Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why students fail to guess meanings of words from context

Do you ever feel like you are banging your head against the wall after hammering away at your students to get them to guess meaning from context, often to little avail.  The real crux of the matter of guessing words from context is being able to understand all the words that form the context. The fact of the matter is that the majority of our students seem to fall well below the threshold of vocabulary knowledge that is generally accepted to give them the wherewithal to understand contexts well enough to guess unknown words.

Over the last two years, as a matter of course in trying to get a feel for the profile of my students, I have been conducting a sort of 'needs analysis' of METU students vocabulary, using Tom Cobb's test of the 14,000 most commonly used words in English (see http://www.lextutor.ca/tests/levels/recognition/1_14k/). I ask my students to go as far as 10,000 words only. This tests their receptive knowledge of words, which is a key factor in reading. This is all voluntary, so I don't have a lot of data, but I do have data from 40 students (most freshmen, but about one-third are ELT students). I suspect that the trend would still be the same if I had surveyed 4,000 students. :)

The results displayed below in the bar chart are quite an eye-opener...the AVERAGE word knowledge among the students who volunteered to take the test is 4,755 words out of the most common 10,000 words. Consider that the 'barest of bare' minimums that researchers like Paul Nation suggest is 7,000 -- but the caveat here is that this should include a productive knowledge of ALL of the first 3,000 most commonly used words (as these make up around 90% of any text). More recent research suggests that students receptive knowledge of vocabulary should extend upwards of 9,000 if a student is to really function 'at ease' in English as a medium of instruction.

You can see the 'gap' in the graph below, which explains why a lot of METU students really grapple with English in the departments. It also suggests that the chances of them guessing the meaning from context as a regular reading strategy will be of limited use.  So, don't beat yourself up if your students don't seem to be able to develop the ability to do this.  In reality, the educational system has failed to provide them with a systematic approach at learning vocabulary based on the proven research by applied linguists--some of which dates back almost 100 years to pioneers like Thorndike, Palmer and Hornby, not to mention the work of Michael West on the General Service List, which was published 60 years ago--see A primer on the General Service List  for an excellent historical perspective.  To put this into more recent context, see The bare necessities in Lexis: a new perspective on vocabulary profiling and The graded reader is dead.  Long live the e-Reader for some current research in this area.


1 comment:

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