Five Hurdles in Learning Vocabulary

What can challenge students as they try to learn new vocabulary? How can we help them overcome these challenges?

1. Information overload

Whether a student is doing independent study or taking a classroom course, one problem may be trying to cover too much. In the classroom the teacher can and should control the number of words covered and limit the explanation for each word.  If a given unit presents a high number of words, be conscious of not making any one segment of your lesson plan too dense. A series of mini presentations that are coupled by short practice exercises makes it easier for students to digest a sizable list of vocabulary. As Paul Nation suggests, it’s best to avoid lengthy explanations and the temptation to add a string of somewhat related but unnecessary words like synonyms and antonyms.[1] Be concise and teach what is most important: the basic definition, the pronunciation, and how the word is used (i.e., register, frequency, grammar and/or collocations).

2. Multiple meanings

Some books like Vocabulary Power present and practice multiple meanings of a word, but this must be done with caution. Vocabulary Power presents the most common definition of a word first, and then after sufficient contextualized practice, invites learners to consider other meanings. The meanings are not merely listed, but also contrasted through an exercise. If, however, students are learning vocabulary in the context of a reading or listening class, it would be more appropriate to limit presentation and practice to the definition used in the passage.

3. Cognates and false friends

The first language (L1) can be both friend and foe in foreign language learning. On the one hand, I’ve seen Spanish and French speakers master advanced academic vocabulary in English with relative ease because of the cognates. It certainly helps to recognize a word that is similar in form to one you already know. However, similarities can be misleading. More than once I’ve heard Portuguese speakers misuse the English word pretend when they meant to say want or intend since the Portuguese pretender is so close in form. Also, even if words in the L1 and L2 are similar in form and meaning, the grammar can be very different, making it all the more essential to teach proper use of the L2 word and common collocations.

4. Alternate spellings and forms

It’s confusing enough for students to learn a global language that allows words like theater and practice to be written as theatre and practise as well. But what about words like co-worker (coworker), tsar (tzar, czar), and traveler (traveller)? Spelling variations can’t always be explained by dialect. Then there are alternate forms such as octopuses for octopi. My practice is to teach what I know: American English. If a student uses British spelling, I don’t mark it as wrong, but I note the U.S. spelling beside it. I also strive for consistency with regards to alternate spellings and forms within American English.

5. Difficult pronunciation

Students can be confused when a word has more than one pronunciation. In the case of words like either /ˈi ðɚ, ˈaɪ ðɚ/and aunt /ænt, ɑnt/, I try to put their fears to rest by explaining that both forms are acceptable. If, however, the changes in pronunciation are connected to grammar, then it’s necessary to include contextualized practice so that students understand that /rɪˈkɔrd/ is a verb and /ˈrɛk ɚd/ is a noun.




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