>Reverse engineering vocabulary learning

>We hear a lot of advice about how to teach vocabulary, how to bring the mass of vocabulary to the student so the student has the right word when she needs it. But instead of looking at it from the mass to the useful word, let us look at it from the useful word to the mass. In other words, how did that student actually acquire that word?…a sort of lexical forensics, if you will.

I have been pondering the CET4 English test used in China. This is the most important English test in China and it’s hard for Chinese to claim they know any useful amount of English if they haven’t passed this test. (Following this test is the CET6 and CET8). I’m looking at an official sample test right now and have chosen a question at random to study. This is one line in a long paragraph and we know it’s talking about home care for someone who is ill. This is a cloze test question and it goes like this:

The responsible one in the home ___ on with the rest of the care during the _interval_ between the nurse’s visits.

(a) works (b) carries (c) looks (d) depends

The answer is “carries”.

Now the question is, how did the student come to choose that word? What was the learning process that enabled that student to correctly choose that word over the others? Were those words in a vocabulary lesson? Were those words on the student’s vocabulary list of words to memorize? How did our student acquire those words to be able to answer the question correctly? How did the student know she cannot say “…WORKS on with…” That sounds almost possible. How exactly did the student know it is impossible? What lesson was given to the student on this?

If we take a look at the correct word we can see in the American Heritage Dictionary there are many definitions or usages for the word “carry” plus six phrasal verbs with multiple uses as well, these being:

carry off-2
carry out-3
carry over-7
carry a (or the) torch-1
carry the ball-1
carry the day-1


carry on-4
To conduct; maintain: carry on a thriving business.
To engage in: carry on a love affair.
To continue without halting; persevere: carry on in the face of disaster. To behave in an excited, improper, or silly manner.

This makes a total of 64. Certainly, our student did not need to know every usage of “carry” to be able to choose it as the correct answer. But the student had to learn many of them. And how did she learn them, did the teacher teach them to the student?

My suspicion is that our student has not had English lessons in the multiple uses of the word “carry” that enabled her to answer correctly. Perhaps the student never had any lesson on the word “carry”. I believe that once an elementary vocabulary has been reached, the vast bulk of learning takes place indirectly through vast amounts of input as suggested by Krashen in his theory of “Comprehensible Input”.

>Coaching for retention

>”I have an intermediate ESL class in a community based adult ed setting. Although the class is offered twice a week, most can only come once or they start off with regular attendance and then disappear. I have heard of this in all kinds of settings, materials, teachers, languages, public and private instruction. Does the number of students have anything to do with it ? I will only offer once a week next semester but I’m also thinking of more practice to be done at home. Does anyone have any advice?”

You’re right, this is a problem in lots of schools and training centers where the student is required to attend for some certificate or degree. But in those cases, the student may not be attending out of interest but just out of paper necessity. I think in a long-term corporate training program that it is easy to have a drop out rate of about 50%.

There are a lot of reason for this. They can range from the teacher’s skills and relationship with the students, the students perception concerning the effectiveness of the course, students’ personal problems and many others.

While we are beginning to see the limits of traditional classroom teaching we are presented with opportunities to make use of technologies to solve these problems, and the technology may be as simple as a telephone.

Sometimes, by benchmarking ourselves to other industries, we can adopt their solutions to similar problems. We could get some ideas from the Open University and fitness centers.

Open University has done a lot of research into this. Nearly all their training is distance and it is easy for students to drop out. They found that regular phone calls and feedback from the instructor reduced drop out significantly. [below I’ll put some links]

There are many other areas where drop out or attrition is an issue. About a year ago I saw a 60-Minutes program once where a company boss was trying to help his employees get healthier to the company’s reduce insurance premiums. The employees agreed to a fitness program. We all know how easy it is to NOT exercise, so he had someone calling employees as a friendly reminder and to check up on them on how they were doing on the program.

I have always wondered how that worked and if it would work for our kind of teaching. I’ve been researching the subject for about a year and have come across a couple helpful things.

