Vocabulary Problem: Common Teaching Practices


Writing and speaking are the primary basis of the human language and as such are utilized daily to convey thoughts and ideas between two or more people. Yet what must be understood is that while students are capable of communicating ideas it cannot be stated that all of them are capable of doing it well (Brown, 2011). Some limitations take the form of a student’s basic comprehension of a particular subject, their ability to take in knowledge, interpret what is being said and formulate it in a way that for them is more easily understood (Simon & Taverniers, 2011). This particular process is inherently connected to an individual’s internalized vocabulary and as such is an essential aspect in all matters related to verbal and written communication (Fien, 2011). While it may be true that over a certain period most individuals have internalized several thousand words for use in everyday conversations and written work the fact remains that studies such as those by Jalongo & Sobolak (2011) have shown that despite the several thousand words an individual already knows when they enter into various levels of educational attainment (i.e. grade school, high school and college) the breadth and depth of their internalized vocabulary are still insufficient given the academic levels they are attempting to attain (Jalongo & Sobolak, 2011). This means that when people start progressing along a particular educational path they do so with only the essentials necessary for basic communication and lack the levels of articulation and understanding necessary to be able to fully understand ideas that are being taught and explain them in a manner that can be understood by the teacher (Wallace, 2008) (Wallace, 2007). Such a phenomenon was noted in the study of Kesler (2010) which examined the academic progress of students throughout numerous grade levels which showed that certain students (more than 50% of the class at times) could not fully comprehend concepts related to mathematics, history, science and religion (Kesler, 2010). This was not due to their inability to understand since it was apparent that many understood the gist of what was being said however when it came to knowing the various specifics of what was being taught such as the true significance of a historical event, the precise way in which to calculate a mathematical formula or the value of a particular process many students came up short in their ability to truly comprehend such factors in a level that could be considered academically acceptable (Manyak, 2010) (Wilson, Nash & Earl, 2010). It is based on this that various researchers have begun to correlate the vocabulary that a particular individual possesses with their ability to understand the lesson with the inevitable conclusion that individual’s possessing subpar vocabularies will be unable to fully grasp what is being taught to them (Kearns, 2010). Taking such a factor into consideration it thus becomes obvious that teachers need to be concerned about the inherent vocabulary possessed by their students since this limits their ability to communicate and understand what a teacher is trying to convey (Faulkner, 2010) (Donnelly & Roe, 2010). It is in this regard that to resolve issues regarding the origins of the “vocabulary problem” found in students today what will be done in this paper is to investigate present-day teaching practices regarding vocabulary, what methods have schools been implementing to prepare a student’s vocabulary skills for their next stage of academic achievement and whether such methods create positive results. This paper will also attempt to investigate various strategies related to teaching vocabulary to help readers understand the theoretical basis behind several of today’s most popular strategies when it comes to helping students of all age groups attain a better grasp of their respective vocabularies and how to utilize them regarding their academic achievement. All teachers should be concerned about the level of vocabulary internalization developed by their students since this dictates their level of academic performance in regards to being able to understand and articulate the subject matter being presented.

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Understanding the Origin of the “Vocabulary Problem” of Student’s within the U.S. and the necessity of developing their Academic Achievements by Building their Vocabulary through “Open” Education

The article “how education reform traps poor children” examines the issue of “reform” strategies being implemented in various schools around the U.S. which target academic performance as a key indicator of the performance of teachers resulting in either higher or lower budget allotments per school or school district depending on the results of the national exams students are supposed to take which measure their academic competency (Kohn, 2011). Such reforms, it is argued, give a form of the militarized educational system where students are made to memorize facts, figures and various details regarding subjects they are taking without regard to deeper contemplative thinking and understanding how such ideas came about and were formed in the first place. In other words, it is a teaching style that does the exact opposite of helping students to question, discover, collaborate and to argue certain points (widely considered by numerous studies as the best method of teaching to encourage the development of intellectual thought) but rather inculcates them into a form of thinking that emphasizes mind-numbing memorization, rote practice and mechanical precision in answering tests (Kohn, 2011). This very method of teaching encourages a form of non-reflective acquiescence which practically destroys inquisitiveness towards learning and creates a certain resistance towards the learning process (Kohn, 2011).

