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20 November 2010

Basics of Vocabulary Study in TOEIC Practice Class

Basics of Vocabulary Study in TOEIC Practice Class
Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan


Teaching and studying vocabulary are a major part of EFL classes. However, are we helping students to acquire a broad, deep and nuanced lexicon? Many TOEIC practice textbooks on the market here in Japan include a vocabulary section. Usually this is presented as a pre-reading or pre-listening task. Often it is a list of key words taken from the reading or listening exercises of a given unit. And the units are often 'themed': food and drink, shopping, at the airport, recreation, etc. So the themes and the TOEIC practice texts 'select' the vocabulary.

Also, textbook writers like to stick with the most frequent vocabulary of English because they know the TOEIC test writers do. The vocabulary pre-reading or pre-listening tasks most preferred here in Japan are (1) the bilingual word list (i.e., a list of English words requiring translation into Japanese) and (2) the matching exercise (i.e., a list of English words that are matched with their Japanese translations and/or English-language definitions). This article looks at ways to make better use of these vocabulary sections.

Pre-listening, pre-reading tasks

Activity One

If a unit has a specific theme, why not try, as pre-listening or pre-reading task, to get the students to pool their English vocabulary to make a simple themed semantic map on the board. Students are asked to activate their own vocabulary in anticipation of the key vocabulary in the unit that they are going to study. For example, a simple concept map of a chapter on 'the airport' might produce: check-in, tickets, ticketing, passports, passport clearance/immigration, customs, etc.

Be prepared to give examples. Encourage students to put bilingual words and phrases on the board so that the other students, who may not know the item, can understand it (this works in Japan because most students are either native speakers of Japanese or are studying it as a second or foreign language). When the first map is complete, go over the vocabulary with the students, practicing pronunciation.

Activity Two

Being able to match key terms with equally immportant or even more basic synonyms is an important skill for taking language proficiency tests. You can practice it in this task. From the first map that you and the students did together, choose key items. For this task, ask students to see if they can produce synonyms, synonymous phrases or near equivalents for the key terms that you have chosen. For example:

baggage: luggage, suitcases, bags

confirm: check, make sure, verify

restroom: toilet, WC, washroom

restaurant: cafe, snackbar, grill, cafeteria

allowed: permitted

It might be useful to isolate some key action verbs and verbal phrases:

get: buy, purhcase
get: arrive
depart: take off, embark
arrive: land, touch down, disembark

When words are not clear synonyms, it is a good opportunity for the teacher to explain the similarities and differences. For example, we disembark from the plane after we have arrived. 

Activity Three

Another task that will help students to activate language that participates the language of the listening or reading units of the textbook is the generation of key collocations. Some collocations are so strong that they overlap with what is a lexical item. Ask students to come up with some key collocations for some of the words that they have already come up with so far. Be prepared to give examples to get the process started.

For example:

Get: some food, some drinks, some cigarettes, some rest (a meaning or use of 'get' not listed above but relevant to the given theme, airports, air travel, etc).

Restroom: use the restroom, go to the restroom

Allowed: smoking is not allowed, entry beyond this point is not allowed

Buy: buy duty-free goods, buy a magazine, buy a newspaper, buy some snacks

Lexical items that pair common words but result in idiomatic meanings:

get in, get down, get up, take off (as a verb), touch down, etc.

The teacher should again be prepared to give sentences that show the particular meaning in use:

Get up from the seat.
Could you get that bag down for me?
It's hot, so I'm going to take off my jacket.

The airplane was delayed by a half hour before it could take off.

Variations on Activities One-Three (above)

Since one of the basic tasks for TOEIC listening is to choose the correct description of a photograph (such as people checking in at an airline's counter in an airport, someone getting off an airplane, etc.), you might have students generate their own descriptions of the photographs in the TOEIC practice textbook:

There is/are....
The people are....
He/she/they is/are....
It's a .....
The airplane (is parked on the runway).
The airplane (is taking off).
The airplane (is landing).

