10 Years of Keith Folse’s “Vocabulary Myths”

by Claudia Leo on July 16, 2014

Post image for 10 Years of Keith Folse’s “Vocabulary Myths”

The first in a series of posts about this book’s influence on the field of ELT

By Kelly Sippell, Executive Acquisitions Editor and ELT Manager, University of Michigan Press

Since Vocabulary Myths by Keith Folse burst onto the ELT market in 2004, many cool things have happened. One consequence was the birth of a series of Myths books: First, Writing Myths in 2008 (Reid), followed by Listening Myths (Brown, 2011), Second Language Acquisition Myths (Brown and Larson-Hall, 2012), and most recently, Pronunciation Myths (Grant, 2014). (Three more are under contract.)

People who are familiar with the series know that the books typically debunk about 8 myths on a topic and that the chapters are organized with these sections: In the Real World, What the Research Says, and What You Can Do. One thing most people who are familiar with the series tell me they like about the series is the In the Real World section. They say they like these stories as readers because of their style and the way they frame the content to follow. Those who use these books in courses say that they like them because their students seem to enjoy them—these stories get right to the heart of the language learning experience and make it personal for the readers.

As the editor who acquired the books, I get asked a couple of questions routinely—which Myths book is my favorite and do I have a favorite In the Real World story? Let me answer the second question first.

I do have a favorite story in each Myths book, and in Vocabulary Myths, it’s the one for Myth 6 (The best vocabulary learners make use of one or two really good, specific vocabulary learning strategies) because of the lesson it includes for teachers. I call it the “same-same dictionary” story; I often recommend this story to teachers and, if Keith’s around, ask him to share it. Yes, at times I do feel a bit like a child asking for a favorite bedtime story when I do this.

However, the story I most often quote to friends and family—which I assure you makes me a lot of fun at parties—is Myth 2 (Listening is passive) from Listening Myths because it’s about the internal scripts we all have for certain linguistic situations.

But back to Vocabulary Myths: If you’ve read it, tell us what’s your favorite story and why (esladmin@umich.edu). If you click on Look Inside tab on each book’s webpage, you can read a chapter except, including one In the Real World story.

Keith Folse will tell you that he’s sure I’ve heard his stories many, many times, and I have, but I still love them. And I especially love the way that Keith tells his stories in this book. I think that the story about buying flour in Japan that opens the book and introduces the myth (In learning a language, vocabulary is not as important as grammar or other areas) is the “perfect” introduction to the series. It’s so relatable for anyone who has been in a foreign language situation and just wants to find one thing to feel more at home. I also really like the introduction to Myth 4 (The use of translations to learn new vocabulary should be discouraged). As one reviewer put it, “We sympathize with his struggles to make sense of a Japanese lesson until a fellow student whispered the meaning of the single word that was holding him back (‘It’s a kind of hors d’oeuvre’)” (CONTACT, 2010).

I used to be amazed at Keith’s ability to remember specific language learning situations going back decades, but I’ve learned from working on this series that teachers of language tend to remember their own language-related teachable moments, which is what many of these In the Real World stories are. The fact that so many customers talk to me about their love of these stories is evidence of how much they resonate.

In terms of a favorite Myths book, I love them all and in their own ways, as any acquisitions editor would. But because it was the first and because I have such vivid memories about how this book came to be and the influence it has had, Vocabulary Myths has earned a very special place in my heart.

All acquisitions editors have good stories about how they acquired certain books or unique situations where they met people who became authors (those stories belong in separate posts). I happen to have two good taxi-ride acquisitions stories that I tell, and one of them is about Vocabulary Myths.

In October 2003, Keith Folse and I visited Miami where Keith was going to give a vocabulary workshop to the University of Miami, a program that used his reading/vocabulary textbooks. Much of the information he presented, which he had organized around myths about learning vocabulary, came from his dissertation research. That afternoon, when we were in the cab on the way to the airport, I said that I thought this “vocabulary myths idea” should be a book and that I thought he could write this book quickly because he already had the whole book in his head. He just needed to spend time with the computer and get it all down on paper.

Although editors always hope authors listen to them and do exactly what they say, we know it doesn’t always happen. But Keith did that time, and so I wasn’t really that surprised to receive a manuscript for a book called Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching less than two months later. The manuscript needed little editing , so it was typeset over the holidays and was published two months after that, in time for TESOL 2004 in Long Beach, California. This book set a record for the least time in production, which just goes to prove that the opposite of “garbage in, garbage out” is also true: If what you start out with is golden, what you end up with will be as well (if you are a good, smart editor). It was clear from the very beginning that Vocabulary Myths was always pure gold!

When the manuscript arrived, all of the elements that have become the hallmarks of the series were already there. The organization and style were Keith’s ideas; the Press just created an interior design to make the content as accessible as possible.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since we published this book. Sometimes it still feels like people are just discovering it. Future posts will explore some of the people, places, and things that this book has influenced. Stay tuned.

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