Response to Singleton (1997): Learning and Processing L2 Vocabulary

This post is from a course that I took. I had to make blog posts for the course and I decided to move the posts over here when the course finished.

Singleton, D. (1997). Learning and processing L2 vocabulary. Language Teaching, 30(4), 213-25.

I am currently teaching an after-school program that is meant to help non-native English speaking elementary school students improve their English vocabulary. I found the Singleton article quite interesting, although I would have appreciated a few more specific examples of pedagogical interventions. Here is what I understood from this article.

At the “sound” level: Focus on Form
Students should be encouraged to rehearse and repeat new words so they can develop an accurate internal representation of the words. They should be encouraged to focus on the form of the words — the sounds of the letters, the spelling, the presence of consonant or vowel blends, silent letters, etc. — as much as the meaning.

At the “word” level: Use Mental Imagery
Students should be encouraged to make visual representations of the words they learn. This could include making “mind maps” that show a new word in the middle and then branches showing words with similar meanings, words with similar spellings, words with the same root, definitions, words that sound similar, etc. By articulating (either verbally or in written form) their understanding of a word and how it is connected to other words, students can not only cement that word in their minds, but also develop a more complex understanding of how words work in general.

At the “sentence” level: Context is King
Words should be taught in a meaningful context, not in isolation. This means that, at the very least, new vocabulary words should be presented as embedded in phrases or sentences, or students should be taught to make note of words embedded in such a way. Students should also be encouraged to make active use of contextual cues in understanding words. For example, encouraging students to guess what a word might mean before going to look up the word in a dictionary is thought to increase students’ ability to acquire new words.

At the “language” level: Make Use of Other Languages
Students should not be discouraged from making links between languages. It can be quite a valuable exercise for students to notice — on a metalinguistic or metacognitive level — the similarities and differences of Japanese and English, for example. If a student notices that a particular word has slightly different meanings in English and Japanese (such as “game” and ゲーム), or that there is a word in Japanese that doesn’t have a good equivalent in English (such as “yoroshiku”), it is good to talk about that, and also to talk about why that might be the case (this is the “meta” part — using language to talk about language). Getting students to notice that languages do not match up with each other on a 1:1 basis is very important and can help them realize the value in pursuing more knowledge of both languages. Developing metalinguistic skills also helps students learn even more languages.

These are all good suggestions, but I know that it can be hard to figure out the balance between teaching vocabulary and teaching content in classes like Science or Social Studies. Of course, we need to do both, and teaching vocabulary in context is important, as Singleton indicated in this article, but I think it can be difficult for teachers to know how much time to spend on vocabulary enrichment. Also, I think all teachers should consider themselves language teachers, but I know that not all teachers agree with that idea.