Archive for May, 2016

If you’re going to teach vocabulary, you need to organise it in some way. Almost invariably, this organisation is topical, with words grouped into what are called semantic sets. In coursebooks, the example below (from Rogers, M., Taylore-Knowles, J. & S. Taylor-Knowles. 2010. Open Mind Level 1. London: Macmillan, p.68) is fairly typical.

open mind

Coursebooks are almost always organised in a topical way. The example above comes in a unit (of 10 pages), entitled ‘You have talent!’, which contains two main vocabulary sections. It’s unsurprising to find a section called ‘personality adjectives’ in such a unit. What’s more, such an approach lends itself to the requisite, but largely, spurious ‘can-do’ statement in the self-evaluation section: I can talk about people’s positive qualities. We must have clearly identifiable learning outcomes, after all.

There is, undeniably, a certain intuitive logic in this approach. An alternative might entail a radical overhaul of coursebook architecture – this might not be such a bad thing, but might not go down too well in the markets. How else, after all, could the vocabulary strand of the syllabus be organised?

Well, there are a number of ways in which a vocabulary syllabus could be organised. Including the standard approach described above, here are four possibilities:

1 semantic sets (e.g. bee, butterfly, fly, mosquito, etc.)

2 thematic sets (e.g. ‘pets’: cat, hate, flea, feed, scratch, etc.)

3 unrelated sets

4 sets determined by a group of words’ occurrence in a particular text

Before reading further, you might like to guess what research has to say about the relative effectiveness of these four approaches.

The answer depends, to some extent, on the level of the learner. For advanced learners, it appears to make no, or little, difference (Al-Jabri, 2005, cited by Ellis & Shintani, 2014: 106). But, for the vast majority of English language learners (i.e. those at or below B2 level), the research is clear: the most effective way of organising vocabulary items to be learnt is by grouping them into thematic sets (2) or by mixing words together in a semantically unrelated way (3) – not by teaching sets like ‘personality adjectives’. It is surprising how surprising this finding is to so many teachers and materials writers. It goes back at least to 1988 and West’s article on ‘Catenizing’ in ELTJ, which argued that semantic grouping made little sense from a psycho-linguistic perspective. Since then, a large amount of research has taken place. This is succinctly summarised by Paul Nation (2013: 128) in the following terms: Avoid interference from related words. Words which are similar in form (Laufer, 1989) or meaning (Higa, 1963; Nation, 2000; Tinkham, 1993; Tinkham, 1997; Waring, 1997) are more difficult to learn together than they are to learn separately. For anyone who is interested, the most up-to-date review of this research that I can find is in chapter 11 of Barcroft (2105).

The message is clear. So clear that you have to wonder how it is not getting through to materials designers. Perhaps, coursebooks are different. They regularly eschew research findings for commercial reasons. But vocabulary apps? There is rarely, if ever, any pressure on the content-creation side of vocabulary apps (except those that are tied to coursebooks) to follow the popular misconceptions that characterise so many coursebooks. It wouldn’t be too hard to organise vocabulary into thematic sets (like, for example, the approach in the A2 level of Memrise German that I’m currently using). Is it simply because the developers of so many vocabulary apps just don’t know much about language learning?


Barcroft, J. 2015. Lexical Input Processing and Vocabulary Learning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Nation, I. S. P. 2013. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ellis, R. & N. Shintani, N. 2014. Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

West, M. 1988. ‘Catenizing’ English Language Teaching Journal 6: 147 – 151

It’s practically impossible to keep up to date with all the new language learning tools that appear, even with the help of curated lists like Nik Peachey’s! (which is one of the most useful I know of). The trouble with such lists is that they are invariably positive, but when you actually find the time to look at the product, you often wish you hadn’t. I decided to save time for people like me by occasionally writing short posts about things that you can safely forget about. This is the first.

Nik’s take on Vocabulist was this:


It sounds useful,  but for anyone involved in language teaching or learning, there is, unfortunately, nothing remotely useful about this tool.

Here’s how it works:

Vocabulist is super easy to use!