Activity Four

TOEIC is known as a test of everyday spoken English (e.g., for travel) and business English (e.g., communications for a trading company). This preconception can be misleading. TOEIC is marketed as a test for general learners of English as a Foreign Language and for EFL learners in business and company settings. This distinguishes the test from TOEFL, which is famous as a test required to get into universities and colleges in North America. However, more and more the tasks on the two tests have come to resemble each other: the TOEFL has become more practical in some of its content, and the TOEIC has become more difficult and demanding of short-term memory than before. One area where the TOEIC can still present difficulty is in SUB-TECHNICAL vocabulary--that is, vocabulary that is not informal, and knowledge of it is supposed to reflect a basic cultural (Anglophone), scientific and technical 'literacy'.

This activity has been designed to help students study and practice for the sub-technical vocabulary they will encounter on the TOEIC. To start, you can have students brainstorm terms that they relate to a specified theme. For example, 'breakfast'. This might help them to generate words like: croissant, toast, bread, coffee, tea, cereal, milk, cream, butter, eggs, etc.

Next, choose at least one term to use an example of the need to learn and review sub-technical vocabulary. For example, 'cereal'. What is cereal made of? Grains like corn, wheat, and rice. In the case of a Japanese-speaking EFL class, a lot can be made of a cereal box that is written in Japanese. Can students find the terms on the box that are related to ingredients and nutrition? If they can, it should generate word lists like


Another communicative situation that quickly requires knowledge of sub-technical vocabulary is a weather report (and these find their way onto TOEIC):

gale force winds
high pressure
low pressure
rain front
moist tropical air
rainy season

Post-listening, post-reading

Often where EFL teachers fail is not so much in preparing students for listening or reading units but rather in review, revision, consolidation and follow-up practice. One of the best ways to recycle vocabulary is to give sets of multiple-choice questions the week after a TOEIC practice unit. Also, as the semester progresses, the teacher will want to choose the most important vocabulary from all the previous TOEIC lessons.

Example multiple choice questions

1. While breakfast cereal can be a good source of ______________ to start your day, some cereals are very high in sugar, carbohydrates and total calories.

a. nutrition     b. partition     c. division     d. ingredients

(Answer: a. nutrition)

2. A: Brrrr. It's cold outside, isn't it?
   B: Yes, it is. The weather report said that there would be a 50% chance of ______________, with rain turning to snow.

a. nutrition      b. participation       c. perception       d. precipitation

(Answer: d. precipitation)

3. What is XXXXXXXX?

a. At some companies and in some countries, it is difficult to _______________ a union.

b. Some fish in the open oceans _______________ themselves into large schools.

c. If you want to _______________ a surprise birthday party for a friend, it is a lot of work to get everyone to cooperate and participate.

a. plan       b. originate      c. succeed       d. organize

(Answer: d. organize)

Here 'organize' is used in three different contexts and it reveals a meaning, connotation or use that might not be so clear simply from consulting a bilingual or English-English learner's dictionary: To organize can mean to to plan, but plan doesn't cover the other areas of meaning with organize.

TOEIC also tests an EFL learner's mastery of inflectional and derivational morphology. Distractors for multiple-choice questions can focus on these aspects. For example:

4. Last week my friends and I got together and ________________ a surprise birthday part for Sue, and this week we held the party successfuly.

a. to organize       b. organizing       c. organism       d. organized

(Answer: d. organized)


Preparation for high-stakes exams, such as TOEIC and TOEFL, is now a major part of EFL classes in Asia. Teachers can supplement comprehensive English courses with textbooks and materials designed to help practice for such language tests. Some include 'language building' tasks, most often as pre-listening or pre-reading tasks. But even the use of such materials does not guarantee students will get sufficient, effective and systematic practice of the key vocabulary that they need to boost their scores. Whether or not the ideas presented above prove useful to your classes, it might be helpful to keep the following principles in mind as you integrate vocabulary learning in your own classes:

1. It is o.k. and even advisable during language building tasks, such as vocabulary learning, to confirm the meanings of words in dictionaries, including bilingual ones (good bilingual dictionaries can be sources for synonyms and example sentences).

2. Have students as individuals, pairs, small groups or as an entire class come up with synonyms for the key vocabulary of a given unit. More basic and frequent synonyms are perhaps the most important (e.g., use over utilize, use over utilization, etc.).

3. Have students brainstorm key collocations and idioms that at least partially contextualize the key vocabulary. As teacher be prepared to give lots of examples of your own.

4. Flesh out collocations and idiomatic phrases with longer examples, such as sentences or small dialogues that show the words being used.       

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