Nations Four Strands
Vocabulary research and ESP
The fundamental idea of Nation’s (2007) Four Strands is that they provide an organisational framework for a vocabulary curriculum. The strands are designed to run through the curriculum. The Four Strands are meaning-focused input, which involves learning from listening and reading; meaning-focused output, which involves learning from writing and speaking; language-focused learning, where learners are concentrating on learning aspects of words such as spelling, pronunciation, and grammar; and fluency, where learners practise the vocabulary they know well in speaking, reading, writing, and listening. In meaning-focused input and meaning-focused output, ’meaning’ does not refer to the meanings of the vocabulary, but learners are concentrating on the messages, ideas and concepts being communicated through the input and output strands. With fluency, the focus is also on communication, but in conditions where the learners know the vocabulary well and they know the ideas they want to communicate well. Having three strands focused on communication fits with a recommendation of Ellis (2005) that learners spend more time focusing on meaning and less time focusing on form. Nation advocates for equal amounts of time and focus on each strand, arguing that the three communication-based strands are ’more widely beneficial’ and that language-focused learning is efficient (2007, p. 9).
The Four Strands encapsulate some key conditions for learning another language, such as the importance of output and input. Input is recognised as important for vocabulary learning (Nation, 2013). Output can lead to noticing, ’or giving attention to an item’ (Nation, 2001, p. 63). Noticing, according to Swain (1995), is an essential part of language learning, because the process of using lexis in speaking or writing can expose gaps in learners’ knowledge which learners can then focus on filling. Input and output also provide opportunities for learners to use or encounter words in new ways. Wittrock (1974) calls this use of vocabulary ’generative’. Nation (2013) now terms this use of language ’creative’. This generative or creative process is an important part of developing learners’ understanding of vocabulary, as Corson (1985, p. 115) explains, ’Meaning is clarified in the act of trying out new words in the context of one’s own utterances and in hearing them used in reply in the original utterances of others.’ Joe (1998) developed a scale for measuring the amount of generation of vocabulary by learners when retelling texts, from 0 on the scale where there is no evidence of generative use through to high use of generation (4 on the scale). High generation is signaled by learners working with a synthesis of elements of an input text, their own experience and knowledge, and the specialised meaning and use of the word.
Nation and Yamamoto (2012) state, ’The four strands principle is primarily a way of providing a balance of learning opportunities’ (p. 167). The strands can operate at the curriculum level and at the classroom activity level. An example of an activity which fits into the meaning-focused output strand is ranking. Using a sample of frequent items from the Coxhead and Hirsh (2007) EAP Science List, students could be asked to rank the words in terms of their closeness to particular fields of Science (Hirsh & Coxhead, 2009). The sample words are cell, species, acid, muscle, protein, molecule, nutrient, dense and laboratory. The students could rank the words in relation to fields such as Computer Science, Nursing, Biology, Agriculture and Sport Science by giving them a number (ten would signal a close relationship, whereas one would signal a more distant connection between the words and the fields). The students would then share their ideas, and provide reasons for their rankings. Using the following examples of Technical Law terms from Csomay and Petrović (2012, pp. 314—315) (see Chapter 7), bar, arrest, constitute, deny, court, document, permit, warrant, withdraw, proceed, firearm, fingerprint, exam and excuse, these terms could be categorised into groups related to different aspects of legal processes or people’s roles in courtrooms. The meaning-focused output in this activity comes through the discussion of ranking.
Other suggested strands-based activities for classrooms which draw on specialised vocabulary include a fluency activity with specialised vocabulary that could make use of the 4—3—2 speaking activity (Nation, 2013; Thai & Boers, 2016). In this activity, learners prepare a talk based on a subject they know well, using vocabulary related to that subject that they also know well. A 4—3—2 is basically a repetition activity, where the speakers start with needing to speak for four minutes, then repeat the talk but in three minutes and then in two minutes. Some classroom activities might include several strands. For example, student presentations as part of an EAP or ESP course could involve both meaning-focused input and output. Having learners research a specialised topic by reading and listening as part of their preparation involves meaning-focused input. Preparing visual aids and giving the talk to multiple audiences involves meaning-focused output and fluency practice. Coxhead’s (2014b) poster carousel for ESP vocabulary comes from Lynch and McLean’s (2000) work on repetition and recycling. The poster carousel is based on the conference poster model, where learners research a topic they are interested in or read a research article and then prepare a poster for an in-class conference. They then present their posters to their class as they would at an academic conference. This activity combines all four of Nation’s strands, particularly if the learners present their poster multiple times and if vocabulary work in preparation by the students includes elements of language-focused learning based on the specialised vocabulary needed for the presentation, such as pronunciation, word stress and word parts. Nation (2016) provides discussion and guidelines for the Four Strands and word lists.