Word Surfing
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The following article raises questions about vocabulary learning strategies

Article EL Gazette – October 2003

Input. Output. That’s language acquisition in a nutshell. It may not be as extensive a theory as Chomsky or Krashen, but doesn’t language always develop in basically the same way for each and every one of us? Information comes in, we process it, and something new comes out. Communication occurs. If no information is put in, very little will come out.

Learning a first language is a piece of cake. There’s usually lots of input, friendly encouragement and practice to be had before the teachers have a chance to test our skills. Fortunately, we’re normally very well prepared for them by that stage. We already have an extensive vocabulary and by some magic are able to use our words in a mostly correct grammatical style. Teachers then help to refine and polish – under a good set of conditions.

Second languages cause more problems. There’s generally a lot less input and something called interference – when the first language hinders or distorts the learning of a second language. In addition, we seem to be encouraged to run before we can walk, with the result that we tend to fall over a lot.

The learning process might typically go something like this: A little vocabulary learning combined with lots of early grammatical input and exercises. The results of such early testing are usually far from perfect. Some questions may be answered correctly but a lot of errors are usually made as well. But do we really learn from these mistakes or do they just serve to create a confusion that can develop into bad habits? What does this process do to confidence, enjoyment levels, motivation and performance? Why is it so necessary to rush through a lot of grammar topics very early on in the learning curve? Can people cope with this approach? Or could it be a major cause of fossilization – when non-standard language becomes ingrained? What other approaches might lead to a more efficient and enjoyable language learning process? It is, of course, easier to ask such questions than to answer them.

Most people are aware of the fossilization problem, but its roots are hard to define and there’s no quick cure. Bad grammar and pronunciation habits can be increasingly hard to break over time. They occur once learners have developed a reasonable understanding of the language, but in the wrong order. With such an early emphasis on testing, it is also not surprising that students become disheartened at continually making lots of mistakes. Teachers feel forced to repeat and revise grammar, the process becomes increasingly tiring and some students may even switch off totally. Frustration understandably translates into a negative attitude towards grammar and they may even give up on it a little and let their problems deepen. Fossilization – or just bored rigid?

Meanwhile, their understanding is steadily improving through learning more vocabulary. This process often only involves remembering lists of translations, rather than using new words in an active manner. Such a learning strategy, combined with an early, shallow introduction to grammar topics, can also be counter-productive - a recipe for bad habits and the following typical scenario:

German students wanting to know the meaning of a new word will often ask their teacher

“what means ******** ?” instead of “what does ******** mean?”.

This “word for word” translation ( Was bedeutet ******** ?) happens on a regular basis even with so-called “advanced” students. Then, once corrected, they may well go on to say something like “ Yes, I must make more homework”!

How language seems to fossilize.

The example above describes what appears to be a common process. Students tend to gradually become more fluent and easily understood even though they are still making basic grammatical errors. Teachers and others tend to correct them less. Students therefore assume that what they are saying is correct or good enough and continue to speak and write using the same incorrect structures (probably from their own first language grammatical patterns, using word-for-word translations). Bad habits are developed that become increasingly hard to break and the incentive to correct them is low because of the effort required. Fossilization occurs with both teachers and students accepting it as an almost inevitable part of second language acquisition. First language interference and lack of exposure to the second language is usually blamed..

Students who are fairly fluent in the second language appear to be an endorsement of current teaching methods. But the inability to write a formal letter, for example, tells a completely different story. This criticism is only based on my observations but, assuming that these have some substance, steps can be taken to prevent fossilization happening in the first place.

Fossilization prevention:

1. Help students to concentrate more on vocabulary, understanding and exposure to correct structures during the early phases - in a manner that encourages more learner autonomy outside of the classroom.
2. Important new words should be investigated, practised, organised and checked in a more logical fashion. This process could take place in a well-organized vocabulary notebook which moves away from complete reliance on translations as quickly as possible. (see link to website below)
3. Earlier exposure to grammar should be more selective and deeper. Some good grammatical habits would, in any case, be passively gained by reading / copying down correct sentences found in dictionaries etc during the vocabulary development process.
4. Allocate more time to genuine classroom interaction and communication - encourage students to bring personally interesting material with them for readings, dictations, discussion and general language expansion.
5. Place greater emphasis on grammar at a later stage when students are far more capable of dealing with this vitally important topic.

The ideas above encourage more learning by doing. Vocabulary is seen as the starting point of the process, with individual words being the foundations on which to start building - after investigating how those words are correctly used. Reliance on translation and early testing is minimised, reducing exposure to the sort of errors that may later become big, bad fossilized habits.

 Vocabulary Development Topics

The goal of the article above is to encourage teachers to help learners use more effective long-term strategies for independently improving their vital vocabulary skills outside the classroom.

1. "mind-mapping" - a well-known method of brain-storming around a word and associating it with other words. The "connecting words" and "my words" columns of the WS Book use this method.

