Currently, a significant proportion of FLT theoreticians see learning vocabulary, in the expanded sense of words and phrases, as being the key to attaining a high level of proficiency. And yet there is still no solid consensus about whether vocabulary should be deliberately targeted for teaching or not. Two who think it should be, Laufer (2005) and Nation(2001: 297), remind us that there are others who believe that it need not and that instead it is communicative, meaning-centered instruction which is most likely to facilitate the acquisition of L2 vocabulary both in and out of the classroom. In this latter broad vein of theorizing little or no value is placed on methods which involve explicit vocabulary teaching. Long has led the way in popularizing two rather unhelpful terms, Focus on forms and focus on form, which need to be examined before more useful discussion can begin. By the former he means the more or less traditional practice of scheduling relatively prolonged lesson-stages with, e.g., test-teach-test sub-structure in which particular elements of the target language are taught in a partly or wholly non-communicative manner as in strands of audiolingualism. By focus on form without the final‘s’ he means the incorporation within meaning-oriented, communicative tasks of more sporadic, often unplanned, noticing activities and the non-intensive.
How cognitive linguistics can further vocabulary teaching use by the teacher of as-the-need-arises techniques of recasting, elaboration of input and error signalling. Although the terms focus on forms and focus on form have mostly been used to discuss issues of grammar instruction, they have recently also been introduced to the debate around the issue of explicit versus incidental vocabulary instruction. Here is Laufer’s summary of the assumptions underlying the rejection of any focus on forms in vocabulary instruction, that is, the rejection of explicit or genuine or targeted form-focused vocabulary teaching: on encountering an unfamiliar word, the learner notices it as a words/he does not know, decides to infer its meaning from context by using a variety of linguistic and non-linguistic clues, has a good chance of making a correct guess, and may consequently retain partial or precise meaning of the word. If the word is not remembered after the learner’s first exposure to it, or if only partial information about the word has been acquired, additional encounters with the same word will increase the probability of retaining it and expanding its knowledge. Even if very few words are retained after one communicative activity or text, the cumulative gains over time may be quite remarkable if the learner reads regularly and surveys a series of empirical investigations which show that not one of these assumptions is safe. In so doing she makes a very strong case for the necessity of genuine form-focused teaching of vocabulary, adverting to findings that guessing word meanings from context is considerably more problematic than early proponents of wholly meaning-centered instruction assumed, a point argued also by Skmen and, in greater detail, by Summers and Laufer. Moreover, learners seem liable to greatly over-estimate their understanding of word meanings guessed from context.
For good proficiency it is necessary to learn many low frequency words. However, such words are by definition unlikely to recur often enough in an entirely communicative, task-based setting for adequate incidental learning to take place. Therefore, when good proficiency is the objective, many low frequency words must be explicitly taught. We would add that this observation must apply also to multi-word expressions, the great majority of which occur with low frequency; an example exception is I mean.
Genuine form-focused teaching has the potential to speed up the elaboration of knowledge about, among other things, denotations, connotations, paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations, range, and register. This is important because the more elaborated one’s knowledge of a lexical item becomes, the more likely it is that one will achieve command of it. In a wholly communicative, task-based classroom, on the other hand, occurrences of a given item may well be so widely separated that elaboration of knowledge is impeded by forgetting during the intervals.
Productive tasks are particularly likely to result in productive word knowledge. But, in time-constrained classroom settings, i.e. in the majority of FLT settings, it is difficult to ensure that wholly communicative, task-based instruction will trigger use of any given item sufficiently often for productive knowledge of it to develop. Therefore, in time-constrained school settings, wholly communicative task-based instruction is not ideal for helping students to build large productive vocabularies.
Lexis that is hard to learn is particularly likely to remain inadequately learned in the absence of explicitly form-focused instruction. For instance, there is empirical evidence that explicit form-focused instruction can facilitate the learning of L2collocations, an outcome which seems especially likely in cases where the L1 sets up wrong expectations. For example, French, English as a foreign language learners, who commonly mirror the French dependre de by saying depend from instead of depend on, are likely to persist in this mistake unless it is made the object of explicit form-focused instruction.
It is true especially of low frequency lexemes that learners may be able to produce them in response to elicitation but not use them in free production either owing to lack of confidence in the accuracy of their knowledge of these items or because they cannot retrieve them from memory fast enough. Explicit instruction has been shown to help in such cases. Not surprisingly, exercises which promote speed of access promote fluency. Thus, strictly communicative instruction – a prominent broad aim of which is promotion of fluency – is, in at least this one respect, actually not ideal for fostering fluency.
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