In recent times, there has been quite a lot of interest in research-based language training. Empirical knowledge is exposing teaching practices that are not supported by evidence. However, these same methodologies have gained credibility in the wider teaching community. In a recent presentation, Penny Ur described them as inadequate “Micky mouse solutions,” which are not effective (Ur, 2021). It is time to challenge some of these myths.
Many language teachers advocate the position that vocabulary acquisition should only take place through contextual learning. In other words, learners should guess the meanings of unknown words. Students are told they will absorb words incidentally through reading and listening. On the other end of the spectrum, there are teachers who hand out decontextualized lists of vocabulary, all in similar semantic sets, such as lists of nouns, verbs, or other parts of speech. Research has shown that both methods are not effective ways to teach.
One study (Kaivanpanah & Alavi, 2008) tested whether students who were reading in a second language were able to guess the meanings of words. This study showed that guessing is unreliable and sometimes impossible, which demonstrates the importance of scaffolding tasks with pre-work and meaning focussed exercises.
Regarding decontextualization, a different research project (Tinkham, 1993) showed that learning words in similar semantic sets actually interferes with a student’s natural learning process. Tinkham and other academics have shown that learners can acquire unrelated lexical items more effectively. Both sets of research challenge the teaching practices mentioned above.
What are the implications for the classroom? A good teacher should not be afraid to implement research-based methods. The evidence shows us that it is okay to predict and pre-teach seemingly unrelated items if they can naturally co-occur in contextualized discourse.
Penny Ur provides us with an example of classroom practice. If a teacher chooses to teach the topic of family, they should not simply list similar words related to that topic, for example: father, mother, son, daughter, and so on. This practice is still very prevalent in elementary course books and has more to do with convenience than efficacy. Research tells us that if you want to achieve a better learning outcome, you should provide a more diverse range of words, for example; family, at home, mother, father, love, work, apartment, look after, clean, kitchen, brother, sister, together etc. (Ur, 2021). It is better to teach words that naturally co-occur in a context.
In addition, many teachers argue that vocabulary is best learned by repetition and repeated exposure. However, research shows that repetition alone is not enough, and retrieval is essential. In other words, being able to recall and use the vocabulary that you have learned. A study (Karpicke & Roediger, 2008) showed that students who were asked to retrieve were better able to retain vocabulary than students who were merely shown words. The implication here is that effective learning can only occur in conjunction with regular testing. The teacher must devise further steps to test students and activate vocabulary.
Finally, other studies show that a task-based approach is most effective at getting students to learn new vocabulary in context. The communicative ‘task,’ which is the focal point for the lesson, is related to a real-world context or business function. The trainer’s assessment of the lesson is based on the completion and outcome of the task. There is a focus on form, as well as communicative ability, but the main emphasis is on how well learners are able to complete a particular task with the language they have learned. Research shows that this student-centered method has distinct advantages for the learner, developing autonomy, motivation, and user engagement (Willis, 2011). Learners are encouraged to learn language through meaningful tasks that prompt them to use functional language in natural contexts.
At Learnship, we apply research-driven principles to implement these best practices. Our fully blended and specialized Sprint Business Skills courses focus on the key vocabulary needed for the different business sectors. In the digital pre-work, focus words and phrases are always introduced in an authentic business context, so that the learner can acquire language naturally. Through a series of scaffolded exercises, we help the learners gain confidence, recontextualize, and produce the language in a communicative setting in their online face-to-face sessions. Our courses are fully blended and apply a flipped classroom methodology, meaning learners do most of the pre-work in the digital component, freeing up the online, face-to-face sessions for communicative tasks. In the online, face-to-face sessions, learners are encouraged to review and actively retrieve the language they have learned in the digital component. In this tasked-based learning model, learners directly implement the language they have learned in debates, role plays and other communicative activities. These tasks involve discussing real-life business choices in a broad range of situations. The focus on task-based, blended learning components prepares the learners for authentic tasks with concrete learner outcomes.
Interested in a new award-winning approach and want to help your talent build confidence and improve workplace communication?
Kaivanpanah, S., & Alavi, M. (2008). Deriving Unknown Word Meaning from Context: Is it Reliable? Relc Journal 39 (1), 77-95.
Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. (2008). The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science, 966 – 968.
Tinkham, T. (1993). The Effect of Semantic Clustering on the Learning of Second Language Vocabulary. System v21 n3, 271-80.
Ur, P. (2021, August 28). Teacher Development Webinars. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yosQfcnzkuM
Willis, D. &. (2011). Task-based learning and learner motivation. OnTask, 1(1), 4-10.