2.  Real vocabulary development - being able to actually use more words correctly – is real language development.

Most learners are lucky enough to have many different opportunities to improve their vocabulary. There are lots of lots of excellent graded resources available in all languages and often, especially in the internet, they’re absolutely free. However, learners sometimes seem to be overwhelmed by the large number of new words that they inevitably meet - and although they are keen to learn as many new words as possible, few seem to be aware of any long-term vocabulary strategies that can help them. As a result, they tend to keep lists of single translations – or just jot down words and here, there and everywhere.

Is this really the best way to cope with new words and phrases?

- You need to know different words before you can form a single sentence ... and different sentences are full of different words.

- The more words that you know how to use correctly, the more different sentences you’ll be able to make in order to convey different ideas – in exactly the way that you want to express yourself.

- The size of L1 vocabulary is an indicator of IQ – and the size of active vocabulary in L2 is an indicator of your ability to communicate effectively.

- Research shows that people usually need to have 5-16 (or more) good exposures to a new word before it is fully known.

- If exposure to a word is not repeated regularly, it will probably be forgotten  … . “use them or lose them” – as the saying goes.

3. Learning by translation

- Lists of single words and their translations are obviously relatively narrow in their approach – but still offer a quick, efficient and meaningful method of vocabulary acquisition for absolute beginners.

- The method may also be a useful first introduction to those words that don’t have a lot of natural connections. Whereas the word “yellow” can easily be connected to words such as “banana” and  “sun” – it is more difficult to find natural connections for words such as “moreover”.

- Trying to learn an increasing number of translations will tend to lead to both success rate and motivation going down over time. It seems to be more of a short-term memory test rather than an effective long-term vocabulary (or language) development exercise.

- As the length of such translation lists increases it becomes more and more difficult to identify which words are really "known". It’s also easy to become frustrated by a slowly increasing level of “passive” understanding, accompanied by an inability to actively use your new words - and the realisation that many of the “learned” new words are later being forgotten. (through lack of practice)

- As a result, learners  may (understandably) soon start to devote less and less time to such a method – but often (due to lack of available alternatives) fail to replace it with anything really useful.

- Learning single words by translation can also lead to the habit of “word for word” translations when trying to form sentences - both orally and in written form.  This encourages L2 grammar interference and fossilization of errors. (for example even “advanced” German and Spanish learners of English will often ask “What means xxxxxxx?” when wanting to know the meaning of a new word……in both cases this “word for word translation – and a bad habit that is hard to shake once in place).

German “Was bedeutet xxxxxx?” &  Spanish “ Que significa xxxxxx?”
ENGLISH             “WHAT DOES xxxxxx MEAN?”

4. Word Surfing

The method aims to make improvements to the vocabulary development process. It offers a long-term opportunity to develop individually chosen new words in a central resource through repeated exposure and practice.

  • writing promotes familiarity.
  • investigating encourages understanding.
  • testing confirms knowing.

It can help learners to …

  • learn by doing”
  • focus on prioritising the importance of individually chosen words.
  • develop good grammatical habits. and…
  • save time and effort in the long run due to more learning efficiency.

The method will also show that if you really want to get to know a new word you need to ...

- be aware of the possible different meanings connected to the word.

- be exposed to it in grammatically correct sentences.

- start to use it yourself as soon as possible.

- practice, practice, practice.

A suggested list of open topics/discussion ideas is given below together with some relevant points that could be raised in answering any questions. These could, of course, be explained with whatever modifications you feel are appropriate.

If you have any suggestions that you feel could be usefully included into a classroom discussion on WS & vocabulary development , please send an    e-mail so that they can be considered for future updates.                      Or, simply post your views to the WORDSURFING DISCUSSION BOARD.

1. How does vocabulary expand in your own language?

- At the earlier stages of learning you cannot read or write – or make any long-term organised plan to help you.

- You listen to sounds and look at symbols

- You try to copy these with the help of family, friends and the world around you.

- You get a lot of exposure to interesting resources.

- Eventually you are able to say your first single word, and then later you are able to write your first single word.

- You gradually come across more new words (and phrases) and then have the opportunity to try to understand each one, repeat it -  and connect it in a meaningful manner with other words and phrases that you know.

- At later stages you can read and write - and improve more quickly.

2. What are the advantages that you have when expanding vocabulary in a foreign language?

- At all stages you can read, write – and make a long-term organised plan.

- Today’s world offers exposure to a lot of excellent language learning resources (books, teachers, native speakers, satellite TV, computers,  internet etc etc)

- You can not only experience a similar exposure to the new language through sight and sound as you did when learning your own language – you can also immediately benefit from your reading, writing and organisational skills.

- People all over the world are connecting up through the internet – and it is becoming increasingly easier to practice both writing and speaking with native speakers.

3. How can a vocabulary development strategy help you ?

It can encourage you to

- specifically concentrate on getting to know how to correctly use those new words and phrases that are most immediately important to you personally and

- generally improve your language skills through immersing yourself in the language as much as possible

- read personally interesting material at an appropriate level.

- listen to personally interesting material at an appropriate level.

- speak and use your words.

- write and use your words.

