Sunday, March 16, 2014

TESOL Greece Plenary - Bob Obee "Issues in Vocabulary Teaching andLearning and Mapping Lexis to CEFR Levels"

Bob Obee leads the next plenary talk at TESOL Greece to talk about CambridgeUniversity Press' work in lexis and vocabulary teaching.

He begins with a focus on some numbers  related to vocabulary:

2,000 - the most common words which make up 85% of English in terms of basic use, corrolatable to the waystage level. 

10-12 - the number of words or lexical groups that can be grouped together in a teaching packet (lesson)

54,000 - the number of words in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (which is more than the average native speaker at about 20,000 for someone with a high school education). 

5-17 - the number of times you need to see a word before it starts to becomes part of your productive competence. 

Up to 1,000 - the maximum number of words a learner is able to learn in a year, regardless of learning context. 

4,500 - the number of words needed to achieve a B1 level in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). 

10 to 1 - "the hour when the clock stops in Cambridge".  I didn't entirely understand this last one, but it gets clarified a bit later. 

He moves in to outline the rest of his talk. 

We move on to a task where we see different forms and meaning of the verb "to know" in English, marked by CEFR level where a student would be expected to know this meaning. 

He then moves on to talk about the Cambridge Learner Corpus which is drawn from exam samples from students taking Cambridge exams. The criterial features for these are: positive (at level), negative (not at level) and L1 transfer. 

They also look at the language from a grammar perspective as well, as in the examples below. Analyzing the syntactical function of the language. 

Cambridge's way if dealing with data is to accept only data found to be "at level" when it comes to determining the forms used by speakers of a certain CEFR level.  The same applies to the point where words with similar meaning are transferred into common use by language level. 10 to 1 (remember?) is the ratio of frequency that decides this categorization. If the word's frequency is lower it drops to the lower CEFR level, higher and it fits into the level. 

Bob then moves on to talk about the "how" of vocabulary. Starting with how we understand vocabulary. He begins with depth of knowledge (phonetic and orthographic), it's main meanings of the words, main contexts of use (which makes translation difficult - as in the various contexts of the word "strong"), structure (transitive, ditransitive, role in a sentence, etc), underlying forms or derivatives, network of associations with other words (collocations), as well as connotation (woman vs lady is his example). 

He mentions that we need to work on all the various aspects listed above, but most teachers stop after the first two. E proposes going through the various aspects of words in light of these different approaches. Given the upper limit to learning of new forms this gives lends some great insight to intensive courses. 

He guides the audience through an example with a set of reflection questions on several words associated with paying. 

He brings up the issue of "refunds" being linked to "get back", receipts to "take it back", loans to "pay it back". 

He links this all to Cambridge's English Profile website which allows teachers to explore these various aspects if CEFR graded language. 

He then moves on to talk about memory and learning. Showing an example of a Learner's vocabulary notebook. 

He speaks about the importance of teaching learners to effectively use and plan their vocabulary notebooks. Basing it on mnemonics, schematics, and pragmatics. 

He uses collocations for research and a standard matching activity followed up by a timeline indicating which stages come first and which come later. 

Next comes the role of technology and 21st century tools as they relate to meaningful encounters for language use. 

Lastly, as we approach the end of the talk is the grammaticisation of language. He begins with a standard word formation task from a Cambridge Use of English examination and modifies it to increase the number of decisions a learner is asked to make. 

A second task is a text with select words chosen incorrectly based on register and having students explore all the words at their disposal to find words which fit better in the register. 

To close, Bob talks about the overuse of the meaning focus on language. The need for learners to find other words which connect and link and inform the use of the language. 


  1. That was really fast! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and photos. I'll share on FB.

    1. Thank you Melen@! I was posting during the talk from my phone, hence the speed (and the style/ be fixed soon now that I'm back home and at my computer). Thank you for sharing it!