Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Using Vocabulary Notebooks Part 4

Well, I wrote a somewhat positive post last time about students' reactions to the vocabulary notebooks (VNs) in the last post. Well, after the students' first quiz, strictly speaking from the standpoint of the results, the VNs appear to have been almost worthless. 

In the quiz, the students had an English or Japanese definition of a word in our textbook. They then had to write the English word and part of speech of that word. Then, they had to write "another form" and "important information" for 5 of the words and "example sentences" for six of the words. For other information, they were supposed to write information that would help them use a particular word. For example, for a verb such as "protest" the could write what prepositions go it, such as "against." For the example sentence they could write something like, "We protested against the new tax law." To find out this information, I was hoping that they would use a dictionary and had devoted quite a bit of class time to demonstrating such dictionary use strategies and made a rudimentary webpage that linked to various dictionaries.

I do not have the exact statistics with me but of the 21 students who took the quiz, only about 4 wrote five entries for "other information." Also, only four students could demonstrate that they knew how to use a word in the "example sentence section." Sentences such as "My brother is alcoholism" for the word "alcoholism" and "I protest to the law" for protest showed me that many students had no idea how to use the words.

What happened?

I did not collect students' vocabulary sheets but I did ask students to write about the quizzes in their action logs. The majority of the students who did poorly simply wrote that they did not study. Others wrote that is was difficult to understand words that were defined in English. Lastly, others wrote that it was too difficult for them to write example sentences. Obviously, one factor is that students did not study. Even if they did not study, though, I would think that through writing their VNs and experiencing the words in class, they would still be able to make good guesses about how to use the words. This was not the case which means that another undeniable factor is that the students and I are not on the same page about using VNs as a means of developing productive knowledge of the language. 

Tomorrow, we will have class again and I will emphasize the following:

First, students might seemed overwhelmed by having to write so much information for every single word. However, they do not have to learn to use every single word that they encounter. Rather, they should learn to use words that they think are important for them to learn or that are frequent words in English. They will only have to answer word usage information on the words they want to learn to use. So, they do not have to write exhaustive information for every new word in class.

Second, I will go over why I think writing "How to use" information is important and show them how to do it again. Basically, in the end, I cannot teach them how to use English, they have to teach themselves and using dictionaries to confirm how to use a word is one way (of very many).

In a couple of weeks, I will provide an update. I will also collect their vocabulary sheets to determine what kind of information they wrote.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Using Vocabulary Notebooks Part 3

Well, I have now finished one cycle of my action research into using vocabulary notebooks. I have lots of data: students' word sheets and quizzes, students' comments on in-class work, and students' questionnaire results. I have not really had the time to analyze it but I will give a rough account of what has happened. I do not know how much I will be able to prove whether students' improved in any way, but I think I can at least give some ideas for using vocabulary notebooks (hereafter VNs). Today, I will talk about steps 2 - 5 below:

Step 1) Identifying an issue, problem, or puzzle we wish to investigate in our own context
Step 2) Thinking and planning an appropriate action to address the concern
Step 3) carrying out the action
Step 4) Observing the apparent outcomes of the action
Step 5) reflecting on the outcomes and other possibilities
Step 6) repeating these steps again

(2) Thinking and planning an appropriate action to address the concern  
As I said before, the main problem with the class where I would use the VNs is that they really struggle to express themselves in English. It's not because they are 'shy', rather many of the students do not seem to have the basic knowledge necessary to put a sentence together (See my last post). I thought that I could get students to reduce their global errors and write cleared English is students got into the habit of confirming or looking up word usage in dictionaries when they were confused about how to use a word or phrase. I also thought that the VNs could be a means for them to record this newly learned information. Basically, I was hoping that students would develop the kind of skills necessary to enable them to be their own teachers of English. Students VNs were binders which consisted of vocabulary sheets. Below is a sample entry, it is a little different from the one I posted a couple of weeks ago (Click on the image to enlarge).

Parts of the word sheet:

Pronunciation: I told students that they do not have to memorize how to write phonetic symbols but they should know how to read them. I also gave them an easy to read IPA chart. Sometimes there are words in English that even I can't read and this section was designed to encourage learners to confirm the stress placement and pronunciation of a word they were not sure about.

