Tuesday, 5 December 2017

How to build an active vocabulary 2 or the Layer Method

One of my teaching principles is incrementally bracing a word: I start with its foundation, which -- more or less -- corresponds to its literal meaning, and proceed step by step at different stages of learning – with the figurative meanings, which I introduce when the students’ mental maturity can handle them.

I call it the layer method because this is what really happens: the learner adds one or more layers of meaning to the existing one(s) thus enriching and broadening their scope.  The method may not apply to all words as some are quite straightforward, and those are usually the words that refer to tangible objects, but it does apply to the majority of words that an adult speaker will need. However, an adult speaker, in my experience, is rather reluctant to draw or mime words, which a child will be only too eager to do. Therefore, when I teach children, I make a point of imprinting the foundation meaning of the word on their minds by encouraging them to use their bodies or produce sounds or mime and, wherever this facilitates learning, to draw. It is a long-term strategy for building up vocabulary, which pays dividends.

I will illustrate with one of my favourite poems for teaching: Raymond Wilson’s The Grateful Dragon.

When I present a poem to my students, I vary the way depending on the poem and the level of my students. This poem was presented to a level B1 class with particularly sharp children who adore stories and storytelling. So I teased their brains a little by asking why a dragon should be grateful. The responses were varied from “There are no dragons really” to “They are grateful to be alive at all”.

Then I recited the poem adding as much drama to my voice as possible and let it sink in.  HERE IS THE POEM https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Y577dKksD84sKae7CkyS8jxbjBUhrku5/view?usp=sharing Next I asked the children to tell me the story in a few words and continued with some comprehension questions, which were also meant to elicit their understanding of vocabulary:
·       How did the dragon get to the castle door?
·       How big was it?
·       How weak was the dragon? (They didn’t know the word “eyelid” so I just mimed not being able to move more than one eyelid.)
·       What did the princess do when the enemy appeared before the castle? (I had to mime “wept”, which was easy.)

Most of the times, when I use a poem or literary extract, I focus on some, not all, unknown words --   though not randomly. The main criterion often is the frequency of the word though this may not always apply. Sometimes I choose words which the students can draw or illustrate, but I don’t normally provide the first language equivalent; instead I refer them to their (paper) dictionaries and ask them to look up the word(s) and make a drawing. Their minds are more actively engaged, and images do reinforce the memorisation of words.
 In this case I divided the students into pairs and asked different pairs to illustrate different phrases from the poem, which I chose for them.

The first one was from the second stanza: “… to lash its tail”. “Lash” is a flexible word that can be used in many different contexts both literally and figuratively.

The “skinny harvest mouse” in the third stanza was too attractive a choice to ignore! I instructed my students to illustrate  how “harvest” and “skinny mouse” related to each other.

The next one was from the third stanza: “a blade of grass”. They knew “blade” but not in this sense. I hardly ever miss the chance to point out a countable vs uncountable noun.

The next one was “bundles of hay” in the sixth stanza, which was quite straightforward in terms of drawing.

The last item, however, was a metaphor and more of a challenge: “a whirlwind of thunder and fury” in the penultimate stanza. They actually did quite well with this one as the drawing included angry faces swirling and thunder.

By selecting in particular “lash” and “bundle”, I was aiming at establishing – at this stage of learning -- a basis for building up the figurative uses of the words later on. A mental image can help understand and appreciate the figurative uses of a word more easily and directly, effectively saving the teacher and the learner a lot of time while the word is assimilated or “anchored” in the student’s mind.

Thus, from a “bundle of sticks” we can then move to “Her friends managed to get her out of the pub and bundled her home” or to  “The company offered customers a single computer solution, bundling together hardware and software.”

Or from “He lashed the horses to go faster” to “Democrats lashed Republican plans, calling them extreme.” and even further to “In his speech, he lashed out at his enemies.”

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