Stephen Louw

Learning vocabulary

Let's start with Chinese household appliances

I don't think there are any 'easy' languages - learn it as a baby and it's fine, otherwise every language is a steep uphill challenge. In my previous blog, I argued that a language teacher greatly benefits from learning a language, in that it keeps you 'tuned in' to the problems and frustrations students have as they tackle learning English. This time, I thought I'd share an example from my experience as a teacher.

Before story-time, some pertinent pedagogical background. When teaching vocabulary, we traditionally group words that can be taught together into 'lexical sets'. These lexical sets are groups of words that are meaningfully related to each other, and therefore belong together in the same lesson. So, for example, if we are teaching a lesson on cooking, our lexical set may include verbs like 'steam', 'roast' and 'fry'.

Lexical sets are the backbone of most coursebooks, which sometimes box them up neatly at the head of each unit. As a teacher, I also used lexical sets in my vocabulary lessons: if I taught adjectives, I'd teach them in opposite groups: old/young, hot/cold, and if I taught nouns, I wouldn't dream of teaching 'orange' without also having 'banana'. How else could it be done?!

An experience with Chinese

Once, when I was living in Singapore, I decided to try my hand at Mandarin. I registered, paid, and bought the book. Committed and ready to go. I consider myself to be fairly intelligent, and have managed to master a number of subjects over my school and university career. Chinese, I told myself, would be fun, and useful too! Millions speak it, some of them small children. How hard could it be?

There were 8 in the class, of which 2 were 'ang mo' (the Chinese racial epithet for white people): all the rest where Chinese.

This was interesting - why were Chinese people studying Chinese? The class hadn't even started and I was bewildered. Our teacher was a petite Taiwanese woman. She was really sweet, very kind, and she knew almost no English.

Right from the outset things didn't go well. She walked into the room and started speaking (kindly and gently, of course) in rapid Chinese, which everyone except me seemed to follow. They were smiling and nodding, even answering her with what seemed to be remarkable eloquence. Was this a beginner's class?

Tough lessons

I gravitated over to sit next to the American, and he did a valiant job of helping me, but it quickly became clear I was just getting in his way. In fact, I was holding everyone back - I was 'that' student. I could imagine the teacher sighing (gently and kindly) with exasperation when she thought about how completely thick I am.

In the third lesson, things became dire. The topic of the day was household appliances, and the teacher had taken it upon herself to teach every possible household appliance ever. We had a page packed with beautifully drawn television sets, radios and dishwashers, each accompanied by its associated string of Chinese idiograms. The first on the page was a camera. I never even learned that one. It was a disaster. Every atom of my being revolted against the sound of these words that were so lacking in sense.

Needless to say, I dropped out of the course, I don't speak Chinese, and I won't try to study it again. But, it certainly was a highly instructive experience. I can now identify with that desperate plea for respite from the weaker students in my classroom. I know what it's like to have your ego knocked about by alien languages.

A deeper questioning

At a theoretical level, my experience has also led me to question the value of lexical sets. Word lists, in general, are stressful for students: my Chinese list of household appliances remains a painful psychological scar. Being on the learner's side of that lexical set forced me rethink my approach - but how else can it be done?

Reading around this, there is, in fact, a growing body of academic literature that argues that presenting words that are closely related in the same lesson leads to meaning interference and hampers memorization.

If you are curious about the alternatives, you may find this article by Paul Nation interesting. In it, he looks at the weaknesses of structuring lessons according to lexical sets, and proposes some ways of reducing word interference.

Until my Chinese language learning experience, I had taken lexical sets as a given - but perhaps in language teaching, there are no givens: it's a constant search for ways of doing things better.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


Tim, now that you are working in Slovakia, it sounds you'd be a great candidate for our Great Escape section.

By Philip, Samut Prakarn (7th July 2016)

A huge problem for me when working in Thailand was lack of support. I did my TEFL and after that I was on my own. I worked for an agency with foreign bosses but they were too caught up in their egos. They were more concerned about being right and having an answer to every question, even if it was pure drivel.

