Increasing advanced students’ lexical range

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In my last post, inspired by Jim Scrivener’s talk about Demand High teaching, I wrote about asking more of advanced students when we give feedback. I suggested that in spoken fluency tasks, when teachers tend not to want to intervene, delayed, detailed feedback is probably the most appropriate way of tackling inaccurate output. However, giving delayed feedback doesn’t address the issue of improving students’ lexical range. In other words, feedback alone doesn’t encourage students to ‘notice the gap’ (see Jane Willis on Task Based Learning) between their current lexical or grammatical resource and the wider range of more sophisticated language and discourse strategies that a more proficient speaker can produce.
Encouraging students to notice new items of language is not just a case of exposure, of course. As we all know, it’s perfectly possible for students to complete, for example, a cloze exercise in the coursebook without paying any attention to the useful, exam-appropriate collocations that pepper the text they are working on. Equally, if I provide my post -FCE students with some sophisticated language to use in part 2 of a Cambridge Advanced speaking task they quite often won’t use it. And why should they? After all, in the cloze task, their attention is directed towards completing the task. And in the speaking part 2, all of their efforts and focus are on comparing three pictures and answering the interlocutor’s questions. If they need to, they have the means to paraphrase when they don’t know a word.
As Roy Norris intimated in his talk  Vocabulary for Advanced, it is the teacher’s job to re-direct the students’ attention to potentially useful language in a text. Rather than allowing them to skip onto the next exercise, it’s worth pausing ‘progress’ through the book in order to mine a text originally created as a cloze or word building task for gems of language. Norris pointed out that collocations are very generative in terms of enriching students’ lexical range and intensifiers, in particular, were worthy of focus. He then went on to illustrate his point very effectively by getting the audience to notice the range of collocations in an authentic text.
But what if students don’t have a lexically rich text to mine? In the case of speaking tasks for exams, the coursebook often provides a spoken model of a proficient student doing the task, but more often than not, this gives students with an idea of how to complete the task rather than a choice of interesting language to repurpose for their own means. Norris recognised this and pointed his audience towards SkELL (the Sketch English for Language Learning) a *free* resource which I’ve found very useful when researching language to expose my advanced students to.
SkELL (http://skell.sketchengine.co.uk/run.cgi/skell) is essentially a user-friendly web-based tool which allows busy teachers to access and make sense of a range of corpora. When you search for a particular word, it organises the results in three ways: 1) by concordance – for any given word or phrase, researchers get 40 example sentences for any word or phrase they search for. 2) by collocation – below are the results I obtained when I put in the word advanced. 3) by synonyms. The above word sketch include close synonyms of the word advanced.

Untitled

SkELL, I would argue, is more useful as a teacher’s research resource than a classroom tool. For reasons of time and practicality, it’s not advisable to encourage Advanced students to engage directly with the tool itself.
As mentioned above, it’s not necessarily enough to expose students to the words you select. An important stage in the vocabulary learning process is when students engage with the language in some way; by manipulating it and/or personalising it. In the case of the below speaking activity, students are encouraged to ask and answer questions featuring the target vocabulary selected from SkELL. This serves a number of aims: firstly, it gets students to notice the target language. Secondly, it translates receptive knowledge of the written form of a lexical item into productive knowledge of the spoken form, which is, according to Penny Ur, an essential stage in learning a lexical item1 and besides, seems appropriate for a class preparing for the speaking paper in Cambridge Advanced. Thirdly, it bridges the gap between exposure to the language and a freer speaking task in which the opportunity to use the word may or may not come up. Penny Ur points out that this focused practice (and regular revision) of new lexical items is particularly important with advanced level students:
“the problem of providing for such re-encounters gets more and more acute as the students’ level rises and new items become less and less commonly used.”
The speaking task below was written in the hope that it would bridge the lexical gap between exposing students to the underlined collocations and a part 3 Cambridge Advanced speaking task which required students to speculate on the most common causes of stress and the best ways of dealing with them.

Speaking task:

Work in pairs.  Take turns to ask and answer these questions with your partner.
• Have you ever experienced a stressful situation?
• Why might giving a presentation be a stressful ordeal?
• What would you consider to be a stressful environment to work in?
• What is a particularly stressful condition to suffer, in your opinion?
• Name five stressful jobs or occupations.
• In your opinion, is sitting an exam a stressful task? Why?
• When was the last time you experienced a stressful encounter with someone?
• How would you describe a stressful lifestyle?
• Do your parents have a stressful commute to work?

Conclusion

Even if advanced students, such as my own, are fortunate enough to be immersed in an English speaking environment, it is unlikely that they will come across sufficiently sophisticated vocabulary to expand their lexical range. In class, unless encouraged to notice useful lexis, it is all too easy for students to pass them by in the pursuit of task completion. As teachers, we can promote focusing on lexis by asking students to mine texts for exam-appropriate vocabulary and we can also use resources such as SkEll in order to input useful collocations and synonyms. In order to fully acquire and confidently use new lexical items, however, it’s vital to design tasks that bridge the gap between receptive knowledge of the written form and free production of the spoken form.

1 Ur, P (2013). Vocabulary Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p3-18.

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