Monday, March 24, 2008

Strategies for Vocabulary Development (Part II)

Following the suggestions of Hunt and Beglar about using graded readers material developers must now create graded readers. Rob Waring in his article Writing a Graded Reader (2002) breaks down the process for us. Not only does Waring concur with Hunt and Beglar’s proposal of using graded readers as stepping stones for L2 students, he provides: (1) an overview of different types of graded readers, (2) guidelines on how to use them in the language classroom, (3) arguments in favor of their usage along with supporting research, and (4) points to consider for potential authors of graded readers.

Waring (2002) mentions two different ways to approach the writing of a graded reader. The first is to write a good story without simplifying the language with the assumption that any necessary abridgement can be done at a later time. The second is to consult people with experience in EFL/ESL, and ask them to write for a particular audience and ability level. All things considered, he stresses that the story should be the most important consideration when writing a graded reader. He argues that a good graded reader should indeed be a good read regardless of the level of simplicity needed for a specific L2 audience to understand it.

In addition to guidelines on how to write a graded reader, Rob Waring pairs up with Paul Nation to review the connection between L2 reading and vocabulary acquisition. In their article Second Language Reading and Incidental Vocabulary Learning (2004), they discuss how many words a student needs to know in order to be an effective reader in L2; the rate of vocabulary attainment and permanence; the number of times a student should encounter a word before learning it; and the preservation of newly learned words.

Investigations cited in the article suggest that, in order for a reader to have adequate comprehension of a text he must have a coverage rate of at least 95% of the words encountered. Furthermore they explain that for a student to read effectively in English they should have knowledge of around 5000 word families. It must be noted that both the coverage rate and the range of vocabulary words needed for satisfactory understanding of a text increases with the heavy cognitive burdens of academic texts (Waring & Nation, 2004).

They also discuss a review of studies on vocabulary growth derived from reading in L2. The review supported the idea that students can acquire new vocabulary through supplementary readings. However, a student may need to encounter a word 20 or more times for adequate word knowledge to take place (Waring & Nation, 2004).

Once again we find that students must be exposed to materials that are easily accessible and at their ability level in order to promote new vocabulary learning (Hunt & Beglar, 1998; Waring & Nation, 2002). Thus Waring and Nation’s (2004) article supports the creation of materials based on the ability level of the L2 learners being taught, which can be in the form of graded readers as suggested by Hunt and Beglar (1998) and Waring (2002).

On the other hand investigations by Hustijn; and Zahar, Cobb, and Spada have shown that explicit exposure to vocabulary is more effective for vocabulary development than incidental learning (Waring & Nation, 2002). Therefore explicit vocabulary development, as well as the use of graded readers, should be an essential component for efficient vocabulary development.

Next to come, strategies on explicit vocabulary instruction.


Waring, R. (2002). Writing a graded reader. The Language Teacher, 26(7).

Waring, R. & Nation, P. (2004). Second language reading and incidental vocabulary learning. Angles on the English-Speaking World, 4. Retrieved on March 20, 2008 from

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Strategies Proven to Help Accelerate Vocabulary Acquisition in ELLs

One of the biggest challenges that I have had as an ESL Teacher is how to accelerate and guarantee the acquisition of new vocabulary of my students. Even though the acquisition of new vocabulary is already difficult for an L2 learner to perform adequately in highly contextual everyday conversations, acquiring new vocabulary becomes a formidable task within the context reduced, cognitive demanding academic environment. In the next few posts I will give a brief overview and review of seven sources that propose strategies to guide ESL teachers and materials developers in their creation and choice of resources for English Language Learners.

