‘Pre-teaching’ (of vocabulary) is a widely-used piece of language teaching jargon, but it’s a strange expression. The ‘pre’ indicates that it’s something that comes before something else that is more important, what Chia Suan Chong calls ‘the main event’, which is usually some reading or listening work. The basic idea, it seems, is to lessen the vocabulary load of the subsequent activity. If the focus on vocabulary were the ‘main event’, we might refer to the next activity as ‘post-reading’ or ‘post-listening’ … but we never do.

The term is used in standard training manuals by both Jim Scrivener (2005: 230 – 233) and Jeremy Harmer (2012: 137) and, with a few caveats, the practice is recommended. Now read this from the ELT Nile Glossary:

For many years teachers were recommended to pre-teach vocabulary before working on texts. Nowadays though, some question this, suggesting that the contexts that teachers are able to set up for pre-teaching are rarely meaningful and that pre-teaching in fact prevents learners from developing the attack strategies they need for dealing with challenging texts.

Chia is one of those doing this questioning. She suggests that ‘we cut out pre-teaching altogether and go straight for the main event. After all, if it’s a receptive skills lesson, then shouldn’t the focus be on reading/listening skills and strategies? And most importantly, pre-teaching prevents learners’ from developing a tolerance of ambiguity – a skill that is vital in language learning.’ Scott Thornbury is another who has expressed doubts about the value of PTV, although he is more circumspect in his opinions. He has argued that working out the meaning of vocabulary from context is probably a better approach and that PTV inadequately prepares learners for the real world. If we have to pre-teach, he argues, get it out of the way ‘as quickly and efficiently as possible’ … or ‘try post-teaching instead’.

Both Chia and Scott touch on the alternatives, and guessing the meaning of unknown words from context is one of them. I’ve discussed this area in an earlier post. Not wanting to rehash the content of that post here, the simple summary is this: it’s complicated. We cannot, with any degree of certainty, say that guessing meaning from context leads to more gains in either reading / listening comprehension or vocabulary development than PTV or one of the other alternatives – encouraging / allowing monolingual or bilingual dictionary look up (see this post on the topic), providing a glossary (see this post) or doing post-text vocabulary work.

In attempting to move towards a better understanding, the first problem is that there is very little research into the relationship between PTV and improved reading / listening comprehension. What there is (e.g. Webb, 2009) suggests that pre-teaching can improve comprehension and speed up reading, but there are other things that a teacher can do (e.g. previous presentation of comprehension questions or the provision of pictorial support) that appear to lead to more gains in these areas (Pellicer-Sánchez et al., 2021). It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. There is even less research looking at the relationship between PTV and vocabulary development. What there is (Pellicer-Sánchez et al., 2021) suggests that pre-teaching leads to more vocabulary gains than when learners read without any support. But the reading-only condition is unlikely in most real-world learning contexts, where there is a teacher, dictionary or classmate who can be turned to. A more interesting contrast is perhaps between PTV and during-reading vocabulary instruction, which is a common approach in many classrooms. One study (File & Adams, 2010) looked at precisely this area and found little difference between the approaches in terms of vocabulary gains. The limited research does not provide us with any compelling reasons either for or against PTV.

Another problem is, as usual, that the research findings often imply more than was actually demonstrated. The abstract for the study by Pellicer-Sánchez et al (2021) states that pre‐reading instruction led to more vocabulary learning. But this needs to be considered in the light of the experimental details.

The study involved 87 L2 undergraduates and postgraduates studying at a British university. Their level of English was therefore very high, and we can’t really generalise to other learners at other levels in other conditions. The text that they read contained a number of pseudo-words and was 2,290 words long. The text itself, a narrative, was of no intrinsic interest, so the students reading it would treat it as an object of study and they would notice the pseudo-words, because their level of English was already high, and because they knew that the focus of the research was on ‘new words’. In other words, the students’ behaviour was probably not at all typical of a student in a ‘normal’ classroom. In addition, the pseudo-words were all Anglo-Saxon looking, and not therefore representative of the kinds of unknown items that students would encounter in authentic (or even pedagogical) texts (which would have a high proportion of words with Latin roots). I’m afraid I don’t think that the study tells us anything of value.

