Vocabulary and derivative morphology in “¡Genial! A2: Curso de español”

Raquel Rodríguez-Fernández


The role that vocabulary plays in any communicative act has led to its conception as one of the fundamental cornerstones in second and foreign language learning. However, although research has recently focused on the development of new methodological approaches that favour lexis acquisition, these strategies and innovations have rarely been applied to teaching materials. Word lists, word-image associations, and rote memorization have remained frequent techniques in vocabulary presentation and teaching in Spanish, while other more efficient mechanisms such as derivative morphology have generally been overlooked. This review thus aims to examine one of the few teaching materials that implements this linguistic resource to foster a less memory-based vocabulary learning and provides some suggestions to improve the productivity of this technique.

Keywords:  Spanish as a Foreign Language, vocabulary learning, derivative
morphology, teaching materials

The pivotal role that the lexicon plays in any communicative process has contributed to its being acknowledged and conceived of as a fundamental element in learning a second or foreign language. For this reason, theoretical research from the last few years has focused on the development of new methodologies to facilitate vocabulary acquisition in the target language. However, on a practical level, teaching materials that incorporate these innovations and strategies in lexicon treatment are still lacking. In this situation, the publication of a student book such as ¡Genial! A2 – Curso de español posits an original contribution to the field of SFL (Spanish as a Foreign Language). In this book, the layout and treatment of the vocabulary provided for this learning level manage to distance themselves from the traditional listing of words, in order to present the student with a more dynamic learning strategy, not limited to memorisation alone.  

Divided into eight different units, this student book includes within each of these a section solely devoted to the introduction of new lexical content, although its treatment is not limited to them: an accompanying workbook also offers the student the possibility to reinforce and establish the learning of new lexical units. In accordance with the guidelines and specific notions contained in the CEFRL (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) and the PCIC (Plan Curricular del Instituto Cervantes), the lexical content within each didactic unit stretches over a wide range of semantic fields. Hence, throughout ¡Genial! A2 we find vocabulary related to leisure, hobbies, life experiences, travelling, the working place, home and the domestic life, food, technology, and health. To the fact that all these aspects consider both single- and multiple-word lexical units, a second remarkable feature is included: the inclusion of activities aimed at promoting both direct and indirect lexical learning (Nation, 2013), by means of its treatment in both receptive and productive communicative skills.

In addition to facilitating a contextualised introduction to all vocabulary, a “lexical bank” is provided at the end of every unit, where the most important words and phrases related to each topic are included.  This section, which consists of six activities on average, often resorts to the use of images to present lexical items visually, and to the role of technology, such as smartphones, as a learning and reference tool. On top of this, we find activities, both written and oral, requiring that the student looks back to previously introduced items. Nonetheless, the most original element in this book is the inclusion, at the end of every unit, of an activity devoted to personal learning strategies and lexicon development. In this section, the student is asked to choose which forms and phrases among the new items are the most important for themselves, and to explain what strategies they use to learn and remember them. However, oral comprehension activities are not included in this lexical bank, though they are present at different points within each didactic unit.

Moreover, the student’s work on new or unfamiliar words is not limited to the unit in which they first appear. To facilitate the implementation of new lexical items into long-term memory ―namely, their retention and incorporation in the student’s mental lexicon― repetition and spaced-out reiteration of vocabulary are key strategies (Rufat and Jiménez Calderón, 2017). Accordingly, throughout each unit, and with a view to ensuring intentional and implicit learning alike, every effort has been made to include frequent repetition of lexical units in both oral and written contexts. Therefore, all forms included in each didactic unit appear later in other sections of the book, which undoubtedly favours the student’s consolidation of their previous knowledge of them.

Nevertheless, what makes this student book one of the most innovative recent editorial publications in terms of lexicon treatment is not just its dynamic character or its emphasis on learning strategies development, but its incorporation of lexical morphology: one of the most underused aspects in extant SFL student books. Despite the interest that the latest methodologies have shown in the facilitation of lexicon acquisition and development, word formation processes remain largely absent in language teaching and learning. However, the usefulness and practicality with which some careful consideration of these processes may provide the second/foreign language student should not be overlooked. Letting the learner take conscience of and to recognise the different parts of which complex words are made up will contribute to reduce the memorisation load significantly (Bertram, Baayen and Schreuder, 2000), as it will allow them to establish a series of formal and semantic associations between words and various different affixes. This awareness will contribute, in turn, to lay out the foundations of a better and more organised mental lexicon, as well as to promote the development of a greater learning autonomy in offering the student a new strategy with which to face new forms whose meanings are unknown to them. The early introduction of, and reflection upon the different lexical generation mechanism of Spanish already in basic levels of learning posits, then, not just a means to broaden the learner’s lexicon, but a tool for the improvement of their comprehension and production in the target language, both orally and in written form (Serrano-Dolader, 2019).

