Lesson 2: Rethinking the Place of Vocabulary

Problems with Contextualization

Virtually all approaches to communicative language teaching emphasize the importance of learning language in context. But what does that mean for beginning language learners?

Let's take a look at a sample vocabulary presentation from a commercially published textbook. The authors of Parallèles describe the Contextes sections as "vocabulary presentations ... structured around engaging, culturally authentic visual and linguistic contexts, [that] provide an enriched environment for learning and practicing new vocabulary and for recycling previously-taught language."

Vocabulary presentation from Parallèles

Imagine you are a beginning French student, and you encounter this text as the opening exercise in your chapter. What would your reaction be? How would you make sense of it?


The problem of over-contextualization.

Duration: 03:15

If materials emphasize richly contextualized language too soon in the sequence, learners can be overwhelmed. Blyth and Davis (2007) reported that beginning French students at the University of Texas at Austin were frustrated with vocabulary presentations in the commercially published textbook used in their program. Students repeatedly requested "a clearer and more deliberate progression in each chapter from decontextualized vocabulary words to contextualized discourse."

In response, developers created Français interactif, a beginning French program that begins with word-level presentation and slowly moves to contextualized language samples. Throughout the rest of this module, we will be using this program as a case study of vocabulary instruction.