Perhaps research into an area like this, with so many variables that need to be controlled, is unlikely ever to provide teachers with clear answers to what appears to be a simple question: is PTV a good idea or not? However, I think we can get closer to something resembling useful advice if we take another tack. For this, I think two additional questions need to be asked. First, what is the intended main learning opportunity (note that I avoid the term ‘learning outcome’!) of the ‘main event’ – the reading or listening. Second, following on from the first question, what is the point of PTV, i.e. in what ways might it contribute to enriching the learning opportunities of the ‘main event’?

To answer the first question, I think it is useful to go back to a distinction made almost forty years ago in a paper by Tim Johns and Florence Davies (1983). They contrasted the Text as a Linguistic Object (TALO) with the Text as a Vehicle for Information (TAVI). The former (TALO) is something that language students study to learn language from in a direct way. It has typically been written or chosen to illustrate and to contextualise bits of grammar, and to provide opportunities for lexical ‘quarrying’. The latter (TAVI) is a text with intrinsic interest, read for information or pleasure, and therefore more appropriately selected by the learner, rather than the teacher. For an interesting discussion on TALO and TAVI, see this 2015 post from Geoff Jordan.

Johns and Davies wrote their article in pre-Headway days when texts in almost all coursebooks were unashamedly TALOs, and when what were called top-down reading skills (reading for gist / detail, etc.) were only just beginning to find their way into language teaching materials. TAVIs were separate, graded readers, for example. In some parts of the world, TALOs and TAVIs are still separate, often with one teacher dealing with the teaching of discrete items of language through TALOs, and another responsible for ‘skills development’ through TAVIs. But, increasingly, under the influence of British publishers and methodologists, attempts have been made to combine TALOs and TAVIs in a single package. The syllabus of most contemporary coursebooks, fundamentally driven by a discrete-item grammar plus vocabulary approach, also offer a ‘skills’ strand which requires texts to be intrinsically interesting, meaningful and relevant to today’s 21st century learners. The texts are required to carry out two functions.

Recent years have seen an increasingly widespread questioning of this approach. Does the exploitation of reading and listening texts in coursebooks (mostly through comprehension questions) actually lead to gains in reading and listening skills? Is there anything more than testing of comprehension going on? Or do they simply provide practice in strategic approaches to reading / listening, strategies which could probably be transferred from L1? As a result of the work of scholars like William Grabe (reading) and John Field and Richard Cauldwell (listening), there is now little, if any, debate in the world of research about these questions. If we want to develop the reading / listening skills of our students, the approach of most coursebooks is not the way to go about it. For a start, the reading texts are usually too short and the listening texts too long.

Most texts that are found in most contemporary coursebooks are TALOs dressed up to look like TAVIs. Their fundamental purpose is to illustrate and contextualise language that has either been pre-taught or will be explored later. They are first and foremost vehicles for language, and only secondarily vehicles for information. They are written and presented in as interesting a way as possible in order to motivate learners to engage with the TALO. Sometimes, they succeed.

However, there are occasions (even in coursebooks) when texts are TAVIs – used for purely ‘skills’ purposes, language use as opposed to language study. Typically, they (reading or listening texts) are used as springboards for speaking and / or writing practice that follows. It’s the information in the text that matters most.

So, where does all this take us with PTV? Here is my attempt at a break-down of advice.

1 TALOs where the text contains a set of new lexical items which are a core focus of the lesson

If the text is basically a contextualized illustration of a set of lexical items (and, usually, a particular grammatical structure), there is a strong case for PTV. This is, of course, assuming that these items are of sufficiently high frequency to be suitable candidates for direct vocabulary instruction. If this is so, there is also a strong case to be made for the PTV to be what has been called ‘rich instruction’, which ‘involves (1) spending time on the word; (2) explicitly exploring several aspects of what is involved in knowing a word; and (3) involving learners in thoughtfully and actively processing the word’ (Nation, 2013: 117). In instances like this, PTV is something of a misnomer. It’s just plain teaching, and is likely to need as much, or more, time than exploration of the text (which may be viewed as further practice of / exposure to the lexis).

