Implementing a Vocabulary Learning Strategies

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Implementing a Vocabulary Learning Strategies Program at a Japanese Women’s College Daniel Ferreira

Introduction The field of second language vocabulary acquisition benefited greatly when Paul Nation published . Drawing on years of research, Nation redefined the approach to planning a vocabulary acquisition program in what is now popularly known as the four strands: meaningfocused input, meaning-focused output, language-focused learning and fluency development. Applying the four strands requires the teacher to show the learner how to take responsibility for their own vocabulary growth. As part of the implementation of my vocabulary learning strategies program (VLSP) I have students write blogs in response to questions directly related to vocabulary learning. The following blog entries below were written by three second-year students at Ferris Women’s University who were responding to the following question: “There are many things to consider when studying vocabulary such as the word frequency (GSL lists, AWL list, etc.), profile of the target word (antonym, synonym, collocation, model sentence, part of speech, etc.). Have you made any changes to the way you study vocabulary since the start of the term? If so, what do you do differently now?” “I think that we have to study new vocabulary more and more.We don’t neglect studies, so I want to learn new vocabulary. My vocabulary level is not high level now. I want to speak English smoothly, so I think that I have to remember more vocabulary.” , , , “I want to study more vocabulary too. We have to study word many time, because we forget those words very soon. So I agree with you.” , , ,

“I agree with you.It's good to try to learn many new words.Also,as you said,not to neglect,studying with these lists makes our English skills good, and also it seems to give a time to study while


we're on a train,or a bus. By doing so, we may improve each English skill little by little,and also we like English very much than ever. It seems to teach good thing from you. Thank you!” , , ,

The one field that crosses the boundaries of the four language skills is vocabulary acquisition (Nyikos & Fan, 2007). As important as this aspect of language learning is, second language learners have not received formal instruction on how to study vocabulary due to various historical trends in language acquisition (Coady, 1997). Even if an instructor were to search the literature today, one can quickly realize the paucity of vocabulary learning strategies programs in both the ESL and EFL settings (2012). Although Nation (2008) and Takac (2008) offer suggestions on how to use strategies for studying vocabulary, there is a gap on how to organize those ideas into a curriculum that can be integrated into a university course. Recent research by Brown (2012) offers a very inspiring approach to filling in that gap. The purpose of this research is to report on my attempts to adapt Brown’s Vocabulary Learning Strategies Program (VLSP) into several classes at Ferris Women’s University (2012). Although Brown’s VLSP was specifically designed to meet the vocabulary needs of a class of medical students, my VLSP is more generic and intended to be adaptable to any class subject. Both VLS Programs focus on the need to provide structure to the way students blend vocabulary learning with effective strategies. This study first introduces the materials used in implementing the various components of the VLSP. Next, it describes the participants. Then, the results and findings report on the various surveys, tests and comments gathered throughout the term. Finally, a discussion on the findings and insights gained from this research will be shared along with proposals for future changes to the VLSP used in this research.

Materials The Survey: A survey was carried out in the first week of the VLSP as part of a consciousness-raising activity providing an opportunity for the students to think about their own use of vocabulary learning strategies. According to research (Schmidt, 1990; Taka , 2008), preparing students to take an inventory of their own strategies is an important first step as it prepares them to think about their own learning approach on a metacognitive level. Week-by-Week Schedule: Based on Brown’s research (2012), Table 1 below breaks



