Table of contents
2 The Mental Lexicon
3 How to Teach Vocabulary
3.1 Hints and Examples
Conventionally, the teaching of vocabulary in the EFL classroom was mostly incidental and limited to presenting new words as they appeared in reading or sometimes listening texts. This indirect teaching method assumes that vocabulary expansion takes place through the practice of other language skills like reading or listening, but in fact this does not ensure vocabulary expansion. Nowadays it is widely accepted that vocabulary teaching should form a part of the syllabus and that it should be taught well-planned and on a regular basis. Some authors, led by Lewis (1993) even state that vocabulary should be the main focus of language teaching, because ‘language consists of grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar’. This underlines the importance of vocabulary as being basic to communication.
From my point of view learners will be unable to participate in a conversation, if they do not recognise the meaning of keywords even though they know the morphology and syntax. On the other hand, I think that grammar is equally important in the EFL classroom and therefore vocabulary should not be substituted for grammar teaching. Consequentially, both should be part of teaching English as a foreign language and what is even more important they should be presented as being connected with each other. This can be seen when we have a look at what we need to use words properly in a communicative situation. The three language properties are form, meaning and context that are interrelated. The pupils do not only have to memorize the new word itself, but they also have to keep in mind morphology and syntax, the cultural meaning and they have to know the context in which you can use the word in an appropriate way.
As this is a difficult job for both, pupils and teachers, I would like to go into different teaching methods that should be considered when teaching vocabularies in the EFL classroom. Therefore I am going to look at the mental lexicon that helps us to understand how words are stored in our brains. Consequentially, I would like to dwell on the three major phases in the teaching of vocabulary, before I am going to deal with further helpful hints and examples for us as future teachers as well as for pupils in greater detail. Finally I would like to examine the whole topic again to state my ultimate opinion in my conclusion.
2 The Mental Lexicon
The place where all the storing takes place is called the mental lexicon. Sense impressions like sounds are stored in mentally represented knowledge structures and also the production of language from these knowledge structures takes place there. The words are stored semantically by association and so the stimulus of one word brings up another one. To give an example, the stimulus word “to read” would bring up associations such as “book”, “university” or “English literature”, depending on one's personal and cultural knowledge (see Müller Hartmann, A. & Schocker-v. Ditfurth, M. (2009)).
Therefore, you could say that the mental lexicon is a web of different associations, while Schmitt (2000) distinguishes between three different kinds of associations: clang associations, paradigmatic associations and syntagmatic associations. To illustrate this, please have a look at the following example:
This mind map is my outcome of the task to write down associations concerning the word “to die” and you can find all three categories described by Schmitt (2000) in it. This shows that the mental lexicon is highly organised and efficient and that semantic related items are stored together. It can can be described as a web of associations and this is also how we repeat words. We have to train these associations in order to memorize words and the question how you can do this as a teacher is going to be answered in my next section.
3 How to Teach Vocabulary
Our knowledge of the set-up of the mental lexicon has influence on the three major phases in the teaching of vocabulary that I am going to present now.
First of all, the teacher should give a concise definition of the new word. That means to give a verbal explanation describing the new word using only a few words. It is similar to a definition in a dictionary. Afterwards, the teacher should describe the meaning of the new word in more detail and give some input about its qualities or even the appearance. Another way could be the visual illustration of the word on the blackboard so that the pupils can get an image of it, because we as future teachers need to present the new words in a way that different learner types are able to notice and memorize them. The teacher can either draw a picture on the blackboard or bring photos or the object itself to class. The teacher does also has the possibility to demonstrate the word’s meaning by acting it out in front of the class, but he can also use it in context by putting it into a sentence or by creating a story around the new word.
In a second phase, the teacher needs to support the learner in structuring the new language material, so that it is networked into the mental lexicon as intake. As a result the new word can then be put into storage in form of semantic fields. Therefore, the teacher should teach words together that belong to one topic and try to connect new words with those the pupils have already learned. The teacher needs to activate the student’s existing prior knowledge in order to create meaningful connections with new words. In addition, it is effective to ask the pupils for synonyms and antonyms or the class can even try to find them together and collect them on the blackboard. Another opportunity that is really motivating is to play a game in which the pupils are asked to describe a new word using a specific method (see appendix).