25 January 2011

Do something drastic - kick the vocab quiz

Ah, the vocab quiz, I remember them well. I used to have all my students do what I had to do in college- put all the new vocab on spiral-bound 3x5 cards, English on front, Spanish on back. I would drill myself and drill myself for that dreaded weekly (or whenever) vocab quiz, the one where you had to match the right words, or fill in the translation.

Why? Because I'm motivated (read: driven) by grades.

I remember the first time I had a B on my midterm report in college. I cried. (Here you go, more insight into me.) Intro to Spanish Literature. I was so annoyed at it that I worked hard enough to get a 100 on the final and bring the grade to a solid A. I never saw the letter B again.

My point is that vocab quizzes are a colossal failure. They are based on several false assumptions:
1) Quizzes produce long-term memory.
2) Short-term memory is desirable in any way in the language class.
3) Motivation by grades will draw the language learners to acquire more words.

When you give a vocab quiz, you're asking students to cram discrete words into their short-term memory for a grade. Think: what could be more useless? What about the students who aren't motivated by grades? I've heard this rant so many times by vocab-quizzing teachers. "So-and-so just won't study the vocab and fails every quiz! Doesn't he care?" No, no he doesn't. Because grades aren't motivating to him and so you have to find something that is.

And short-term memory? Why not reach for ways that actually create long-term memory of vocab--motivating popular music? reading for pleasure? Articles that use recent vocab? Finding them just takes a quick search on Google News. I just came across an article through a Tweet from a Mexican news source that uses a rich variety of vocab from Spanish 3--you can bet we will be looking at it soon.

Need more reasoning? Here is a list of words and phrases my fourth-year students identified yesterday as we previewed their next chapter in Ciudad de las Bestias:

ardiendo de fiebre
se arrodilló
se despidieron
al amanecer
la suya
no quedaba más remedio que

They haven't had a vocab quiz or test in two years.


Sra. Spanglish said...

I feel like I can't do this with Spanish I, and it's hard with Spanish II. Also, what are students graded on instead?

Sra Cottrell said...

Be looking tomorrow for an answer to your question. :)

JHG said...

Can you give us some examples of what activities you do to ensure mastery of the vocabulary? And do you have any advice on how to promote this kind of teaching/learning in large departments with different teaching philosophies? Thanks in advance!

Sra Cottrell said...

@JHG the blog has moved to musicuentos.com and I don't check this site much anymore. You're welcome to comment or ask any questions there, and as I've included some new vocabulary posts, I encourage you to explore musicuentos.com/tag/vocabulary. Hope you find something helpful!