Isolating Rote Memorization of Vocabulary – An Informal Classsroom “Research”

Reflecting on comparing and contrasting…
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The decision to frame my long-term classroom observations in the format of an extremely informal “research” was inspired by a post by Leo Selivan on ELT Research Bites – a collaborative initiative to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners.

Research Questions

a – How far can a student advance in terms of reading comprehension exam levels in EFL,  based solely on rote memorization of vocabulary, with little to no comprehension at all of the texts?

b – Do students who memorize discreet vocabulary items very well, but have little or no comprehension of the texts,  perform better on exams than students with poor retention of vocabulary but with better  comprehension of texts?

Terminology used

Rote memorization – Students who spend time successfully memorizing lists of isolated vocabulary items along with their meaning in L1.  Memory measured by number of correct translations of aforementioned word lists and the frequency in which the student turns to the dictionary during an exam.

Degree of comprehension of texts

Students degree of comprehension of the texts on the reading comprehension sections of matriculation exams is assessed in two ways:

a – The number of correctly answered reading comprehension questions that require use of a higher order thinking skill in order to answer them.  Particularly the skills of “cause and effect”, “comparing and contrasting” and “identifying different perspectives”.

b – Conversations in mother tongue with the student about the text after the exam. Such conversations are intended to help the student understand the errors made.

Reflecting on reflections…
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Six high-school students, divided into two groups. All students were born with a moderate to severe hearing loss but  either cochlear implants or hearing aids help them significantly. They all speak clearly and can communicate (at least one-on-one) using residual hearing and lip-reading. Only one of the six does not know sign language at all. All students have been my students for two to four years. Both groups are current students who are also similar to many generations of students I have taught over the last 30 years.

Group one – Three students who have strong vocabulary retention skills. They are hard workers and they can memorize a word list for an exam perfectly.  All three have very poor language skills in the language of instruction at school (a combination of Hebrew and sign language when needed) which is not their L1.  They all come from families who speak other languages, two of which are immigrant families. Two of them come from families with limited education and all three were not exposed to direct language enrichment at home (which is recommended when raising a child with a hearing loss). Their writing in Hebrew is poor with many errors. They can write, in high school, sentences such as this  “See accident in ambulance man hospital ”  in Hebrew. Their general knowledge is dismal, extremely limited.

Group two –  Three students who have significant difficulties in remembering the words provided for exams. While their language skills in L1 are also in need of improvement, they are far better than those of the first group. Their vocabulary in Hebrew is richer, their writing is better and their general knowledge is significantly wider. Two of the students come from educated families.

Through the looking glass…
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The performance of both groups were compared on  three of the four levels of external matriculation exams given in Israel – Modules A, C and E. The grades were compared and conversations about the texts held in Hebrew and sign langauge.

  1. On the lowest level, Module A, (roughly the equivalent of an A2 level on the CEFR scale ) the students from the rote-memorization group had  errors in questions that required any sort of comparison, inference or understanding a different point of view. They also had significant difficulties in understanding why their answer was wrong. Here’s an example

The text in the reading passage stated that Max was on a ship carrying gold. Pirates came to the ship and Max was afraid. He then jumped overboard. The question asked about the reason why the pirates came to the ship. These students replied that Max was afraid of the pirates or that he jumped overboard. They believed they were correct because they could point to that in the text.

However, there are not many questions that require higher order thinking skills in Module A . The students in the rote memory group preformed as well as or better than the students in the other group because they were able to translate the text with less effort.

2. On the next level, Module C, (more or less similar to the level B1 on the CEFR scale) there are  more questions that require higher order thinking skills. However, the texts are much longer. The students with poor vocabulary retention skills had to use the electronic dictionary much more frequently and had more trouble finishing the exam on time. Some of them felt tired and got discouraged fairly quickly.  In the beginning both groups scored badly but group b understood the cause of their errors better.  With time both groups improved their grades with group A (rote-memory) lagging at least 10 points behind, but certainly passing the exam with grades of approximately 70 (55 is considered a passing grade).

3. On the third level, Module E,  (more or less level B2 on the CEFR scale) most questions require quite an in-depth understanding of the text.  Higher order thinking skills are needed in order to answer many questions. Both groups fail the exams at this level at first but the rote-memory group do not improve in any significant way.  The other group finds the exam very difficult but the grades improve steadily during the school year. They do not achieve more than average grades, however.