There is a company called “Fitness By Phone” which coaches people by phone. If you are interested in the possibilities of such a method, I suggest you go to the website below and explore all the news articles written about this company. From the articles you can piece together the technique.


It seemed one of the main ways they coached their clients was by working out an exercise plan and then checking up on them if they followed the plan and talking through any issues involved in following the plan and hitting targets.

Supposedly, Stanford University has researched this sort of coaching as a way to reduce hospital visits by patients who have a difficult time to go to the hospital. This is a research paper by Stanford although I find it curious that I’m unable to locate this paper anywhere but the websites of several fitness centers. Nonetheless, it provides many useful ideas.


Of course, these ideas are not going to help every case. Our target, as teachers, will have to be to reduce attrition even if we can’t eliminate it.

1. Proactive contact from the Institution: retention issues: Recent research within the Open University and elsewhere has demonstrated the importance of telephone contact in student induction, retention and performance on course. Read all about it: http://www.eurodl.org/materials/contrib/2004/Gaskell_Mills.htm

2. Here is a paper called: Persistence in Distance Education. It covers “Studies of students’ reasons for dropout”, “Student profile studies” and “Implications for institutional intervention”. Find it at: http://www1.worldbank.org/disted/Teaching/Design/kn-01.html

>Reducing attrition by triage, concern, variety, assessment

>We can borrow some ideas from military medicine. I first got interested in this when I found out that banks, brokerages, telcos and insurance companies were using it to retain customers.

Triage[1] a system the military uses to judge how serious injuries are and to prioritize treatments. Companies adapted[2] triage to use in their data mining systems to highlight customers who seemed to be taking actions to leave the company. They determined some events and conditions that would take place that might indicate the customer was not going to stay. When they spot this they will approach the customer with special offers or discounts to retain them.

How could this be applied to our retention efforts?

A very simple idea would be to call a student when he/she missed class. Just say Hello and show your concern if the student is ill or whatever. This will help the student feel closer.


If two classes in a row are missed this could be the first step towards dropping out. You could call the student to just see how things are going and how does the student feel about the lessons. Of course, when there are three absences in a row then this may be a clearer indication of the student dropping out and the teacher should check to see if something is happening.

A student’s “suggestions” are sometimes complaints. All the time the teacher should be listening to the students to see if the students feel the lessons are meeting their needs and if they are satisfied. Sometimes the lessons are perfect for the students but the students don’t know it. In this case, the teacher may need to explain more, do more salesmanship for the reason of the approach, materials, etc.


Sometimes it is easy for students to not “feel” they are progressing. If they feel they are not making progress it makes it much easier for them to decide to quit. If they feel they are making progress they are more inclined to solve any external problems that may hinder their attendance. Language acquisition is so incremental that many students don’t notice it. It’s like my children. I can’t see them growing day-by-day but I’m pretty sure they are.

I think it is interesting how Cambridge Interchange 3 (formerly New Interchange) has added a very short two-page “Self-Assessment” after every two units. This assessment has six questions on the things that the student had learned in the previous two units.

For example, Book Two for Unit 3-4 asks, How well can you do these things? Very well, OK, A little: Ask and answer questions about prices. Give opinions using adjectives. Talk about preferences and make comparisons with adjectives. Etc.

The student makes a self-assessment on these points. The following these six questions are exercises on each of these points. The student can go through the exercises and see how well he/she does and what, if anything, needs further explanation. This way students can see exactly what they are learning and exactly how they are making progress.


Sometimes the students have a legitimate need. They want more variety, a couple games thrown in to spice things up and make them a bit more fun, more or less homework, etc.

There may be domestic or professional pressures making it difficult for the student to attend. Perhaps a change in the schedule or greater flexibility in the schedule can help.

[1] Dictionary definition: “Triage is a system employed in military medicine for the evaluation and classification of casualties. Its primary purpose is to categorize the wounded for treatment and further evacuation where necessary. In effect, triage consists of two main elements. First, the immediate sorting of casualties according to the nature and seriousness of their wounds and the likelihood of their ability to survive them, with or without intervention and with consideration of the available resources. Second, the establishment of priorities for treatment and subsequent evacuation, in order that medical care is provided for the greatest benefit of the largest number of casualties.”

