"Word Surfing" in Organised Vocabulary Notebooks

Common sense tells us that as more words can be used in a meaningful manner, the easier it becomes to communicate effectively. It is therefore hardly surprising that almost all L2 learners naturally recognise the need to give a high priority to expanding their vocabulary - particularly during the early stages of the learning curve. In fact, at the very earliest stages, it is a sensible strategy that they almost always follow.

The vocabulary (language) development process tends to start with people feeling the need to write down some essential foreign words (and phrases) together with their translations - before trying to remember them. A lot can be said in favour of this initial approach. It's a logical method that leads to a quick understanding of a few essential words and phrases. More importantly, it almost always encourages learners to build on their initial successes.

However, despite achieving some early progress, this very narrow and shallow approach to language acquisition soon becomes less effective. Learners, understandably, often abandon the idea of keeping such basic vocabulary notebooks after a short while. They soon realise that vocabulary (language) expansion goes way beyond any mechanical ability to reproduce single translations from memory.

"Word Surfing" (WS) was created to overcome the weaknesses of this traditional, short-term approach to vocabulary learning - and replace it with a much more practically useful, long-term vocabulary development strategy. Its design transforms a standard vocabulary notebook into one that gives learners the ability to move away from translations, and that encourages them to actually start using their chosen new words as soon as possible. A wider-ranging, motivating and active strategy can then start to develop at a time when learning by translation becomes inefficient or even counter-productive.

The main WS vocabulary development pages are set out - as below - using three columns, with some space left free both at the top and bottom of each page.

The space at the top of the WS Page is available for learners to enter familiar words that are "almost known" - but need another reminder.
New wordsConnecting wordsMy words
The space at the bottom of the WS Page is available for learners to enter more difficult new words which are not immediately important - but can be developed later when the more vital vocabulary above is known.

In order to be able to start to create an effective WS resource the learner needs to be able to decide what to do with any new (or less than "known") vocabulary. The very first step in the WS strategy is to always have a separate notebook available in which to correctly copy down (without translations) any unfamiliar words that are met during any learning experience. A running list of such words can be made on one side of each page - with the other side being used to copy down any interesting short sentences ( without translation - even if not initially understood) that may be useful (and surprisingly satisfying) to read through again at a later stage... as they gradually become familiar.

This first simple notebook (full of personally selected words and phrases) then becomes the source of new vocabulary to be entered into WS pages as shown above. Words from the original notebook are then simply ticked as they are transferred into the main WS resource. The design of the WS page shows where any selected "unknown" words (i.e. those that are unavailable for immediate "active" use) can be prioritised for development and checking.

The vocabulary that learners choose to put into the "New Words" column should be those words that are considered most individually important for immediate development. The second step then involves finding "connecting words" that are already understood. These words can be found, for example -

This investigation process will normally lead to the selection of personally interesting ideas that create good conditions for "learning by doing". It is also probably best to only enter one or two "connecting words" during the first phase of the investigation process. In order to be truly effective wordsurfing should be done over time, leaving gaps in the book so that important repeated exposure is encouraged at a later stage - before the column is completed. Using such an initial investigation strategy will -

Later again, the third step gives learners the opportunity to prove to themselves their own ability to use their new vocabulary in the "my words" column. This step should only be taken

By eventually completing this third column learners are able to really see how their vocabulary has developed within a sort of visual wordsaw puzzle. As with a jigsaw puzzle, the idea of the activity is to be able to fill the gaps correctly - and create a picture.

Word Surfing notebooks also contain alphabetical lists of the most commonly used words. These lists once again provide students with the opportunity to visually check their progress using a simple highlighting system. Words that are "recognised and understood" have their first letter highlighted, while words that are "fully known and immediately ready for use" can be completely highlighted. By checking these lists from time to time students will again be able to see just how much progress they are actually making - while also being reminded of some important basic words that need further investigation, development and practice.

The goal of the strategy (or game) is, of course, to create a situation where all the gaps within the book can be filled - and all the listed words are completely highlighted. As soon as this stage has been reached, students will be able to use more than 6,000 key words in a variety of ways - together with individually chosen words of particular personal interest.

Learner independence and motivation are both central to the WS Concept, which is designed to appeal to those with a positive desire to improve their language skills. The modern world certainly offers plenty of opportunity to speakers of more than one language and the incentive to develop multi-lingual skills has probably never been greater. Only fifty years ago most people didn't have the chance to travel much and the vast majority of conversations could only be with people who spoke "their language". Opportunities to learn a new language - and work abroad - were very limited at that time when compared to today. There was a much smaller pool of available language teachers and a far smaller selection of good resources. The incentive to learn a foreign language at that time was understandably low for a lot of people.

Language teachers, faced with such circumstances, might well have felt the need to follow highly structured courses that fed students with a large spoon - full of something that might not really appeal to their own individual taste buds. It's also understandable that so much time has traditionally been devoted to early L1 explanations of L2 grammar structures. After all, the method of emphasising early teaching and testing of grammar usually produces (almost) acceptable and (reasonably) rapid results.

However, most teachers and students are now presented with a far better set of circumstances. More and more language students, even the relatively poor, have real opportunities to travel and work in different parts of the world. Those who want to stay at home often have the chance to communicate with others in different languages on the internet. A much larger pool of capable teachers together with a huge number of excellent resources are available to them. Nowadays the incentive to learn a foreign language is understandably a lot higher for a lot of people.

Under these circumstances, traditional methodology can develop into something more flexible, meaningful and motivating. Word Surfing is an additional resource that can complement expanding learning opportunities and help learners to improve more independently outside the classroom. By having such a resource available to develop vocabulary knowledge in their own time and at their own pace, they may just be able to "wordsurf" their way into one of the many multi-lingual opportunities out there.

Times change... and in today's world, yesterday's methodology may no longer be the best way to take advantage of current possibilities. A more developed publishing industry, new technologies and the internet gives easy access to huge quantities of language learning information. Students are generally able to use better quality resources and can increasingly begin to experience a similar exposure to L2 as they received from their parents, family and friends when learning L1.

Amazingly though, despite all these advances in opportunity, learning a new language remains fundamentally the same for the individual learner. The process still only involves...

This has always been - and probably always will be - the basic development process for all L1 and L2 learners. With no magic language pills in sight, flexibility in the approach to learning is needed if students are to be able to take full advantage of whatever new language learning possibilities become available. It's only by moving with the times that we can help to keep the learning process as efficient and enjoyable as possible.

Having said that, L2 learners will probably always be able to speed up their journey along the learning curve with the help of two traditional items - pen and paper. There is simply something special about the writing process. The short time taken to write things down tends to save a lot more time in the long run - especially when things are organised in a practical manner.

Writing down new (or unfamiliar) vocabulary has always been a natural part of L2 acquisition, but the manner in which this has traditionally been done can certainly be improved upon. "Word Surfing" aims to make this activity as productive as possible through the use of well-organised vocabulary notebooks. The framework provided allows learners to prioritise the importance of their new words, use them in a variety of ways as soon as possible and efficiently check real progress.

The best way to appreciate the WS concept is, of course, to actually use the resource and "learn by doing". A fuller description of the WS Technique, a lesson plan and materials are all freely available from together with lots of exercises and other useful information connected to vocabulary development strategies.

Finally, an open discussion group has also recently been set up to monitor reaction to the introduction of WS - and to provide an opportunity to put forward any other ideas that could also help learners of all languages with their vital vocabulary development.

© Will McCulloch
Vocabulary Developer





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