Transcript of Ep 28: Teaching Vocabulary for Acquisition with Joe Barcroft, Part I


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Stacey:  I’m Stacey Margarita Johnson, and today, on episode 28 of We Teach Languages, we get to talk to Joe Barcroft in part one of a two‑part episode, all about vocabulary acquisition. Joe, could you tell us a little more about your role at the university where you teach?

Joe:  Yes, I’m a Professor of Spanish and second language acquisition at Washington University. I’m also an affiliate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences of Washington University. I’m involved in the language program direction for the Spanish program, and I’m a second language acquisition researcher.

Stacey:  One of the reasons I’m so excited to have you here today is because your research on vocabulary acquisition has been in all of the journals, basically. You have been working on this topic specifically for years and have contributed a tremendous amount.

We’ve had several listeners who’ve actually written in or called in and told me that they want to do a better job at helping their students acquire vocabulary. You seem like the ideal person to ask these questions, too.

I know that you wrote a book in 2012 called “Input‑Based Incremental Vocabulary Instruction.” I would love to know more about your book and what it teaches us about how to teach vocabulary.

Joe:  Hello to everyone and I appreciate any instructor who is interested in improving vocabulary instruction. The title of the book is Input‑Based Incremental Vocabulary Instruction. The approach that I advocate and that is exemplified and spelled out in the book is exactly that it’s input‑based and it’s incremental.

In other words, there is a large emphasis on how we present target vocabulary in the input and what we do to promote all aspects of vocabulary learning incrementally and gradually over time.

The approach itself is based on 10 principles and some of the principles have to do with just our general programmatic nature, that missing logical and fairly straightforward. Other principles are based…really, they grew out of a long line of research on in an area which is called Lexical Input Processing, in particular. They grew out of theory and research in that area.

Most of the recommendations have something to do with either how we present input to learners or the tasks that we have them engage in or not engage in. Sometimes importantly, when we’re giving them opportunities to learn or to acquire new vocabulary.

Shall I go through them or do you have any general questions before I could go through them one by one?

Stacey:  So the listeners know, I am going to make sure to have a link to the publisher’s website where they can get a copy of your book. I would love to hear about the principles one by one. Thank you.

Joe:  I’ll try to go through them fairly quickly. Maybe mention a little bit of the research and theoretical foundations for some of them.

The first principle is to develop and implement a vocabulary acquisition plan. This is a recommendation that’s more of a programmatic nature. If we sit back and think about it, how do we decide what target vocabulary learners are going to be exposed to?

Is it going to be based on themes that we set up for throughout the course of the semester? Are we going to do something different where, for example, we might consider the frequency with which target words appear in a language and make attempts to help learners acquire, let’s say, a certain threshold?

Maybe the 1,000 most frequent words or 2,000 most frequent words in a language. There’s research on that. There are some decisions of a programmatic nature that we need to make, but I think it’s important to sit back and consider those. That’s what I would consider a vocabulary acquisition plan.

The principle two is already getting into the issue what I would call an input‑based recommendation. There’re input‑based recommendations and task‑based recommendations.

The second principle is to present new words frequently and repeatedly in the input. Here, by frequently, if you’re hearing someone talk, tell a story, explain something, providing whatever type of input it might be to learners, when presenting new words, our target vocabulary in that particular input segment.

The words or the lexical phrases can be repeated multiple times in that immediate input segment. They can also be repeated over time.

It’s something that, even though it’s quite logical and there’s a lot of research both from memory research and psychology to different areas of research in second language acquisition, particularly in L2 vocabulary acquisition research as well, that indicates that this frequency and this repeated exposure is really useful.

It’s quite intuitive that it should be, but sometimes it’s easy to forget, when, we, as instructors already know target vocabulary to forget to repeat it in the input where it may be useful to learners to pick up that novel form.

If a target word is truly novel in form, presenting it only once to the learner may be insufficient and so they may need multiple exposures, both in the immediate context and over time.

Stacey:  I have a question, Joe. One of the things that, particularly the students in my teaching English as a foreign language course, they often ask me the exact number of times that they should make sure to include a word in their input to make sure that students have grasped it.

