Archive for October, 2014

I suggested in my last post that vocabulary flashcard systems can have a useful role to play in blended learning contexts. However, for their potential to be exploited, teachers will need to devote classroom time to the things that the apps, on their own, cannot do. This post looks in some detail at what teachers can do.

Spaced repetition may be important to long-term memorization of new vocabulary items, but it will not be enough on its own. Memory researchers refer to three techniques that will improve speed of retention and long-term recall. The first of these is called the ‘generation effect’ – the use of even a little cognitive effort in generating the answer in flashcard practice. A simple example is provided by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel[1]: simply asking a subject to fill in a word’s missing letters resulted in better memory of the word. […] For a pair like foot-shoe, those who studied the pair intact had lower subsequent recall than those who studied the pair from a clue as obvious as foot-s _ _ e. In vocabulary learning, there is much that learners need to know beyond the meaning or translation equivalent: pronunciation, collocation, and associated grammatical patterns, for example. A focus on these aspects of word knowledge will all deepen that knowledge, but can enhance memorization at the same time.

The second of these techniques is called ‘elaboration’ – the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later[2]. Explaining the meaning or rules of use of a target vocabulary item to a fellow student, or explaining how this word has significance in your life outside the classroom are simple examples of elaboration. Whilst elaboration is important in any kind of memorization, it is probably especially important in vocabulary learning. If the mental lexicon is a network of associations (and we don’t really have a better way of describing it right now!), the fostering of multiple associations or connections will be a vital part of building up this lexicon: When students are asked to manipulate words, relate them to other words and to their own experiences, and then to justify their choices, these word associations are reinforced[3].

The third of these is getting the right kind of feedback. Feedback on flashcard software is typically of the right / wrong variety. At some point, this is obviously necessary, but it has its limitations. First of all, it is usually immediate, and research[4] suggests that a slight delay in getting feedback aids recall. With immediate feedback, learners can easily come to over-rely on it. Secondly, intelligent, scaffolded feedback (e.g. with hints and cues, rather than simple provision of the correct answer) contributes to the ‘generation effect’ (see above). Thirdly, positive feedback (e.g. where a learner sees that she can accurately and appropriately use new items, especially in new contexts) will enhance both learning and motivation. Flashcard software almost invariably presents and practises vocabulary in one context only, and rarely requires learners to produce the language in a communicative context.

The practical classroom suggestions that follow are all attempts to address the issues raised above. This is not in any way a complete list, and I have prioritized, in the ‘Practice Activities’ section, those tasks that offer more than simple re-exposure (for example, activities such as ‘Hangman’, word quizzes, word squares, definition games, and so on). But I hope that it will be a useful starting point.

Preparation activities

  • Put students into pairs and give them a few minutes (at any moment in a lesson, but this is often done at the start) to test each other on the words they are studying.
  • On a regular basis, allocate some classroom time for students to edit / improve their flashcards. This is best done in pairs. Tasks that you could set include: (1) students find example sentences to add to their cards; (2) students find more memorable / amusing example sentences to add to their cards; (3) students research and find useful phrases which include their target items, and add these to their cards; (4) students research and find common collocations of their target words and add these to their cards; (5) students research and find pictures (from an online image search) which they can use to replace their own-language translations; (6) students research, find and add to their cards other parts of speech; (7) students find recordings (via online dictionaries) of their target items and add them to their cards; (8) students record themselves saying the target items and add these to their cards; (9) students gap (or anagrammatize) some of the letters on the English sides of their cards; (10) students compare cards, discuss which are more memorable, and edit their own if they think this is useful
  • The ultimate hope is that learners will become more autonomous in their vocabulary learning. To this end, I’d thoroughly endorse Daniel Barber’s suggestion in a comment on my previous post: get the class to use and review the various wordcard apps and feed back to their classmates, i.e. to discover for themselves the relative merits of digital vs. hand-written / Anki vs. Quizlet and decide for themselves what’s best.