In the article Current Research and Practice in Teaching Vocabulary, Hunt and Beglar (1998) give an overview of three main approaches to developing vocabulary: incidental learning, explicit instruction, and independent strategy development. In addition, the article offers seven basic principles that material developers should apply when creating materials for L2 learners.
Hunt and Beglar (1998) argue that most of the vocabulary acquired by both L2 and L1 learners is through incidental reading. They propose the use of graded readers (books leveled by reading ability) to strengthen the vocabulary of beginning learners and to scaffold their reading and vocabulary acquisition, until the students are able to read more authentic materials. Furthermore, they recommend that instructors use corpus linguistics inventories, such as West’s General Service List, and Xue and Nation’s University Word List, to swiftly and explicitly develop a student’s working academic vocabulary. They suggest the use of vocabulary flash cards and dividing vocabulary into increments of 5-7 words per lesson. Moreover semantic maps, cloze activities, and crossword puzzles are among the activities recommended to expand student’s word knowledge of previously learned vocabulary. They also mention helping the student develop fluency through timed and paced readings as well as sight vocabulary drills. As a final component they advise that students have opportunities to experiment using context clues as a means to independently develop word meaning (Hunt & Beglar, 1998).

Next to come: Rob Waring's article Writing a Graded Reader.

Hunt, A., & Beglar B. (1998). Current research and practice in teaching vocabulary. The Language Teacher, 22(01).

Friday, March 21, 2008

Back to Basics: Cognitive Apprenticeship

School as we know it is a fairly modern invention. Apprenticeship was the most common method of learning back when school was for an exclusive few. The word apprentice summons up the idea of the blacksmith and shoemaker in the Middle Ages, or even, Mickey with Merlin in Disney’s Fantasia. Apprenticeship was a way to prepare the next craftsman for the trade. The master gained a helper ensuring an increase in production, more clientele, and cheap labor. On the other hand, the apprentice, usually, not only gained an education and expertise of the craft from the master; but also, housing and food along with the hope of becoming a master craftsman himself and owning his own shop one day. It was a win-win situation for both.

Nowadays, schooling has become part of the culture of mass production of our society. The master-apprentice bond has shifted to a teacher-student acquaintance. The teacher is supposed to impart knowledge to as many students as possible. The master was to impart wisdom and expertise to his few apprentices because his craft, name, and reputation were at stake.

Rojewski and Schell argue that if the goal of education is to prepare students to ultimately transfer the knowledge gained in school to a work setting, then the best way to reach that goal is through cognitive apprenticeship. They contend that school is detached from real-world situations and that most of the skills being promoted do not necessarily transfer as easily, as quickly, or as noticeably to a real-life setting. Cognitive apprenticeship would take advantage of the master-apprentice relationship of old and apply it to the craft of thinking. Through cognitive apprenticeship, learning would be embedded within a workplace setting where students would see the concrete and contextual relationship of the skills learned as applied to real life.

Rojewski and Schell’s article reminded me of Lynn Langer Meeks and Carol Jewkes’s “Literacy in the Secondary English Classroom”. Austin and Meeks state that the terms learning and acquisition, as defined by Krashen and Terrell in 1998, are closely related but very different. Learning is a conscious and formal process; whereas, acquisition is an unconscious and informal one. Rojewski and Schell’s cognitive apprenticeship provides a framework for both learning and acquiring skills and knowledge pertinent to both school and the real world, thus creating an optimal learning environment for students.

Moreover, cognitive apprenticeship has many of the characteristics proposed by Brian Cambourne’s Conditions for Learning; as well as, Lauren Resnick’s Principles of Learning. Cambourne’s and Resnick’s work although similar, came from two different theoretical frameworks. Cambourne’s conditions are based mostly on linguistic research, specifically second language acquisition; while Resnick’s principles are based on cognitive and social psychology. Austin and Meeks combine the Conditions and Principles to create a working model of literacy learning environment for second language learners, similar to the cognitive apprenticeship model proposed by Rojewski and Schell. Furthermore, Cambourne and Resnick’s work echoes many of the basic concepts of learning.

