That being said, one of my favorite topics to discuss with my language teaching colleagues is about how to teach vocabulary.
While many of us who have chosen to connect to each other online are dedicated to teaching language in a more authentic manner, most language teachers are still operating with the idea that the textbook is the primary resource for their instruction and either have not heard of another way, or cannot envision or understand how to teach language in any other way. Most of the time what they are really nervous about is the unknown. They fear losing control of their teaching and a false confidence about their students' learning if they don't have chapters and lists that they can check off as taught. They also think that if there is no list or no chapters the learning will be disjointed and meaningless to their students. Many think that without the direction the books and lists provide the students won't be ready for the next level because things won't get taught. Additionally, some think that they have students who actually do better and are more confident if a list is available. Usually these teachers argue that their top performers need that resource because they are more academic and responsible and will perform better with it. This is just not true. I will admit, that way is very organized, but the truth is that it just doesn't lend well to students developing fluency of any kind in the language. There are also groups of teachers out there who are very interested in teaching students to be proficient in a language and who may be in the transition, but their comfort blanket is the vocabulary list.
The vocabulary list represents the last philosophical battle most teachers have to face in truly converting from a traditional approach to teaching languages and a proficiency based approach. It is also preconception that students and parents have about language classes. For generations, the vocabulary list was the go to resource for learning words, but ironically, those same generations walked out of their language classrooms with near zero proficiency. Even our customers are confused about the methods that are effective for teaching/learning a language. We have to change their minds, too!
For me and so many other teachers I know the vocabulary list the last traditional practice we let go of when we realize that our old ways of doing things weren't getting us the results we wanted. So, today I want to explore the inadvertent messages that pre-prepared vocabulary lists send our students. Granted, many of these are based on my own point of view (and maybe some of those of my like-minded colleagues), but if you think about them you will see the truth behind them. Even if you walk away from this post disagreeing with me, at least challenge yourself to look. Here we go:
Traditional vocabulary lists tell students...
- this is all you need to know; don't worry about learning anything else
- this is what I (the teacher) think you need to know
- this is what I (the teacher) think is true about everyone's lives and experiences
- this is what I (the teacher) think is important
- this is what I (the teacher) think is interesting to you
- this will be on the test
- if you memorize this list you will pass
- if you memorize this list you will be able to speak the language
- this is the only way to say this
- if it is not on the list, you can't use it
- if it is not on the list you can't learn how to say it yet; you have to wait
- you can't do this if I don't give you a list
- you don't have to listen to what people say or what you read to learn this language
- if you don't know these words you won't understand anything you hear or read
- these words are only appropriate while we study this lesson
- the only way you can learn this is if you can see the link to English
- you have to have the English definition or you won't understand
- can learn the language without listening to it
- your teacher will give you a list of what you need to learn, you don't have to think about "what" you should be learning
- you don't need to listen or read the language, you have a list to refer to
- you can't communicate if you don't have a list
According to research done on language acquisition, we learn to communicate because we need to. We listen to words our parents use, make meaning from them and then begin to employ them when we want our needs met. Doesn't giving our students a list of words rob them of that sense of need? If they don't feel that desperate sense of needing to know how to say something will the connection they make to the words really be lasting? I am sure there are other messages that vocabulary lists send our kids that frame their thinking about their role in the learning process, but the above list contains the what I have discovered is going on in my students heads as I make the transition from list to whole language instruction. In fact, I am re-programming my own thoughts as a learner of languages as well. I am my own guinea pig.
Points to at least ponder.