Practice activities

  • Ask students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. Ask the pairs to put their words into groups. Initially, it will probably be best to suggest the kinds of groupings they could use. For example: (1) words they think they would probably need to use in their first week in an English-speaking country vs. words they think they are unlikely to need in their first week in an English-speaking country, (2) words they like (for whatever reason) vs. words they dislike; (3) words they can associate with good things vs. words which they can associate with bad things. When students are familiar with this activity type, they can choose their own categories. Once students have completed the task with their partner, they should change partners and exchange ideas. All of this can be done orally.
  • Ask students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. Tell them to write these words in a circle on a sheet of paper. word_circle Tell the students to choose, at random, one word in their circle. Next, they must find another word in the circle which they can associate in some way with the first word that they chose. They must explain this association to their partner. They must then find another word which they can associate with their second word. Again they must explain the association. They should continue in this way until they have connected all the words in their circle. Once students have completed the task with their partner, they should change partners and exchange ideas. All of this can be done orally.
  • Using the same kind of circle of words (as in the activity above), students again work with a partner. Starting with any word, they must find and explain an association with another word. Next, beginning with the word they first chose, they must find and explain an association with another word from the circle. They continue in this way until they have found connections between their first word and all the other words in the circle. Once students have completed the task with their partner, they should change partners and exchange ideas. All of this can be done orally.
  • Ask the students to flick through their coursebooks and find four or five images that they find interesting or attractive. Tell them to note the page numbers. straightforward-upperintermediate-sb-1-638 Then, ask the students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. The students should then find an association between each of the words on their list and one of the pictures they have selected. They discuss their ideas with their partner, before comparing their ideas with a new partner.
  • Using the pictures and word lists (as in the activity above), students should select one picture, without telling their partner which picture they have selected. They should then look at the word list and choose four words from this list which they can associate with that picture. They then tell their four words to their partner, whose task is to guess which picture the other student was thinking of.
  • Ask students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. Individually, they should then write a series of sentences which contain these words: the sentences can contain one, two, or more of their target words. Half of the sentences should contain true personal information; the other half should contain false personal information. Students then work with a partner, read their sentences aloud, and the partner must decide which sentences are true and which are false.
  • Ask students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. Still in pairs, they should prepare a short story which contains at least seven of the items in their list. After preparing their story, they should rehearse it before exchanging stories with another student / pair of students.
  • There’s a fun question-and-answer game, ‘Any Which Way Matching’, from Alex Case, which can be used with any set of vocabulary. It can be found here:
  • Play a class game which recycles the vocabulary that students are having difficulty remembering. You can find the rules for one game, ‘Words in sentences’, which can be used with any set of vocabulary here:

[1] Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M. A. Make It Stick (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2014) p.32

[2] ibid p.5

[3] Sökmen, A.J. (1997) ‘Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary,’ in Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M. (eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy (Cambridge: CUP, 1997) pp.241-242

[4] Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M. A. Make It Stick (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2014)  pp.39 – 40

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After my second aborted attempt to learn some German through Duolingo, I decided to try something a little different. I started using word cards with my students many years ago, but when I say ‘word cards’, I mean word cards (i.e. on pieces of card). Although more recently I’ve encouraged students to use digital word cards with adaptive elements, I’d never seriously experimented with them myself. What I’ve learnt is that, whilst digital word cards are superior in many ways to the old-fashioned cards on card, the problems and limitations remain more or less the same.

Deliberate learning of vocabulary through the use of word cards is well supported by research: Every piece of research comparing deliberate learning with incidental learning has shown that deliberate word learning easily beats incidental vocabulary learning in terms of the time taken to learn and the amount learnt. The deliberate learning studies also show that such learning lasts for a very long time. (Nation, I.S.P. 2008 Teaching Vocabulary: Strategies and Techniques (Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning) p.104) The current crop of digital word cards simplify the learner’s task enormously by allowing sets of words to be imported into the programs, by automatically calculating the intervals between repetitions / exposures, and by offering a range of task types and gamification elements to help motivation. I can’t imagine going back to old-fashioned dog-eared cards stuffed into a ‘vocab bag’.

anki-16I’ve been using Anki , but I didn’t choose it in preference to one of the many other free systems, such as Quizlet , for any particular reason. I’ve looked at a number of these systems, and, frankly, I don’t have any strong preference. Some have games, which are fun for a few minutes. Some have better gamification features than others. Some seem easier than others to use. It’s a fiercely competitive world, and new features are being constantly added. For any teacher wanting to try these word cards (or flash cards) for the first time – either with their students, or for themselves, I’d probably recommend Quizlet, for the simple reason that there’s a very good step-by-step guide to using these cards at Lizzie Pinard’s blog , ‘Reflections of an English Language Teacher’.