In addition, the cognitive apprenticeship model re-establishes the teacher-student relationship to that of a master craftsman-apprentice. The first rule of real state: “Location, location, location!” could be altered to the first rule of teaching: “Relationship, relationship, relationship!” A student is more likely to want to learn from a teacher that he/she respects and admires, and ultimately would like to emulate. On the other hand, a teacher would more likely want to teach a learner who admires and respect him/her. The result is a symbiotic association between the learner and the teacher where both gain respect and knowledge from one another.

Finally, I’d like to point out that the word teacher, maestro, and learner, aprendiz (pl, aprendices), in Spanish are direct derivatives of the master-apprentice connection that existed in the Middle Ages. Accordingly, we must not forget that we have always been maestros preparing aprendices to continue forth our crafts. At the end of the day, it has always been our name, reputation, and future at stake.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Knowing to Know Best

One of my biggest frustrations in life was proving to my mom that I was a good student. Not because I didn’t do well in school, but because anything I would do wasn’t good enough.

Let me illustrate. I would proudly come home with an eighty nine, the best grade in the class, without studying! Her usual response, “You could have done better...had you studied.” For my high school graduation, as a joke, I told her I wasn’t graduating with honors. She started to cry and pleaded with my brother to not disappoint her like I did! Anyhow, while I did graduate with honors, it still wasn’t good enough for her.

I didn’t get it! I did not drink or smoke. I was the VP of my graduating class. I was in the volleyball team. Furthermore, to top it all off, I was consistently, and easily, getting straight A’s. I was an exemplary student. Nothing seemed to satisfy my mother; except my straight-A-didn’t make-mom-cry-nerdy-little brother. But I'll deal with that issue on my shrink’s couch.

The point of the matter is that, by any other standard, any parent would want their child to not struggle. Doing well in school came to me effortlessly. I didn’t have to do homework or study to be at the top of my class. Paying attention in class was enough for me to get an A. Nevertheless an easy A was not enough for my mom. She wanted me to study. She wanted me put forth my best effort. She actually wanted me to learn something!

In her infinite wisdom, Mom knew that it was better to learn with effort than getting an A without it. She knows that mastery of the material is really what matters in learning. I, on the other hand, focused on performance.

Carole Ames confirms my mom’s viewpoint. In her article Classroom: Goals, Structures and Student Motivation, Ames differentiates between mastery goals and performance goals. When a student is concerned in learning for the sake of learning, he is focused on mastery. Conversely, when a student is concerned about how well he did compared to others, he is focused on performance.

A mastery goal is one that focuses the learner’s attention and effort to his ability to acquire knowledge. It is a goal that helps the student become intrinsically motivated to learn, either the material or skill, based on a set of absolute standards. Mastery goals are criterion based. They increase the quality of the student’s engagement, and how much effort the student is willing to put forth to achieve. Mastery is about persistence and attitude towards learning. It fosters problem-solving and helps the student deal with adversity. It encompasses not only acquiring knowledge, but also, increasing the student’s confidence in school, which in turn helps build up his self-esteem. Mastery is learning for the sake of learning. Learning is the means and the end.

On the other hand, a performance goal is one that focuses the learner’s attention in how well he did compared to others in class. The student is extrinsically motivated to perform not so much to gain success but to avoid failure. Performance goals are normative based. They link the student’s self-esteem to how well they have done in contrast to his peers. Performance based goals are a double edge sword. They can either promote a student’s self esteem if the student has apparent success with little effort; or stifle the student’s self-worth and later performance, if he feels he can’t do any better no matter how much effort he has put into the task. It rewards student’s aptitude and natural ability. Performance goals focus on what comes easily, without effort. Furthermore, they can give students a false sense of confidence, thinking that everything in life can or should be easily attainable. Studying and learning are just the means to show what the students can do; it has nothing to do with achievement.

Now, I understand what Mom meant by, “You could have done better.” She knew there was a bigger lesson to learn. As long as I do my best, the result would be much more satisfying because my confidence and self-esteem would have increased regardless of what anyone else did -even my little brother.