down the week-by-week approach of the VLS Program over the course of the 15-week semester. The students met for one 90-minute class per week. The first week of the schedule commences a week after classeshave started. That is, the VLSP is implemented after the first week’s classes where icebreakers, a discussion of course objectives and other administrative duties are attended to. Vocabulary Assessment and Surveys: A vocabulary levels test was administered to assess the students’ vocabulary level based on 10,000 words (Nation, 2010). The dual purpose of the vocabulary levels test is to raise awareness of the frequency bands among students and inform the instructor on each learner’s current level. Categorizing words by frequency is usually an aspect of vocabulary the students are not familiar with and reporting the results of the test allows for discussion of the significance of word frequency. In week 2, the students responded to an online Likert-scale survey pertaining to the different learning strategies and online resources available and in week 3 the 5 most popular and 5 least popular results were presented to the class (see Tables 3 & 4 below). The purpose of the survey was to have the students become aware of the different strategies and tools available and for the instructor to comment on the profile of the study habits for that particular group. Further discussion on the results of the survey are discussed in the results portion of this research. The Textbook: The textbook, , was used to apply the strategies of the VLSP (Nation, 2009). This textbook has a balanced representation of high-frequency words as well as off-list words in each of the units. Each unit consists of 20 words and the first 10 units were used in the course. The students were expected to apply the strategies and review for quizzes based on 200 words. Vocabulary Learning Sheets: The vocabulary learning sheets were used throughout weeks 2 to 11 (Appendix B). The learning sheets provided an opportunity for the students to work on the various aspects of vocabulary knowledge which are numbered from 1 to 10 (such as pronunciation, part of speech, derivations, etc.) at the top of the sheet. The top part of the sheet was used as an example for the students to follow (see Table 2 below) and the bottom area (see Appendix B for the whole sheet) is the area where the students reproduced their own understanding of the example. Each example provided by the instructor followed a succinct explanation of the vocabulary point under consideration as well as the use of online tools and/or other learning strategies. After the students


finished the bottom portion of the worksheet, the learning sheets were collected for evaluation and returned the following week with comments. Table 2 is an example of a learning sheet used for week 4.The word and model sentence were extracted directly from the textbook units of study for that week. The word “lot” in the example below was taken from a unit that appeared weeks earlier in order to teach the Keyword Method as a mnemonic device (Taka , 2008).

Homework: Students reviewed past vocabulary, studied new vocabulary, did the extensive reading and answered five comprehension questions. After every two units, the exercise pages for each unit are used as quizzes to check comprehension. An online site called Edmodo (2012) was used for managing the quizzes and setting an eight minute time limit. Each quiz consisted of 40 to 50 questions. Activities: A variety of pair-learning/reviewing techniques were introduced. Activity 1 had students practice recalling the English words for their partner to translate into L1. Activity 2, adapted from Brown (2009, p. 114) has students use a variety of mnemonic devices to recall words such as visualizing the spelling of words in colours and combining that with kinesthetic movements.


Participants All the participants in this study were from Ferris Women’s University and ranged from ages 18-21. The VLSP was integrated into the curriculum of the following classes: intensive reading, intensive speaking, intensive listening, language development, and a combined introductory reading and writing class. The grade levels ranged from first year to third year. For the purpose of describing the results of this study, the classes are divided and classified by letters of the alphabet (see Table 3). Only one class, Group E did not receive any part of the program except the vocabulary quizzes. A discussion of the results of the quizzes follows.

Results and Findings Beginning of Term Survey: In Week 2, students were asked to respond to a survey (see Appendix C) composed of 35 first-person statements on a five-point Likert-scale regarding their current strategies for learning vocabulary words (adapted from Brown, 2009). Due to a lack of time and resources, the survey was only offered in English. As a result, two of the items from Brown’s survey (which was designed for his class on medical English) were intentionally kept to serve as distractors and to check for the reliability of the surveys findings. One of the most common lowest response items as seen in Table 4 below from all the groups is the distractor statement “I know understand (e.g. cardiology




