>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-45
carry off-2
carry out-3
carry over-7
carry a (or the) torch-1
carry the ball-1
carry the day-1

And…

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”.

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