nation, 1990) of 2000 high-frequency headwords is the most quoted one and a good place to start. For EAP learners, Xue & Nation (1984) add 836 more words in their University Word List, with which they claim that these two lists will cover 95% of most English texts. Though additional high-frequency words are further suggested (Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Nation & Waring, 1997), a core vocabulary consisting of the most common 4

3000-5000 words is recognized and accepted by most L2 researchers (O’Keeffe, McCarthy, & Carter, 2007). These words deserve first attention while other low-frequency words can only be learnt by incidental learning through repetitive encounters in L2 reading (Krashen, 1989, Cho & Krashen, 1994; Nation, 1990; Coady, 1993; Stroller & Grabe, 1997; Day & Bamford, 1998). Laufer (1997), as an advocate of the threshold, claims that below such threshold, reading strategies become ineffective. 3. Some Effective Ways of Teaching and Learning Vocabulary Based on the research reviewed above, it seems reasonable to conclude that students with different proficiency levels should be taught vocabulary learning skills with different emphases. Nevertheless, since there is no clearly marked stages of transition, techniques that aim to promote best teaching and learning of L2 vocabulary should be built along with a vocabulary learning continuum (Carter & McCarthy, 1988; Coady, 1993) during which a mixture of approaches should be adopted (Long & Richards, 1987; Carter & McCarthy, 1988; Coady, 1993; Nation, 2008). As far as effective vocabulary teaching is concerned, some valuable recommendations are offered. Seal (1991) distinguishes ‘unplanned vocabulary teaching’ from ‘planned vocabulary teaching’ and warns teachers whom are consistently being questioned by students searching for unknown words that 3C’s techniques (i.e., convey, check, and consolidate a word’s meaning) avoid certain dangers in the unplanned teaching situations. Hatch and Brown (1995), supporting Seal, add in the ‘4th C,’ ‘connect’ the meaning and the form of a word together. Regarding the planned vocabulary teaching, teaching techniques never stop accumulating. To tackle the beginners’ below-threshold syndrome, Nation and Coady (1988), Laufer (1997), and Schmitt (2000) suggest that the mastering of the core vocabulary and a large sight vocabulary (i.e., words whose form and common meanings are recognized automatically, irrespective of contexts) help learners to take off. Beyond threshold, teachers and students equally participate in the teaching and learning process. Teachers are encouraged to conduct needs analysis before any further vocabulary instruction (Altman, 1997; Zimmerman,1997b). Class activities should be set up to meet the following criteria: (1) exposures to words in meaningful contexts and in 4-skill (i.e., listening, speaking, reading, and writing) activities; (2) connection between new and old words; (3) rich and elaborative rehearsal about each word (e.g., describing word meanings, ordering words, and collocational matching games); 5

(4) use of various techniques (e.g., word unit analysis, mnemonic devices, semantic mapping, dictionary skills) (5) multiple exposures to words; (6) active participation by students in the learning process (Sokmen, 1997; Zimmerman, 1997b, 2009). While repetitive encounters of words can be done through teachers’ emphasis on in-and-out-of-class extensive reading, students at higher levels are expected to take responsibility in their learning process. Sokmen (1992), Hatch and Brown (1995), and Zimmerman (1997b) propose the use of students’ self-generating vocabulary as they all anticipate that ultimately students become independent vocabulary learners capable of determining their needs and applying learner strategies (e.g., guessing and inferring from context, paraphrasing, affixes analysis) to handle each newly encountered word. 4. Popularizing and Prioritizing Vocabulary 4.1. The lexical approach The publication of the second edition of Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (Richards & Rogers, 2001) marked the arrival of a vocabulary-targeted approach. In their most quoted textbook, Richards and Rogers allocating one chapter in which the lexical approach was recognized and introduced. Collocations, along with computer-generated lists containing single words and longer lexical units, and concordance samples, were introduced and granted a higher status. Concerns on the role of collocations in language acquisition have been raised by scholars and researchers in the late 1960s. Discussions and studies of collocations are developing mainly among three groups: corpus linguistics, second language acquisition and instruction, and ELT vocabulary education. They may seem to have approached and studied collocations with different emphases. Sinclair, a lexicographer and a leading character of corpus linguistics, led the rest to capture the “distributional regularities” (Ellis, 2008, p. 4) of a language by introducing his idiom principle–“a language user has available to him or her a large number of semi-preconstructed phrases that constitute single choice, even though they might appear to be analyzable into segments…” (Sinclair, 1991, p. 100). Arguing based on the results of corpus investigations, Kjellmer (1991) and Kennedy (1998), both reached a conclusion similar to Sinclair’s by stating that collocations are indispensable components upon which our language are made. Basically, collocations are more like by-products corpus linguists have found while building up their data (e.g., Biber and his colleagues’ ‘multi-word lexical items,’ 1999; Sinclair’s 6