->‘cardio’=heart; ‘logy’=study of”. Considering this distractor appears more than half way through the survey reinforces the reliability of the answers. The other distractor statement, “I think about my progress in learning medical English vocabulary” did not appear as low as expected perhaps due to the wording of the sentence where the respondents may be responding more to the act of reflection. Two other choices that appear in at least four of the five groups are “I use English language learning games and software” and “I draw pictures to help me remember new words” show some consistency in their answers. Table 5 above lists the top five rated answers from the each of the groups that took part in the survey. The most common strategy of all the groups is the statement “I use an English-Japanese dictionary to look up new words”. The second most popular strategy that appears in four of the five groups are “I repeat/ say new English words several times aloud”. Another popular strategy among second year students, “If I don’t understand something in English, I ask the other person” seems to suggest that in their second year students learn to use their classmates as an additional resource for accessing lexical meanings. One other strategy that deserves mention is “To understand unfamiliar/new English words. I make guesses” which is the only other top-five answer shared by the most advanced third year students and two second year students. Overall, the choices preferred by the first year students are focused on self-dependence and self-reliance when compared to those of the later classes. This suggests that as students broaden their repertoire of vocabulary learning strategies they see the benefits of including their peers’ knowledge as a beneficial and effective resource for developing their vocabulary learning strategies. The Vocabulary Quizzes: Exercises from textbook units were used as material for quizzes. The activities varied from circling two words out of five that were related to each other, completing a cloze of a word in response to a similar underlined word in a sample sentence, or choosing a sentence clause that best completed a sentence, to name a few. Before each test commenced, I explained the instructions. The time for the tests was set at eight minutes and the average test contained about 40 items. The decision for the set time of eight minutes was based on piloting two different tests with two different L2 learners whose TOEIC scores averaged around 700; they each averaged 6 minutes per test, so an extra 2 minutes were added to compensate for assumed reading speed of my classes based on their TOEFL scores and also to provide a reasonable amount of time for students who may not be proficient at touch-typing. Figure 1 displays the results for the averages of all the tests taken by the


respective groups. The performance of Group E is noticeably different. There is a strong left skew suggesting that a few students in this group performed consistently well on the tests. In fact, the maximum score for Group E, who are first year students, is close to the highest score recorded for the third year students in Group F. However, of all the groups, Group E has the largest spread of scores, not only between the maximum and minimum reported averages, but also within the interquartile range. This seems to indicate that there was less cohesion among the individual students in their approach to studying vocabulary. Bearing in mind that Group D, also first-year students, scored 22 points lower on average in their Pre-TOEFL scores, their performance on the vocabulary tests is much more balanced since the distribution of the scores is much more centered and comparatively smaller.

End of Term Survey: At the end of term, the students were asked to respond to a nine-item survey (see Appendix D). The primary focus of the survey was to have students comment on the different online tools used throughout the VLSP. In addition, to a fivepoint Likert-Scale, learners had to qualify each choice with a short-answer (set at a maximum one line answer of 100 characters). Figure 2 below shows the results of the students’ ratings of the various tools used throughout the program.


The highest rated activity at 3.81 was for the “The Vocabulary Reading Comprehension Stories” that accompany each vocabulary unit. The reading provides an opportunity for the students to read the unit’s key words in context. Overall, the students reported that they liked to read the stories because they were “easy” to read. One student even said that the “ease” of reading the words made her feel that she learned the words more “efficiently”. The second highest rated tool was the website called ALC (2012) at 3.74. Unfortunately, the short answers provided by the students were not very convincing as to why this was rated so highly, with some indicating the students appreciated seeing the word in example phrases and that they found the L1 translations useful. The vocabulary quizzes, labeled “The Edmodo Vocabulary Quizzes”, received the third highest usefulness rating of 3.70. The most common reason provided by the students is that the site allowed them to know right away which mistakes they made and it also allowed them to focus on reviewing their errors more efficiently. The vocabulary learning sheets also received a relatively high rating of 3.66. In their short answers, students said they liked doing the learning sheets because the activity of writing out the examples and finding their own words to model the example helped them to focus “deeply” on other “details” than “just the meaning of a word” (such as “collocations”, or how the word fits into the “structure” of a sentence). They also appreciated the “deliberate” learning of words and one student remarked that it is a good system for learning “unique” words. The “Online Visual Thesaurus” reported the lowest rating of 3.30. The most common complaint was the difficulty of using the interface and the lack of colours to differentiate between the words. The second lowest, “The online vocabprofile”, was rated at a modest 3.35 and the “AWL & GSL Word Lists” at 3.36. Contrary to the “Visual Thesaurus” interface, students felt that the on-screen results for looking up words often reported an “error” or some felt that the results were too colourful. In retrospect, having the “Vocabprofile” also made the use of the “AWL & GSL lists” redundant. Although some students felt they were useful not a single student mentioned their importance in terms of frequency. “Quizlet”, rated at 3.52, was very well received. The single strongest response to what the site had to offer was the “fun” factor. The following are a few direct quotes: “because I can see the mean[ing] of the word easily I think it is revolutionary”; and “We can enjoy to learn English by game style and also we can use it by our smartphone”; and also “this game is fun and review my vocabulary”. Considering that many students rated studying English through “language learning games” as one of the lowest/least tried learning strategies.


