Paul Nation and Lynn Bonesteel on vocabulary

• On November 4, I attended a webinar on vocabulary teaching led by Paul Nation and Lynn Bonesteel, authors of the Real Reading series. Their approach to vocabulary instruction seemed to me an admirable combination of common sense and respect for research.

• Common sense is shown by their advocacy of traditional methods such as the use of dictionaries and word cards. The fact that a method is well known does not mean, of course, that nothing fresh and interesting can be said about it and the authors of Real Reading do have worthwhile things to say about the techniques they recommend. On the subject of dictionary use, for example, they stress that students should be encouraged to go beyond merely using a dictionary to look up any unfamiliar words they encounter. They should also use their dictionaries systematically, as tools for extending and deepening their exposure to the words they are studying. They can do this, for example, by carefully noting all the meanings given in a particular entry — or by looking through adjacent entries for other words which are based on the same stem and in that way getting a grasp of the core meaning of a particular morpheme.

• Nation and Bonesteel’s respect for research was evident at several points in their webinar — most strikingly perhaps in their reference to an “uninformed prejudice” against the use of word cards (i.e. “flash cards”). They insist that, despite being unfashionable, word cards are an effective method of learning and retaining vocabulary, and they back up this contention by a reference to a 2007 article by Steinel, Hulstijn and Steinel. At another point, they appeal to Nation’s own work to show that an approach that might be thought to be common-sensical — studying vocabulary with the help of lists of antonyms and synonyms — actually hinders learning because the closely related words “interfere” with one another. (Interestingly, they go on to suggest that a better way of selecting intems for a vocabulary list might be to choose words that naturally suggest a story.)

• Toward the end of the webinar, Nation and Bonesteel touch on a weightier theoretical matter: the “Involvement Load Hypothesis” of Laufer and Hulstijn. According to this theory, the best vocabulary-learning exercises satisfy three criteria: they create a temporary need for the words being studied; they require that the words be searched for in some way; and that they be evaluated with respect to other words.