How can I help my students acquire field-related vocabulary that is relevant and meaningful to them?
April 13, 2018
Vocabulary acquisition in a B-block course is very much a double-edged sword. When I started teaching field-related English, I expected vocabulary to be a nonissue. After all, in a class where students are supposed to work on field-specific topics, focusing the selection of salient vocabulary items should be a no-brainer when compared to more general A-block courses. Or so I thought.
As a teacher, the main challenge is two-fold:
- Ensure that each student learns vocabulary that is not only field-related, but also personally relevant.
- Actively facilitate and support vocabulary acquisition in a context where every student’s needs are different.
Mixed groups are often considered to cause an important predicament in B-block. But if we consider that the purpose of this course is to prepare each student to be functional in English in study or work-related contexts, we quickly realize that any group is a mixed group, since all students have their own unique blend of interests, objectives and aspirations. I realized this when I had three nursing students in the same group; one wanted to pursue university studies, one planned on being a school nurse, and the third student wanted to work in a hospital setting. Clearly, each of these students had different lexical needs.
Researchers in ESL pedagogy agree that vocabulary acquisition should not be an end in itself, but an essential aspect of comprehension and production in both speech and writing. According to Paul Nation (1994, 2017) the essence in developing fluency lies in the opportunity for meaningful use of that vocabulary. As a result, a balanced vocabulary teaching strategy should include various degrees of explicit and implicit learning activities.
I kept these findings in mind when designing a vocabulary acquisition strategy for my students, which I also integrated in the two levels of the Become series. It is based on three complementary pillars:
- Expressions for Success present useful words and phrases that can be readily applied in authentic speaking and writing tasks. These vocabulary items are relevant to all students as they help them accomplish objectives that are important in many study and work-related contexts, such as signalling agreement and disagreement, introducing examples, weighing pros and cons, etc.
- Build on Vocabulary explanations and exercises increase awareness of common patterns and structures. Examples include cognates, collocations, and gender-neutral language. These elements contribute to every student’s language acquisition strategies and are completed with workshops on how to efficiently use a dictionary, how to effectively study new words, etc.
- A Vocabulary Tracker encourages students to research, record and reuse relevant field-specific vocabulary. Research has showed that giving students the responsibility of evaluating the pertinence and importance of new vocabulary they encounter, and providing them with a tool that allows them to record this vocabulary fosters long-term vocabulary acquisition and increases learner autonomy and motivation (Chao, 2016). Personalized scaffolding and authentic practice opportunities ensure students actively use new vocabulary repeatedly to foster retention.
Instead of “imposing” vocabulary lists or matching exercises on all of my students with little or no personalisation, I equip them for optimal vocabulary acquisition by teaching strategies and patterns, complemented with useful words and expressions they can readily apply in interaction. Then, I empower them to record vocabulary they come across in authentic texts and audiovisual documents and provide them with ample opportunities to reinvest this vocabulary. As a result, my students are more motivated and use more varied and precise field-related vocabulary they can also relate to as individuals.
Chao, A. (2016). Vocabulary Notebooks: A Graduated Approach Towards Learner Autonomy. Illinois Teachers of English to Speakers or Other Languages - Bilingual Education (ITBE).
Nation, P. (1994). New Ways in Teaching Vocabulary. TESOL Press.
Nation, P. and Webb, S. (2017). How Vocabulary is Learned. Oxford University Press.
Andy Van Drom has been teaching Linguistics and ESL at the college and university level, specializing in English for Specific Purposes, since 2005. He is an editor and regularly writes on the ProfWeb blog. He is also the author of Become, a series designed for Block B students in levels 100-102. Learn more >>