Friday, 17 November 2017

How to build an active vocabulary: Part 1

What I often mull over is how to invent new ways of practising vocabulary and motivating students to go beyond the basics, which is a challenge for teachers themselves.

Understanding and explaining new words is fine, but safely storing words in the long-term memory or coming up with the right word in the right context is a different kettle of fish.

Personally, I am constantly reviewing my methods of anchoring words and eliciting them from my students and therefore eternally struggling to devise more effective activities in order to achieve my goal.

In the present and the next few posts, I will provide a hodgepodge of ideas about how to render words more memorable and in effect build an active vocabulary.

The guiding principle is flipping the multiple-choice questions typically used in EFL exams and consequently in most course books across the spectrum.

By way of illustration, I will quote a paragraph from Eduardo Mendoza’s novel An Englishman in Madrid:

Still stunned, and with an anguished look on his face not dissimilar to that of the Christ that gave the church its name, Anthony Whitelands stumbled out into the street, pushing his way through the endless flow of the faithful. Beyond the entrance to the church the snow was coming down hard, and he was soon lost in a whirling mass of heavy snowflakes so thick and white they seemed to leave the rest of the world in impenetrable darkness. This phenomenon seemed to him to reflect his state of mind, now the scene of a desperate battle. No sooner did he decide to surrender his will to Paquita’s disconcerting entreaty than part of him rebelled against such cruel imposition. There was no doubt that the daring if tacit way she had offered herself to him aroused his desire, but he thought it might be too high a price to pay. Did he have to give up on worldwide recognition just when it was within his grasp? And she had not even offered him an explanation, simply appealing to his weakness for her. It was outrageous!

I have picked the nouns which I intend to explore with my students, (highlighted in the extract) and those are:
·       flow
·       darkness
·       battle
Here are the sets of collocating adjectives or participles used as adjectives:
·       steady, continuous, constant, smooth
·       thick, total, partial, gathering
·       difficult, losing, legal, constant

The students are given the groups of adjectives and asked to find the nouns in the text which can collocate with all the items of each group. They could then be asked to make their own examples using the different adjectives with the same noun.
The lights suddenly went off leaving us in total darkness.
The gathering darkness began to envelop the forest making it eerie and frightening.

I find this approach much easier and more meaningful for my students. Rather than having to explain the context for each of the four different items of the multiple-choice question, you focus on one and explore the denotative and connotative potential of each noun by looking at the collocating adjectives.

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