Michael Goeller, Associate Director of the Rutgers Writing Program, and Agnieszka Goeller, Interim EAD Coordinator and Associate Professor, presented at the New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference on May 25. The pair presented their talk, “Teaching Writing to Second-Language Learners: Focusing on Vocabulary over Grammar,” for the second year in a row.
Michael and Agnieszka’s presentation explained the reasons behind a spike in English Language Learners at Rutgers. In short, Rutgers began recruiting international students more in 2011, and the amount of students coming from Asia to attend Rutgers spiked. This prompted Rutgers to quickly come up with ways to best accommodate and educate their increasing population of foreign students. The increase in students needing more help from the Writing Program means that now, 17,000 students are served each year.
Michael and Agnieszka explained that there are two types of English Language Learners that Rutgers might see. Type 1 is the resident student, or a student who has lived in the United States for at least two years prior to attending Rutgers. The second type of student is called a visitor, and they often arrive in the United States less than a month before the first day of classes. At this time, Agnieszka estimates that 90% of Rutgers’s ELL students are visitors.
Surprisingly, visitors often have stronger grammar skills than residents because they have studied for the TOEFL. But, visitors face the challenge of having a limited vocabulary, and thus present a high level of errors without a clear pattern.
Agnieszka explained that a reader needs to know 98% of the words on a page in order to be able to guess the remaining 2% with context clues. This statistic reflects the importance of having a strong vocabulary at one’s disposal. She further elaborated that vocabulary is more than just memorizing SAT words one by one. In fact, educators need to shift the focus of vocabulary to phrases. When a student understands the words that typically surround a vocabulary word, then they can appropriately understand and use that word in an essay.
Oftentimes, though, educators see an error in preposition use, for example, as a grammar error rather than an error in the student’s understanding of the word requiring the preposition. Then, in marking the paper, the teacher will correct the error, drawing attention to the grammar mistakes rather than flagging the vocabulary word the student needs to understand more deeply.
To combat this issue, Michael and Agnieszka suggest having students keep a vocabulary log. When correcting a paper, the teacher should correct the error but also mark the misused vocabulary word with a highlighter for the student to add to their log.
Students can learn the phrases associated with a vocabulary word by using a collocation dictionary, available online here, or by simply googling “[word/phrase] sentence.” This simple Google search will bring up tons of sample sentences available online, and the student can learn from reading the sample and jotting some down in their vocabulary log.
To learn more about Michael and Agnieszka's vocabulary logs, you can access their powerpoint and handout from the conference here, as well as other supporting materials from presenters throughout the day.