Learning vocabulary – the task at the heart of language learning – necessarily entails a lot of memorization, and it makes sense for this to be done, as much as possible, outside the classroom. In fact, it has to be done outside the classroom, as there will simply never be enough time to do it in the classroom. Here is the first big problem. Even when my students, back in the 1990s, were equipped with their sets of cards, and had been instructed how to make the best use of them while sitting on the bus or the train (there were some excellent tips in Stuart Redman et al’s A Way with Words, CUP 1990), the majority just never managed to find the time. Despite all their protestations to the contrary, sufficient motivation was lacking. There is no reason to suppose that things will be any different with word card apps, even with all their gamification and games. It will remain the job of the teacher to push the motivation.

In addition to the central problem of motivation, there are a number of other areas in which digital word cards are no different from their cardboard predecessors. The first of these is that the majority of word cards do not contain enough information. Typically, there is just a translation; possibly a key to the part of speech, an example sentence and access to a recording of the word. There is only very rarely information about collocations, connotations or cultural background. Lexical priming is not going to happen this way! I have learnt, for example, from my Anki cards that die Ansiedlung means ‘location’ or ‘settlement’, but I’m still not too sure how to use the word. Word cards work best for receptive knowledge, for translating from the target language into your own language. They are less useful for learners who want or need to build their productive vocabulary. Learners can be helped by their teachers to produce or edit fuller, more useful cards, but this entails training. Training, in turns, usually entails classroom time.

Time (and motivation) is also needed to prepare the cards. All the digital apps allow lexical sets and ready-made cards to be imported, just as it used to be possible to buy sets of laminated cards and filing boxes. But there are three problems with taking this short-cut. Firstly, the ready-made sets are not usually very good (see the paragraph above), however glossy they may look. Secondly, and more importantly, ready-made sets are highly unlikely to match precisely the needs of individual classes, let alone individual learners. Finally, the effort involved in producing (and subsequently editing) one’s own cards will have a pay-off in long-term memorization. For all of these reasons, digital word card use is likely to be more effective if the teacher addresses these issues in the classroom.

Word cards are also static. Once the card has been prepared with a translation and an example sentence and so on, this tends to remain fixed. The problem here is that learning is strengthened if the learner meets or uses the input again in a way that involves some change to the form and use of the word (Joe, 1998). That is, the new word is put into a slightly different context from the original meeting. This is called ‘generative use’. (Nation, I.S.P. 2008 Teaching Vocabulary: Strategies and Techniques (Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning) p27) Once again, there is useful classroom work that teachers can do to deal with this issue.

Multiple exposure to a vocabulary item through spaced repetition is likely to help the process of that item ending up in the long-term memory. But frequency of repetition (what Patrick Hanks, in his book Lexical Analysis, describes as social salience) is not the end of the story. Long term memorization is more likely to take place when there is what Hanks calls cognitive salience … and this is much more likely when the item is embedded and encountered in some sort of memorable (e.g. weird) context. Teachers can encourage their students to illustrate target items in cognitively salient ways, and they can also exploit the dynamics of the classroom environment to the same effect.

fluent_in_three_monthsDespite the claims of word card enthusiasts like ‘Benny the Irish polygot’ blogger of Fluent in 3 Months , no one is going to learn a language just by using this kind of software. It should not be assumed that learning from word lists or word cards means that the words are learned forever, nor does it mean that all knowledge of a word has been learned, even though word cards can be designed to include a wide range of information about a word (Schmitt and Schmitt, 1995). Learning from lists or word cards is only an initial stage of learning a particular word. It is, however, a learning tool for use at any level of language proficiency. (Nation, P. & Waring, R. ‘Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists’ in Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M. (eds) 1997 Vocabulary (Cambridge University Press) ppp.12 – 13)

In order to be able to use the words of a target language, confidently and fluently, learners will need opportunities to use them, meaningfully and communicatively. They will also benefit from feedback on how they are using them. Gamified gap-fills and matching tasks, score cards and progress charts cannot do this. Word card apps are a valuable tool for language learners, and can be very usefully exploited in blended contexts. If (and it’s a big ‘if’) students can be motivated to do this kind of self-study, classroom time can be freed up to spend on meaning-focused language practice and learning strategy training. In the second part of this post, I’ll be looking at specific, practical examples of what teachers can do in the classroom.