Therefore, we welcome that ¡Genial! A2 takes into consideration the morphology of complex words from the very beginning. A brief overview of the student book is enough to realise that the different affixes introduced throughout adjust themselves to the criteria of frequency, regularity (the suffixes and prefixes included are formally and semantically transparent) and productivity as listed in Nation (2013). In line with the semantic field considered in each unit, a series suffixes are provided, different in form but related in meaning. Thus, in the first unit, under “character adjectives,” we find a set of tasks aimed at getting the student to work on and familiarise themselves with a number of words with a complex structure, such as optimista, nervioso, agradable, amable, etc. Later, we also find a brief commentary on the form selfi and its equivalent in Spanish, autofoto. In unit two, the forms previously introduced are reiterated, while introducing the -or affix with the meaning of “profession” through an oral comprehension activity in which the learner must fill out a chart with information provided by three speakers about their jobs, hobbies, and the frequency with which the practice the latter. At a later point, a new task uses the adverb normalmente as a basis to invite the student to think about other adverbs showing the ­suffix -mente, to then ask them to classify these according to the level of “frequency” they denote.

This careful treatment of derivative morphology is also present in unit four. Here, we find a series of complex words formed by adding different suffixes (­-ora, -ero, -ario, -or, etc.), which the student must map onto three different vocabulary charts labelled “profession,” “work place,” or “working tools.” Unit five includes an informative chart about the prefixes multi- and inter-, where the student is asked about any other words they might know with these affixes. Another activity later on introduces place nouns showing the derivative morpheme –ería (panadería, carnicertía, frutería, etc.). While unit six does not go over any of the affixes discussed so far, nor introduces any new ones, unit seven does offer a brief overview of lexical shortening and recovers some previously seen complex words. Such indirect treatment of morphology makes the learner’s acquisition of it more similar to the process undergone by native speakers (Clark, 1993 and 1998; Laufer, 1997), as it promotes the recognition and assimilation of different components in a complex way based on the reiteration of suffixes in a broad range of words. In addition to this, such approach ensures that the student relates, however unconsciously, each of these affixes with some of their more common meanings. Such strategy, which corresponds to the early stages of the development of morphological competence, recurs throughout every didactic unit, as they reiterate familiar elements while introducing new ones.

To conclude, it is fair to say that, despite the considerable challenge posed by a ruled treatment of morphology in the Spanish class, ¡Genial! A2 manages to provide its users with a preliminary approach to the main lexicogenetic mechanisms. However, while this student book provides information about some issues related to derivative morphology, such as the grammatical load of such suffixes as -triz, -esa, -ista, -ista or ­-ente, or the formation process of adverbs ending in -mente, a more explicit formal instruction is lacking. As a general rule, with the exception of the two examples just mentioned, the study of affixes is carried out from the point of view of their content, relegating their formal aspects to a secondary importance. The reiteration of complex-structure words is the main strategy aimed at familiarising the student with the various morphological mechanisms, which nonetheless does not guarantee that they will be able to perceive the components making up such forms. To achieve this goal, perhaps it would have been advisable to somehow make either complex words or the affixes themselves stand out more clearly. Similarly, tasks with a more explicit aim might have been included in order to promote the identification of the different constituents that make up complex forms and the recurrence of certain morphemes, as well as to make the student aware of the shifts in grammatical categories that a number of suffixes bring about.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that regardless of the established consensus about the benefits of including the treatment of word formation processes in vocabulary acquisition, there are contrasting opinions when it comes to their teaching in beginner levels. On the one hand, there are those who argue that the explicit instruction of these mechanisms ought to be limited to intermediate- or advanced-level students (Morin, 2003; Tschichold and ten Hacken, 2015; Schmitt, 2014), as they show a greater linguistic competence. Others maintain that, since Spanish is a derivative language, it is necessary to take these kind of processes into consideration from the very beginning in order to develop the learner’s morphological awareness (Marcos Miguel, 2017; Martín García, 2014; Serrano-Dolader, 2009), as “los estudiantes de niveles iniciales, a pesar de tener ciertos conocimientos sobre la formación de palabras en español, aún encuentran muchas dificultades y se benefician ampliamente de una instrucción explícita” (“beginner-level students, despite having some knowledge of word formation in Spanish, still face significant difficulties, and greatly benefit from an explicit instruction;” Sánchez Gutiérrez, 2013:176). This student book, it may be observed, has taken a middle ground between either position. Implicitly, by always prioritising the transmission of meaning ―as a beginner-level student’s primary goal is to communicate effectively― complex words ae introduced progressively. In other words, ¡Genial! A2 seeks to promote the natural and unconscious development of morphology through repetition and contextualised reutilisation of the most frequent, productive, and transparent affixes of Spanish.


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Raquel Rodríguez-Fernández

PhD candidate at National University of Ireland, Galway

Please, click here to download the article by Raquel Rodríguez-Fernández.

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