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Tom Cobb Université du Québec à Montréal

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Presentation on theme: "Tom Cobb Université du Québec à Montréal"— Presentation transcript:

1 Tom Cobb Université du Québec à Montréal
Professional Development Workshop & Seminar Series 23 August 07, CNA-Qatar “What has the Arab learner taught us?”

2 A deceptively simple idea
…Words are important A deceptively simple idea


4 Look familiar? OK students – you win! Vocab IS important

5 EFL and ESP in the Gulf in the 1980s
Working without a plan Seemed to be no research Yet research there was First action, classroom, piecemeal Then sustained, empirical, theory based … which led to The New Vocabulary that we here celebrate Thesis: The Arab learner forced us to invent the New Vocabulary

6 Wot new vocab? Some principles we now take for granted
Lexical knowledge is the strongest predictor of reading ability (and inability)   Lexis is not a filler for syntactic slots but rather syntax is an emergent property of lexis   Some zones of lexis are more important than others for different tasks Different degrees are lexical knowledge are needed for different tasks Lexical knowledge does not come for free in L2 as in L1 Lexical acquisition in L2 requires more exposures than natural input can possibly provide Lexical processing and acquisition are not identical across orthographies

7 So what was the old vocab?
Principles more implicit than explicit Modern versions of applied linguistics emerge 1960s/70s Burgeoning ESL industry needs a rationale After supposed demise of audio-lingualism A.k.a. Behaviorist learning theory This early idea-borrowing from quasi-related disciplines (1) General Linguistics (2) L1 reading theory Neither with much space for vocabulary Both with strong assumptions about it

8 (1) General linguistics
Child acquisition of L1 syntax is the great human achievement While extensive vocabularies can be learned by animals - chimpanzees (3000 items) - dogs (200 items)



11 Early applied linguists, naturally, attempted to “apply linguistics”
Signs of “universal grammar” and “the language acquisition device” were dutifully unearthed in the FL classroom by researchers… Vocab book publishers took a 20-year break No big classroom vocab book between Barnard (1972) and Redman/Ellis (1991) Reading was demoted to an uninteresting speech add-on But a problem: EFL/ESP learners are mainly here for reading! Solution: So borrow reading rationale from L1 Big error – a dark hole we are still climbing out of

12 (2) L1 reading theory Kenneth Goodman (1967)
1970s - one dominant L1 theory - reading-for-meaning - holistic - top-down - “psycholinguistic” guessing game Kenneth Goodman (1967) Frank Smith (1971) All the needed vocabulary can be pleasurably acquired through inference from context There is no need, it is even wrong, to teach it These ideas got imported into L2 “somewhat uncritically” (Grabe 1991)

13 (2) L1 reading theory Guessing Game is clearly an idea for young, high-SES L1 learners If you look close, no very convincing evidence for it even in L1 Stanovich 1980, 1991 Rayner Decades of phonics v. whole-language wars Nonetheless Reading-as-Guessing was quickly imported into L2 thinking 1970s and 1980s

14 (2) L1 reading theory Goodman (1973) extends guessing game to L2
“Universals” of reading Reading in a second language = reading in first Transfer of reading ability from L1 to L2 is automatic Vocabulary will grow through guessing, in L2 as L1 2006 – these ideas remain dominant Every TESL teacher training program has a teaching grammar course, while few have a teaching vocabulary course…

15 (2) L1 reading theory …despite >50% of class time invariably spent explaining words! Emperor's clothes syndrome? (See what you are told to see) Fortunately it was not shared by our learners Who sensibly annotated every text they couldn’t read Admittedly overdoing it… And ignored our advice to “loosen up & take chances” Or by independent L2 research that soon emerged developed within specifically L2 terms borrowing carefully from L1 thinking

16 1990s - L2 gets its own reading theory!
First question: Is there really auto-transfer of L1 reading skills to L2? Alderson (84) takes the trouble to investigate Finding: Transfer is not automatic L1 abilities + skills are inactive… (e.g., guessing of new words in context) Until a threshold of L2 knowledge has been crossed The main plank in threshold? L2 vocabulary knowledge. So prior teaching is needed to enable guessing

17 1995-2005, more and more evidence for importance of lexis
Syntax itself shown to require a lexical base Bates & Goodman (2001). On the inseparability of grammar and the lexicon Knowledge of syntax now seems rooted in properties of words A plank in the ‘lexical approach’ “Language is grammaticalised lexis not lexicalised grammar” – Lewis (1993)

18 How odd, in retrospect… To be teaching “word guessing skills” to folks with a only a handful of lexis To be working a class through a grammar points conveyed via unknown vocabulary To hand learners a reading text with every second word a look-up Alderson (84) began the spade work to get us out of this tunnel Had taught Arab learners for years Any coincidence?

