THE STATUS OF VOCABULARY IN THE CURRICULUM
Opracowanie: MARIA NOWAK, nauczyciel języka angielskiego SP 38 w Bydgoszczy
For many years vocabulary was seen as incidental to the main purpose of language teaching, namely the acquisition of grammar knowledge about language. Programs that prepared language teachers gave little attention to techniques for helping students learn vocabulary. Some books appeared to be telling that students could learn all the words they needed without help.
What is more, teachers were sometimes told that that they ought not to teach many words before their students had mastered the grammar and sound system of the language. In fact, vocabulary was seldom mentioned in journal articles for teachers. Grammar and pronunciation were emphasized instead. Allen (1983:3) gives three reasons for the general neglecting of vocabulary in programs that prepared teachers:
1. Many who prepared teachers felt that grammar should be emphasized more than vocabulary, because vocabulary was already being given too much time in language classrooms.
2. Specialists in methodology feared students would make mistakes in sentence construction if too many words were learned before the basic grammar had been mastered. Consequently, teachers were led to believe it was best not to teach much vocabulary.
3. Some who gave advice to teachers seemed to be saying that word meanings can be learned only through experience, that they cannot be adequately taught in a classroom. As a result, little attention was directed to techniques for vocabulary teaching.
The low status of vocabulary study and vocabulary teaching was in large part due to language teaching approaches based on American linguistic theories that had been dominant throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. For a long time, grammatical structures took priority over vocabulary in teaching approaches such as the Direct and Audio-Lingual Methods. In order not to distract from the learning of the structures, the number of introduced words was rather low. Vocabulary was subordinated to the teaching of grammar structures. Words were simply there to fill the slots in the sentence pattern.
Since 1970s the status of vocabulary has been considerably enhanced. This resulted from the development of not only the communicative approaches to language teaching such as, for example, Communicative Language Teaching but also comprehension-based methods called the Natural Approach. The first approach has its roots in the idea that the goal of language learning is to become communicatively competent, use appropriate language for social context and negotiate meaning. The Natural Approach is a product of Stephen Krashen, an applied linguist at the University of Southern California, and Tracy Terrell, a teacher of Spanish in California. Krashen’s work on second language acquisition and Terrell’s teaching experience form the bases of the Natural Approach. Krashen claims that focus of the language is firmly on words and their meanings rather than forms and that the way the child gains grammatical forms is a subconscious acquisition through years. Advocates of communicative and natural approaches point out that “in the early stages of learning and using a second language one is better served by vocabulary than grammar, and that one can, in effect, ‘bypass’ grammar in going for meaning if one has a reasonable vocabulary base”. (Nunan, 1995:117). In other words, the early development of extensive vocabulary makes learners more competent. If one, in early stages of learning, has a wide vocabulary, it is possible to obtain meaning from spoken or written texts, even though one doesn’t know grammatical structures in which the texts are encoded.
Teachers have never doubted the value of learning vocabulary. They know how communication stops when learners lack the necessary words. Interestingly, learners themselves have never questioned the importance of vocabulary. Those who live in a foreign country and who strive to function in the target language, find how important the knowledge of words is. In the best classes, neither grammar nor vocabulary is neglected. Nowadays professional journals and teachers’ meetings often reflect the current concern for more effective vocabulary teaching nor in language teaching.
These days much more attention is given to the grammar of words, collocations and word frequency. Most contemporary course books incorporate a lexical syllabus alongside the grammar one. For example, the back cover of Cutting Edge Intermediate claims “Strong emphasis on vocabulary, with a particular focus on high frequency, useful words and phrases” or Innovations’ back cover states “…a strongly lexical syllabus, presenting and practicing hundreds of natural expressions which students will find immediately useful”. There in a wide range of dictionaries available for learners, many of which come with sophisticated software for accessing databases of examples and collocations. After decades of neglect, lexis is recognized as central to any language acquisition process, native or non-native. It is openly stated that a solid vocabulary is necessary in every stage of language learning.