Friday, April 24, 2009

Topic: Vocabulary (5)

10-second review: Step 3 in increasing vocabulary is to provide a method for students to collect and review unfamiliar words they encounter in their reading.

Title: “Building Word Knowledge.” Raymond Stopper. Teaching English, How To…. Xlibris. 2004.

Personal Vocabulary Collection

Finally, I always tried to encourage students to keep a personal vocabulary collection. Not everyone was motivated to do so, and some educators disagreed with my method, but here it is—based on my experience learning to read French:

To complete my master’s degree in English, I had to pass a test in reading French because French was one language in which much literary criticism had been written. I did not have the money to spend on a course in French and I did not want to overload myself with another course, considering the number of English courses I was taking already, so I decided to teach myself to read French; I did not have to learn to speak it.

I bought a box of French vocabulary cards—thousands of them—a French grammar book and a dual translation book in which the French version of a story or article appeared on the left page and the English version on the right page. I spent one hour of my day, every day, seven days a week, for a year, doing these three activities: 15 minutes memorizing vocabulary words, 15 minutes studying the French grammar and 30 minutes working on the dual translation book, first attempting to translate the French version and then comparing my translation to the English translation on the opposite page. Of course, I used a French-English dictionary to help me with the translation.

To build my French vocabulary, I would go through the cards in the box, ten cards a day. I would look at the French word, then at its meaning in English on the opposite side of the card. I noted that the English meanings were concise, usually expressed in one, two or three words. The next day, if I knew the meaning of the word without looking on the other side of the card, I placed the card in one pile, the “known” pile. If I still had to look at the meaning on the other side, I placed the card in the “not known” pile. Each day, I would start with the “not known” pile to see if I could add any cards to the “known” pile. Gradually, as day followed day, the “known” pile began to grow larger and larger. I was learning French vocabulary.

I soon realized that the concise two- or three-word definitions in English for the French words helped me to remember their meanings.

By the end of the year, my work with French vocabulary, grammar and translation, one hour a day, had given me the ability to read French almost fluently, although I could not speak it. I had practiced only reading. When the time came to take the reading test in French, I passed it easily.

What I did with the French vocabulary is what I recommended to my students interested in developing their English vocabularies, especially when the time came to take the SAT. Three of the four tests in the Verbal Section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) consisted of vocabulary—antonyms, analogies and sentence completions. The other test was reading comprehension. I suggested that each week they read as many articles as they could in one of the major news magazines—Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report—and to underline words they did not know. These magazines were an excellent source of useful vocabulary words. It was in looking up the words in the dictionary that my method differed from the traditional approach of copying the entire definition.

I suggested that the students use 3” x 5” index cards and put one word, with pronunciation, if needed, on the blank side of the card, and the definition on the other, lined side of the card. I suggested that they write only one or two, or, at most, three key words from the dictionary definition. The purpose was to avoid the mindless copying of lengthy definitions in favor of thinking about the meanings by reducing them to key words.

Using only one index card per word made reviewing the words easy, sorting them, as I had with the French vocabulary, into a pile that consisted of known words and a pile that consisted of words still not mastered.

Several students, desperate to improve their SAT Verbal scores, tried this method for a month or more before re-taking the test. They significantly improved their scores and expressed gratitude for my suggesting the method.

When I was teaching, I had students accumulate such a card collection with the words that I pre-taught before reading assignments, to which they would add unfamiliar words encountered in their personal reading and from their reading in other subjects. The point of the collection was the reduction of lengthy dictionary definitions to just a few key words. No telling how large students’ vocabularies would grow if they conscientiously followed this plan from 5th grade through high school.

Examples of 3” x 5” index cards with the word (and definition, if necessary) on the blank side and key words from the dictionary definition on the lined side:

panache (pa năsh’)………. flashy, loud, show-off

grommet (grom’ it) ………. loop as button fastener

antic ………. laughable behavior

invidious (in vid’ e us. ………. insult

quotidian (kwō tid e en) ………. daily

apostrophize (a pos tra fīz) ………. speak to a personification (“O West Wind….”)

congeries (konjer ēz) ……… collection

farrago (fa rāy’ go) ………. disordered mixture

littoral (lit’ or al) ………. close to shore

rive (rīv) ………. split

paradigm (par’ a dīme) ………. pattern

risible (rĭz’ a bl) ………. provoking laughter

dialectic ( a lektik) ………. contradiction combined = truth

midden ………. accumulated refuse

antinomy (an tin’ a mē) ………. fundamental contradiction; unresolvable

gentrification (jentrĭ fi kay’ shun) ………. rebuilding slums; poor tenants evicted

doyen (doi’ en) ………. experienced member of a group

outré (oo tray’) ………. violates convention

hegemony (hĕ jem’ a nee) …….. control by person or group

bricolage (brik’ ō lazh) ………. Constructed of whatever is handy

The key to the effectiveness of this method is the conciseness of the definitions on the lined side of the card. Too many words in the definitions would make the word hard to remember. Lengthy definitions lead to mindless copying. One has to think about the definition in order to reduce it to one, two or three words. RayS.

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