English learners can improve their ability to use different words by practicing. One way to practice effectively is through repetition – doing something over and over again.
Repetition, however, does not mean repeating a new vocabulary word the same way every time. It means repeating the word while using it in different contexts or situations.
This idea comes from Sarah Lynn, who works as an educational consultant and teacher at Harvard University's Bridge Program.
She says that English learners often have trouble using new words in different situations. They are unable to put their knowledge and skills to use in new ways.
If you are like many students learning a foreign language, you have probably faced a situation like the one Sarah Lynn describes here:
"We learn a new word, and then, when the moment comes to actually use it, we can't retrieve it or we can't use it in a new situation and in a new expression."
The problem, she explains, is that the learner's language is not alive yet. He or she is not able to transfer what they have learned to a new situation.
In an earlier Education story, we discussed the importance of dendrites. Dendrites are connections in the brain. They grow thicker and stronger with practice.
Lynn suggests that better dendrite connections can improve retrieval, the ability to remember and use vocabulary words. One way to grow dendrite connections in the brain is to make connections to what you already know.
Another way to grow dendrite connections is to practice. "They say practice makes perfect" says Lynn, "but actually, practice makes permanent."
How to overcome the problem
The solution for effective practice, she says, is repetition. However, repetition does not mean what many people think it does:
"And it's not just about repeating it the same way every time...you need to repeat, but not just mimicking but actually thinking about it and putting it in next contexts and new situations."
If the English learner wanted to learn a new word, they would repeat the word. But each time they repeat the word, they should try to mentally put the word in different contexts and situations.
After this, Lynn says that the next step for language learners is to search for the new word while reading. If the learners read a mix of different writings, they will find the word used in different contexts.
In addition, Lynn suggests that English learners consider what role the word plays in a sentence. Lynn says the learners should think about this question: Is the word acting as a noun, adjective or verb? Lynn explains the reasons for doing this exercise:
"The more you do that variation, and the more you bring in different modalities in how you learn, the more robust the learning will be, but also the more transferable it will be."
Concordances and Corpora
One way you can practice her suggestions is to use concordances or corpora. Concordances are lists of all of the words that occur in a written work. There are concordances of famous historical works, such as the writings of William Shakespeare.
They show all of the words he used, and tell you where to find all of the examples of that word. Concordances can help you look for words in different contexts, and suggest other words that may be related to the word you have learned.
Corpora, the plural of corpus, are databases that gather information from many sources.
When you go to one of the many free online corpora, you can put in a new word and it will show you how the word is used.
If you wanted to learn the word 'sunglasses', you could type the word into Brigham Young University's corpus, for example. You will see a screen that highlights the word you are looking for in many contexts.
What can you do?
The next time you learn a new vocabulary word, try to be an active learner by placing the new vocabulary word in different contexts.
As Lynn suggests, try looking for the new word while reading.
Ask yourself questions about the word. While repeating the word, think about the different contexts in which the word could be used.
In other words, practice the same way, but differently. Give it a try, and let us know how it works for you.
I’m John Russell.
Words in This Story
context – n. the situation in which something happens
transfer – v. definition
retrieve – v. get or bring (something) back; regain possession of
work – n. something (such as a book, song, or painting) that is produced by a writer, musician, artist, etc.
database – n. a collection of pieces of information that is organized and used on a compute