Specialized Vocab vs. High Frequency: “If You Need To Look Up A Word…”

Jim Wooldridge, aka Senor Wooly, once lamented over having to teach a unit on different kinds of fabric. That was his all time low in terms of thematic vocab textbook teaching. Thematic vocab teaching is basically mini units of specialized vocabulary. However, our reality—in a genuine communicative sense—is that people start getting into specialized vocab when they choose to do something…special…beyond common daily needs and experience.

Since archery is my latest thing, let’s use that as an example. There are a lot of specific terms in archery. Of course, if the purpose is to learn about archery in the target language, I’d probably be using that specialized vocabulary. But do I need them all? In a first year class, maybe I wouldn’t have to go quite as deep into the topic, therefore less-specialized vocab could suffice (e.g. “can you teach me how to hold X?” will be more useful to a student than “can you teach me how to string walk after nocking with a finger sling?”). So, not all of that vocab is necessary when exploring a specific topic to learn about the topic. That is, a particular topic explored lightly doesn’t require the use of highly-specialized vocab otherwise needed when exploring it deeply. Think of the kind of learning that goes on in a survey-level undergrad course vs. a very focused grad course. And in terms of vocab, our students are more like kindergartners!

In this post, I’m asking you to consider something, but only consider it…

If you need to look up a word for something students are going to listen and/or read, consider not using it!

That’s it. Just consider. Why? For starters, you’re the language expert. If you don’t know words right now, there’s a good chance those words are specialized vocab. Specialized vocab is nice-to-know, but not really need-to-know. In fact, once specialized vocab is need-to-know, it then becomes high-frequent. Think about the archers. There’s a lot of lingo used daily. In that context, all of the specialized vocab becomes high-frequent. Therefore, it makes sense to use that vocab amongst archers. But what makes sense in a classroom? Unless there’s role-play going on, certain words are going to be more high-frequent than anything found in a thematic vocab set. For example, “clothes” or “shirt” is going to be more useful than any specific fabric…

Maybe You Need It
There are probably a hundred reasons for why you *do* need to look up a word and use it with students. I’m not talking about any of those. However, just consider a word’s value within your given context, and students will receive a solid base of CI they can use to them expand into more-specialized topics and contexts.

Ancient Literature (unadapted texts)
There’s this common idea that students will read Latin literature. This idea, though understandable, misses the mark when we examine reality, especially considering that very few students pursue this. For example, there’s The Latin Problem of these distinguished texts being outrageously out of reach for most people, even if they’re really interested in reading them. So, if you’re choosing vocabulary thinking that students will eventually read a particular text some years later, you might be focusing more on specialized vocab (i.e. vocab specific to a particular text, or topic of antiquity) rather than general vocab that’s more useful in a student’s current context. More useful vocab has a better chance of being more meaningful, thus build mental representation of the language.


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