19 Gulf learner & old vocab
What did vocab look like to the learner when vocab was not part of the plan?

20 Reading task for intermediate learners – seem OK?
The Observer newspaper recently showed how easy it is, given a suitable story and a smattering of jargon, to obtain information by bluff from police computers. Computer freaks, whose hobby is breaking into official systems, don't even need to use the phone. They can connect their computers directly with any database in the country. Computers do not alter the fundamental issues. But they do multiply the risks. They allow more data to be collected on more aspects of our lives, and increase both its rapid retrievability and the likelihood of its unauthorized transfer from one agency which might have a legitimate interest in it, to another which does not. Modern computer capabilities also raise the issue of what is known in the jargon as 'total data linkage' the ability, by pressing a few buttons and waiting as little as a minute, to collate all the information about us held on all the major government and business computers into an instant dossier on any aspect of our lives. Headway (Soars & Soars, 1991, p. 74)

21 Vocab levels of the learners

22 Vocab level of the text

23 Vocab level of the text

24 Putting text and learner together

25 What can be learned from the Observer text?
Vague sense of the topic Unuseful tolerance of low comprehension Strategy of over-relying on dictionary A little random vocab pick-up

26 Where will the missing vocab come from?

27 What blew the gaff on all this?
Arrival of standard testing IELTS, even PET Students in droves fail simplest reading tests But with benefits Action research projects E.g. Informal vocab testing Evaluate teaching against test Observe / listen to students

28 From a learner Dear N., I heard that you are going to join the College of Commerce and Economics after you finish your high school. I have a lot to tell you about this college. The first and important thing is the PET test. You must pass this test so you can continue your studies in the College. The PET test is not easy as it seems. It is so difficult and we have to do a lot to pass it.... The English that we learned at school is too easy and it's nothing compared with the English in the University. Let me tell you about myself as an example. I thought that I knew English and really in the school I was from the three best students in the class in English. But here my English is nothing, then I thought I learned nine years English in the school but I don't have any knowledge and I don't know anything about real English. I really don't know the fault from who. ... Your friend, F.  

29 From a teacher Watching a biology lecture
Biology lecturer teaching about hybridization The first time I gave a hybridization analogy, I talked about dogs, and then I switched to goats; and then it even dawned on me that some of them aren't going to be in touch with the fact that if you mix two different kinds of goats they come out looking in between, and I didn't know all the specific terms there, what their two different breeds of goats are called. You can talk about [mixing] colours, but a lot of them don't know their colours yet (Arden-Close, p. 258).

30 From piecemeal action-research
to sustained programs of research involving the Arab EFL learner VOCAB SIZE Al-Hazemi (1993) PhD study validates vocab size instruments in Gulf Still true? - see Al-Gazette LEARNING FROM CONTEXT Laufer et al (1985) Investigates supposed ease of contextual inference Horst et al (1998) Investigate contextual learning in an extended task Laufer (1989) Investigates conditions of successful contextual inference

31 From piecemeal action-research
to sustained programs of research involving the Arab EFL learner UNIVERSAL READING PROCESSES Koda (1989) Investigates reading in a new orthography Abu-Rabia & Seigel (1995) Investigate unequal roles of context in reading English v. Arabic Randall & Meara (1988) Investigate differences in how Arabic and Roman words are perceived

32 Randall & Meara

33 So the old vocabulary crumbles But in all this research into the Arabic-English interface… Do students get no benefits from their experience with Arabic? Haynes (1983) - Inferencing study - Clues in local v. global contexts - Four language groups Only Arabic group using global context

34 But didn’t Laufer find Arab learner is poor inferencer
But didn’t Laufer find Arab learner is poor inferencer? Yes, but also that 95% comprehension is the condition of inference Do our learners get anywhere near that in what we give them to read? Not so much So a vital strength never comes into play Even so, here is an extra twist on this one

35 Headway text global VP Is not the same as local VPs

36 Local inferencer will find an occasional useful context in this text E.g., New word embedded in 95%- known context Global inferencer will get no chance to use this skill in this text Materials and approaches need to compensate for difficulties of Arab learners but also build on their strengths

37 Homegrown Solutions (1) Compensating and building on strengths AWL (2001) has its roots in vocab needs of Arab learner Jean Praninskas (1972) Mohsen Ghaddesy (1979) AUB - American University of Beirut Need for post-2000 vocab course Concern for coverage Now a big hit worldwide (Shows up as UWL=>AWL)


39 Homegrown Solutions (2) Lextutor has its roots in needs of Arab learner

40 So returning to the point of departure
Thesis: The Arab learner forced us to invent the New Vocabulary

41 In conclusion The Arab learner helped us break out of a fairly un-useful approach to vocab inherited from linguistics and L1 reading And in retrospect, the Arab learner was just a high-profile representative of most EFL learners

42 In conclusion L2 vocab will not happen by itself up to 95% coverage Textbooks alone cannot be relied on Sufficient coverage and and repetition of high frequency words must be planned for at ground level Tools for doing this 1. Testing 2. Computational analysis of materials









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