Running After Vocabulary!

“You don’t have a single spelling mistake in your last school assignment, but the quality of phrasing is poor”, stated the teacher to Michael as he returned his English homework. “Therefore, you only pass! You should learn the meaning behind more words and expand your vocabulary. The words “go” and “went” are repeated 17 times in your text!”

Michael was disappointed, as he had tried to learn the new vocabulary in the weeks leading to the test. He spent hours in his room memorizing his vocabulary lists from beginning to end, and from end to beginning. His mother had noticed his efforts and praised him despite his mediocre mark. She noted great improvement in his language skills in this assignment because of his perfect spelling.

Experience shows that memorizing vocabulary hardly improves writing style. Cramming vocabulary lists doesn’t create a connection between real things and events, but rather at best an association to the manner of learning itself. Often learning from lists only teaches the word order in a vocabulary list. A word is often on the tip of your tongue, but despite all efforts doesn’t come to mind. The word especially doesn’t appear when in a foreign land and asking a price in a shop.

Another problem of learning by lists is that the memorized words are only related in the order given in the vocabulary list; the words don’t have any meaning outside of the list. Memorized vocabulary may help when remembering a word the following day in school, but memorized lists don’t help a half-year later when on holiday asking directions to a museum. Rummaging through your brain remains fruitless.

When learning a mother tongue in childhood, new terms are learnt in the context of real situations, or one has a clear idea of the word. Often curiosity to learn the name of something will be greater within a question-answer dialogue. The words are associated to concrete events, activities, or places and word association returns when similar situations occur. These links do not naturally occur by brooding quietly over vocabulary lists.

Vocabulary should be learnt while walking around or in the form of a running dictation. For some words, it also helps to introduce memorable images or events. For verbs, you can also try to perform the activity yourself or imagine it vividly. However, some words like nouns or abstract terms are difficult get the hang of. You can think of a story or write a descriptive sentence in which the word has a concrete connection. Of course you can combine many new words in a story. For example, you can pack a “vocabulary suitcase” wherein the words are packed like items for a holiday. You can imagine what you would do with the words while on holiday and say the words out loud. Pictures and movements certainly do not replace written exercises or practicing pronunciation, but add to and support it, so that one has a greater chance to remember what was learnt later on in a concrete situation.

It is recommendable to have a vocabulary poster that is mounted in a very visible place at home. Each time you walk by, the vocabulary can be memorized easier through repetitive observation and also through movement.

The philosophers in Ancient Greece already knew that people generally learn easier while in motion. The Greeks had special halls for teaching and learning. The monks in the Middle Ages recited the Bible orally in groups while walking and working. Faithful Muslims also learnt the Koran in motion by strongly and rhythmically moving their bodies while reciting the Surahs of the Koran. You can prove how well learning in motion works by comparing the number of learnt words using the “movement method” with the number of memorized terms by using the “sitting method”.