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Friday, May 22, 2015

Differences in English Vocabulary Instruction

Teaching at a Viennese School, I noticed various differences (and similarities) in how English vocabulary words are taught. Teachers in Vienna incorporated clear and explicit vocabulary instruction in their English lessons. Expanding students’ vocabulary knowledge, although time-consuming, is absolutely critical to their developing of English proficiency. Vocabulary knowledge allows students to feel comfortable both conversationally and academically in foreign languages. The more words students know, the stronger their language proficiency becomes. For these reasons, it is not surprising that teaching vocabulary words is prevalent in most English lessons at the Viennese elementary school. Teachers not only repeat newly and previously learned vocabulary words, but they ensure that everyone knows their meanings by asking students to state the German equivalents. For example, while reading a short English text about a family working on farm, the third grade teacher read the sentences out loud with her students. Then, they would stop and identify new words/expressions in the text, such as “check” and “What’s happening?” The teacher had the students repeat the words. Then, they reviewed the words’ meanings in German. Since the students had already developed literacy skills, this type of vocabulary instruction occurred frequently during third grade English lessons. When I arrived in Vienna, I was asked to teach students new words based on various lesson topics. One week while talking about beaches, I introduced the words sand, sun, waves and ocean. I created a beach vocabulary sheet with the new words written in large letters and accompanied by colored pictures to help students visualize the words’ meanings. We practiced the pronunciation of the words, discussed what some words looked or felt like, thought about the meaning of the word in German, and looked at the pictures together. Most of the students at this school in Vienna are at early stages of their English language proficiency, therefore, introducing, repeating and highlighting common English vocabulary words is important to their language development.

In Massachusetts this type of clear and explicit vocabulary instruction can also be observed. As stated before, extensive vocabulary knowledge is critical in developing students’ conversational and comprehension skills. In Massachusetts, however, I have noticed a variety of different ways that vocabulary is introduced or practiced. Teachers often show pictures that represent new words before introducing the words. This gives students a chance to think about what the image means to them. Then, when the English vocabulary is introduced they already have a visual of the word’s meaning. New vocabulary is almost always accompanied with photos, especially in the younger grades.  Although I included visuals in all of my lessons in Vienna, I did not observe the teachers doing the same. In Massachusetts teachers will also have students come up with their own definitions of new words. For example, in one lesson at a public school in Boston, my teacher introduced the word “hiking” to her English Language Learners. She wrote the word on the board for everyone to see, but rather than telling the students immediately what it meant, she showed them a video of someone hiking and asked the students to create their own definition. Although the students were too young to write themselves, they shared ideas about the act of hiking and the teacher helped them combine their ideas into one definition. She wrote this definition on the board and repeated it several times. This elaborate vocabulary instruction helped students recall the word later on because they remembered the video and their self-constructed definition. Group construction and analysis of English words and expressions is quite common in Massachusetts’s classrooms with English Language Learners. It is interesting to notice how frequently Austrian teachers will state an English word and then say the word in German. Since most students in Viennese classrooms are native German speakers, this method makes sense. However, in most American schools students have a wide range of native languages, the most common being Spanish. Because of this, the technique of stating English words and then the same word in students’ native language doesn’t quite work. Despite some differences in vocabulary instruction, it is clear that both American and Austrian educators recognize the value and importance of developing students’ English vocabulary knowledge.

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