This article sets out to explore the merits of pre-teaching items of lexis in receptive skills lessons, a standard procedure for many teachers when working on receptive skills in class. It is a technique that most trainees will learn on pre-service teacher training courses such as CELTA and one which will thus naturally form part of their subsequent teaching. However, while it may be seen as standard practice for many, I certainly have my reservations about its utility, not only in my own teaching, but when observing assessed practicum on teacher training courses.
What is Pre-Teaching?
There is no denying that successfully comprehending a text involves knowing at least some of the lexis therein. Christine Nuttall (1982: 62) cites the suggestion that “moderate L1 readers can recognise about 50,000 words”, which does seem like a lot, and is certainly far higher than the lexicon of the average learner. This has obvious implications for the latter’s ability to process text and is why coursebooks grade their texts to different levels, changing (amongst other aspects) lexical density and including more common lexis with greater coverage. Likewise, teachers adapt material as one way of helping learners cope with text, with pre-teaching being another.
Pre-teaching lexis prior to receptive skills work in class is essentially the selecting of a few items that the teacher thinks the learners need to know in order to complete the subsequent exercises. This lexis should be “unblocked” to enable the students to better read the text without having to worry about focusing on words they do not know. It is a well-intentioned attempt, therefore, to obviate problems, such as learners’
- slowing their reading speed to process such items
- not recognising certain essential items in listening lessons
- becoming distracted by these items by reaching for a dictionary/translator to look them up
- being unable to complete exercises as certain words in the text are essential to doing so
In short, then, it is a means of attempting to scaffold receptive skills exercises to provide support in the development of these skills. In the staging of a ‘standard’ receptive skills lesson, the pre-teaching would tend to come before the learners interact with the text – part of the pre-reading/listening stage – but generally after the context has been set through a lead-in or through an activity such as predicting content in some way.
Problems with Pre-teaching
As set out above, the pre-teaching of lexis would seem like a logical means of facilitating learners’ receptive skills development in a supportive manner. However, I would argue that, in fact, it often does exactly the opposite, for the reasons listed below (in no particular order):
- it can break the flow of a lesson
- learners often seem somewhat bewildered at why four seemingly random words are being taught
- I am not convinced it actually helps learners develop strategies to deal with text independently
- don’t think of white bears! What are you thinking of now? If some lexis is highlighted before moving on to receptive skills work, is there not a risk that this actually distracts learners by drawing attention to difficult items?
- if done badly, it can be seriously counter-productive and can lead to boredom, disengagement, etc.
- it is not how we process text in ‘real life’ – is anyone going to pre-teach some selected items for learners when they encounter text in the real world?
- it is not useful for learners preparing for exams.
- selecting the words often involves unprincipled assumptions about the learners.
- choosing only difficult lexis also involves assumptions about the usefulness of such items.
- it is not appropriate for every receptive skills lesson but is often presented as such, e.g. when I was a CELTA trainee.
- it can distort the focus of the lesson from reading skills development to a lexis learning.
- it may hinder learners’ developing “word-attack skills”, to borrow Christine Nuttal’s term, such as working out which words are important/can be ignored, inferring meaning, etc.
Given that the above is a somewhat lengthy list of reasons against pre-teaching, you may think that I am simply being polemic and refusing to countenance any benefits to pre-teaching as a technique. In order to redress the balance, let us say that pre-teaching does, perhaps, have a place in some lessons, but not all. For example, teachers may deem it appropriate to assist learners with very specific cultural items, letting them know quickly that Mariánské Lázně is a place, for instance, so they are not overly distracted upon encountering it in a text about spas and faded European grandeur. However, this should be decided upon based on the text, the lesson, the learners, the aims etc., specific to the particular group and class and not simply be a given in any receptive skills lesson.
Another reason to pre-teach might be that the questions the learners have to answer contain difficult lexis. This argument is made with relative frequency, even by teacher trainers, and while it is perhaps valid if the teacher has no control over the questions, it is more indicative of poorly written comprehension questions, rather than a positive argument for the inclusion of pre-teaching in lessons. It is, in my opinion, highly unfair to attempt to help learners process text better by asking them poorly graded questions, something I am fully aware of from studying for Spanish DELE exams.
I mentioned in the introduction that pre-teaching forms part of teacher training courses such as CELTA. There is good reason for this, and another argument in favour of at least introducing pre-teaching as a technique (or more precisely for raising awareness of reading as strategies/skills) is that for many trainees it can be revelatory. For those with little or no teaching experience, it can help focus the idea that there is such a thing as a skills lesson, one not focused on systems such as grammar or lexis; likewise, for trainees whose teaching backgrounds are more ‘traditional’, it is often common practice to treat receptive skills lessons as simply “primarily… a way of reinforcing language input” (Field, 1998: 110).
This approach has precedents in older approaches such as The Reading Method recommended in the USA in the 1920s, which revolved around the text as the central component of the learning process, with each text being accompanied by a list of vocabulary which was to be taught before any reading occurred (Richards and Rodgers: 2001). However, this is not pre-teaching, as it aims to teach lexis, not facilitate reading development. Here, the text is being used for language development, not to develop the learners’ skills in reading (or listening). While this distinction may seem unintuitive for some, it is an important one, and one pre-service courses have a duty to make.
What to Pre-Teach and a Suggestion
Another question that arises when considering pre-teaching lexis is what to pre-teach. How does a teacher choose which words to isolate and prioritise over others? The general idea seems to be to choose difficult lexis that the learners are unlikely to know but which is essential for their comprehension. However, might it not be an idea to in fact select the most frequently used vocabulary to focus on? After all, it is this lexis that might help the learners get the gist of a text more than “glabrous”, for example. Indeed, there is research that claims that pre-teaching the most frequent words can greatly aid learners’ reading comprehension (Hancioğlu and Eldridge: 2007).
An idea might be to try using a Wordle (you just input the text and it prettifies it into the most frequently recurring words) or putting the most frequent words up on the board and getting the learners to check them in a dictionary (paper or electronic), or to predict the content of the passage from them before reading to check (an efficient gist task).
So does the teacher pre-teach or not? The answer is to use your professional expertise and make judicious choices. You will probably find that it is not as necessary as you might think to pre-teach, and maybe not necessary at all. Indeed, let the learners try to make sense of the text as they would in real life, help them develop their skills in reading/listen and avoid the temptation to over-scaffold by pre-teaching too much or at all. After all, is that our job?
Field, John (1998). Skills and Strategies: Towards a New Methodology for Listening. ELT Journal Volume 52/2, pp110 – 118. Oxford. OUP.
Hancioğlu, N. and Eldridge, J. (2007). Texts and Frequency Lists: Some Implications for Practising Teachers. ELT Journal Volume 61/4: 330-340. Oxford. OUP.
Nuttall, Christine (1982). Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. Macmillan.
Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. CUP