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An Interview with Diane and Norbert Schmitt on Vocabulary in Theory and Practice

January 9, 2012 by sultanzeydan · 3 Comments · vocabulary

Last week we hosted Diane Schmitt (Nottingham Trent University, UK) and Norbert Schmitt (University of Nottingham, UK) at Özyeğin University for three days. Fortunately, I was able to interview with them about the facts of vocabulary in learning/teaching.

What are the implications of “high, mid and low frequency vocabulary” for teaching and planning? Do you think it is necessary to include “mid and low frequency vocabulary” as main objectives into an intensive English Program Curriculum?

D: The simple answer is yes. What the researchers’ telling us in terms of corpus research is that in order for learners to be able to read an academic text, watch a movie or read a newspaper, they need more vocabulary than the vocabulary target that we previously talked about. According to Robin Rodgers, to be able to get 95% coverage of TV or movies that the students might want to watch for extra listening practice, they’ll need to know 3000 vocabulary words… We need to address the mid frequency vocabulary in the syllabus. What we mean with mid frequency vocabulary is 3000 mid frequent level and it goes up to 9000 level. This range of the vocabulary seems really important in extending the range of the activities that learners can take part in. If they don’t know the essential vocabulary, it will restrict the ability to interact, to read, to listen and to write.

N: … just to be able to speak conversationally, maybe the first 3000 words are enough but most students want to do more than that, particularly students who are studying in English medium schools. High frequency and mid frequency go up to about 9000 word families and that is quite plenty to work in school system. High frequency vocabulary is necessary for any languages; mid frequency vocabulary is necessary for more proficient language use and academic learning. Low frequency vocabulary is not essential for language use but it’s important if you’re interested in a certain topic or want to learn something extra.

- Our students encounter lots of new words in the course books, graded readers and lesson materials each week so it is sometimes very difficult for them to recycle all of them. How often and how should we recycle vocabulary in and out of the class?

N: If you really study and work hard looking up the dictionary, maybe only a few repetitions are enough… The research from incidental learning suggests seeing a word ten times in different context in your reading might get you to the level where you can recognize that word again the next time when you see it in the text, and can understand the meaning. That’s receptive knowledge. However, we don’t really have a good idea about how many times you need to practice a word or repeat it in order to use it productively in your own writing… We know that recycling is important. Recycling can be explicit recycling that teachers put the words on the board using some kind of materials or tasks but other recycling can be just incidental where the word occurs in a reading or in a grammar exercise.

D: The key factor is that “ten repetitions” have to be close enough together… Recycling is not how many times you do it but it’s about whether or not the recycling is close enough together in first instance to make sure that student can remember the earlier recycling words… Even at the 3000 level when you’re designing a syllabus, you have to explicitly insert recycling opportunities into the syllabus because they don’t occur naturally.

- How can we optimize extensive reading?

D: Across learning environments, teachers are finding that students do not read.  A lot has to go into helping students recognize the value of it. One of the key factors is getting students to get any enjoyment out of reading. We should make sure that we are not asking them to read books that are too difficult for them. One of the benefits of extensive reading is that if students know 2000 words; they can start with the lowest level of graded reader series and getting recycling of the vocabulary… We should help students recognize the habits of extensive reading and the impact of extensive reading on other types of things that they may want to do with language (like blogging or internet usage)… Fluency is the biggest thing that you can get from extensive reading.

N: The impact of extensive reading is really strong… What is quite difficult to learn about words is the contextual information, the collocations or connotations in the text because there is no rule but just patterns which teachers cannot teach very well and not very easily. Where do you get that knowledge? You get that knowledge from reading, by seeing that word in all different types’ contexts, hearing it in different contexts, so what extensive reading does is to give lots of repetitions in different contexts.

- Do you think students need pre & while vocabulary input in writing? What kind of vocabulary support should be given to students to increase their performance in writing?

