Vocabulary is in general not fun. It mainly deals with rote memorization of words with little context or use in everyday conversation. For learners of English as a second or other language, many of the vocabulary words presented for study, especially as they reach intermediate and advanced stages of L2 acquisition, have little to no relevance to their language use. This is especially true for students who participate in courses designed for test preparation. In my case, I am responsible for TOEIC test preparation for high school students looking to enroll into universities that use the test as a proficiency check.
Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) is especially popular in Japan and South Korea, and focuses on context derived from business encounters. I have been particularly interested in the effects the class (and in some ways the test) has on students’ motivation towards the L2 as they move through the year-long course, but I have also taken interest in how to best study vocabulary. Many publications print out vocabulary lists based on levels students want to achieve. What I have found is that none of these authors can really tell you which vocabulary will be used on the test. ETS has a published book of common vocabulary that I rely on for my lists. The challenge now is what to engage the students (or rather to get the students to engage themselves) into not only studying these vocabulary, but also how to use and manipulate them.
Two years ago I began experimenting with Quizlet, an online service that digitizes study cards for not only you to see wherever you go with your smartphone or tablet, but also to share with others, either within a class or with the world. Prior to trying Quizlet, students were assigned sections of a vocabulary list and assigned to fill out a form for each word, then copies of these forms were made for other students in the class. A lot of paper and very time consuming. Though the pair forms still exist, students can now transfer their work to Quizlet for others to see. For, that solved one problem of peer-to-peer collaboration, and also reduced my time at the photo copier. But now, how to engage with it?
This year I experimented with group game/activity. I brought in iPads, 1 for every 4 students, and engaged in a gameshow-like activity. On the board were categories:
- Example sentence
- Word families (changing the word into different parts of speech)
- similar sounding words
Students as a class decided the point value of each category based on what they felt which categories were easier or more difficult than the others (more difficult gave higher point value). The iPads were used as an answer board using one of the many Whiteboard apps available. Each group took turns deciding a category while the teacher decided on the word. Students could use Quizlet on their smartphones to review the word that was chosen. The feedback on the activity was positive and provided a ‘fun’ time for the class.
Though this activity is one to hold on to, I still ponder on its effectiveness in vocabulary intake. Surely it allows students to converse on the chosen words, creating valuable dialog, but it is difficult to understand if these dialogs support vocabulary intake or not. What I do know is that Quizlet itself is a game-changer, with one student, in an evaluation she wrote for the class, stated that Quizlet was useful for her, but would like to see it used in class more.
So the search is on. In the meantime, promoting to take full advantage of Quizlet and its many study activities is a priority, with the iPads coming out more often for group dialog on individual words is on the table.