Discussion What became apparent in the early weeks of implementing this VLSP was how time consuming it was to try to keep the activities to within 25% of the class time (or roughly 20 minutes) so that the rest of class could be devoted to the content of that particular course’s subject. Even more disappointing was the realization that the skills being learned in the VLSP were not being applied to the actual content of the course itself. In order to “keep pace” with the design of the VLSP, some extremely vital components were either cut or not followed up on. For example, week 6 was an opportunity for the students to reflect on how the strategies and tools learned thus far had influenced their learning of vocabulary. This portion of the VLSP was not pursued for two reasons. First, I did not know who to how proceed with the self-assessment. Should they do another survey or write out their reflections? The second reason is that I had skipped the only opportunity for a pair-work strategy in favour of teaching more on tools so that I


could reduce the time spent on the VLSP and catch up on course content. I’ve identified two major problems with the VLSP design in Table 1: one is a misunderstanding of what really constitutes a strategy and two finding a balance in teaching Nation’s “four strands”: meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, language-focused learning and fluency development (Nation, 2008, p. 22). An assessment of each strand will be considered with respect to my experience in implementing the VLSP as outlined in Table 1 and the necessary changes will be proposed. Meaning-focused input: I believe the demands of this strand are partially met with the extensive reading task that accompanies the end of each unit in the textbook. However, this strand need not be limited to only reading. Extensive listening activities can also be used. Since the ultimate aim of employing strategies is for students to achieve their own independence in their learning progress, they can bring in their own transcripts of extensive listening material which they choose. Moreover, they need to be taught that material is considered extensive as long as there is only one new word in every 50 running words. Meaning-focused output: The VLSP in Table 1 does not provide any structured activity where the students can apply this strand. Quite simply, time should be set aside for the students to work in pairs where they can share the words from their lists that they feel they need to learn more about. Using the vocabulary learning sheets, they could select the words to investigate more deeply and share what new aspects of the word they learned. For example, they can talk about collocations or different forms in the word family or even share a model sentence from their investigation. This approach can scaffold their use into eventually using the word in context. Similar activities that provide an opportunity for applying the meaning-focused output strand need to be included in a revized VLSP in the early weeks of the semester. Language-focused learning: This strand receives ample attention in the VLSP described here; perhaps too much attention. In language-focused learning, the learners deliberately learn aspects of new words such as form and use of the word in context. However, there should also be an opportunity for the students to work on the strategy of reviewing previous words through word cards. In my experience, teaching students how to design and review word cards is very time-consuming and not really effective. The most common strategy learners employ is to print out the sheet of words and study directly from that sheet. Since they are already using that technique, they can at least work in pairs to try and test each other on their knowledge of those words. Such activities are listed in the VLSP in weeks 3, 6, 9 and 11.


