School’s out. Almost. I recently received an email from my former student asking how to study English. She wanted to spend the winter vacation to really work on the language skills that she had neglected during the busy semester. I know many Ewha students plan to use the precious two months effectively by mastering such a great skill as English.
Now, as someone who is dedicated to making students love, learn, and utilize their English language abilities to the fullest, I want to share with you the great secret to acquiring high quality English. This applies to native level speakers as well.
The secret is, disappointingly, vocabulary and diligence. Similar to a chef whispering that the secret ingredients for a special dish are salt and pepper, I am sure you are let down. Unfortunately, I cannot deny that indeed, honest salt and pepper really make or break your dish. Vocabulary, in the same way, can really make or break your language abilities.
In fact, Nonie Lesaux, Ph.D., a nationally recognized literacy expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is adamant that elementary school students are taught vocabulary early and effectively in order to ensure success in life. Good vocabulary leads to higher levels of reading comprehension and reading is the foundation for all learning whether you are majoring in physics or in English literature.
Vocabulary is not about memorizing a list of words. Just get rid of that list. Your brain isn’t designed to memorize “out of context.” Let us say you do not know what “rabbit” is. The dictionary definition of the word rabbit is, “Any of a family (Leporidae) of long-eared short-tailed lagomorph mammals with long hind legs.” You might memorize this word and its definition for a test. However, within two weeks, you will only remember “hind legs” at best. But if you memorized the word embedded in a sentence, “The rabbit ate a carrot and hopped away,” you give your brain more substance to remember the definition. Help unburden your brain by always memorizing a word used in a sentence that you can understand.
Also, you get “two for one” by memorizing words in context. The background knowledge you gain through that rabbit sentence, that rabbits eat carrots, that they “hop,” adds to your vocabulary and world knowledge repository.
The next ingredient to language success is diligence. Diligence is an attribute that got you through the doors of Ewha. I hear educators lament the lack of creativity in Asian education. However, I can assure you that the West is looking to emulate certain features of the robotic Asian education. One such redeeming feature is the Asian students’ ability to work for hours, days, months and years on studying for the one exam of their lives. You already have this incredibly powerful component to success embedded in you. Why waste it? For two months, go for eight words a day. Never give up because that’s what everyone else does.
This winter vacation, really work on increasing your vocabulary power. You now know the secret ingredients. Why not cook up a feast instead of instant food that doesn’t do you much good in the long run?
Professor Lee Soo-kyung graduated from Harvard Graduate School of Education and has a Ed.M. in Language and Literacy.
*Professor Lee Soo-kyung graduated from Harvard Graduate School of Education and has a Ed.M. in Language and Literacy.