Saturday, February 22, 2014

Vocabulary Acquistion and Flashcards, part 1

(The following is taken from a presentation which I gave at the 2012 American Classical League Summer Institute, as well as the 2013 Northeastern Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language conference. This is part 1 of a series of postings on vocabulary and flashcards)

When we were learning Latin, we all probably made flashcards of some kind in order to learn vocabulary. We wrote the Latin on one side with all of its parts (nominative, genitive and gender for nouns, while all four principal parts for verbs), and on the other side, we wrote the English meaning. We drilled ourselves faithfully with these flashcards, looking at the Latin in order to produce the English. And for the most part, they worked for us.

Or did they?

In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with flashcards, because they do work depending on the task, but there are a number of reasons why they do not always benefit students.
  1. Flashcards only work for a certain type of learner - the visual kinesthetic learner. Yet many Latn teachers require all of their students to create flashcards and to turn them in as a grade. Why do we insist that students do this when it only benefits a small percentage of students?
  2. Flashcards only present words as isolated forms. We know that language does not operate as individual words set in isolation.
  3. Flashcards only offer temporary memorization, not long term internalization. This is why many times, students will immediately forget vocabulary following a quiz, even though they "studied" using flashcards. I call this the "cram and flush" syndrome - they "cram" for a quiz, and they "flush" it from their minds as soon as the quiz is over.
According to Krashen's Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theory, flashcards illustrate the difference between learning and acquiring.
  • Learning refers to the processes by which people actively and strenuously BUT temporarily internalize information. This is what is called conscious learning.
  • Acquiring refers to the relatively effortless, subconsious and permanent internalization of new information. This is what is called subconscious learning.
In her book When Kids Can't Read, What Teachers Can Do, Kylene Beers writes of an experiement demonstrating subconscious learning done with some particular low-performing middle school Language Arts classes. Weekly, students took vocabulary quizzes over a list of 20 words which the teacher gave to them to learn on their own at the beginning of the week (does this sound familiar? I feel like instead of Language Arts, insert the word Latin). The results were atrocious, and even those student who did perform well immediately forgot the words. So the experiment was as follows:
  1. Two weeks before the quiz, the teachers themselves were to learn the 20 vocabulary words
  2. A week before the quiz, the teachers themselves were to incorporate and to use these 20 words in their everday instruction as a way to preview the words for students in a context.
  3. The week of the quiz, the teachers were to give the list of 20 words to students, who by now should be familiar with the words
On paper, this sounded like a great exercise, as one would expect students' scores to rise due to the constant exposure to the vocabulary. But the problem in this experiment actually was not with the students but with the teachers. The issues were:
  1. 20 words a week was too much for the teachers to handle. They could not keep track of the words. In other words, if the teachers could not do it, then how did they expect students to do it?
  2. The 20 words themselves were too difficult and random for teachers to preview for students in a natural way.
So the teachers decided to cut the list in half to 10 words and to choose words which could easily be used naturally in their instruction. When the teachers made those changes to the experiment, they saw the scores on students' vocabulary quizzes rise, and even better, retention of these words improved as these words began to appear in students' writings and in their everyday conversation.

So what were the conclusions from this experiment? In order to acquire and to internalize vocabulary:
  1. It must be limited
  2. It must be meaningful
  3. It must be contextual and not isolated
  4. It must be constantly repeated in a meaningful and contextual way
Does this not sound very familiar to the ears of CI users? How interesting that this aspect of Krashen's SLA theory was independently verified by a middle school Language Arts class!

My next posting will be part 2 in the series and will deal with how I myself have been experimenting though with "flashcards" in a CI kind of way this school year.

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