Is there any magic number for how many times to recycle a word?

Joe:  [laughs] In my opinion, there isn’t a magic number because they’re so many variables involved such as how many novel words are in the immediate learning context, how many novel words are being exposed to differences in everything, from learner‑based differences to other issues related to the larger context.

How demanding whatever task the learner may be involved in, whatever content they are dealing with.

I know there are studies that have tried to address this issue but, I personally, would not recommend a magic number. Obviously, the more the better, but I think that there are things that you can do to see how well the learner is moving forward with the target vocabulary in question.

Typically, I’m going to say target words as we talk, but I also mean target vocabulary multi‑word phrases, and so forth. If I say new words I’m also including those multi‑word phrases. For example, if you see that a learner is able to retrieve a target word form on their own, that’s a good sign that it has been repeated, perhaps sufficiently in the input at least for them to get to that stage.

Anytime we deal with vocabulary, we deal with the issue of quantity and quality. Even if you’ve had sufficient exposure to a target word to be able to retrieve that target word form on your own, like in Spanish, a word like manzana or puerta, or whatever the target word might be, you can retrieve that word on your own.

It doesn’t mean that you know all of the L2 specific uses and meanings of that target word, which becomes an issue of quality. More exposures in truly meaning‑oriented input will help you to develop that quality of knowledge over time as well. Some of the principles I’ll get to also speak to those issues. Did that answer your question, at least to some extent?

Stacey:  Yeah, that was fantastic. Thank you.

Joe:  OK, great. The third principle is to promote both intentional and incidental vocabulary learning. By intentional vocabulary learning we mean, when a learner consciously, intentionally, makes an effort to learn, let’s say, a set of new target words.

They might see a list of target words at the end of a textbook chapter and go home and attempt to learn those words, or they may do a series of activities where they know that it’s their goal to attempt to learn those words.

Incidental vocabulary learning is when you pick up new words when you’re still exposed to them in the input, and again, preferably multiple times, frequently and repeatedly when you pick up words without intentionally attempting to do so.

That’s how when we think back of how we acquired our vocabulary that we have in our first language, the vast majority of those words were acquired incidentally. We don’t remember when we first acquired them. Often it is the same case for the second language.

We acquired these words over time we may not remember or know exactly when we attempted to learn now. There may be cases where we remember studying instead of words and having to take a quiz on those words that would be intentional learning. The principle recommends including both.

One of the reasons that I would recommend not relying solely on incidental vocabulary learning, is because you can pick up a lot more when you include intentional learning as well. There are studies that indicate that. I won’t go into those right now, but there are studies that indicate that.

The other thing that I would say about intentional vocabulary learning is that even when you’re intentionally trying to learn a new word, it’s a meaning oriented task or it’s something that’s meeting oriented in nature, even when you’re intentionally trying to learn a new word. I would point out that that’s different than intentionally learning grammatical rules.

You can intentionally learn grammatical rules, and then attempt to apply them. You could learn a grammatical rule about, let’s say a second language Spanish or second language German. You could actually learn it in your native language. It doesn’t necessarily have a…It’s not meeting oriented in the same way that intentional vocabulary learning would be.

I think that’s an important distinction to draw. The fourth principle is to use meaning‑bearing comprehensible input when presenting new words. This is a shout‑out to Krashen and Krashen’s hypotheses about second language acquisition in general. It really makes a lot of sense when it comes to vocabulary learning and it’s important to keep in mind.

This holds true, whether or not you’re learning words intentionally or you’re picking up words incidentally. For example, in a context where you have opportunities to acquire or to pick up target words incidentally, if most of the input, most of the other input is comprehensible, it’s going to be more likely that you’ll be able to infer the meaning of the new word and to pick it up.

If you’re processing a novel word in a sentence, you know all the other words in that sentence it’s more likely that you’ll be able to pick up the new word than if you only know 50 percent of the words in that sentence let’s say, or even less because you won’t have enough comprehensible input to be able to infer the meaning of the new word.

