Humanizing Learning Vocabulary through Thematic Clustering
Yaser Khajavi, Iran
Yaser Khajavi is an ELT instructor and teacher trainer in Iran. He currently teaches English in high school and at Islamic Azad University, Izeh branch, Iran. He is also an editorial board member of Theory and Practice in Language Studies Journal. His recent articles have appeared in English Australia Journal, Porta Linguarum, English Teaching Professional and Humanizing Language Teaching. His area of interest includes teaching methodology and cognitive aspect of language teaching.
What is thematic clustering?
The rationale for using thematic clustering
Examples of thematic clusters
Vocabulary constitutes a critical element of any language. Learning a language without learning its vocabulary seems impossible. As such, it is necessary to employ efficient ways for teaching and learning vocabulary. It is evident that techniques which consider psychological factors are more successful in enhancing the proficiency of students. In recent years, a lot of researches have been done in the area of learning and teaching vocabulary. As Svenconis & Kerst (2003) hold, classroom teaching of foreign language vocabulary is an indispensable part of the curriculum of many schools and will remain so for the predictable future. Many techniques have been proposed for teaching vocabulary in the literature on this area. In this article, I will elaborate on thematic clustering as a practical technique which can be used by ELT teachers and textbook writers.
Thematic clustering is the technique of grouping words that share thematic characteristics. For example, teacher, student and school, are all related to education theme. This technique should not be confused with semantic clustering in which words which share semantic characteristics are grouped.
There are some theories which encourage using thematic clusters. One theory is Schema Theory which explains how previous information possessed by the learner affects the subsequent learning of new information. Based on this theory, when new information enters one's memory, they are processed and then are chunked in meaningful clusters or schemata. For meaningful learning to happen, different information should be related to each other.
Another initiative which contributes to emergence of thematic clustering is notional syllabus. The textbook writers who followed notional syllabus utilized thematic clustering for teaching notions i.e. they classified the vocabulary or notions based on common themes.
Some other justifications can be provided for teaching words in thematically associated lexical sets. It requires less effort to learn words in a set than learning them individually. In addition, when words are learnt in clusters, it would be much easier to retrieve them from memory later. Thematic clustering lets learners see how knowledge is interconnected in their memories. Furthermore, when words are grouped in clusters, the meaning of the words will be clearer for learners due to the fact that words in a set provide a kind of context for learners.
Suppose that you want to teach the following words. They can be grouped in the following pattern. The first step is to find the similarities between words. This similarity can be in terms of size, shape, category or whatever connects them to a similar theme. The next step is to put them in different clusters.
I strived to elaborate on thematic clustering technique and how to employ it in learning vocabulary. Due to efficiency of this technique based on the related studies, it would be an effective tool for enhancing students’ vocabulary learning. It is suggested that teachers teach this technique to their students in order to help them master learning a variety of vocabulary.
Al-Jabri, S. (2005). The effects of thematic and thematic clustering on learning English vocabulary by Saudi students. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Nation, I. S. P. (2000). Learning vocabulary in lexical sets: dangers and guidelines. TESOL Journal, 9(2), 6-10.
Svenconis, D, J., & and Kerst, S. (2003). Investigating the Teaching of Second Language Vocabulary through Thematic Mapping in a Hypertext Enviornment, CALICO Journal, 12, 2 & 3.
Tinkham, T. (1997). The effects of Semantic and Thematic Clustering on the Learning of Second Language Vocabulary. Second Language Research. 13(2): 138-163.
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