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How important is vocab in ESL?

Marcus deals with student’s flaggin enthusiasm for the vocab strategy in his ESL classroom…

As an English teacher you have to deal with a lot of nonsense. The funniest thing I’ve ever heard, though, was a student who said he was giving up the course because there was too much vocabulary. To give up a language course because there’s too much vocab is like giving up a Maths course because there’s too many numbers.

Language consists of words, and if you don’t know those words then you don’t know the language. Despite this, however, students simply don’t realise that their problem with English is intimately related with their limited vocabulary. This lack of realisation is because contemporary education has over complicated the learning process and become obsessed with the experience learners have while they’re learning. This erroneous trend means that everyone believes they must following method x or y, or playing, or being interactive or whatever. No one wants to believe that it is simply a question of lack of data – in this case, vocabulary – and that all they need to do is to memorise words to input that data.

• Listening exercises are good – but the biggest problem caused with listening is that you simply don’t know a percentage of the words you’re listening to.

• Speaking exercises are good – but if you simply don’t know the words for what you want to say then you will never speak well.

• Telephoning in another language is always difficult but no amount of telephone classes will help you if you don’t understand a certain percentage of the words you hear or know the words for what you want to say.

There are many important aspects to learning a language – fluency, reading, listening etc… but you will find again and again that these seemingly complex problems are simply caused by a lack of vocabulary.

When arriving at a new company or school, we make vocabulary our absolute top priority. It is both an academic issue and a matter of conscience. I am passionate about the career and future of my students and that’s why I can not let them (students who need English for their career) lead their professional lives without the minimum vocabulary requirement for operational efficiency in English. That minimum is 2000 words, and if I know you don’t have that vocabulary level but I start introducing games and random activities into the classes to make them ‘fun’, then I am not doing my job properly. My job is to advance your career and assist you in functioning more efficiently in linguistic situations. If you want fun – then go to the fuc*ing zoo! Work hard – play hard: fun is a privilege for those that reach the required level.

I’m not obsessed with vocab and I’m not a ball breaker. And that is the irony. I love fun. Once I know my students have reached the 2000 word level (and have mastered the tenses) then the nature of the classes fundamentally changes. We can do multi-media classes, we can do role-play, we can do anything the students want. Therefore, I humbly ask you – if you are bored or frustrated – to stick with the program, reach the required level and then you can direct the course.

Big hug,

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