Helping our Students to Learn English Vocabulary

Learn English Vocabulary - Some Ideas on how to teach our students English words, in a way that doesn`t create too many grey hairs!

"Basic English is English made simple by limiting the number of words to 850 and bycutting down the rules for using them to the smallest number necessary for the clear statementof ideas. And this is done without change in the normal order and behaviour of thesewords in everyday English. It is limited in its words and its rules but it keeps to the regularforms of English. And through it is designed to give the learner as little trouble as possible, it is no more strange to the eyes of my readers than these lines which are, in fact, in Basic English."

--I.A. Richards p. 24 "Vocaulary Applied Linguistics Perspectives Second Edition, Ronald Carter

While teaching English in Japan at a college in Nagoya we used a variation on this theme which I felt was helpful for students. Whichever way was easier, be it American English or the British English way, we taught that. I felt it was a good compromise. I`m sure you can find reasons to criticize this, the whole ELT profession is so tumultuous at times, but I felt this way was quite caring for students, plus they got to learn a little of both American and British English. Often the spellings we used and some of the grammar we used was American, as it was often easier than the British grammatical counterpart or the British spelling.

"I graduated university in 1981."

instead of:

"I graduated from university in 1981."

Ogden and Richards limited the eighteen main verbs of their basic English to the following:

send, say, do, come, get, give, go, keep, let, make, put, seem, take, see, may, will, be, and have.

(p. 24 Ronald Carter)

One problem which arises from teaching your students basic English vocabulary arises due to polysemy(or a word having two or more closely related meanings).

ie) He hurt his foot.

She stood at the foot of the stairs.

--from (p. 406 "Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics," Jack C. Richards and Richard Schmidt)

Thus even when we try to simplify things for our students, problems creep in as the fact remains,that many words have two or more meanings.

Students too of course, will bring the slang or colloquial English that they have heard into theclassroom. This needn`t be a problem however. It can be a teaching opportunity. I always reassure students - that if they do not understand now, they will understand later; to learn English vocabulary is like building a house, you must build the foundation first. After a strong foundation comes increased knowledge of vocabulary.

Whether you agree with Ogden and Richards or not, I think it is safe to say that most teachers feel that it is important to speak slowly, clearly, and to limit the vocabulary in their basic English classes. Then students will gain confidence, and from that foundation, they will have the motivation to continue to learn English vocabulary.

Indeed, we should choose textbooks appropriate to their level and challenge students only when we are reasonably confident of their success.

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