I have been visiting some primary schools recently. In each school, there are many posters outside of the EFL classrooms. One series of posters has pictures of October, November and December words along with words beneath the pictures. For October the poster has a pumpkin with the word pumpkin beneath in. For November there is a picture of a turkey with the word turkey beneath it. For December there is a wreath with the word wreath printed under it.

banana1Inside the English classrooms, there are huge posters — 3 feet high by 3 feet wide — with colored photographs of fruits and vegetables. Under a picture of 3 strawberries the caption is “strawberry” and under a vivid photo of a bunch of bananas the word “banana” is printed. strawberryDuring the classes I visited, teachers had laminated 10 inch by 12 inch vivid photographs of places in Chicago. One picture showed the Art Museum, one the lake, one a fountain. Under the photographs were the words “Art Museum,” “Lake,” “Fountain.” During the class the teachers pointed to one picture at a time and said the words in the captions and asked the students to repeat them 3 times. They then asked the students to say the words in their own language. Few did.

On a visit to another school a few days later I observed the teacher passing out flash cards with a piece of tape on each one. One card had the word arm pit, another ankle, another wrist, etc. Each student was to tape the flash card on the part of the body that their flash card had printed on it. When a student taped the flash card with thigh on the knee of the student who was the model, the teacher took the flash card off the thigh and taped in on the student’s knee.

What assumptions underline these universal activities which focus on words without any context? individual words? In what ways are the posters a total waste of money?

As you ponder these questions, look at a few words in your dictionary like rat, elephant, ocean liner, canoe.  If your dictionary has sketches or photographs of these words in 99% of the cases the rat and elephant are shown as if they are the same size. Ditto for the ocean liner and the canoe. Those who produce dictionaries like those who produce posters seem not to be aware that if you do not know the word “wreath” seeing a picture of one could mean that “wreath is a circle, green, red flowers” to name a few.  If you know the word pumpkin, you know that the picture is of a vegetable. But if you do not know, the picture cold be the color orange or  a round object, to name two possibilities. And with no indication of size–the wreath and Santa Claus are the same size in the poster — how can one who does not know the meanings of the words nor has not seen these items before understand?

I just received a photograph of the ocean from a friend’s apartment in Redondo Beach, California. The caption was “Winter.” If I show a picture of a lake and say “lake” I cannot assume that the learners have any idea of the meaning. The word “lake” could be a color, a season, as I just mentioned, water, the sky, peace to name a few possibilities.

The idea that one picture is worth a thousand words is, I think, an overstatement. In many cases, one picture can suggest many meanings that are different from the caption. I think that there would be no loss if there were no posters in schools with captions. I think that there would be gains if teachers used the words they thought were important in contexts and in patterns. Learning content words like pumpkin is not difficult. Students with bilingual dictionaries can get the meaning in a heartbeat. But pumpkin is not the problem.

The issue is the word order and the function words — or what I call A 4 words or 8 1/2 by 11 words because they all fit on one sheet of paper of this size. What are these words? Here is the short list —


— to name about 15% of them.

Those who produce dictionaries and posters seem to miss the point that words have meaning only in context and in relationship to each other. (Having said this, dictionaries contain a rich range of information not only about words but about how they are used and often they provide sentences with the words used correctly. But the sketches and captions of words like “book” under a book rather than “a book” are misleading. Book can mean make a reservation; it is a verb. But “a book” is a noun indicated by the “a.” The lack of the use of articles is, I think, a huge flaw and one reason non-native speakers do not use articles. Why would they? The dictionaries they use and the posters their teachers use omit the article.

Getting back to the picture of Lake Michigan in Chicago about which the teacher asked the students to repeat “lake” three times is really a waste of time, both because three repetitions are not likely to lead to retention, and because the word is not used in relation to other words. Here are some other options. Say these sentences: “The water is blue.” “Your uniform is blue.” “Give me a blue pen.” “Give me a black pen.” “The sky is blue.” “Point to the lake in the picture.” “Point to the sky in the picture.” “Point to the beach in the picture.” Of course some students will point to the lake when you say sky, but that is the point. It means that the picture and the caption alone are not useful. They have to see relationships between different words that refer to various parts of the picture.

Re. the parts of the body, rather than having students repeat arm pit, it is more useful to put the words in context and teach only one or two at a time. When in life do we point to all parts of our body and say the names for the parts? Never! At a doctor’s office we might say “My wrist hurts. ” But it is unlikely that we will say ” My head hurts; my armpit hurts, my ankle hurts, my thigh hurts, my foot hurts, my fingers hurt, my fingernails hurt, my eyes hurt, my lips hurt, etc. ” Here are some other options though they are not all that normal when we chat with others about body parts:

“Raise your left arm.”
“Raise your right arm.”
“Point to your left wrist.”
“Point to your right wrist.”
“Point to your left eye.”
“Point to your right eye.”

Though these are not normal sentences when we talk, they use the words in patterns rather than in isolation. And “point to” can be used with hundreds of words — “Point to the lake,” “Point to the ceiling,” “Point to the light switch,” etc.

Some of what we do in classes with new words can be somewhat natural — “Your uniform is blue.” And some new words will be somewhat unnatural, but at least they will be in context and will juxtapose words so that students can understand the contrasting meanings.

When I observe classes I note that 90% of the teachers follow the lead of the dictionaries. They say “Here is a book I bought yesterday.” and then write the word “book” on the board without the article or the other words in the sentence.

I am attaching a transcript from a DVD that is part of a book titled 50 Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners. The authors, Adrienne L. Herrell and Michael Jordan say that they produced the DVD to illustrate “exemplary teaching.” In the transcript  you will see that the teacher, Diane, introduces all nouns without articles. And you will see that she says things like “What might that look like?” which contains 5 function words and no content words! Yet she is dealing only with content words in her lesson. If the students can understand “What might that look like?” one wonders why she is teaching the words she is! Though my comments might sound like I am criticizing, I am simply trying to illustrate the importance of asking how what we think is helpful might be harmful and how what we think is harmful might be helpful. The fact that the authors of 50 Strategies did not ask these questions I think is very unfortunate. The fact that Dianne focuses on individual words out of context and says 447 words in contrast to the 37 or so that students say I also consider very unfortunate.  (The students said individual words in all but a few cases while the teacher said both individual words and many sentences as you will see when you read the transcript.) Again my goal is not to criticize them but to remind you that unless you record what you and your students do and then ask what assumptions about learning your activities are in tune with, and ask to what extent what you think is positive is perhaps negative, and what you think is negative is perhaps positive, you cannot understand what you are doing.

I say over and over in workshops and in on-line courses that you should believe nothing I say! I want you to analyze, explore and look at transcripts of what you are doing. Only then can you begin to see what you are doing in contrast to what you think you are doing and how what you are doing is in tune, and not in tune with your assumptions and ideas about how we learn. All the best.


PS Another consideration. Some words we use a lot. Many we never use but simply have to recognize, some in print and some when we hear them. “Trowel” in the attached transcript I would put in the recognize category. Ditto for “shovel”, especially for those who live in cities.