Teacher talk as lexical environment

Marlise Horst & Tom Cobb

In studies of vocabulary acquired from exposure to second language input, the input in question has mainly referred to written texts. But the input learners experience in language classrooms is overwhelmingly spoken. While they may read dozens of words in an hour of class, they hear thousands.

The study we report used two corpora of transcribed speech from an entire ESL course to investigate the lexis of spoken classroom input and learner uptake. The first is 120,000 words of teacher speech addressed to intermediate learners over a nine-week period. The second consists of speech produced by six learners in the same course.

The first research question concerns opportunities for learning vocabulary through attending to teacher talk. This was explored in two ways. First, we used lexical profiling tools and British National Corpus frequency lists to identify the words that occurred in the input, their frequency profiles, the contexts less frequent words appeared in, and the recycling of these items. The second analysis explored explicit vocabulary teaching episodes in the corpus. We investigated types and amounts of lexical information given and the extent to which explanations engaged learners in active processing (e.g. the teacher encouraged guessing instead of simply providing glosses). The second research question concerns the uptake of words used by the teacher in the learners’ speech productions.

The teacher data indicate that many likely-to-be-unfamiliar words were used in comprehensible contexts, but few were recycled often. Techniques used to explain meanings were varied and often posed cognitive demands. The student data confirm frequency in teacher speech as a predictor of use, along with amounts of teaching focus and the importance of words for completing tasks. Findings show the potential of attending to teacher speech as a method for acquiring new vocabulary but also point to important ways in which opportunities can be improved.