Part of speech:  This might seem a little too grammatical but part of speech of the word helps students understand its basic usage. 

Word/phrase-frequency: Here, learners write not only the word they learn but also the frequency of the word, because the learning of high frequency words should be prioritized. If a word is low frequency and they might rarely use it, then maybe only passive knowledge of the word is necessary. 

Other forms: I wanted students to write the word if it had an alternative part of speech or the word with its prefixes or suffixes. An important part of vocabulary knowledge is understanding how other words can be derived from one base word. 

Important information: Here, learners wrote the collocations of a word, for example, if the word is a verb, they would write the prepositions that occur together with it. If the word is a noun, they would write which adjectives appeared with it. They also wrote such information as whether a verb was transitive or intransitive and whether a noun was countable or uncountable. I think this section is most related to the goal of having students look up word usage in their dictionaries.

Example Sentence: Students here are encouraged to write their own original sentences based on what they had written in Important information. In the past, students would copy sentences from dictionaries and memorize them but I was dubious about whether this could really help them learn how to use a work.

Japanese of English Meaning: I have actually found that online English to English learner dictionaries such as Macmillan Dictionary and Thesaurus have very easy to understand definitions. So, I have told students to try to use the English to English definitions when possible to broaden their vocabulary.  Lastly, students could write the Japanese or English meaning of a word. 

(3) Carrying out the action

Students have weekly assignments to fill out their VNs and I also have tried to utilize their VNs in class activities. Here are two frequent patterns of VN use in the class:

First pattern of VN use
Record words into VNs for homework (Before Class)→ Students share their VN entries with each other at the beginning of class Speaking, reading or writing activity using the VN words Students update their VNs with new knowledge Quiz on VN words (After Class)

Second pattern of VN use
Students participate in a discussion or read an authentic text in class Students write words they learned in their VNs  

(4) Observing the apparent outcomes
Ok, now this is going to get messy.; To observe the apparent outcomes, I am using a pre and post dictionary strategy use questionnaire, students' action logs, anlysis of students' VNs and quizzes, and a pre-and post writing task. Right now, I have about 4 classes worth of action logs, two quizzes, students' first VN sheets, and thei pre-test results. I am still thinking about how the hell I am going to analyze this. For the time being, I think the best thing to do is look at: 1) What kind of words they are writing into their vocabulary sheets; 2) Their quiz performances; 3) Reactions to class activities.

(5) Analyzing the outcomes
 (Class work from the teacher's perspective)
I have been pretty successful with the first pattern of VN use. For example, here is one class activity: Students write six words into their notebooks for homework → 
Students quiz each other on the words, important information, etc. at the beginning of class → 
Students have six pictures and have to write a story using the pictures. Students write the story and end up using most of the new words. → 
Students update their VNs.→ 
Eventually students have a quiz.

However, I have not had much success with Pattern 2. Students will not write anything in their notebook that they are not allowed to. It seems like they have a high incentive to write what I tell them to because they will be tested on the words. However, the ultimate goal is for students themselves to choose words/phrases that they need to learn and use VNs as a tool to help them learn. 

(One way to encourage autonomy in my primarily teacher-controlled class)
One way I have tried to encourage students to choose which words they will need to learn is, for example, on a quiz of 15 words, they choose 5 - 6 words for which they will write "other forms," "important information" and "example sentences." In other words, they will choose the words they think they will need the productive knowledge for.
 I gave the above quiz last week and I have only taken a quick look at them, but it seems that most students wrote original sentences for the example sentence section. A lot of students could not write pieces of information for the other forms area and their example sentences were incorrect. This leads me to believe is that all they studied were the meanings of the words. When I analyze the quizzes, students' action logs, and their vocabulary sheets, I will better be able to explain their quiz results and how they used the VNs.
(6) Repeating the steps again
Here are the issues I have to improve on:
  1. Students write their own words into the VNs. These words can be words they encountered in their homework, from class activities, or any other English-use experience.
  2. To learn to use the words they feel are important, students learn to make use of word usage information in their dictionaries.
  3. Time spent on VN notebooks should start to decrease as students know how to use them.
  4. Students should not write all the word information at once. Students should write the word information as their understanding of the word evolves.