Understanding new vocabulary or a new text is an important measure of an ESL student’s academic success. To be able to know a word means they need to use it through communicative competence or, by speaking, listening and reading the new word in various contexts. Research shows that the best way to learn a new word is through discovery of the meaning of the word.
So what does it mean for ESL learners to know a word in a target language?
Knowing a word in a target language means the ability to…
1. Recognize it in its spoken or written form.
2. Recall it at will.
3. Relate it to an appropriate object or concept.
4. Use it in the appropriate grammatical form.
5. pronounce it in a recognizable way.
6. In writing – spell it correctly.
7. Use it with the words it correctly goes with – i.e. in the correct collocation.
8. Use it at the appropriate level of formality.
9. Be aware of its connotations and associations.
When teachers present targeted vocabulary in a content-rich context, students can practice, understand and infer beyond the text. There are many different and creative ways to introduce vocabulary such as a song, story, a picture or a rap chant. The aim of a context is to establish some kind of “frame” within a text type where the reader is encouraged to understand, interpret, make sense and decode (i.e. what does each sound ‘sound” like?) and decipher new vocabulary.
If there is no context or there is an ambiguous context, students won’t have the association and knowledge to activate background knowledge. They will suddenly become frustrated.
Consider also this: The text type and context you use will also determine the strategy and purpose of your instruction. If you’re using a song to teach targeted vocabulary on the topic of endangered animals, students will be using their listening and reading skills to follow along with the song.
The context will also determine how you will sequentially arrange the various parts of your lesson that will “glue” it together. Using a picture to introduce new vocabulary is an active form of vocabulary learning which can naturally lead to isolated vocabulary practice.
Building a context is extremely important for building motivation. I remember an 8th grade EFL (English as a foreign language) lesson when I wanted to teach targeted vocabulary that was associated with the text type of a “journal.” so I actually brought in my Snoopy diary from 1980 (I still have it!) and read to them snippets of the journal as a lead-in. i had 38 pairs of eyes glued to me and you could hear a pin drop in that classroom! Not only did this help personalize my lesson, but students came to also understand and interpret that they would be reading additional examples of journal writing.
So what can we learn about teaching vocabulary or introducing a new text? The most general of all the pedagogical considerations before expecting students to understand a new text or practice new vocabulary, is presenting a context. Context can also be enhanced by linking anything students have read with something they have spoken or listened to.