Saturday, November 18, 2006

Problems Encountered When Reviewing Vocabulary

Last Wednseday, I had my English class consisting of 40 agriculture and engineering unversity freshmen majors. The title of the course, "English A", peaks the students interest and curiosity (I am being sarcastic). The class meets once a week for an hour and a half. Last week, I had a class that did not go so well and I would like to write why:

First, for warm-up I displayed some questions using key vocabulary from previous classes using powerpoint (the file can be viewed on-line here). Students made pairs (every week, students are put into pairs randomly) and one student faced the screen and asked his partner the questions displayed. The partner was not allowede to see the questions. They then switched roles.

The previous week we had read about nigthmares so last week we reviewed the key words from the reading. Students' homework was to write the words in their vocabulary notebooks and do a vocabulary exercise.

To review the key words I wrote the base words and their derivations on the blackboard. For example, I wrote the word terror (the reading was about nightmares) on the blackboard. Students in the vocabulary section of their textbook had two sentences with blanks where they would have to write the correct derivation of terror (answers in parentheses):
1. Jemilia was _______ of being alone in her large house at night. (terrified)
2. The most __________ experience I've ever had was in an airplane. (terrifying)

Next to terror, I wrote terrified, terrifying.

The other base words were decribe, recur, fortune, analyze, neglect and imagine so the blackboard looked something like this:

Terror: terrifiying, terrified
Describe: descriptive, description
Recur: Recurrent, recurring
Fortune: Unfortunate, fortunately

After we finished the vocabulary review, to review the pronunication of the words, I would point to a base word and have the students repeat the derivation. After we practiced the derivations for the seven words, I erase the middle parts of each derivation (e.g. desrcibe: d____ve, de______ ion) and had the students repeat the derivations. Lastly, I erased all the derivations and had the students repeat the derviations for a base word after I reported it.

In the next activity, I used powerpoint again. Students were shown 5 slides for about 15 seconds each (Please see sheets 1 - 5 here). Each slide consisted of the day's base words/ derivations and base words/ derivations that they had studied previously. Also, the words were displayed in various styles. Students were asked to write down as many words as they could remember and then share their list with their partner. (The idea came from Morgan, J & Rinvolucri, M. (2004). Vocabulary. Oxford, p.93)

After making a new list with their partner, students were asked to write as many sentences for as many words as possible in 10 minutes. I told them they could not use a dictionary. I thought that this would be difficult but possible because students had
1) been exposed to the different ways of using words through the vocabulary exericises and reading
2) had studied the words before and should have understood what they mean.

Before this actitivity, I envisioned that the students would work together actively in pairs to write as many sentences as possible in 10 minutes. However, of the 34 students who came to the class that day, the majority of them struggled monumentally with this activity. Many students just stared blankly at their notebooks, other students wrote but completely ignored their partners. After students had written as many sentences as they could, I would say a word and asked if anyone had written a sentence for the word. I decided to pose the question to the entire class because I did not want to call on a pair and embarrass them if they had not written a sentence. None of the students volunteered to give a sentence. After about 3 minutes of uncomfortable silence which seemed like an eternity, a student volunteered to give a sentence. (In retrospect, I have taught in Japan in 8 years and know that most students will hesitate to volunteer answers, but I am stubborn and cantankerous.)

So, the activity did not go well. After the activity ended, I commended the students on their fantastic listening ability and also how impressed I was with their reading ability. I then told them that to learn how to use words, you actually have to try to use them. Making mistakes is important and part of the learning process. That is why I has tried to do the activitiy. I asked students before they left the class to write me some advice on how this activity could be done better. These are the answers I got (They have not been edited but some have been translated into English). I have categorized the answers into Advice, I don't Know, Overall Reflection of the Activity, and Postive Responses:

Advice (20 students)
practice reading, writing and talking
Make sentences in homework. And next time, speak sentences. The time to make sentences need.
To write sentences is difficult. Call on one person. Don't call on all of person.
Take more time memorize words.
I think we me talk more naturally. I think you should increase talking in groups.
Everyone read aloud textbook and homework
It's difficult for me to write sentence. I think better that teacher show us example sentence.
I think that we feel nervous still now. So, it is important to be friendly with each other.
You should call on people once at a time.
I think for one word, I want to know more about derivative and how to use. I enjoyed this class.
Choice and ask to a person. I can't understand how to use a word.
Difficult to remember the mean of words. I want to use dictionary.
How about make group? Not pair.
I think something like game contain in class.
I think more understanding lots of words meaning a person.
I think if we see some example. We can make some sentence. Ex) prevent + O + from doing = I prevented hom from going to school.
Because Japanese people are shy, we give paper that we write sentence.
Almost pair partner have never met before. So we don't get along well with each other.
I think we should understand the used of the words well.
Nominate (= call on somebody)

I don't know (5 students)
I'm sorry I don't know
I don't know good idea.
I'm very difficult problem.
I'm sorry, I don't know.
I can't think of good way.

