A major aim of most teaching programmes is to help students to gain a large vocabulary of useful words. In every lesson, you have to introduce new words and practice them, making clear the meanings and the ways in which each can be used.
There are two main ways to present (introduce) vocabulary. You can either show the meaning in some way or you can use language that the students already know in order to make clear the meaning of the new lexical item. There is a third way, too, but one that is little used. You can present meanings through sounds. This third way is also described, as it offers yet another approach to the problem of introducing difficult words. During most lessons, you will use both of the first two ways. There are several techniques that may be used, whether you are working linguistically or ostensive. Some words are very easy to present (nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives). Some are more difficult because they represent abstract notions. Yet other words have no independent meaning, and so they cannot be presented in the same ways. These are the grammar words — eg articles, conjunctions, auxiliaries and some prepositions, and so on. They will normally become part of a grammar presentation rather than being introduced as lexical items.
Words have form. The form is a word's shape, when written, and its sound, when spoken. Some teachers believe that learners should always hear a new word before they say it and say it before they read it. Not everyone agrees. Many are convinced that learning is assisted if the written form is presented at the same time as the sound form. You should experiment to find what is best for your own learners. Remember that what is right for young students may not be best for older ones.
MODES OF PRESENTATION
There are several ways of making clear the meaning of a word, and these may beused alone or in combination.
Ostensive means by showing. Obviously, you can hold up things or points to objects in the classroom (such as pen, bag, tallest boy, brown bag, my book). This approach is widely used with beginner classes, but its potential with mature learners should not be neglected. You need not limit ostensive techniques to only those things which can be found in the room. There are also ways to show the meaning of words and concepts from the world outside the school, as you will see now.
We call objects realia, real things. Realia can often be brought to school: a piece of bread or fruit, a whistle, a stick, toys, eggs and so on are easily carried. They also create interest. Use your imagination too. Puddles are found in the street when it rains, but you can bring in a small bottle of water and create a puddle by pouring some water onto the floor. Crashes and skids can be represented by the use of model cars or planes.
Objects that are not easily carried or which are unavailable can be represented pictorially. You will be collecting useful pictures from magazines as a matter of course, but often you will not have the one you need, or the one you have may contain too many unnecessary details. For presentation purposes, simple pictures are better because the focus is clearer and the meaning is less ambiguous. Use the blackboard to make rapid sketches of simple things such as a tyre, a cabin or a cat. It takes more time to draw more complex items such as a telephone, a zebra, a skyscraper or the beach. These should be drawn at home on a flashcard, using a thick felt tip pen and a large sheet of paper. Abstract concepts such as last week, tomorrow, late or early can be conveyed by use of a cardboard clock and a calendar. Use your imagination and you will be surprised at what you can contrive visually to help the students to understand.
Your body and those of the students can be used to get meanings across. These are the techniques you will use:
1) facial expression, to show feelings (eg happy, smiling, hot, thirsty, angry, tired),
2) gesture, using hands and arms to show a range of meanings (eg fast, small, curving, wide, rolling),
3) mime and actions, to show many verbs and some adverbs (eg to stagger, to eat, to slip, to wake up, slowly, angrily).
There are several ways to define the meaning of a new word using teacher talk.2Obviously, a'linguistic approach is not suited to beginner classe«ач they do not have a large enough vocabulary to understand your explanation. You can use any of the following means to help comprehension.
Word sets are groups or related words, such as child, boy, girl, infant, youngster, teenager. You can use the words in a set that the students already know in order to introduce new related words. A concept such as clothing can easily be conveyed by giving different examples of items of clothing. The same would apply to other general words of that sort (transport, furniture, vegetables). You can work in reverse to present a more specific word. For example, to present the word canary, you would start from the already known concept of bird
Synonyms are words that mean more or less the same thing. Take the word coach, for example. It is a bus, but one that makes long distance journeys. Similarly, a shrub is a small bush, damp means humid, and so on. Synonyms are best shown on the board using the mathematical sign for equals, as in the following example.
fierce= savage unhappy= sad
shore= beach residence= home
Antonyms are words that have an opposite meaning. For example, poor is the opposite of rich while dirty is the opposite of clean. The sign to indicate an opposite meaning is an equals sign crossed through, in this way:
hot =/ cold full =/empty
Cognates are words in the students' own language that have the same, or very similar, form as the English word. If the students' mother tongue or second language is related to English there will be many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such words available and readily comprehensible. It would be illogical to ignore this rich and readily available language resource.
Some teachers are fearful of using cognates extensively because they have heard of faux amis. These are words which resemble each other in the two languages but which do not share the same meaning. It would be wrong to exaggerate this danger. There are many times more cognates than there are faux amis. Any bilingual French and English speaker, for example, could list hundreds of cognates, but would have difficulty to think of even a few faux amis.
You can contrive a sentence or a sequence of sentences to create a linguistic context in which the meaning of the one unknown word is illustrated (becomes clear). Most words that cannot be explained in the easier ways above can be presented in this way. In the two examples that follow one has a good illustrative setting, the other lias not. Can you see why this is so?
Example 1: Hates
My father hates potatoes, but he loves rice. He likes carrots, beans and most other vegetables, but he refuses to eat potatoes. He hates them.
