Monday, 1 June 2009

so much to blog, so little time

The pace just gets quicker, with teaching and grading, testing and final presentations all galloping faster and faster to the end of the week. Something in my brain goes dead and I find myself sneaking peeks onto the net...

And answering emails. There has been an email-based debate about teaching vocab here - basically, what when and how.

The background to it is that on the course I teach, a new target is for students to "learn" - which means they must be assessed - on the Academic Word Lists, the top frequency words in Academic writing.

This came in for the first time 2 years ago. So one of my big jobs last year was devising assessments... which we now have a bunch of.

Oddly, the requirement for the course was that students should demonstrate passive understanding of 65% of the list and active production of 60% of the list... I suspect the figures should be rather different for realistic language learning (I'd guess 75% passive recognition - 50% active production would be more likely, though I don't know any research on the figures).

Anyway, devising an instrument that assesses production is quite hard, and the freer the production the harder it is.

There is now the suggestion that some of the AWL should be devolved down onto the level below.

However, the problem I notice most is not with students learning an academic word list (they are good at "learning" - in the sense of "memorising the translation of" lists of words). It is with the more basic vocabulary - what is often called the basic 3,000 words.

Plus they suffer difficulties with forming sentences and word forms (as in history - historical - historian) - it seems hard for students to recognise what a plausible sentence of English looks like, even into their 2nd year. Obviously, this affects their writing, but it also affects their reading.

A lot of exam reading comprehension consists of recognising parallel expressions (so in a text which mentions "eyesight" the question might ask about "vision") - one expression might contain the Academic list word but the other will use a paraphrase.

Students sometimes say "I know what this means in Arabic" but being unable to find other English words is a barrier (and it also encourages students to plagiarise... another can of worms).

Personally, I think that more lists would be pretty deadly - another move, as if we needed more, towards the "memorise-test-forget" cycle a lot of our teaching seems to aim to emulate. I would like more reading - more extensive reading and more focused reading with vocab support. But it's harder to measure the benefits of that.

I even proposed a test - some students in Foundations doing the AWL earlier, and some doing extensive reading with vocab support - then see who does better in the AWL in Year 1, and in everything else.

I'd be willing to bet money the readers would not only learn the AWL's better, but score better in reading and writing....

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