Other studies which have delved into the current state of elementary to high school education within the U.S. have also come with similar findings to the Kohn (2011) article and as such is indicative of a negative trend in the way in which education is dispersed to individuals just starting on their path to higher education. While this educational “reform” targets the performance of schools it neglects to address factors towards the proper education of children since the form of “militarized” educational regimen employed by the teachers to cram facts and figures into the minds of students does little to improve their academic capacity and in fact, creates a distinct level of dislike towards the concept of learning. An examination of various private and semi-private schools reveals that such a method of education is not utilized since, by their own words, it “restricts the capacity of children to truly explore and understand what they are being taught”. While the article itself presents a valid argument regarding the negative effects such a method of teaching has on students what must be understood is that it is only half of the picture. Other methods of educational reform have also been implemented in various schools and classes utilizing an “open classroom” method which encourages the exploration of thoughts, ideas and assumptions regarding particular topics. While such methods of reform are in the minority they are a growing trend in various school districts and such presents a valid hope that the current system of education may reform itself from within. In essence, the Kohn (2011) article has a negative assumption regarding the current reform policies being implemented by the U.S. educational system since not only do they negatively affect the potential academic capacities of inner-city children but it also limits their potential to like what they learn.

Studies such as those by ( ) which examined the impact such “militaristic” methods of rote learning had on the development of vocabulary showed that while students were able to remember certain words and phrases it was apparent that they lacked a certain fundamental understanding of what they truly meant or how to properly utilize a majority of what they were taught. ( ) explains that what is created is not a complete vocabulary but rather one that is “broken” so to speak wherein students know the words but in effect do not know their meaning, how to use them or specifically how they can be utilized in a context outside of what they were taught to use them for. Thus it can be seen that the origin of the problem mentioned at the start of this paper regarding students being ill-prepared for the rigours of advanced learning becomes apparent since it is the school’s themselves and their pursuit of academic performance in exchange for an actual understanding that causes the problems students to have with their vocabulary as they enter into each advanced stage of their educational attainment. They in effect progress without truly understanding the vocabulary that they were taught resulting in their subsequent difficulty in actually being able to understand and apply lessons. This problem becomes all the more apparent as they continue to advance since higher levels of educational attainment require more critical thinking and articulation which several students lack due to their exposure to the militaristic and rote teaching method utilized by several schools. What is needed in the case of properly building a student’s vocabulary and thus their level of academic achievement is an open classroom environment that encourages learning the meanings behind phrases, words and their application in a variety of situations. It is only by doing so that teachers can sufficiently build the vocabulary of their students to prepare them for the academic rigours that they will no doubt encounter.

Building meaning through speaking, writing and reading: an Examination of Methods of Learning

In Tolman’s 1930 experiment involving rats in a maze, it was observed that latent learning (a type of learning behaviour that doesn’t have an immediate overt response but rather manifests itself later on during a similar activity) factored heavily into the responses of the rats to the maze. In one experimental setup, there was no “motivation” (such as food) set up rather the rats were allowed to explore and learn the maze to reach the goal. In each succeeding experimental setup more elements were introduced (i.e. white, black and grey doors etc.) with varying levels of difficulty attached to each one. It is was discovered by Tolman that the rats in the experiment were able to develop a “cognitive map” of the maze based on their previous experiences and as such were able to factor this into their succeeding attempts at completing it thus resulting in fewer errors and less time to complete it.

From this particular perspective, it can be seen that learning is inherently different from the concept of “performance”, in that the process of learning doesn’t necessarily need to have an inherent motivator (i.e. food for rats, physical reward for humans) to be accomplished (Silvia, 2008). What occurs is that through active participation in events an organism (human or otherwise) can learn about the surrounding environment, internalize such information and implement it at a later date. Such actions aren’t done with a motivating action in mind at the present but rather are internalized for the sake of doing better at the action in the future (Silvia, 2008). From this particular method of interpreting Tolman’s work, it can be stated that the motivating aspect of the latent learning process that also occurs in humans is the desire to get better at a particular set of actions. This is applicable in the case of speaking, writing and reading wherein through constant exposure to various situations involving these practices a person will eventually get better at doing it (Alexander-Shea, 2011).

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As Tolman explains, rats that have learned through trial and error the different aspects of a maze are more likely to turn towards a particular direction when that direction in the past has proven to be the most beneficial. For example, a rat has a 60% greater likelihood to turn left when presented with a T-corner obstacle if turning left has proven to be beneficial for them in the past (i.e. not winding up in a dead-end). This application of the latent learning process in the behavioural response mechanism for animals tells us a lot about the motivation for human learning in that it shows how humans are more likely to complete a particular set of actions when such actions have resulted in perceived positive benefits. For example, if a person studies for a particular exam and passes then it becomes more likely that they will study again for future examinations since it results in a positive outcome. Taking this into consideration and applying it to the process of speaking, writing and reading; constant exposure to these activities along with positive results will create an individual that will constantly develop the desire to learn and expand their vocabulary since they were able to “feel good” from the initial activities that helped to put this desire into effect (Smith, 2008). Thus from this particular perspective, it can be seen that one motivating factor behind human learning is the concept of learned behaviour wherein outputs related to success or failure are factored into a person’s cognitive decision model resulting in the action which leads to success is the most likely choice for a particular action (Honig, 2010). As such for teachers looking to improve the vocabulary of their students the best way to do so is to constantly immerse them in activities such as speaking, writing and reading along with positive reinforcement in these activities to create the perception among students that expanding one’s vocabulary is a good thing rather than a chore that has to be accomplished because it was assigned to you (Hong & Diamond, 2012).