The fifth principle is to present new words in an enhanced manner. Most research on input enhancement has ‑‑ to date at least ‑‑ focused on enhancement for the acquisition of grammatical forms in second language, but there is some growing body of research on different types of enhancements that you can use to facilitate the acquisition of a target vocabulary.

One area that I would point out that I think is quite interesting is in the spoken mode. If you’re dealing with presenting target words in spoken language. If you use what we call different types of acoustic variability, that can be facilitative. It can increase L2 vocabulary learning substantially. What do I mean by acoustic variability?

Stacey:  That was what I was just about to ask.


Joe:  There are different sources of acoustic variability. When we talk about acoustic variability, we’re not talking about changing the linguistic signal itself. We’re just talking about changing the properties of the signal but not the actual linguistic message. If one example would be to use multiple talkers, when presenting target words.

My colleague Mitch Summers is also here at Washington University. I have done a number of studies in this area. One of the studies that we did, for example, was to present learners with target words. In this case it was 24 target words in Spanish, in second language Spanish. These were absolute beginners. They hadn’t studied Spanish before.

They were given an opportunity to try to learn these new Spanish words. We presented each word six times. In one condition, we recorded one single speaker and that speaker produce…We use that single recording of that speaker. We just used it six times. In another case, we had three different speakers and we presented each of those twice.

The first condition was no variability. It was just one speaker. No talker variability. The second condition was moderate talker variability. We had three talkers, two times each. In the third condition which was high variability, we had six different talkers, one repetition each. The overall number of repetitions is the same.

The only difference is the amount of talker variability that was in that input segment. This was a study that we published in 2005. What we found is that you have these substantial gains. We’re not talking just five percent. We’re talking a substantial amount between the single‑talker condition and the six‑talker condition. The three‑talker condition fell in between.

There is an example of where you can simply…input manipulation by including multiple talkers, you can use to facilitate vocabulary learning. We’ve done that with multiple talkers. We also find that you also get positive effects for multiple speaking styles. This would be one individual using different voice types as they present the target words for example. Another one was speaking rates.

Interestingly, you don’t get it for every source of variability. For example, for amplitude variability, we did not find that. There’s some theoretical issues that we could get into, but I think we don’t really need to right now.

Stacey:  That is so funny to me, since most people’s go‑to when a non‑native speaker doesn’t understand them is to raise the volume.

Joe:  [laughs]

Stacey:  The one thing that you found doesn’t make a difference…


Stacey:  …is to raise the volume.

Joe:  It’s not to say that one volume might not be better than another but the variation in volume did not help. Does that make sense?

Stacey:  Yeah. That’s fantastic.


Joe:  [inaudible 17:29] .

Stacey:  I have to tell you though. The last five minutes have been a revelation for me. I had not read your study about the substantial improvement from having six talkers rather than one.

My mind is blown. Especially from a teaching perspective thinking about how I ‑‑ as one teacher ‑‑ am either making choices to be the primary source of input for my students or to bring in authentic texts and maybe even my friends and colleagues [laughs] to be sources of input for them as well.

How can I create opportunities for them to get the same vocabulary words from multiple talkers? My mind is racing.

Joe:  I’m glad that you found it interesting. The one point I would add…Everybody can intuit. Technology facilitates this.

To make use of it, text book developers and also language program directors and instructors themselves can use technology to create situations where learners will be exposed to the target vocabulary using these types of acoustic variability.

When students are working on home using their laptop or their tablets or whatever they are doing their homework on, they can be exposed to words in this way, as opposed to being just presented by one single talker for example.

[background music]

Stacey:  Joe, that’s all we’re going to do for this week’s episode. We got about half‑way through the principles in your book and we’ll pick up next week with principles 6 through 10. Thank you so much for being here and sharing all this wonderful knowledge with us.

Joe:  Great, Stacey. Thanks very much to you.

Stacey:  If you would like to comment or give feedback on the show or be a guest on the show yourself, let us know. You can find us on Twitter @weteachlang.

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Don’t forget to tell your friends and colleagues about the show. Thank you so much for listening. Bye‑bye.

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