‘concordances,’ 2003), these scholars recognized the importance of such statistically high frequency word strings in the process of analyzing million-word corpora. In the recent works of Sinclair and Biber, they have attempted to take their corpus studies further by applying them into language teaching. For instance, Sinclair (2004) and his associate Bernardini (2004) proclaimed that corpus is the most powerful tool made available for in-class lexical structures learning activities. Biber (2006) proposed that the adoption of EAP corpus actually promotes the learning of vocabulary and grammar use. As for the scholars concerning second language acquisition and instruction, Pawley and Syder (1983), Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) should be given the credit for directing our attention to re-consider ‘lexicalized stems’ or ‘lexical phrases.’ In their observation of second language learners, Pawley and Syder, had seen many lexicalized stems being segmented and reassembled as new units, functioning like independent word combinations which lead to longer sentence structures. They believed these stems are the building blocks for later stages of L2 acquisition. Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992), emphasizing more on the socio-pragmatic function of lexical phrases, also noticed both L1 and L2 learners made extensive use of prefabricated chunks of speech. Scholars of this group suggested that second language instruction should concentrate on lexical stems/phrases. In fact, their observations were soon embraced by pedagogists with methodological concerns. Lewis (1993, 1997, & 2000) brought in the lexical approach which peaks the status of lexis. In the lexical approach, ‘plentiful exposure’ and ‘consciousness-raising’ of lexis lie in the center of every classroom activity. Language teaching foregrounds vocabulary in the forms of single words, most frequent words, and word combinations (i.e., collocations). How to maximize the opportunities for learners to receive enough exposure of multiword units in actual language use became the predominant issue. The lexical approach has been experiencing a series of persistent resistance partially because of its lack of ‘tried’ method for teaching and partially teachers’ preference of interactive and message-based Communicative Language Teaching (Kennedy, 2008). Nevertheless, such a new idea in the methodological change has been proved to be revolutionarily influential. It stirred up debates over the issue whether collocations deserve specific attention and later attracted researchers of ELT education to begin systematic studies of vocabulary, an aspect of language learning long neglected (Nation, 2008). The earlier works of Coady and Huckin (1997), Schmitt and McCarthy (1997), and Schmitt (2000) not only provided the most comprehensive reviews of the development of vocabulary studies but also pinpointed the key issues in teaching and learning ELT vocabulary. Recent works of Thornbury (2002), Folse (2004), and Zimmerman (2009) also contributed to the understanding of 7

vocabulary pedagogy. Collocations are presented by these scholars with a three-fold argument: (a) collocational knowledge is an important part of word knowledge (Nation, 2001; 2008), (b) collocational knowledge is an aid to fluent and appropriate language use (Ellis, 2008; Thornbury, 2002), and (c) collocation teaching activities are vocabulary-richness activities which should be encouraged (Nation & Newton, 1997; Folse, 2004; Schmitt, 2008; Zimmerman, 2009). The interest in studying collocations did not stop at the reports of the three groups of researchers and scholars. The project on ‘formulaic sequences’ headed by Schmitt (2004) in University of Nottingham carried on the torch. Taking a purely quantitative approach, Schmitt and his research team have devoted tremendous amount of time investigating what they call ‘formulaic sequences’ or ‘lexical patterning,’ (both of which include collocations), collected from learner language. Reporting the results of twelve studies, Schmitt repeatedly underscored the importance of formulaic sequences as they play an essential role in our speech (Kuiper, 2004), comprehension of texts (Schmitt & Underwood, 2004), and language of EAP context (Jones & Haywood, 2004). In addition, other applied linguists, including Ellis (2008) and Coxhead (2008), have joined Meunier and Granger’s (2008) action research project on ‘phraseology’ in order to advance our skills in extracting, describing, teaching, and learning phraseological units. In sum, to many researchers, phraseological units, i.e., collocations, are the heart of language (Ellis, 2008) and it is certain to see more research conducted to investigate the role of collocations in language acquisition. Nevertheless, even with all the studies reported so far, few have examined the relationship between the acquisition of collocations and ELT learners’ general proficiency; fewer have looked into specifically the effects of direct collocation instruction on English language skills, such as listening, reading, writing, and speaking. To date, only five empirical studies, Tseng (2002, collocations and writing), Lien (2003, collocations and reading), Boers, Eyckmans, Kappel, Stengers, and Demecheleer (2006, collocations and speaking), Hsu and Hsu (2007, collocations and listening), Lin (2007, collocations and reading), investigated if direct collocation instruction enhanced L2 learners’ language proficiency. The findings reported are promising and encouraging. Whereas Tseng did not report any obvious improvement in her students’ writing, the other four studies all revealed that teaching collocations brings positive influence on learners’ knowledge of collocations as well as language skills. 4.2. Advocating the teaching and learning of English collocations Classroom-centered studies on collocations began in the early 1990s and they 8