- check your grammar – especially when writing.

*Real Vocabulary Expansion > Practice >Naturally good language skills

4. What is “Word Surfing”?

It’s a vocabulary development strategy using the pages of a WS Book that can help you to

- “Learn by Doing

- get into the habit of writing down and storing new or “less than perfectly known” words as you meet them. This exercise doesn’t take much time or effort at all, while giving you a stronger initial awareness (or a good reminder) of any word that is not known. Writing new words down is almost certainly the most efficient first step that you can take towards familiarity.

- prioritise the importance of different words – and focus on those that you really want to learn.

- investigate how to use your own chosen new words correctly in a dictionary or, if possible, an internet dictionary (it’s quicker and gives you more spelling practice).

- acquire naturally good grammar habits through exposure to the correct example sentence that explain your new words.

- get into the habit of using these new words as soon as possible.This also reinforces and deepens knowledge of the already understood words that you use as your "connecting words".

- verify your real progress through simple checking systems and tests.

- have a needed focal point to help you understand, investigate, practice and get to know new vocabulary from whatever source.

- develop positive independent learning skills outside of the classroom.

- use a long-term framework with which you can work at your own pace without any undue pressure over a period of time.

- have the flexibility to practise your new words whenever you want.

- realise that the more that you put into your vocabulary strategy, the more you will get out of it

- gain in confidence by building stepping stones to conversational practice.

- create a vocabulary notebook according to individual needs and interests. An accountant , for example, may want to concentrate on knowing how to use words connected to money and business – whereas a chemist may be interested in knowing how to use a different set of words.

- move away from translation and towards familiarity ... and actually start using chosen new words as soon as possible. A wider-ranging, motivating and active strategy can then start to develop at a time when learning by translation becomes less efficient....and much less motivating. 

5. What are “Connecting Words”?

- “Connecting Words” are words that you are already familiar with - and come across when investigating the meaning of a new word. For example, when investigating the new word “pea”, you may come across the words “green”, “small” and “round” or “vegetable”.  These – if already learned - can not only help you start to learn the word “pea” naturally … but also reinforce your knowledge of these “connecting words”. These words can be found, for example

  • from the original sentence in which the new word was met or
  • through other examples given in a quality dictionary or
  • with conversational help from a teacher or native speaker.

- You have the freedom to choose and use whatever words you want and think will help you most. The investigation process will lead to the selection of personally interesting ideas that create good conditions for "learning by doing".

- Absolute beginners won’t be able to attempt the “connecting words” step due to their low level of understanding. However, after learning only their first few words by translation, they can return to attempt the “connecting words” step again – and start to move away from relying on mother tongue.

- Using such an initial investigation and development strategy will

  • help you to learn new words by association rather than translation
  • increase your width and depth of knowledge of the word.
  • have a positive impact on word retention.
  • start to promote the habit of actually thinking in the new language.

6. How can you make the best use of your WS Resource?

- the more you write, the more you will be right

- learn your new words at your own pace - in your own way. 

- how much you use your book will depend on how quickly you want to be able to fill the gaps and highlight the words. The more that you put into your book, the more you will be able to get out of yourself.

- regular short sessions will usually be better than occasional long ones.

- only refer to your own language if you feel it is absolutely necessary.

- try to build short sentences with "connecting words" .

- if you feel the need to check some of your grammar - do it.

- enjoy watching your own improvement as it happens.

- use it to help you make the best use of all other resources.

- remember this old saying
" I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand "


- A well-organized vocabulary book can enable you to get all the practice that you need to get to know your new words.

- WS is basically a language learning tool to complement all other resources. It’s designed to help you get the most out of those resources…… including your teachers.

- The method aims to be an efficient and enjoyable way of learning vocabulary that will save you time and effort in the long-run.

- Having huge amounts of vocabulary information available in good language learning resources and the internet is a big advantage - but how many of us can really retain large numbers of new words without practicing them? The answer is "not many". Research shows that most people need 5-16 or more exposures to a word before they really start to "know" it. 

- The best way to appreciate the advantages of any method is to try it - and if you really want to learn something then you should find whatever method works best for you.

- There are lots of other very good resources already available with comprehensive and themed vocabulary lists. You can use these to give yourself an initial awareness of specifically grouped words, to test yourself later – or just to identify  “new words” for you to develop in your vocabulary file.

- Both dictionary and electronic translators are very useful. Good dictionaries will contain more useful information and example sentences….whereas translators are quicker and make you practice your spelling. They are also a little easier to put in your pocket. But, having said that, both are in many ways more limited than some of the excellent internet dictionaries.

- Everyone will almost certainly use “Word Surfing” in a different way. The reasons for this are connected to the individuality that is built into the system – which allows learners to fine tune their own learning patterns according to individual preferences.

- As with real surfing (or the internet), teachers can only give students some pretty good tips -  before letting them find out how to really surf and improve on their own. Real improvement only happens after the lesson ... with lots of practice.

- Originally the WS concept was designed to help adult learners of English - but can, of course, be adapted to help learners of other languages.