My worth is not measured by other’s standards, but only by my own. Who I am has never been defined by how use the talents that I have been given to get ahead, but how I used them to develop and make up for the abilities I lack. She knew that taking the easy road would not prepare me for life, but exerting myself to do my best -always, regardless of outcome- would help me endure whatever situation might arise. Mom does know best!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Physics and Bilingual Education

Physics states that “two objects cannot occupy the same space simultaneously”. Can two languages occupy the same space simultaneously? Do brain cells compete to keep their language? Do multiple languages increase or diminish our ability to learn? In an attempt to answer some of these questions, I will discuss briefly some of the cognitive theories related to bilingualism.

First, the Balance Theory promoted the idea that two languages had to exist in balance. If the careful balance between the first language (L1) and the second language (L2) shifted in favor of one language the other would suffer. Two languages could not occupy the same space without taking space from the other. Either the L1 would decrease due to an increase in L2 or vice versa. Cummings characterized this belief as the Separate Underlying Proficiency Model of Bilingualism (SUP).

On the other hand, the Common Underlying Proficiency Model of Bilingualism (CUP) is an alternative to the SUP model. In this model the external characteristics of L1 and L2 are different but the internal underlying processes of comprehension are the same.
While speech, grammar, and writing may be completely different in L1 and L2, the process by which we understand and internalize concepts lie in the same area.

Baker (1996) states that the CUP model operates under the following six tenets:
1. There is one integrated source of thought regardless of language.
2. People have the capacity to store and function in two or more languages with ease.
3. Information processing and educational skills may be developed through two languages with the same success as one language.
4. The language of instruction must be sufficiently well developed for the student to manage the challenges presented in the classroom.
5. Learning language skills in either L1 or L2 helps the whole cognitive system grow, as long as both are sufficiently developed.
6. Academic and cognitive performance depend on both languages functioning at full capability.

In addition to SUP and CUP models, The Thresholds Theory, proposed by Cummings, Toukomaa, and Skutnabb-Kangas, attempts to explain the relationship between cognition and bilingualism. There are two upper limits in this theory. Each one is a level of bilingual competence with their set of negative or positive consequences. Visualize a three story house with ladders representing L1 and L2 on either side. Each floor of the house represents different competences of bilingualism with their positive or negative consequences. The ceilings represent the two thresholds to surpass in the theory. Once students break through the second threshold and reach the third story, they can easily compete with peers in both L1 and L2. Curriculum may be taught in either language and the student would be able to grasp the concepts easily. These fully bilingual students usually surpass monolingual students in their cognitive development.

Have you noticed that some students speak L2 very well, but fail to perform in the classroom? Cumming's Developmental Interdependence hypothesis explains this phenomenon. It states that a child’s ability in L2 depends on the competence achieved in L1. A distinction between skills required to communicate in everyday life and those required to succeed in the academic arena was created.

Cummings called the ability to hold simple, everyday life conversations as the basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS). He labeled the proficiency required to meet the academic demands in the classroom the cognitive/academic language proficiency (CALP). BICS are highly contextual and rely on non-verbal cues. CALPs relate to higher order thinking skills and are neither context embedded nor concrete. The student cannot rely on body language or contextual clues in order to perform at the CALP level. The student must be aware of the subtle nuances of language and must be able to discern between idioms, accents, and unusual usage of seemingly common words. Conversational proficiency usually precedes cognitive and academic proficiency. Students may be able to hold conversations easily in L1 and L2, fooling teachers into thinking that the student is fully bilingual, but not be able to perform adequately in the context reduced, cognitive demanding academic environment. Thus our jobs as teachers is to foster the development of L2 at the CALP level.

The different theories presented suggest that in fact two, or even more, languages can occupy the same space. Not only can they reside within the brain, but the languages can feed off each other to help the multilingual person reach a deeper meaning and understanding of the world.


Baker, Colin. (1996). Cognitive theories of bilingualism and the curriculum. Foundations of bilingual education. (pp. 145-161). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, LTD