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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.