There are many hot button topics in foreign language education and recently vocabulary lists have been one of them. As I have continued to develop my own voice and what works for my classes, I would feel intimidated at times. Many of the experts seemed to be saying contradictory things. Can you really balance it all? I am always refining my practice, but I believe that I have come to a point where I am able to incorporate different methods to find what works best for me and for my students. This year, I am trying to write out how I find balance of these topics. My practice is a mixture of research-based findings and what I observe in my own classroom. Today, I am going to tackle if vocabulary lists can be useful and ways that I help students acquire vocabulary.
Thomas Sauer has said that many times, teachers need to clarify that their findings are what work for them and for their situation. I wanted to start with this caveat and a bit about my school and students. I work in a school where:
- Many teachers still use the textbook. While a few more teachers are starting to use novels, over half of our Spanish department uses the textbook. And with the textbook, they teach both vocabulary and grammar explicitly. Therefore, I have to prepare my students for this. If our whole department used untargeted input, we may be in a different scenario.
- Our school has parents who are involved. This is wonderful! However, they want to know what students need to work on, what students are learning and they like to have something to reference.
- I teach levels 1, 3, 5 and 6 this year, so my students span greatly in their proficiency.
Early on in my teaching with a textbook, I would start limiting vocabulary. If I hadn’t heard of a word in a level 1 textbook after speaking Spanish for years, my students probably didn’t need it… at least not in level 1. (I remember specifically the word anorak. I learned both an English word and Spanish word in one day!) Also, I knew that it was impossible for students to acquire the long lists of vocabulary that they were presented with from a textbook. As I started to move away from the textbook, I questioned the validity of the vocabulary list. Without a textbook, do you need to completely ditch a vocabulary list? I don’t agree. I believe that you can have students both acquire vocabulary and learn it successfully with lists.
One way that I teach vocabulary is that I teach with a lot of comprehensible input. One thing that I really appreciate about comprehensible input is that students continue to hear many of the same words frequently. They will really start to acquire these words easily. If you are discussing music videos, you can keep recycling key words that students continue to hear. Another way for students to acquire language is through reading novels that are geared to Spanish learners. I have noticed how many words my students remember for long periods of time. When we were discussing our novel at the end of the year (May) and comparing it to our novel from January, I was surprised how easily students were able to recall these words. In addition, all of my students this year have discussed Carlos’ pesadillas from last year (April) with Calaca Alegre.
In the Musicuentos Black Box video series, one of my favorite videos was about extensive reading (Video 6). In this video, they discuss how much students have to read in order to acquire vocabulary. The research from this video states that there is no way to study all of the vocabulary needed to speak a language, but you can read to acquire the language that you need. That is one reason why I have incorporated novels into my classes. We also read the news each week. In addition, when we are not reading a novel, my students have free voluntary reading time. This is one key way to help them acquire vocabulary.
However, are comprehensible input and reading the only way to learn language? What is the case for vocabulary lists? I have still maintained vocabulary lists throughout my classes. However, I have limited vocabulary words to 20 words and phrases per three weeks to a month at the most. I expect that students learn other words based on our conversations in class, but I like to limit the amount that they HAVE to learn through intentional learning.
I decided to do keep limited vocabulary lists after much thought. In my own world and classroom, it gives my students something to practice if they would like to. I can always point a parent to the Quizlet list online. Without a book and extra exercises, this is important. When I was moving away from the textbook, this was one concern that my principal had. He wanted to make sure that parents and students had something to reference, so they didn’t feel as anxious. I also noted that when I was teaching Spanish V, during some of the units, students didn’t acquire vocabulary as much as they did when I provided a vocabulary list. I wasn’t sure until I did some more research.
I felt validated when I heard Joe Barcroft’s podcast on We Teach Languages. During his research on vocabulary acquisition, his research supports both of use of comprehensible input and limited vocabulary lists. For example, the second principle in his book supports my first idea about repeated input. His research indicates that vocabulary must be repeated over the course of a unit and over the course of a year. The research also indicates that these words need to be used in context. This supports the use of reading as well. The third principle that Dr. Barcroft mentions explains the difference between incidental vocabulary and intentional learning. While many of us learned our first language purely through incidental vocabulary, he notes that you can still pick up even more language from intentional learning. I believe that this is why I didn’t see the same acquisition from my students in other units. They were just learning words incidentally and not through intentional learning.
Finally, another big piece of research that has dictated how I practice and teach vocabulary is through retrieval practice. Retrieval practice discusses the importance of repeating vocabulary at various intervals. This helps students to remember the vocabulary and transfer these words into their long term memory. I like to do brain dumps throughout the year where students have to think of words that are associated with a topic. Then, students have to complete a writing assignment with the words that they have brainstormed.
As I continue to work through my journey, I hope this helps you piece together what works in class and matching up research as well.