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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 1; January 2004

Short Article

"Word Surfing" in organised vocabulary notebooks.

Secondary and adult

Will McCulloch, Germany

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Common sense tells us that as more words can be used in a meaningful manner, the easier it becomes to communicate effectively. It is therefore hardly surprising that almost all L2 learners naturally recognise the need to give a high priority to expanding their vocabulary - particularly during the early stages of the learning curve. In fact, at the very earliest stages, it is a sensible strategy that they almost always follow.

The vocabulary (language) development process tends to start with people feeling the need to write down some essential foreign words (and phrases) together with their translations -before trying to remember them. A lot can be said in favour of this initial approach. It's a logical method that leads to a quick understanding of a few essential words and phrases. More importantly, it almost always encourages learners to build on their initial successes.

However, despite achieving some early progress, this very narrow and shallow approach to language acquisition soon becomes less effective. Learners, understandably, often abandon the idea of keeping such basic vocabulary notebooks after a short while. They soon realise that vocabulary (language) expansion goes way beyond any mechanical ability to reproduce single translations from memory.

“Word Surfing” (WS) was created to overcome the weaknesses of this traditional, short-term approach to vocabulary learning – and replace it with a much more practically useful, long-term vocabulary development strategy. Its design transforms a standard vocabulary notebook into one that gives learners the ability to move away from translations, and that encourages them to actually start using their chosen new words as soon as possible. A wider-ranging, motivating and active strategy can then start to develop at a time when learning by translation becomes inefficient or counter-productive.

The main WS vocabulary development pages are set out - as below - using three columns, with some space left free both at the top and bottom of each page.

The space at the top of the WS Page is available for learners to enter familiar words that are "almost known" - but need another reminder.

new words>>>>>>>connecting words>>>>>>>>my words









a a.m. abandon abbey abbreviate ability able aboard abortion about above abroad abrupt absence absent absolute absolutely absorb abstract abuse academic accelerate accent accept acceptable acceptance access accident accommodation accompany accomplice accomplish according

The space at the bottom of the WS Page is available for learners to enter more difficult new words which are not immediately important - but can be developed later when the more vital vocabulary above is known.  

In order to start creating an effective resource the learner needs to firstly decide what to do with any new ( or less than “known”) vocabulary that is met during any learning experience. The sample page above shows where “unknown” words (i.e. those that are unavailable for immediate “active” use) can be prioritised for development and checking within the WS vocabulary pages.

The vocabulary that learners choose to put into the “New Words” column should be those that are considered most individually important for immediate development. The second step then involves finding “connecting words” that are already understood. These words can be found, for example –

  • from the original sentence in which the new word was met or
  • through other examples given in a quality dictionary – or
  • with conversational help from a teacher or native speaker.

This investigation process will normally lead to the selection of personally interesting ideas that create good conditions for “learning by doing”. The process should -

  • have a positive impact on word retention through repeated exposure.
  • increase width of knowledge through different uses of the word.
  • help students to learn their new words by association rather than translation.
  • start to promote the habit of actually thinking in the new language.

The third step gives learners the opportunity to prove to themselves their own ability to use their new vocabulary in the “my words” column. This step should only be taken 

  • at least one day after completing the “connecting words” step.
  • if other personally known “connecting words” can be entered quickly and correctly without any outside help.

This basic WS method, in order to be truly effective, requires learners to leave gaps in their books whenever a step is not possible. By doing so learners are then able to turn their vocabulary development into a more personally interesting game – with a checking system that turns their vocabulary notebook into a sort of visual word jigsaw puzzle. As with a jigsaw puzzle, the idea is to be able to fill the gaps correctly – and create a picture (by gradually highlighting words as they become part of “active vocabulary”). Regular checks of gaps and highlights within the book can eventually lead to a situation where all words are completely highlighted. As soon as this stage has been reached, the student will be able to use more than 6,000 key words in a variety of ways – together with individually chosen words of particular personal interest.

Learner independence and motivation are both central to the WS Concept, which is designed to appeal to those with a positive desire to improve their language skills. The modern world certainly offers plenty of opportunity to speakers of more than one language and the incentive to develop multi-lingual skills has probably never been greater. Only fifty years ago most people didn't have the chance to travel much and the vast majority of conversations could only be with people who spoke “their language”. Opportunities to learn a new language – and work abroad - were very limited at that time when compared to today. There was a much smaller pool of available language teachers and a far smaller selection of good resources. The incentive to learn a foreign language at that time was understandably low for a lot of people.

Language teachers, faced with such circumstances, might be forgiven for following highly structured courses that fed students with a large spoon - full of something that might not appeal to their own individual taste buds. It's (almost) understandable that so much time has traditionally been devoted to early L1 explanations of L2 grammar structures. After all, the method of emphasising early teaching and testing of grammar usually produces (almost) acceptable and (reasonably) rapid results.

However, most teachers and students are now presented with a far better set of circumstances. More and more language students, even the relatively poor, have real opportunities to travel and work in different parts of the world. Those who want to stay at home often have the chance to communicate with others in different languages on the internet. A much larger pool of capable teachers together with a huge number of excellent resources are available to them. Nowadays the incentive to learn a foreign language is understandably a lot higher for a lot of people.

Under these circumstances, traditional methodology can develop into something more flexible, meaningful and motivating. Word Surfing is an additional resource that can complement expanding learning opportunities and help learners to improve more independently outside the classroom. By having such a resource available to develop vocabulary knowledge in their own time and at their own pace, they may just be able to “wordsurf” their way into one of the many multi-lingual opportunities out there.

Times change … and in today's world, yesterday's methodology may no longer be the best way to take advantage of current possibilities. A more developed publishing industry, new technologies and the internet gives easy access to huge quantities of language learning information. Students are generally able to use better quality resources and can increasingly begin to experience a similar exposure to L2 as they received from their parents, family and friends when learning L1.

Amazingly though, despite all these advances in opportunity, learning a new language remains fundamentally the same for the individual learner. The process still only involves…

  1. being exposed to the sounds and symbols of new words.
  2. getting to understand their meaning(s).
  3. reproducing the words….and
  4. practising them in a variety of ways until they are known and can be used fluently and correctly to communicate with others.

This has always been – and probably always will be - the basic development process for all L1 and L2 learners. With no magic language pills in sight, flexibility in the approach to learning is needed if students are to be able to take full advantage of whatever new language learning possibilities become available. It's only by moving with the times that we can help to keep the learning process as efficient and enjoyable as possible.

Having said that, L2 learners will probably always be able to speed up their journey along the learning curve with the help of two traditional items – pen and paper. There is simply something special about the writing process. The short time taken to write things down tends to save a lot more time in the long run - especially when things are organised in a practical manner.

Writing down new (or unfamiliar) vocabulary has always been a natural part of L2 acquisition, but the manner in which this has traditionally been done can certainly be improved upon. “Word Surfing” aims to make this activity as productive as possible through the use of well-organised vocabulary notebooks. The framework provided allows learners to prioritise the importance of their new words, use them in a variety of ways as soon as possible and efficiently check real progress.

The best way to appreciate the WS concept is, of course, to actually use the resource and “learn by doing”. A fuller description of the WS Technique, a lesson plan and materials are all freely available from http://www.wordsurfing.co.uk together with lots of exercises and other useful information connected to vocabulary development strategies.

Finally, an open discussion group http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/wordsurfing/ has also recently been set up to monitor reaction to the introduction of WS – and to provide an opportunity to put forward any other ideas that could also help learners of all languages with their vital vocabulary development.

Will McCulloch
Vocabulary Developer


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