There is a lot of traffic in cities. Traffic is a nuisance. Traffic is dangerous too.
The meaning of to hate has been made clear in the first example by contrasting it with to like. The teacher ensured that the class did not equate the new verb with the weaker meaning, to dislike, by insisting on the man's refusal to eat potatoes.
The second example is a poor one, though. The meaning of traffic is not made clear — pollution, smoke, drug dealing, and so on, are also a dangerous nuisance. It would be better to say:
There are many cars, buses, taxis and motor-bikes in the city centre. There are many vehicles passing through the streets. The traffic is heavy in the city.
Of course, the illustrative sentences that you write on the board, to be copied by the class, need to be as short as possible. For the two words, above, you might write:
Students hate punishments.
Road traffic is light at night.
Build on general knowledge
Capitalise on what the learners know about the world. For example, they know the names of the major towns in their own country. Therefore the points of the compass might be introduced in this way:
North, South, East, West (drawing the 4 cardinal points on the blackboard). Our capital city is in the south of the country. The town of A is in the west.В is in the centre and to the north of В we have the town C. In the east are the towns of D and E.
The names of local towns and villages will help learners understand the difference between near and not far from. The names of local streets will enable you to introduce market place, roundabout and bus terminus. You can make use, too, of the students' interests and their knowledge of music, sports, school affairs and personalities to introduce new words.
You can show the meaning of some types of words by sequencing them along a scale between two antonyms. For example, between the extremes of horrible and wonderful we might have nasty, unpleasant, pleasant and nice, in that order. Temperatures of bath water run along a scale from cold to hot, through lukewarm, tepid, warm and scalding. To introduce a new word into such a set, just indicate its place on the scale.
Imagine that you have to present the words rarely and frequently. Begin by putting the two antonyms never and always on the blackboard. Then you can elicit other adverbs of frequency that the students already know. The board might then look something like the following:
0 % 100 %
never sometimes often generally always
Next you elicit things that the students do, getting them to use those adverbs. Then you indicate a point between never and sometimes and say:
I rarely lose my temper in class. Sometimes I'm angry but I rarely lose my temper (putting a cross after never).
Is there anything that you rarely do? What about flying? Do you ever travel by air?
Having elicited activities that the students do, but only rarely, you indicate the space between often and generally, saying:
However, I frequently have a lot of marking to do, so I frequently stay late at school (putting a cross after generally). Are there activities that you frequently do?
Having elicited things that the learners frequently do, you add the new words to the scale and have the whole scale copied. Practice or homework can in the form of having students write true sentences about themselves or friends, using the new adverbs.
Translation can be used when no easy alternative suggests itself. Faced with a grammar word or a formulaic expression like Have you by any chance...?, it is sometimes better to give the mother tongue equivalent, rather than to spend a great deal of time trying to define or show the meaning. The time saved can be used more profitably on other teaching points.
We come now to the third, very much under-used, way of signalling the meaning of a word. Many words are more easily presented by a tape recording than by the ways already described. The noises of an argument, a jet plane, a locomotive, a horse galloping, children splashing in water, a river gurgling, and so on, are easily obtained or created. The presentation procedure is simple. You just tell the class to listen to the sound of…
In an earlier example, the teacher took a great deal of trouble in contriving a linguistic context tor the concept of traffic. Would it not have been easier and quicker to play traffic noises on a cassette recording?
You have to exercise judgement in deciding how many words to present in a lesson. There is no firm rule, but most teachers feel that 5 to 7 new words are enough for formal attention. The belief is that students can only internalise about half a dozen new words during a 40 minute lesson.
The words that you select for presentation should be words of special value, but which are not guessable in the textual context. By words of special value, we do not just mean words like postage stamp or soap, useful though such words are. We are thinking more of a word's immediate value for use in the classroom, for activities and for talking about the students' own lives and interests. Underline all the unknown words in the day's text. Choose just a few of these for formal presentation.
Some words can be presented ostensively, using realia, visuals or the teacher's body. Other types of lexical item have to be presented linguistically, using explanation, definition, synonyms, antonyms, cognates, scales or translation.
The four steps of the presentation procedure are easy to carry out. Select vocabulary for formal attention on the criterion of usefulness and frequency. Less common or useful vocabulary can be glossed as it is met in the text. Try to fit new words into vocabulary networks that the students already have, on semantic grounds or by topic. Involve the students as much as possible. Give them the chance to try out new vocabulary items in sentences of their own making. Make the whole presentation stage enjoyable. Remember that words need revising if they are to be internalized. Work briskly with evident enthusiasm. In this way the class will acquire a big vocabulary and enjoy the process. A good vocabulary is more important than grammar or structure in comprehension and in communication.
- McCarthy, M. and O’Dell, F. (1999) English Vocabulary in Use — Elementary. Cambridge: CUP
- McCarthy, M. and O’Dell, F. (2004) English Phrasal Verbs in Use. Cambridge: CUP
- Redman, S. (1997) English Vocabulary in Use — Pre-intermediate. Cambridge: CUP
- Thomas, B.J. (1986) Intermediate Vocabulary. Harlow: Longman
- Thomas, B.J. (1990) Elementary Vocabulary. Harlow: Longman