Teaching ELI Students

It must be noted though that one of the factors that Tolman was never able to take into account during the thought processes that lead to the creation of his experiment was the concept of “gaming” (ex: console/computer gaming, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) and “fun” (Levine, 2011). It was observed by studies such as Trespalacios, Chamberlin & Gallagher (2011) that gamers often applied various learning behaviours associated with the Tolman experiment as seen through their rather impressive use of hand-eye coordination to get better and better at accomplishing certain tasks within games (Trespalacios, Chamberlin & Gallagher, 2011). It was noted that the more fun gamers had with a certain game the greater the degree of skill improvement within a short period. Taking the views of the Trespalacios, Chamberlin & Gallagher (2011) study into consideration it can be stated that though Tolman was able to reveal intriguing aspects related to latent learning and learned behaviour, his observations lacked factors related to “fun” and “enjoyment” which I believe are inherently important motivators for human learning. It was even seen in the study of Heckhausen (2000) that the more fun a person had with a certain activity the greater the degree of skill retention and improvement (Heckhausen, 2000). Based on these examples it can be stated that when it comes to teaching ELI students about the fundamentals of the English language it is important to make the lessons fun and enjoyable through a variety of contests and games to make the learning process more dynamic and exciting (Tavıl & İşısağ, 2009). While numerous factors contribute to the motivation of human learning; the desire to get better at a particular activity (a product of latent learning), the desire to minimize negative outcomes (a product of learned behaviour) and the “fun” factor behind how a particular activity is internalized are, what I believe to be, the three main factors which contribute the most towards the motivation behind human learning and as such are important facilitators of effective learning behaviours when it comes to educating ELI students (Wasik, 2010).

Strategy to Teach Vocabulary

One of the more interesting aspects of Tolman’s theory on animal learning skills is his ideas regarding reinforcement expectancy and cognitive dissonance. It was noted by Tolman that when expectations were not met for a particular experiment (i.e. rats being given sunflower seeds instead of bran mush as a reward for completing a maze) performance significantly declines (MacMillan, 1970). For Tolman, such a response is quite similar to cognitive dissonance since the discrepancy between an expected outcome (i.e. receiving bran mush) and the result (i.e. receiving sunflower seeds) results in a negative drive state which animals (and people) would normally seek to avoid or reduce (MacMillan, 1970). Such a concept is quite valuable in the field of education since managing expectations regarding certain lessons or methods of accomplishing a particular task greatly influence the drive and motivation students to have towards learning which affects their overall performance (Heyting, 2004). For example, in instances where a teacher places unfounded expectations on students such as promising that the lesson would be easy or that anyone with marginal intelligence would be able to understand it yet presents students with an overly complicated lesson that is difficult at best and impossible at worst, creates a situation where there is a certain “negative dissonance” regarding the teaching methods of this particular teacher thus creating a certain degree of hesitance, even fear when taking a lesson since the promised result was not as expected (Lane, 2010).

Another example would be the case of a college course promising a very enlightening and in-depth view of a topic that a student truly enjoys yet gives him/her a subpar lesson that is generalized and has little intellectual value. This also creates a certain degree of cognitive dissonance resulting in negative behaviour towards not only the course but the college itself which will most likely result in poor performance. There are a plethora of examples where this is applicable and as such shows how educators need to set the right expectations when it comes to teaching their students the various intricacies of proper vocabulary development. Teachers and universities should be honest regarding what to expect from the lesson or the course a student enters into. They should not promise grandiose dreams only to give them a poor offering, this creates the cognitive dissonance that Tolman emphasizes in his theories and as such makes an educator/ educational institution partially or maybe even fully responsible for a student’s poor performance. One way of rectifying this situation is to help ease students into an understanding of what they are getting into. Rather than presenting students with a reward (i.e. a promised great lesson or a fantastic vocabulary) educators and colleges should inform them truthfully of what a particular course/lesson entails and give them a brief overview of its positive and negative elements (Bowman, 2011).

The point is not to create any set expectations but rather to ease students into making their own choices and decisions (Hughes, 2011). It was detailed by Bowman (2011) that human choice is a contributing factor towards performance since in instances where people were given a choice of actions, no matter how negative the outcome, performance levels did not decrease as much as compared to instances where people were either not given a choice or were given a false set of assumptions (Bowman, 2011). It is based on this that to maintain a certain degree of student performance for particular lessons or courses involving vocabulary it is important to adjust expectation levels early on to ensure that students are fully presented with a choice and know what they are getting into to ensure steady performance levels instead of subsequent drops.

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