Monday, August 06, 2012

Using Vocabulary Notebooks Part 5

Well, I just finished presenting about using vocabulary notebooks (VNs) at the annual Japan Society of English Education Conference in Aichi. I will summarize how I used vocabulary notebooks and what I learned from using them. Again, as I have written before, I introduced vocabulary notebooks as a tool for students to learn how to use the words they were exposed to in class.

First, I tried Process A for using vocabulary notebooks:

Process A
  • Students record words into their VNs for homework→
  • Students share their VN entries with each other at the beginning of class (They exchange sheets and quiz each other) → 
  • Speaking, reading or writing activity using the VN words 
  • Students update their VNs with new knowledge
Below is the sheet I ended up using. In "Using vocabulary notebooks part 3" I explained each item on the sheet in detail. 
As I explained in the last post, in the first quiz we did after Activity A a total of two times for 15 words in the textbook, students struggled to write important information and example sentences. In the quiz, students were supposed to choose 5 words for which to write "other forms", "important information," and "example sentences." I told students that they did not have to learn to use all the words productively. Rather, they should choose which words to use productively based on their frequency and whether or not the word is related to their fields. Below, is a student's quiz. I have written the overall class averages for each item. The student got the fourth best score in the class but as you can see even she struggled to write "important information". Additionally, she only used the "important information" to make one example sentence. Eleven out of the 21 students who took the test left the "important information" field completely blank.

After giving the quiz, I thought that students must not have written the "important information" into their vocabulary notebooks, but the student above actually wrote word information for 9 of the words. The word sheet from her vocabulary notebook is below.

What happened? Students wrote action logs about their quizzes and I categorized their comments into the following:
Action log comments about the quizzes N=19
Category Number
Did not study 6
Confident with their performance 4
Could not write example sentences 3
Could not understand the English definitions in the quizzes. 3
Wrote comments, but not about the quiz 2
no comment 2

Obviously, one reason that students did not do so well was because they did not study. However, they also wrote that they could not write example sentences. No one said anything about important information. I decided to introduce a new vocabulary notebook process into the class and hope that students would do better on the next quiz after experiencing the first one.
For the next unit of the textbook, we did Process A and Process B. Process B was:
Process B
  • Speaking/ writing/ reading activity → 
  • Students record words that they learned in the activity → 
  • Students change sheets and quiz each other →
  • As a class we choose which words to have on the quiz
We had the following set of words from the two processes:
Process A: Textbook words (Theme = Landmines) Process B (Words from class activities)
Words A
landmine, ban, burn, poverty, explosion, victim, injury, medical care,  treaty, blindness, valuable, conflict, cluster bomb
present, distinguish, laziness, confidence, introduction, demand, aim

To make a long story short, the students did a better job using the Process B words productively in the test. However, one of the reasons for this was I had given the students "important information for words like "distinguish" (e.g, distinguish A from B). However, this got me thinking that maybe students would do better learning the words they chose to learn rather than the words. 
After the quiz, I gave students a questionnaire, where they had to write whether or not they agreed/disagreed with the below statements and why:
  • It is easy for me to find a word’s “important information” (Agree/Disagree)
    • Result: Agree 7/ Disagree 12
  • It is easy for me to learn a word’s “important information”  (Agree/Disagree)
    • Result: Agree 2/ Disagree 17
The students who disagreed with these statements wrote that there were so many kinds of "important information" that they did not know which to learn. For example, if students looks up the work "introduction," they will find the following collocations, "introduction of," "introduction to," and "make introductions." There is a lot of information and they do not know whether to learn all the information or which of the information they should learn.  