D: Dictionaries are fabulous resources for students not only for selecting words and but also for being sure whether a word is adjective or not; transitive or intransitive. A real benefit for vocabulary writing is teaching students how to make the best of the resources available to them… As teachers, we have to have very clear purposes for the task that we set. If the goal is vocabulary, what kind of feedback can I give on that vocabulary that was built on what I really taught? Expecting students to use words completely accurately in the early stages is not realistic but what we can do is to give feedback and say it is good to see they used, for example 10 words from the academic word list. Then what I need to check is whether they use the words appropriately… Writing has many different aspects like content, organization, and grammar; and vocabulary just get lost among the other things. We need to set clear tasks focusing on vocabulary.

- When we take into consideration different aspects of word knowledge “form, meaning and use”, do you think each aspect needs to be taught and assessed? To what extend should we assess it?

N: The idea “productive vocabulary” is quite problematic in terms of how we test it, how we make a list, or how we insert it into a syllabus. The problem is it is very difficult to measure productive vocabulary… We have been mainly talking about receptive skills so far. This is mainly because we can control the research, we can pick readings, we can give to students readings, we can actually count the words so we can come up good estimates how much vocabulary it takes to listen or read, the problem with the productive vocabulary is how much vocabulary does it take to write. For one reason why it is much less easy, students can use strategies to write very well even with small vocabulary knowledge. Maybe they know words but they avoid using it because they are not sure so we can’t know the actual word that they know. All we can do is just to get snapshots from their compositions. 

- What’s the role of context in vocabulary learning?

N: In order to reach a receptive level mastery, maybe form meaning, maybe a little bit “is it a noun or adjective?” knowledge help us well but we need to know all the other information to write the word in a composition: We have to produce the collocation. It is not there for us. We have to make the word selection in the appropriate context, so there is a really big jump from receptive knowledge to being able to produce it on our own. Therefore it is not so surprising that productive level takes long time even in intensive programs.

- Do you think context is obligatory in teaching and learning?

N: It depends on what level you are studying and what you say learning a word is. If you’re happy that students can recognize a word in context, then they can just learn the words in wordlists, or seeing them in sentences a few times, maybe that’s enough. Clearly if the student want to be able to produce the words appropriately, then context is essential.

D: … Context helps students develop other aspects of word knowledge but for initial learning the other aspects (whether or not it is a noun or a preposition) may not be the most important thing so it depends on what your overall goal is.

- Before asking the last question, I would like to thank you for being at Özyeğin University to mentor us for vocabulary development in our program. My question is, based on your experiences, what are your observations on the gap between what the theory suggests in vocabulary learning/teaching and what is being practised in intensive English programs around the world?

D: It is a very strong belief among syllabus designers, program administrators, teachers and learners that you can pick up vocabulary incidentally. If it is in the air, students can learn it.  The researchers say that the students can learn the vocabulary incidentally but it is slow. It may take a really long time if we rely on incidental learning. If we want students to reach a particular target, we need more explicit focus on vocabulary in the program; another thing that seems to happen very often among teachers is that teacher may think it is somebody else’s job to teach vocabulary. The common belief is that it is the reading teacher’s job so nobody else really pays attention to it or maybe they’re dealing with it but not in a coordinated way. So if you have a coordinated program, recycling should happen not only in reading or speaking classes but also in grammar, listening and writing classes, even in the test preparation. There should be a consistent approach across the program.

N: Designers, program administrators, teachers underestimate the amount of vocabulary that is required. Some researches published in 2006, suggest that if you want to know 98% of word in a written text, you need to know 8000 or 9000 word families.

Thanks, Prof. Norbert & Diane Schmitt! 
Further Reading
  • Norbert Schmitt, Vocabulary in Language Teaching.New York:CambridgeUniversityPress.
  • Norbert Schmitt, Michael McCarthy, Vocabulary: description, acquisition and pedagogy.CambridgeUniversityPress
  • Diane Schmitt, Norbert Schmitt, Focus on Vocabulary 2: Mastering the Academic Word List, Pearson Education

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