In part 1 I discussed some of the things I like about coursebooks and how I try to use them. Today I’d like to talk about one of the things that bother me the most in coursebooks: vocabulary lists.
Many of the coursebooks I have worked with, from a variety of publishers, include vocabulary lists or vocabulary boxes, frequently presented with no context. At basic (A1) or intermediate (B1) levels, these lists tend to be part of lexical sets (e.g. clothes or professions). At higher levels, on the other hand, they may appear in lists such as ‘phrasal verbs with get’.
Scott Thornbury (2002:37) explains that “words that are too closely associated tend to interfere with each other, and can actually make the learning task more difficult. Words that can fill the same slot in a sentence are particularly likely to be confused”.
Take for example this list of items that appears in the same advanced coursebook I mentioned in part 1:
get a foot in the door
put your foot in it
not put a foot wrong
be waited on hand and foot
put your foot down
shoot yourself in the foot
stand on your own two feet
get cold feet
put your feet up
have feet of clay
get itchy feet
have two left feet
That’s a list of 12 idioms using the words foot or feet. To be fair, they are presented across 4 short texts, for an average of three idioms per text. I mean, I’m a big fan of idioms, but this list is more likely than not going to confuse students. What is a teacher to do, then?
1. You could decide not to teach this content if you think it’s not going to benefit your students. If you work at a Language Institute, however, it’s probably a good idea to check with your coordinator whether skipping something in the coursebook is acceptable. In my second semester as a teacher the owner of the school where I worked received a complaint from a student saying I had skipped some exercises in the coursebook. It is important, then, to make sure not dealing with certain content won’t cause you trouble in the future.
2. Rather than not teach the idioms at all, you could select the higher-frequency ones and focus on those. If you trim down the list from 12 to, say, five or six idioms and present them with enough context, students will stand a better chance of using them productively.
If you choose the second approach, one possible way of given the idioms some context is a video, such as the Friends episode when Rachel and Phoebe compete to be Monica’s maid of honor. The while-watching questions are:
- What are Phoebe and Rachel competing in?
- Who does better, according to Ross and Joey?
One thing I like to keep in mind when using snippets of TV series is that we shouldn’t take for granted that every student will know the characters. If it’s the first time you are using a particular series, it’s a good idea to ask students if they watch it, what it is about and who the main characters are.
After watching the video for the first time, you can show it again and zero in on ‘get cold feet’ and explore its meaning with students.
If you can’t find videos to illustrate the idioms you want to work with, a nice alternative is telling students a memorable story. For instance, when presenting ‘put your foot in it’ I tell them about the time when I was interviewing two sister during a placement test. I asked them if they liked travelling, which they did. So I asked them to tell me about their last trip. No sooner did I ask that, one of the sisters started to cry. Thankfully, the other sister was able to calm her down. It turns out that the girl had gone to Canada to meet her boyfriend, only for the guy to break up with her during the trip. I really put my foot in it in that one.
Last but not least, after exposing your students to the idioms and working on their meanings, make sure you give them a chance to work with the language. My suggestions would be:
- Can you think of a time when you really put your foot in it?
- If you paid to go bungee-jumping, do you think you would get cold feet at the last minute?
Thanks for reading.
Thornbury, S. (2002) How to Teach Vocabulary. Longman