At this stage of the semester, we had about four weeks left. For the last unit of the textbook, we did "Process A" for using vocabulary notebooks and then I tried "Process C" two times:

Process C
  • Students complete an adjective with preposition worksheet (1st time)/ verb with preposition work sheet (second time) → 
  • Students write 4 words they want to learn in their VNs (students are instructed to make REAL sentences)
  • Students change sheets and quiz each other
At the ending of this cycle I gave students one more quiz. For this quiz, students had six words from the textbook (land mines) and I asked them to write other forms, important information, and example sentences for two of the words. Then, they had to choose any 4 adjectives and 4 verbs they learned from the grammar practice and write all the information into their quiz. Here is one student's quiz:

Other forms
Important information
Example sentences
Overall average
Quiz 1
Quiz 2
Quiz 3

I think students probably did best on Quiz 3 because:

  1. They did not have to discover the collocations for the verbs or adjectives themselves, they learned the collocations from the grammar sheets.
  2. The verbs and adjectives that students chose to learn were high-frequency, common words.
  3. Students had written meaningful sentences about the verbs and adjectives and perhaps this left a bigger impression on their memories.
  4. Students reported that they "studied hard" for this quiz because it was their last one.

Overall, based on my experience so far, I will end this post by making the following recommendations for using vocabulary notebooks:
  • Understanding parts of speech, collocations, and dictionary skills is essential for effective VN use. This can take students a semester or more to understand, and teachers will have to vote significant and valuable time to practicing this. I realized that if I had done an activity like Process C at the beginning of the year, students might have learned how to write "other information" sooner. Nevertheless, on their evaluation of vocabulary notebooks, students wrote that "important information" was helpful to learn a word.
  • Students should use the VNs to produce meaningful language (Having students write true example sentences about themselves is better) . Sometimes students copy sentences they don't understand from dictionaries. The drawback for having students write their own, original sentences, however, is that many times they write incorrect sentences into their vocabulary notebooks (approximately 25% of example sentences that students wrote in their VNs was incorrect).
  • Students might do better remembering more frequent words or words that they choose. 
  • In a questionnaire, some students wrote “The word sheets were too big to use in the train” as a minus for using vocabulary notebooks. This means that students were likely studying for the quizzes on their was to university right before class started. For remembering the breadth of information on the vocabulary sheets, some kind of learning schedule should be introduced so students can plan adequate time to learn the productive information of a word.
  • Students should not learn the productive information for all the words in their vocabulary notebooks! They should choose which words they think they should learn to use! I think this is important for autonomous learning.
  •  Notebook sheets can become disorganized. Have a place for students to write the topic on each sheet. 
  •  If you require that students write certain words in their notebooks, it is best to post the list on-line so that students who miss class can catch up. 
  • Quizzes motivate students to update their VNs but they can be time consuming to grade for the teacher and time consuming for the students to take.
  • The teachers should periodically collect students vocabulary sheets to see whether or not they are writing them correctly. It is impossible to examine the sheets in detail, but writing a comment or giving the students a check I think will motivate them to continue to write their sheets.
  • Students should also write their own words into the sheets and they should be evaluated on the words.
The following issues with using vocabulary notebooks remain:
  • It is very time consuming to make and grade quizzes as well as collect vocabulary sheets. Is there anything I can do to speed up this process?
  • Students only write words in their sheets because I tell them too. Am I encouraging autonomous learning?
  • Students often write wrong information into their notebooks and it is impossible for the teacher to point out every single wrong piece of information.
  • Vocabulary notebooks take time away from other activities we could be doing.
  • I thought the averages for the quizzes, although improved, were low. Was the level of difficulty to high? Were the students not putting out enough effort? Or, is the VN program I have fundamentally flawed in some way?
  • How can I introduce a memory schedule for learning words and would students really follow it?
Overall, I am glad that I tried it this semester and the students were generally positive about the intervention. I think that the students and myself learned how to use dictionaries better, what constitutes productive knowledge of a word, the importance of learning high frequency word, and strategies for learning to use words productively. I will continue this next semester, but from now on I should probably start blogging about what I am supposed to be researching full time: jr. and senior high school English teacher development in Japan.

Lastly, if anyone out there actually dared to read this monstrosity of a long post, I thank you.

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