My boss was this obese lady who'd never admit any fault. She had to do English Proficiency exams to get her visa. I think this chipped away at her inside and gave her a huge inferiority complex. One minute she'd be trying to help you and the next she'd be going off her head trying to justify her position. She really was disliked by everyone, but most teachers just smiled and played the game.

Teachers need proper support and development. I was never given this support in Thailand because it was all just a racket. I worked very hard with what little I had. I remember being sick because of the kids and they docked my pay. All my old boss used to do was preach about how great she was and how great and professional her company was - but at the end of the day, they'd employ anyone. Not even a background check. You can't take anyone seriously who's that deluded.

The hypocrisy wore me down and I left Thailand after two years with this company. So much happier now in Slovakia. I now manage a small team of teachers. What my old job did teach me was how 'not' to treat teachers.

Teaching is like billiards - You can still blow hot and cold even after years of practice.

By Tim Merchant , Slovakia (7th July 2016)

Great article!

The story about learning Chinese is an odd and misplaced one. It sounds like you were thrown in with people who could already speak Chinese. No wonder you couldn't follow the class. Maybe it's an analogy about how we shouldn't have mixed levels in the same class. Unfortunately, money comes first here in Thailand and mixed levels will continue. (But the onus must be on the (farang) teacher to bring those lower level kids up to the same level). Also, make this balloon into a sausage dog.

To be honest, Thailand has very unrealistic expectations of its farang teachers. You stick a foreign teacher in a massive class & expect the teacher to work wonders. The school and/or agency collects their money and doesn't care. What's the average salary in Bangkok? 35-40k? So for that, you'll be lucky to find a person with a degree in some irrelevant field who spells it 'you're' and not 'your'. He or she is offered no benefits, sometimes no sick pay, etc, and is pushed to work harder to compensate for the school or agency's abhorrent shortcomings.

I've worked with some teacher trainers before. Some were excellent and some were awful. Not to be ageist, but I found the younger trainers to be more open and affable. I found the older ones to be too set in their ways. I found the older ones thought they knew it all and couldn't possibly take on any new suggestions or ideas from other teachers. My TEFL trainer would avoid difficult questions (which he should have known the answer to) with a "You're the teacher. You go and find out". Thing was; I wasn't a teacher, and I had paid thousands of dollars to learn how to be one and have my questions answered.

I came to Thailand with the intention of living and teaching here. If I could do my TEFL course again, I'd want a trainer who had at least three years' experience at the lowest level in Thailand. Someone to say "Look! You're gonna have 40 or more kids in your class. Some can barely say hello. The whole system is about maximum profit. Education comes a very distant second. So here's the best way to help your students........"

Until we're honest about the system here; nothing much will change. Any school or agency that doesn't invest in their teachers, equipment and materials has no right preach morals or "think about the kids!" rhetoric. Shame on them. And as for all the hard working teachers who do their best with little or no support, my hat goes off to you. The system doesn't deserve you. The kids are lucky there's someone who really cares about their well-being.

By Samuel , US (Minnesota) (6th July 2016)


Wow, two well written and thought provoking articles in a row.


By Jack, In front of my computer (5th July 2016)

"Learn a second language and you'll understand how hard it is for your students" is very cliched. Instead of just saying that a language is hard to learn - ask why that 'really' is.

I remember teaching a teenage Israeli girl here in Bangkok. When she first started, her English was extremely poor. As I always do with my students, I inform them that I'm more of an 'instructor'. A teacher is someone who doesn't just teach the academics. As an Instructor, I just teach the language.

I told her that if she's serious about English she will have to practise a lot in her free time. Studying with me for four hours a week will help, but she'll forget a lot of it if she doesn't take it upon herself to keep practising the language in (her) free time.

I noticed a dramatic improvement in her ability very quickly. She was reading English magazines, watching movies with English audio and going out and speaking to English speakers. She wanted to improve and knew it would take hard work. Do I take the credit for that? No. I'm a guide - an instructor. I can only motivate you so much until you take it upon yourself to put the hard work in. I'm not the only teacher in a school of 1000+ students who needs to be getting that message across.

