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Semantic sets and interference
In 1993, Thomas Tinkham investigated the effect of learning new words under two conditions. One group received a list of words belonging to the same semantic set while the other was given random, semantically unrelated words. Tinkham revealed that list-learning of unrelated words yielded better results as the second group performed significantly better when they were asked to recalled the target words. A few years later, Rob Waring (1997) replicated the experiment with two groups of Japanese learners of English and confirmed the results. More recently, Erten and Tekin (2008) in their study of 60 Turkish 4th graders, found the same negative effect on recall and learning when new words were grouped according to semantic categories.
The results of these studies are usually interpreted in the light of Interference theory which states that similarity between the items learned at the same time hinders learning and retention. In vocabulary teaching it means that when words learned at the same time are closely related or share common characteristics they will interfere with each other. You have probably observed the phenomenon of learners remembering the words they have learned (or, rather, their forms: how a word is spelled or pronounced) and the meanings but confusing which word goes with each meaning.
However, there are other reasons why learning lists of semantically related words is counter-productive. Presenting words in such lists, related by virtue of their belonging to the same superordinate category (shirt, skirt, trousers - CLOTHES), doesn’t give the learner much information about how the words in a list should be used. The same is true of other paradigmatic (vertical) relationships, such as synonyms and antonyms. (See my post on paradigmatic and syntagmatic relationships HERE).
Semantic sets in coursebooks
Despite the above arguments, coursebooks – especially at elementary levels – still organize new vocabulary in semantic lists. What can teachers do to counter-balance the negative effect of semantic clustering? This is the question we tried to answer with two groups of Primary school teachers I’ve been working with this year on an INSET course in vocabulary teaching. We started by brainstorming kinds of vocabulary items that are commonly presented in coursebooks in lists and came up with the following categories:
We then looked at how we can teach new vocabulary horizontally instead of presenting vertical lists, i.e. how to teach new words with the words they are likely to go with (co-text) rather than with other words sharing the same superordinate concept. Colours seemed to be an easy category to start with.
Instead of teaching a list of, say, six colours, it would be more effective to focus on just three at a time and present these alongside the nouns they can go with, i.e. adjective + noun collocations.
red dress or flower
followed by another three in the following lesson:
We felt that white snow perhaps may not have immediate relevance for primary school pupils in a hot Mediterranean country, so white clouds was suggested instead. White clouds can also combine with blue sky (white clouds in the blue sky) providing the learner with immediately useable language for describing, for example, a picture of a landscape. Note also how alliterative patterns in red dress and green grass can serve as mnemonic devices which have been shown to facilitate learning (Boers & Lindstromberg 2005)
Colours can also combine easily with animals, especially if you use the Brown Bear story.
Here, it is advisable not to teach the whole story to children but introduce 3-4 animals (with their colours) at a time.
Brown Bear, Red Bird, Yellow Duck in the first lesson, and then gradually add other colour+animal combinations:
Blue Horse, Green Frog, Purple Cat, White Dog, Black Sheep etc.
Clothes was not an easy category to convert into “horizontal” teaching. The following pattern came to mind:
STUDENT NAME is wearing
This is clearly a step in the right direction as here we provide also a useful grammatical structure the new words can be slotted in but a semantic list still remains a long list.
Again, an alternative can be combining words for clothes with colours using the items of clothing your students are wearing and presenting them in the same incremental fashion (three at a time) as colours + animals combinations.
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Have you got a(n) … / Do you have a(n) … ?
or – depending on the level of the learner -
Can I use your …?
Can I borrow your …?
There are many ways these can be extended horizontally, for example:
I always take the bus to school / I go to school by bus
In this video Herbert Puchta teaches new words and provides collocations for them using Total Physical Response (TPR)
Similar action stories can be created with:
get on/off the bus/train/planedrive a car/vanride a bike
This group often has cognates (=words that are the same across languages) such as pizza and hamburger. Some patterns that food items can be taught with are the following:
These patterns also helps relate names of different foods to meals they are likely to be eaten for, thus creating mental associations between words. For example, eggs for breakfast, pasta for supper
Hania Kryzsewska in her article Chunking for Beginners suggests teaching different food names with countries they come from. By the way, countries are another category which tends to be presented in lists. Hania’s horizontal alternatives would look something like this:
Tea from China
Pizza from Italy
Wine from France
Football from Brazil
Cars from Germany
Kangaroos from Australia
Kangaroos from Australia
Note that the list contains not only names of food but other unrelated items.
I hope the above suggestions help you add a “horizontal” aspect to your vocabulary teaching. I would like to thank my course participants for their contributions and ideas, and generally being lovely groups to work with. I hope you learned from the course as much as I learned from you!
For more suggestions on alternatives to vertical lists, see Andrew Walkley’s posts The problems of lexical sets and some alterative approaches and Developing Lexical Sets
Boers, F., & Lindstromberg, S. (2005). Finding ways to make phrase-learning feasible: The mnemonic effect of alliteration. System, 33(2), 225–238
Erten, İ. H., & Tekin, M. (2008). Effects on vocabulary acquisition of presenting new words in semantic sets versus semantically unrelated sets. System, 36(3), 407–422
Tinkham, T. (1993). The effect of semantic clustering on the learning of second language vocabulary. System, 21(3), 371–380
Waring, R. (1997). The negative effects of learning words in semantic sets: A replication. System, 25(2), 261–274