If the text is primarily intended as lexical input, there is also a good case to be made for making the target items it contains more salient by, for example, highlighting them or putting them in bold (Choi, 2017). At the same time, if ‘PTV’ is to lead to lexical gains, these are likely to be augmented by post-reading tasks which also focus explicitly on the target items (Sonbul & Schmitt, 2010).

2 TALOs which contain a set of lexical items that are necessary for comprehension of the text, but not a core focus of the lesson (e.g. because they are low-frequency)

PTV is often time-consuming, and necessarily so if the instruction is rich. If it is largely restricted to matching items to meanings (e.g. through translation), it is likely to have little impact on vocabulary development, and its short-term impact on comprehension appears to be limited. Research suggests that the use of a glossary is more efficient, since learners will only refer to it when they need to (whereas PTV is likely to devote some time to some items that are known to some learners, and this takes place before the knowledge is required … and may therefore be forgotten in the interim). Glossaries lead to better comprehension (Alessi & Dwyer, 2008).

3 TAVIs

I don’t have any principled objection to the occasional use of texts as TALOs, but it seems fairly clear that a healthy textual diet for language learners will contain substantially more TAVIs than TALOs, substantially more extensive reading than intensive reading of the kind found in most coursebooks. If we focused less often on direct instruction of grammar (a change of emphasis which is long overdue), there would be less need for TALOs, anyway. With TAVIs, there seems to be no good reason for PTV: glossaries or digital dictionary look-up will do just fine.

However, one alternative justification and use of PTV is offered by Scott Thornbury. He suggests identifying a relatively small number of keywords from a text that will be needed for global understanding. Some of them may be unknown to the learners, and for these, learners use dictionaries to check meaning. Then, looking at the list of key words learners predict what the text will be about. The rationale here is that if learners engage with these words before encountering them in the text, it ‘may be an effective way of activating a learner’s schema for the text, and this may help to support comprehension’ (Ballance, 2018). However, as Ballance notes, describing this kind of activity as PTV would be something of a misnomer: it is a useful addition to a teacher’s repertoire of schema-activation activities (which might be used with both TAVIs and TALOs).

In short …

The big question about PTV, then, is not one of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s about the point of the activity. Balance (2018) offers a good summary:

‘In sum, for teachers to use PTV effectively, it is essential that they clearly identify a rationale for including PTV within a lesson, select the words to be taught in conjunction with this rationale and also design the vocabulary learning or development exercise in a manner that is commensurate with this rationale. The rationale should be the determining factor in the design of a PTV component within a lesson, and different rationales for using PTV naturally lead to markedly different selections of vocabulary items to be studied and different exercise designs.’

REFERENCES

Alessi, S. & Dwyer, A. (2008). Vocabulary assistance before and during reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 20 (2): pp. 246 – 263

Ballance, O. J. (2018). Strategies for pre-teaching vocabulary in context. In The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching (pp. 1-7). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118784235.eelt0732

Choi, S. (2017). Processing and learning of enhanced English collocations: An eye movement study. Language Teaching Research, 21, 403–426. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362168816653271

File, K. A. & Adams, R. (2010). Should vocabulary instruction be integrated or isolated? TESOL Quarterly, 24, 222–249.

Harmer, J. (2012). Essential Teacher Knowledge. Harlow: Pearson

Johns, T. & Davies, F. (1983). Text as a vehicle for information: the classroom use of written texts in teaching reading in a foreign language. Reading in a Foreign Language, 1 (1): pp. 1 – 19

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

Pellicer-Sánchez, A., Conklin, K. & Vilkaitė-Lozdienė, L. (2021). The effect of pre-reading instruction on vocabulary learning: An investigation of L1 and L2 readers’ eye movements. Language Learning, 0 (0), 0-0. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/lang.12430

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning Teaching 2nd Edition. Oxford: Macmillan

Sonbul, S. & Schmitt, N. (2010). Direct teaching of vocabulary after reading: is it worth the effort? ELT Journal 64 (3): pp.253 – 260

Webb, S. (2009). The effects of pre‐learning vocabulary on reading comprehension and writing. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 65 (3): pp. 441–470.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s