When I did my CELTA, I thought I learnt so much. When I started in Thai classroom, I soon realised that so much of what I learnt doesn't apply in Thailand. I had class sizes of 35-50. I had learnt from two trainers who had all the qualifications, but none of the real day-to-day Thai classroom experience. The Thai classroom taught me that experience was worth so much more. It's like the boss who comes around who has all the certificates. They don't actually know how to do your job, but they know the book says it's wrong.

A good teacher is a teacher that tries. At this TEFL level, we are not Harvard professors. We don't earn the money and we don't have the qualifications. All we can do it try our best and be honest about what works and what doesn't. Make the vocab more relevant. Get away from putting flashcards on boards and having students hit them with a fly swatter. My God, what a way to waste 15 minutes of a child's life. They'll soon remember the word 'dishwasher' once they've struck it with a flyswatter!". No, they won't. That vocab isn't relevant, and they only remember it momentarily for the purposes of being awarded a point.

We need to get away from the 'hand around the child' approach. (Although, I think in the west you're not allowed to put your hands around children anyway) Children want attention. It's hard to give a child attention in a class of 35+ no matter what 'the book' says. But to be fair to the book, I think one of the first things it would say is "Don't have 35+ kids in a class) anyway. Call a spade a spade. Adapt - don't live in a fairy tail style classroom with your head in the clouds. You can name the style of teaching with all the acronyms under the sun. If it doesn't work - change it.

Until courses are bespoke exclusively for Thailand, nothing much will change. Thailand has a unique culture and a unique education system. All you can do as a teacher is learn from your environment and adapt your style.

By Liam Gallagher, Republik of Mancunia (5th July 2016)

I think the school that organised the Chinese class described in the article did a terrible job of putting same level students together. As such, it does not really have value in this piece. Instead of feeling like the class idiot, a word with the school staff about appropriate groups might have been in order.

By John B, Bangkok (5th July 2016)

It does not matter how anything is presented if it is not relevant to the students than it is of no use.

So maybe the subject English needs to take a back seat. Maybe lexical sets are more important in other subjects such as science, math and as stated in the article cooking.

So is the problem in the almost fanatical use of text books. I hear it so often. I cannot teach without the teachers book. A absolute lot of garbage.

We are not teaching kids to put the correct word or symbol in a box during a test. We are teaching students to understand the man made and natural worlds we live in.

I suggest we spend less time institutionalising students into beauracracies.

I meet so many people that have lots of bits of paper but cannot do the basic things in life. It is as if they have spent so much time in organised classes that they have not actually had a good look at the world. We will need AI because our education is failing.

Have fun

By t mark, chantaburi (5th July 2016)

I agree with Steve. The use of this method of teaching vocabulary needs to be examined and questioned.

If you absolutely have to teach vocabulary, then of course groups of related words (lexical sets) make sense.

But really, the province of this area of English language tutoring should not be part of the expensive foreign teacher's remit. This is something that can easily be done by Thai or Philippine teachers.

And even then, I question the value of holding up flash cards with words on them. Words on their own have no context. It's like picking a few random numbers out of thin air and a week later asking the students "What numbers did we study last week?"

And apart from wasting the valuable time of the teacher, teaching 'vocab' isn't a good way to learn a foreign language... except when you are very young: ball... dog... cat...

Words need context. Teaching groups of words in lexical sets doesn't really help as much as some would have you believe.

I'll give you an example...

Most Thai students look at the word 'gloves' for the first time and pronounce the 'o' sound as 'lot' instead of the correct 'uh' sound as in 'but'. You teach them the correct pronounciation along with other articles of clothing (the lexical set) and next week they will have forgotten the pronounciation and revert back to the phonetic appearance of the word.

But if you teach the word in a simple phrase (and an image that matches) then the correct pronounciation sticks. "She loves her gloves!"

The other issue I have with lexical sets is that they almost always include words that no Thai would ever use just to make up the group.

Here's an example of a set of words that are taught at my school... 'shoes, socks, skirt, shorts, shirt, jumper'

Why the bloody hell is 'jumper' in there? Have you ever seen a Thai wear a jumper, say the word jumper or try to knit one?

Like the writer says... 'it's a constant search for ways of doing things better.'

By Mark Newman, Irving (4th July 2016)

Do you think it helps if an English teacher can speak some Thai?

By Steve, Abu Dhabi (4th July 2016)

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