Here’s how:

1.Upload a Word, PDF, or Text document. You could also copy and paste text.

2.Wait a minute. Feel free to check Facebook while Vocabulist does some thinking.

3.Select the words that you want, confirm spelling, and confirm the correct definition.

4.All Done! Now print it, export it, and study it.

To try it out, I copied and pasted the text above. This is what you get for the first two lines:


The definitions are taken from Merriam-Webster. You scroll down until you find the definition for the best fit, and you can then save the list as a pdf or export it to Quizlet.


For language learners, there are far too many definitions to choose from. For ‘super’, for example, there are 24 definitions and, because they are from Merriam-Webster, they are all harder than the word being defined.

The idea behind Vocabulist could be adapted for language learners if there was a selection of dictionary resources that users could choose from (a selection of good bilingual or semi-bilingual dictionaries and a good monolingual learner’s dictionary). But, as it stands, here’s an app you can forget.

Screenshot_2016-04-29-09-48-05I call Lern Deutsch a vocabulary app, although it’s more of a game than anything else. Developed by the Goethe Institute, the free app was probably designed primarily as a marketing tool rather than a serious attempt to develop an educational language app. It’s available for speakers of Arabic, English, Spanish, Italian, French, Italian, Portuguese and Russian. It’s aimed at A1 learners.

Users of the app create an avatar and roam around a virtual city, learning new vocabulary and practising situational language. They can interact in language challenges with other players. As they explore, they earn Goethe coins, collect accessories for their avatars and progress up a leader board.Screenshot_2016-04-29-09-50-12

As they explore the virtual city, populated by other avatars, they find objects that can be clicked on to add to their vocabulary list. They hear a recording of an example sentence containing the target word, with the word gapped and three multiple choice possibilities. They are then required to type the missing word (see the image below). After collecting a certain number of words, they complete exercises which include the following task types:

  • Jumbled sentences
  • Audio recording of individual words and multiple choice selection
  • Gapped sentences with multiple choice answers
  • Dictation
  • Example sentences containing target item and multiple choice pictures
  • Typing sentences which are buried in a string of random letters












The developers have focused their attention on providing variety: engagement and ‘fun’ override other considerations. But how does the app stand up as a language learning tool? Surprisingly, for something developed by the Goethe Institute, it’s less than impressive.

The words that you collect as you navigate the virtual city are all nouns (Hotel, Auto, Mann, Banane, etc), but some (e.g. Sehenswurdigkeit) seem out of level. Any app that uses illustrations as the basic means of conveying meaning runs into problems when it moves away from concrete nouns, but a diet of nouns only (as here) is of necessarily limited value. Other parts of speech are introduced via the example sentences, but no help with meaning is provided so when you come across the word for ‘egg’, for example, your example sentence is ‘Ich möchte das Frühstück mit Ei.’ It’s all very well embedding the target vocabulary in example sentences that have a functional value, but example sentences are only of value if they are understandable: the app badly needs a look-up function for the surrounding language.

The practice exercises are varied, too, but they also vary in their level of difficulty. It makes sense to do receptive / recognition tasks before productive ones, but there is no evidence that I could see of pedagogical considerations of this kind. Neither does there seem to be any spaced repetition at work: the app is driven by the needs of the game design rather than any learning principles.

It’s unclear to me who the app is for. The functional language that is presented is adult: the situations are adult situations (buying a bed, booking a hotel room, ordering a beer). However, the graphic design and the gamification features are juvenile (adding a pirate patch to your avatar, for example).

The lack of attention to the business of learning is especially striking in the English of the English language version that I used. The number of examples of dodgy English that I came across do not inspire confidence.

  • Quite alright! You win your first Goethe coin.
  • What sightseeings do you spot in the city center and the train station?
  • Have a picknick in the park. You now have a picnic in the park with the musician.
  • You still search for your teacher. Whom do you meet in the park? What do they work?


All in all, it’s an interesting example of a gamified approach to language, and other app developers may find ideas here that they could do something with. It’s of less interest, though, to anyone who wants to learn a bit of German.