[2] http://www.intelligententerprise.com/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=189600083

>Some things to NOT teach

>It is not only important for us to know what to teach but we also must know what NOT to teach.

Our time with our students is limited. So we should definitely focus on what English will benefit our students the most in the period during and shortly after our training.

I’ve met teachers who say that someday the student may need a certain bit of obscure English or English skill. The problem is that it is likely that the student will forget it before he has a chance to use it. In that case, all of the teacher’s and the student’s time and effort is wasted.

This is the case with a friend of mine who came to China to learn Chinese. After three years of intense study at the university followed by three more years of living and working in China, she discovered she had forgotten one year of the words she had learned during her training. Because she was living and working in China and very actively used her Chinese, the only way she could forget them was that she didn’t need them. She wasted one year of her life learning what she didn’t need.

I think if teachers were paid by what English their students remember and are using one year after their training then many teachers would teach quite differently than they do today.

>Still more on error correction

>On the TESL-L mailing list, a teacher asked the question below about error correction. As it seems to be something we’re interested in, I’m including my reply. – dk

“I,m an English teacher in China. I’m teaching 2 classes with 56 students each. When I teach writing, I’ll use differnt methods to encourage my students to write about their own ideas. To my joy, they like writing very much though it is hard work. However, I find it very difficult for me to correct their errors. I know fluency is more important, but it dosn’t mean we can ignore accuracy. Error correcting will take lots of time and energy, and the students don’t want to see their composition after I correect errors. Is there anybody who can help me use a kind of more efficient method?”

This is a common problem faced by many writing teachers. We could say it is even a trap because teachers feel obligated to this idea of correcting everything.


John Truscott famously or infamously, depending on what side of the debate you are standing on, has brought up research[1] indicating that grammar correction doesn’t really help students at all. So, generally speaking, all time spent at correcting is time wasted.

Truscott is in the same vein of English learning as Krashen. Indeed, Krashen has referred to Truscott’s research[2]. In this direction of English learning it is understood that students learn from indirect ways of teaching, things like Extensive Reading, that the students will absorb the language through massive exposure to it at a difficulty level of i+1.

After studying Truscott’s paper, and even organizing a virtual seminar for him on the TEFL-China list[3] where we interviewed him for a week, I began to pay closer attention to how my students responded to corrections.

Personally, from observing my students carefully, I’ve seen that my students do respond to some corrections.

But to be effective in this area, we have to understand some things first.


Our students cannot have a lesson, or even a correction, and simply “know” it. They only begin to know it. All learning in an area as complex as language takes a lot of time and repetition.

Choose your targets. Don’t try to correct everything. Correct what you think will be easiest for them to learn, that they are ready to learn. Remember, it is more like teaching a baby how to walk than teaching the fine points of running to an Olympic athlete. Teach only what can be learned or you are wasting your time and frustrating your student.

When you read over the papers, understand that this is the whole class speaking to you. Through their errors they are telling you what they need to be taught. In this way you can respond and give your class exactly what they need.

Group the corrections. Choose the Top 5 errors the students were making in their papers and show them how to do it correctly. Of course, some students may have not made those errors on the paper they submitted to you. But if they didn’t make this error this time they may make it next time so teach it to all of them. Even if they know, more or less, how not to make that error, such instruction will strengthen their understanding. As mentioned before, students begin to know something and slowly understand it better and better.


Do your own research. If you want to see how responsive the students are to correction, after you have taught them the 5 main errors and how to avoid them, ask the students to return their papers to you and ask them to rewrite the assignment. Collect those papers and check them. You’ll find that most of them will not repeat those errors, that they have learned from the correction. About two weeks or a month later, ask them to write the very same assignment yet again. You will find that a lot of the students will not make the same errors although many may have forgotten your correction lesson and are slipping again.