happened to be conducted with participants in EFL settings, presented with quantitative results. Pioneer researchers placed their foci on determining learners’ collocational competence (e.g., Bahns & Eldaw, 1993; Farghal & Obiedat 1995; Keshavarz & Salimi, 2007) or analyzing L2 learners’ errors of lexical collocations (Liu, 1999; Lombard, 1997; Chen, 2006; Jeng, 2006; Chen, 2002). Studies of correlational nature followed afterwards. Their findings jointly endorsed that knowledge and use of lexical collocations significantly correlate with EFL students’ writing (Zhang, 1993), overall English (Al-Zahrani, 1998), speaking, (Sung, 2003), and online writing (Hsu, 2007) proficiency. Recent research focus has shifted to the impact of teaching and learning lexical collocations. Studies of instructional design, including Tseng (2002), Lien (2003), Hsu and Hsu (2007), Boers et al. (2006), and Lin (2007), are discussed below in details because they provided valuable guidelines for this present study of the similar nature. 4.3. Teaching collocations in Taiwanese contexts Working with 94 senior high school Taiwanese students in a twelve-week period, Tseng (2002) taught her experimental group lexical collocations explicitly during classroom activities. She employed a questionnaire, an identical pre-/post-course fill-in-blank collocational knowledge test, and two essays to examine the differences of her students in the experimental group in contrast to the control group. Her results showed that EFL high school students clearly could not acquire collocations on their own. Teaching of collocations, in Tseng’s case, was proved to have direct effects on broadening students’ knowledge of collocations, although obvious improvement on writing was not reported. Lien (2003) investigated the effects of collocations on Taiwanese college English majors’ reading comprehension. She divided 85 students into three participant groups according to their academic levels, and provided each group in a random order three kinds of instruction: lexical collocations, single-item vocabulary, and no instruction, in three consecutive weeks. Immediately following each instructional treatment, an essay-question reading test was given to the students in order to measure their reading comprehension. Lien concluded: (a) collocational instruction enhanced her participants’ reading fluency to some degree, (b) single-item vocabulary instruction, almost like no instruction, had no positive effect on the students’ reading comprehension, and (3) upon receiving collocation instruction, the lowest level (i.e., sophomore) students performed even better than the other two higher levels. Lien further stated that knowledge of collocations deserved more attention because it might


have encouraging influence on L2 students’ fluency and it is not something non-native speakers can acquire without explicit teaching. Also examining the effects of lexical collocations on Taiwanese EFL students’ reading fluency development, Lin (2007) placed her focus on vocational high students. Adopting a control-versus-experimental model, she taught the two classes herself in an 18-week semester. Lin used one set of identical pre- and post-course test, consisting of a reading fluency and a collocation competence test, in order to measure her two student groups’ language development. In addition, a delayed post-course reading test was given to the participants again one month later as a follow-up reading fluency check. Lin’s findings were relatively encouraging as she found that the experimental group, with explicit and systematic collocation teaching, made significantly greater progress in the reading fluency test than its counterpart. She even reported direct collocation instruction was beneficial to EFL students of all proficiency levels, a finding contrasted to Lien’s (2003) in which only the lowest level made more obvious improvement. Hsu and Hsu (2007), adapting a research design similar to Lien’s (2003), gave two groups of college English majors (i.e., sophomores and juniors) collocation, single-word, no instruction treatments and tested these students’ listening comprehension reflected by a multiple-choice TOEFL model test. The results showed that the instructional treatments had more effect than the academic levels on the participants’ performance of listening comprehension. The two groups both reacted best after receiving instruction which emphasized lexical collocations. Because the students’ test scores after the single-word and no instruction were so close, Hsu and Hsu went on to claim “as a language learner, he/she may as well not receive any instruction at all as he/she is receiving single-item vocabulary instruction” (p. 26-27). In short, the studies targeting Taiwanese EFL students yielded some meaningful results. For example, the majority of the research findings support that direct collocation teaching seems helpful to students’ language fluency whether the instruction is one-time only or longitudinal. It is however difficult to determine if L2 students of higher or lower language levels would benefit more from the collocation-focused instruction. 5. Implications for Teaching Vocabulary in the ELT Classrooms of Taiwan Arden-Close (1999) reports that English teaching currently in Taiwan is still Grammar-Translation-Method based. While reading skill is the means to other aspects of language learning, teaching approach always follow the ‘isolated vocabulary teachinggrammar rules explanation main reading text translation’ pattern. Based


on the literature reviewed above, I am proposing the following changes to EFL vocabulary teaching in Taiwan: 1. Introduce and integrate the core vocabulary into the current Taiwanese EFL syllabi in order to build a more scientific, probable, lexical-based L2 teaching. 2. By adapting the spirit of the Communicative Approach, learners’ needs ought to be taken into consideration. At the same time, Taiwanese students should be taught to take more active roles in their L2 learning process. 3. Independent vocabulary learning strategies as well as student-led, pleasure-bound, extensive reading should be encouraged and even required as a part of each class, thus highly motivated learners will progress in their own path automatically. References

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