Saturday, December 22, 2012

No Shortcuts to Competence in Vocabulary

A while ago (12/13/12), an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (paper version) grabbed my attention.  The title was "Vocabulary Declines, with Unspeakable Results." The article by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. can be viewed at the above google-cache link (although I don't know for how long).

The reason I read the article was that, just the day before it was printed, I had had a conversation with a high-intermediate TOEFL student who wondered why our English language school doesn't place students by level according to a vocabulary score.  I didn't have a good answer to his question.  How important is vocabulary to mastery of English?  Can we rate an ESL student's ability level by the vocabulary that (s)he can command in reading, listening, speaking, and writing?  How would we create a measurement/scale for that?  Do test-makers rate every word used in their exam by level?

The focus of the Hirsch article is on native speakers of English - on the American educational system and how it fails to equip its public-school students with appropriate academic and formal vocabulary so that they can function as well-spoken adults.  Hirsch points out that "Vocabulary building is a slow process that requires students to have enough familiarity with the context to understand unfamiliar words.  Substance, not skill, develops vocabulary and reading ability - there are no shortcuts." 

I totally agree with Hirsch that there are "no shortcuts" to learning vocabulary.  It is unlikely that a student can quickly grow his/her lexicon without simultaneously expanding her/his knowledge of various subjects.  In other words, vocabulary is best learned and remembered within a subject or topical context.

Some readers may disagree with the view that "all verbal tests are, at bottom, vocabulary tests." However, as Hirsch says, research has "shown that ...verbally weighted scores are good predictors of income level.  Words are twice as important as math scores..."  My students can attest that what holds them back the most in achieving the scores that they need on the IELTS or iBT (TOEFL) is a lack of vocabulary. The TOEFL is designed to test a non-native speaker's ability to comprehend and use language that would allow them to function in an American college.

How can we teachers ensure that students are well equipped vocabulary-wise for college and university or for the business world.  Will studying vocabulary lists work?  When a test asks a student to figure out the "gist" or general meaning of a reading or listening passage on the iBT, can a student consistently choose the correct answer if (s)he is totally unfamiliar with the topic being discussed or written about. The test-makers (ETS) claim that all the information a student needs to correctly answer a question on the iBT is contained in the reading or listening passage.  They do not need to be knowledgeable about any particular subject matter.   

Recently, one of my students (Chinese) in a low intermediate preparatory iBT writing class scored 40 out of 120 points on the iBT.  He was very ashamed that he got a "0" on the listening part of the exam. He said that he had no familiarity with what the speakers were talking about, so he couldn't guess enough answers to score even a few points out of the 30 possible for the listening section. I was somewhat incredulous that he scored so low, too, because he was very good at recognizing individual spoken words and to orally give synonyms for the majority of vocabulary words that we had learned from a list in our textbook.  What went wrong when he had to listen to lectures and conversations in English where all the vocabulary was contextualized?  (It is important to note that he had trained for listening and speaking for the iBT, but, according to the student, the topics covered in the listening passages on the exam had not been covered in his practice sessions.)  Is there any way to ensure that all potential academic topics discussed on the iBT can be covered in a ten-week preparatory course? 

The WSJ article and my own observations of ESL students continue to reinforce the notion that much more attention needs to be given to vocabulary development both in public schools and ESL programs.  For teachers, this means that we must be more creative and attentive to the multiple meanings of single words in both common, everyday speech and in more restricted academic contexts. Teaching a love of words could go a long ways toward making students delight rather than cringe at the thought of learning vocabulary.  

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