Beware of the hurried writer. This guy really wastes so much teacher time. He’s the guy who forgot the homework and before the homework is to be handed in just dashes off a quick paper. He makes a lot of mistakes that, if he took his time, he would not have made. He knows they are errors but they were errors made in haste. But he doesn’t mind and he wants his paper to be corrected. The problem is, it takes your precious time to read his paper and deal with these errors. I refuse to check any papers unless the student has made it as perfect as he possibly can. Only then can I really help a student with what he doesn’t know. Check the paper for really basic errors, simple words misspelled, obvious grammar mistakes. If you find such things, hand the paper back to the student and tell him to correct it himself until he thinks it is perfect. If you find someone hastily finishing a writing assignment make sure you don’t accept it. If he doesn’t have time to try to write it well, you don’t have time to try to correct it.

[1] http://frenchgateway.coh.arizona.edu/F05/FREN579/truscott_grammar_writing.pdf
Also, see his webpage at his university:
Here you’ll find the grammar paper plus lots of other aspects of his research into correction.

[2] http://sdkrashen.com/pipermail/krashen_sdkrashen.com/2005-April/000102.html

[3] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/teflchina
This is a group of about 900 English teachers in China or involved with teaching Chinese students. If you are a teacher in China you certainly would benefit from joining this list.

>Correction or Teamwriting?

>Self-correction, except for typos or some “absent-minded” errors, is very difficult for students because if they knew it was wrong they wouldn’t have done it in the first place. Peer-correction isn’t fun and it is difficult for students to fully trust their partner’s evaluation. The question that puzzles many teachers is what is the best way to help students to improve in areas where they make a lot of mistakes?

The obvious answer is teacher-correction. But is teacher-correction effective? Recent research shows that students do not make effective use of teacher-correction. The teacher would like to imagine the student takes his corrected paper to a quite place, sits down and pulls out a dictionary and grammar book and carefully goes over the corrections. But in fact, most students only check to see how much “red” is on the paper and then file it away in their book bag never to be looked at again. Much of the teacher’s laborious work of careful correction is actually time wasted.

If self-correction, peer-correction and teacher-correction are not effective, then what is the best way to involve the student in the writing process in a corrective way? How can the student be put in a position to notice grammar or writing in a way that interacts with his previous knowledge and develops a deeper and clearer grasp of English?

I have been doing research in a new method I developed at a university and at multinational businesses where I taught managers and businessmen. I call it Teamwriting. It helps students to benefit from peers, helps students to learn not only from their mistakes but from the mistakes of others and makes the most economical and efficient use of the students’ and the teacher’s time.

I divide the blackboard space into vertical sections large enough to allow someone to stand in front of one section and large enough to contain the writing task (about one-meter wide). Then I divide the class into pairs or teams, assigning each set of students to a part of the board.

The writing tasks are everything from brainstorming a subject to writing a paragraph to writing an essay (write small). This works quite well with a class of about 20 but I’ve only been able to do it with a class of 40 when we had blackboards on two walls of the classroom.

Sometimes each group gets a different topic to work on or sometimes it is the same and they compete with the other groups. I get the whole class out of their seats and up to the board. Usually one student will take up the chalk while the rest of the team (from one to three others) offers suggestions and corrections during the writing process. I find this gets the students intimately involved with the language process and able to benefit from the help of some of their classmates – thus the peer-learning factor.

After the writing is done, usually terminated by a set period of time, I will examine each writing sample, one-by-one, with the entire class looking on. First, I will ask the class to offer corrections. The class really focuses on this activity. You can see every eye examining the sample trying to see if it is correct or not. Some speak up. Others may have ideas about the writing even though they may not voice them. But they’re all involved. Then I will offer my corrections, if any.

Some of my classrooms are equipped with AV equipment, essentially a video camera and projector, which allow the projection of books or papers. If the classroom has this sort of equipment the students do not need to write at the blackboard but can do their teamwriting on a piece of paper that the teacher can project and correct before the class.

Teamwriting seems to be more effective than personally correcting individual writings or conferencing with students, and especially so when considering the economy of time. It allows every student to test their ideas about the language, it enables immediate feedback and is a quick, easy and engaging way to “learn from the mistakes of others”.