10 Years of Keith Folse’s “Vocabulary Myths: Q and A with Keith Folse

by Claudia Leo on August 19, 2014

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

1. How did the publication of Vocabulary Myths change your life? (professionally mostly, but you can mention personally too if you feel comfortable) OR: What’s the coolest thing that happened to you as a result of writing this book?

KEITH: One of the coolest things that I noticed almost immediately after the publication of Vocabulary Myths was teachers’ responses.  I cannot count the number of emails I received from teachers who said something like, “I feel vindicated by what you wrote” or “I’ve always thought some of those things, but I was afraid to say anything because it didn’t jive with what I was being told in my M.A. courses that all you needed was comprehensible input.” I was also shocked by how many times a teacher would come up to me at a conference and say, “I appreciate Vocabulary Myths because it’s written in regular English” or “When I read your book, I could tell you were a real classroom teacher, not some ivory tower researcher who hasn’t taught an actual ESL class in years.”

One really gratifying result of Vocabulary Myths on a both personal and on a professional level is that this book has contributed to changing the way many teachers and perhaps the profession view vocabulary.  It may be hard to believe now in 2014, but in 2004, almost NO ONE in TESOL was talking about vocabulary.  Yes, we had the Academic Word List, but it was just a list that was being discussed by ESL teachers, and I still had to explain what a collocation was in so most of my talks, but now, I don’t see any confused faces when we talk about collocations or vocabulary lists.  In fact, people will flock to a conference session on vocabulary, and many teachers tell me that Vocabulary Myths was the book that introduced them to the importance of vocabulary in learning a second language.  I am humbled and amazed, but mostly I am happy that teachers are rethinking the role of vocabulary in our ESL classes.

2.       Are there some myths in Vocabulary Myths that are no longer relevant?

KEITH: Well, I am happy to report that I think that the myth that vocabulary is not so important in mastering a second language is pretty much dead.  Yes, grammar still dominates our curricula, but I don’t think many teachers still think that learners will just pick up vocabulary without some explicit instruction (as they thought in the past).  Grammar may still be king, but almost all teachers acknowledge that vocabulary is very important and that it must be covered in our classes though explicit instruction and classroom activities.

3.  Which myth in the book has been the most controversial or the one people tell you that they don’t agree with?

KEITH: This is an easy question, and it has two answers, one big and one small.  The big myth that you can learn a lot of vocabulary efficiently from context clues is the one that teachers either argue about directly or they sit quietly as they are contemplating whether or not to disagree out loud in the workshop.  The research says that context clues may be a very valuable reading comprehension strategy, so when you don’t understand part of a reading passage, you can use your context clues, including previous world knowledge, to figure out what is happening and what the words in that passage might mean.   However, the research also shows that while using context clues is indeed possible to discover the meaning of an unknown lexical item, it is very inefficient.  Context clues:  good for reading, but not so good for learning vocabulary efficiently.  Using context clues requires multiple meetings of the new word in very rich contexts, something that is usually absent in real-world settings, thus rendering the context of limited value in learning the new word.  This myth caught on because our field tried to assume that learning a second language is similar to how we learned our first language, a notion that was very popular from the 1980s into the late 1990s even.  Yes, we learned most of our first language vocabulary through natural exposure to context, but the situation is different in a second language. We are older, we don’t have 18 years (to allow for natural exposure), and we have thousands of words that we need to learn ASAP. The so-called natural approach may be natural when learning our first language, but there is nothing natural about an adult attempting to learn a language in a semester or a year. No, the vocabulary research clearly shows that explicit instruction or attention to new lexical items is superior to natural acquisition.

The smaller myth is that learning words in semantic sets facilitates learning.  This means that learning all the color words or all the days of the week at the same time is actually not conducive to learning.  If we know this presentation style is not good, then why do authors do this?  Because it’s easy.  Vocabulary research shows that learning words in these lexical sets is actually confusing and in fact takes learners longer to master.  When I explain this myth, most teachers, especially those who have learned a second language, quickly concur, but the first myth that context clues are a good way to learn vocabulary is a much more difficult sell to teachers.




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