In France, the purpose of one part of the final exam is to see how well students
can deal with words in a new context, grasp the general meaning of a text before going
into detail, and infer the meaning of new words. Most students are intimidated by this
section. Some stop reading when they come across more than three new words. So, to help
them overcome this problem, I have given them techniques to cope with new words in texts.
Throughout the year, the students have the opportunity to read texts from different
sources, like newspaper articles, novels, short stories, and essays. This exposes them to
a wide variety of styles and topics. Within each category, I choose excerpts in which most
of the vocabulary is new. For example, when we studied The Sussex Vampire by Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle, I chose the description of the house where a mysterious attack had taken
place. (A young Peruvian mother is accused of wanting to kill her baby in a vampirelike
From this passage I created an exercise focusing on three main goals: how to build
an understanding of the text in spite of new words; how to cope with new words; and how to
build confidence. Students were told to cross out those words that were new or not
well-known. They were then asked to discuss the text, focusing on the goals mentioned
Building an understanding:
I started by handing out copies of the text with some words missing. The students
were asked to read through it, setting aside the missing words. The students noticed the
narrowing down of the description to details and readily inferred which were the key words
in the text. In this way they were able to make a distinction between what could be
understood in general and what had to be understood in detail.
Coping with new words:
Working in pairs, the class was asked to fill in the missing words. They could use
their imaginations, but had to select the most logical terms. In doing this, the students
had to identify the functions and natures of the missing words, and formulate questions as
to whether the words were verbs, adjectives, nouns and so forth. This led to interesting
discussions. Many times the students disagreed about whether they had to find a noun or a
Their awareness of grammatical needs became more acute. For example, having to
choose an adjective with more than two syllables after the word most seemed necessary. In
some cases the actual word was found, while in others, the meaning was close enough. Some
students had precise ideas conjured up by the context, but could not express them in
English. They resorted to the question: What is the English word for...? The
word was given either by another student or by the teacher.
The next step was to examine whether the text made sense with the words that they
had supplied. The teachers role is to encourage the students to imagine and to
anticipate what the author could have written. For instance, in finding one word, a long
discussion ensued about the different objects a Peruvian woman could bring to England.
These objects had to make up a collection.
The students were then given the list of missing words, but not in the correct
order. This way the class became more familiar with the new vocabulary, and they could
study the roots of the words and associate them with those they had chosen. Discovering
that their guesses were quite close encouraged students to use this method. As follow up
work, I gave students special vocabulary exercises using these new words.
Assessment of this method
Since the students were expected to make this technique their own, they were asked
to evaluate it. Most of the students found that once they had gained enough confidence,
they preferred not to deal with blank spaces, but with the original text. They felt that
the aspect or sonority of the words also conveyed ideas and stimulated their imaginations.
This was the aim of the method.
In most texts, students have to cope with words they have not seen before or have
forgotten. A technique that encourages students to be active and bring their own
contributions to the lesson, builds confidence. Once they have developed enough
confidence, they can begin to read and understand original texts successfully.