Overall Reflection of the Activity (4 students)
Today's lecture is difficult for me. But I want to study fun English .
I don't good thinking sentence in short time. So today's class is hard.
It's difficult to make sentence.
Word review is difficult for me.

Positive Responses (5 students)
I think we should write English sentence more. And we will understand English more.
Today's class was good.
I want to do this type of activitiy again.
Today's word review was not difficult for me. Because I understood words.
English game or CD listening or use PC? The class is fine like it is.

What I learned:
  • I thought I had given the students plenty of exposure to the use of the words, but many disagreed with me. Perhaps when we do vocabulary exericises I should tell them don't just fill in the blanks but pay attention to how the word is used and write your observations in your vocabulary notebooks.
  • Students think that they have to write a perfect sentence. I just want them to write something. I have a 2 year old son who knows a lot of English and Japanese. He uses a lot of words incorrectly, but the more he uses certain words and phrases, his usage evolves and becomes more and more standard (meaning grammatically and pragmatically accurate). When students tell me their sentence, I want the sentence to be incorrect because the feedback will help them realize how the word is used and their classmates will benefit from the feedback. Nevertheless, this is a source of great anxiety for students and I have to be more considerate to this.
  • Here is an idea on how I could do the activity without causing so much anxiety. A lot of students wanted to work in groups. Maybe is I had the students work in groups and gave each group a more concrete goal it would have worked better. For example, "Each group has 10 minutes to write the most sentences they can. The group that writes the most correct sentences will have to be sung to by the rest of the class next week." Then, I would collect the sentences, read them and announce the winner the next week. The next week, I could also highlight some gramattically incorrect or semantically/ pragmatically awkward sentences and ask students how they would correct them. I could also highlight some well-written sentences and congratulate the group.
  • Questions directed to the whole class do not work. Learners prefer being put on the spot (being called on) to volunteering an answer. The problem is I prefer the latter and not the former.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Jamie!

I know it's not easy to make students use English actively. But the opportunity for output is crucial to acqure practical skills of English. We should let them know how important it is to learn English by making mistakes.As you say, students don't want to make mistakes. This must be because of accuracy oriented exams. Maybe our English education system must be changed from accuracy to flency, though it may take time. The followig is the example of output activity I often use in my high school classroom.
1. Students make groups of two and one is to stand facing the blackboard and another against it.
2. A new word from the textbook, for example, “Hero”, which is a new word in the section 3 of Lesson 1, is written on the blackboard.
3. A student facing the blackboard describes the word “Hero” in his/her own English, and the partner guesses what he/she means. When they arrive at the correct answer “Hero”, they can sit down.
4. The role is reversed and they do the same activity with another new word “Winner”.
5. After the activity they are required to write sentences they wanted to produce but actually couldn’t by using dictionaries or grammar books.(In some cases a teacher may have to explain grammatical rules students have not yet fully understood.)

The most important thing, I think, is to let them know how exciting an interesting it is to speak and write English. We teachers should do this by being a shining model example.


JH said...

Thanks for the great teaching idea; I think I would like to try it.
About how long does it take you?

JH said...

Thanks for the great teaching idea; I think I would like to try it.
About how long does it take you?

Anonymous said...

Please hold out.

Dream will come ture.

Anonymous said...

Your son is great! He may be a genius. I can not speak two language. I want to speak English more.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I got to know your enthusiasm. Your class will be good through your enthusiasm.


Anonymous said...

Take more time memorize words.I think that we don't have confidence.


Anonymous said...

This is really off the subject but,
I have some teaching questions.
I am teaching Englsih in Japan currently private, and I have a question about teaching TOEIC. Sorry if I am off in left field, I am not sure if you teach this. But, now the TOEIC includes many English languages that even I have trouble listening to. If you do have any advice on the subject of this exam, or if you know someone who may, please point me in the right direction. Thank you. :D

JH said...

Hi Chris,
Thanks for the advice, I appreciate it. I teach a class of 40 students between the ages of 18 and 20. I usually try some kind of icebreaker; I find the simpler the better. For example, simply putting students in pairs and have them ask each other a list of questions is effective. I find that the crazier ice breaking is, it is more likely to have a negative effect with this group.
I really liked your idea about group sentence writing: Having students write the sentences individually and then share it with their group of 5. I think that would work and will try it! However, I find that the types of learners I teach ignore me when I ask them to produce something in quantity and ignore the quality. For most of the learners, quality cannot be ignored.

Anonymous said...

Hello Jamie,
I am teaching word formation now and it is extremely difficult for my students. I would suggest you to hand out a "long" table of words to your students and ask each group of 5-10 students to tick the words they KNOW. Then work with those words only... It is much easier to start with the "easy words". My students were happy to understand all forms of inform: inform, information, informative, informer, informatics, informed, informing... and they were eager to make sentences :-)
First they were scared because they hate the FCE type exercises, but they enjoyed the lesson then...

JH said...

Thanks for the great advice. I will try it!