Another useful tool to introduce is the use of smartphone technology and the relative ease in which the learners can create their own electronic word cards. For example, there is an app called Flashcards (2012) that can sync with Quizlet. I can create a sample flashcard deck based on the words they were supposed to study and use the overhead projector and tablet to quiz the students at the start of class. Students with smartphones can be encouraged to create their own decks and bring them on their smartphones and do the same exercise in pairs with other students. Students who don’t have smartphones can create word cards and use them to quiz their partners. This activity should be done regularly enough so that students get a sense of what is involved in designing, organizing and effectively using word cards as a strategy for reviewing old words and learning new words. Chen (Chen, n.d.) has recently reported vocabulary gains in memory and the use of guessing strategies when learners engage in vocabulary games. The game-like features of Quizlet and a vocabulary based bingo game can also be incorporated into this strand to enhance student use of language learning strategies, fun and even a sense of achievement through competition.



Fluency Development: In this strand, the learners develop their fluency with words that they have already learned. There should be no new words and the focus is on making meaning. This strand is completely missing in the first version of the VLSP. One idea of incorporating this fluency task in a writing activity is by


displaying words already learned (see Table 6) on an overhead display with the students spending ten minutes on a free writing activity using as many of the words as possible. After the task is over they could share their writings with each other. Also a 3/2/1 speaking activity can be used where each student prepares a story using as many words from the unit as possible, practicing their fluency telling the story in a pair rotation activity where learner A practices telling their story for 3 minutes and then changes partners and tries to tell the same story with one minute less, repeating the activity with one minute less in the subsequent telling of their story. Table 7 above is a modified version of Table 1. There are number of changes, with the main ones being the elimination of the vocabulary surveys and vocabulary assessment. The vocabulary survey on strategy use was dropped due to the ample amount of information derived in the spring term. Since the results of the vocabulary assessment would have no bearing on changes in the VLSP, reinforcing learning strategies and fostering independent learning based on those strategies would be the primary focus. Table 8 presents a more streamlined version of the Vocabulary Learning Sheet (compare Table 8 with Appendix B). The most noteworthy changes are the elimination of the categories, “Pronunciation”, “Keyword Pictures”, “Other related words” and the word lists. These categories need a lot more time for instruction in order to be effective. The time constraints of limiting the VLSP to 25% of class instruction and the need to balance attention to other strands of learning made this necessary. This research has shown a step-by-step process of adapting and integrating a vocabulary learning strategies program into a 15-week university course. The survey and test results as well as student blog comments indicate the students thought the VLSP was useful. Applying Nation’s four strands as the basis for making the necessary changes to any program may take some time and effort until the right balance is found. I hope this study makes a positive contribution to those instructors and curriculum planners who want to develop and implement their own VLSP according to the needs of their own institutions.

References ALC. (2012). Brown, P. (2009). Integrating a vocabulary learning strategies program into a first-year medical English course. Unpublished MA dissertation, The Centre


for English Language Studies, University of Birmingham, UK. Retrieved from www.cels. Learning_Strategies_Program_into_a_First-year_Medical_English_Course.pdf Brown, P. (2012). Innovating a vocabulary learning strategies program. In T. E. Muller, T. E., S. E. Herder, Adamson, J. E., & P. S. E. Brown (eds.), New York: Palgrave MacMillan. Chen, M. (n.d.). Using vocabulary games to increase the use of language learning strategy. Available from Coady, J. (1997). L2 vocabulary acquisition: A synthesis of the research. In J. Coady & T. Hucking (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Edmodo. (2012). Holliday, J. (2012). Flashcards (Version 3.0.1) [iPhone application]. Retrieved from*/id403199818?l=en&mt=8 Nation, I. S. P. (2008). Boston, MA: Heinle, Cengage Learning. Nation, P. (2009). Seoul: Compass Publishing. Nation, P. (2010). Vocabulary Size Test (monolingual version). Nyikos, M., & Fan, M. (2007). A review of research on vocabulary learning strategies. In A. D. Cohen & E. Macaro (eds.), Oxford: Oxford University Press. Schmidt, R. (1990). The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning. , 11 (2): 129-58. Taka , V. P. (2008). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.


Appendix A












Appendix B


Appendix C




Appendix D


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