Who’s there?
Naomi’s Photos

My very informal classroom “research” indicates that the ability to memorize well large  numbers of discrete vocabulary items can enable a struggling student to achieve moderate success on Modules A and C, despite extremely poor language skills and severely limited general knowledge  This does not hold true for Module E. However, since a student can fail module E and still be eligible for a full matriculation certificate, this is very significant.

In addition, at the initial stages of the year, the skill of memorizing vocabulary  enables the students in group A to do at least as well if not better than their peers in group B. It also gives them a sense of pride and achievement. However, those in group A are not usually able to hold their lead.

I believe that rote memorization has a significant place when working with students struggling with very poor language skills despite it’s known drawbacks and limitations.

Lost in a Book: “A Good American” by Alex George

A question of perspective
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The book was surprisingly good!

I say “surprisingly” because I was very suspicious. The title hints at slogans, platitudes, stereotypes or just plain “shmaltz”. It’s a library book (as opposed to one you spend money on) so I took it out despite my reservations.

So glad I did.

The multi-generational tale of the Meisenheimer family who immigrated from Hanover, Germany to a tiny town in Missouri in the late 19th century is actually everything the blurb promises it would be. It gets even better as the book progresses. The book is an easy, flowing read with a story that is both touching and amusing.

Best of all, I really couldn’t predict a thing! The ups and downs of this family, generation after generation,  did not follow the script I imagined after reading / watching other multigenerational tales.

What a pleasure!


Team Work, Book Clubs & a Podcast – A Comment

Aren’t ideas always depicted as lights that are turned on?
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While the title of Tyson Seburn’s fascinating post is “Serial Podcast for Extensive Reading”, I was only able to focus on the novel idea of using transcripts of an incredibly popular podcast tale for a book club when I read the post the second time.

The first time I read the post I was totally floored by the team work of Tyson’s staff and how a team can promote an instructional goal. Working with the constraints of time and not overburdening the staff, they set up a virtual book club program to promote extensive reading across the board, including all students and teachers. It is more than just a division of labor.

The pigeons’ staff room?
Naomi’s Photos

If you think the expression “floored” is a bit dramatic, consider the following. I’m currently working my way through a book called “The Power of Teacher Teams” by Troen & Boles. It talks about how truly good teacher teams not only help lessen the load of the individual teacher but actually improve students’ academic achievements. Sounds wonderful, right? Reading Tyson Seburn’s post had me fantasizing there for a short while that our multi disciplined staff of special education teachers could promote extensive reading in the students’ mother tongue in such a manner. An art teacher, math teacher, history and civics teacher should also be able to promote reading, right? Many Deaf and hard of hearing students do not like to read. Reading improves academic achievement across the board, so every teacher should be on board with this goal. At least in theory…

Unfortunately, the book scares me completely. While writtten in a very readable manner, it makes it clear that it is REALLY hard to get a staff of wonderful teachers to work efficiently together to achieve goals across the board like that. It involves organized sessions devoted to working on team-work skills, preferably having an outside instructor to get everyone to see that it actually matters and could be done.

Naomi’s Photos

One of the nice things about people who write blog posts is that they are perfectly happy to answer questions and one can simply write to them. Tyson Seburn confirmed that his staff had also had specific team training sessions.


Anyway, to get back to the question related to using transcripts of a podcast for a book club – I’m all for it. A podcast such as Serial offers a compelling narrative and rich language , with the added bonus of general knowledge.

Personally, I stopped listening to Serial very quickly. I do not like the true crime genre and do not watch such TV shows either. But that’s just me. So let me run the Douglas Adams  group in the book club ….

Lost in a Book: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

Who is behind the woman?
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The book deserves all the accolades you’ve heard.

The book.

I didn’t watch the TV series and I don’t intend to. The book left a powerful enough imprint on my brain as it is. I don’t need it spelled out any clearer and I don’t need the graphics of the violent parts.

Margaret Atwood is a master of the “how”, not only the “what”.  The story progresses, is full of drama and tension in the here and now. Throughout it all,  information relating to the past, to explaining how one earth did all of this come to pass, drips in, appears through the lonely single window of Offred’s room, slips through the closet and pops up all over her grocery shopping expeditions.  From remarks on the lack of plastic bags, for example, the reader suddenly realizes that Offred (who once had another name, one which we do not know) had  a daughter. The background and the backdrop literally grow in front of your eyes in a very subtle way.

And yes, it is scary. I read an edition with an interesting forward by the author. As she said, most of the events in the book have actually happened somewhere already. All the events are plausible and possible.

I’m glad they made a TV series out of it, even if I won’t watch it. More people will be exposed to this powerful tale. which is a good thing. All I can do is hope it will make people think.