Years of working with students in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes around the world have given Gerry Luton an in-depth knowledge of the best techniques for teaching English vocabulary. On his website and in his popular software product, “Gerry’s Vocabulary Teacher,” he provides tips and exercises that help students at every level learn vocabulary quickly, and help teachers work with those students to maximize their progress. We asked Gerry about his work in the ESL field, and the best ways to learn English vocabulary.
UV: You recently gave a talk at conference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) on “Harmonizing Language Learning and Social Responsibility.” What was that talk about?
GL: This presentation describes a project in which students in an upper intermediate / low advanced ESL class research various charities and conduct a series of discussions before choosing one charity to support. Students then prepare presentations and promotional materials, visit other classes to talk about the charity, hold a bake sale to raise funds, which are donated to the chosen cause, and finally write an essay about the experience.
UV: With your background in teaching ESL, you’ve had experience with many different teaching tools. What made you focus on using “gap fill” exercises for vocabulary improvement – and what’s an easy way to explain what “gap fill” means and how it works?
GL: Gap-fill exercises are exercises in which sentences are given with a word missing. The students have a choice of words to choose from and must choose the correct word to fill in the blanks. Research shows that students need to review vocabulary repeatedly in order to truly learn it. In particular, students need to see the vocabulary in various contexts in order to remember it and to develop an understanding of the range of usage of a given word. In his book “Learning Vocabulary in Another Language ”, Paul Nation notes “Multiple contexts provide rich information on a variety of aspects of knowing a word including collocates, grammatical patterns, word family members, related meanings, and homonyms” (2001, p.111). My vocabulary website uses gap-fill exercises so that students can encounter target vocabulary in various contexts, including sentences using different derivations of the word (noun, verb, adjective or adverb).
UV: You group your exercises by topic, like “arts, entertainment, and literature” or “the political world.” Does this also group similar words together? And if so, why?
GL: The general vocabulary exercises are divided into categories, and the words which are in these groups are related to that category. For example, under the category “War, violence & conflict”, you will find words such as destroy, weapon, torture, massacre, bomb, etc. Dividing the vocabulary into groups may help the student remember the meaning and the vocabulary may be reinforced as it appears in different contexts related to a specific topic.
UV: Your website is subdivided into two sections: general vocabulary, and the academic word list. What is the academic word list, and why do people need to focus on it?
GL: The AWL is a list of words which appear with high frequency in English-language academic texts. The list was compiled by Averil Coxhead at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The list contains 570 word families and is divided into 10 sublists. Sublist 1 consists of the 60 most common words in the AWL. Sublist 2 contains the next most frequently used words and so on. Each sublist contains 60 word families, except for sublist 10, which contains 30. To find these words, an analysis was done of academic journals, textbooks, course workbooks, lab manuals, and course notes. The list was compiled following an analysis of over 3,500,000 words of text.
The words selected for the AWL are words which occur frequently in a range of academic subjects, including the Arts (including history, psychology, sociology, etc.), Commerce (including economics, marketing, management, etc.), Law and the Sciences (including biology, computer science, mathematics, etc.). This means that the AWL is useful to all second-language learners who wish to study in an English-speaking institution no matter what their field of study. The AWL does not, however, include technical words which are specific to a given field. Nor does it contain words which are of general use and very high frequency. Students need to learn the vocabulary in the AWL because they need to know this academic vocabulary if they want to study in an English-speaking college or university.
UV: Your weekly study guides give links and suggestions for topics and exercises that focus on reading, pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. How much time do you recommend that people spend each week on vocabulary improvement and general English skills?
GL: This is a difficult question to answer. It depends on the student – their goals, their needs, etc. A student who is already enrolled in school full-time in a program which includes English language instruction will need to spend less time doing independent study than a person who is not in school and whose sole exposure to English is through independent, online study. Each student needs to make a decision as to how much time he/she can devote to language study, realizing that the more time they spend, the faster they will improve. Certainly, of the different language skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar, vocabulary & pronunciation), certainly vocabulary development is probably among the most important. This is why language learners carry around dictionaries, not grammar books. One thing to keep in mind however, is that language study should be complemented by reading for pleasure in the target language. The student needs to use English in an authentic, communicative way – through conversational speaking, listening to another speaker, writing or reading for information. Much of our language learning is unconscious. Therefore, online study of vocabulary, grammar or whatever, should be in addition to, not as a replacement for, authentic communication using the language. If no opportunities to speak and listen to native speakers exist, reading for pleasure in the best way to improve all the language skills.