My attempt to square the circle

Earlier today I asked my A1-A2 students to complete a short fun quiz. The questions were pretty basic but, from a language point of view, the activity was suitably challenging for their level of proficiency. Thus I’d handed out dictionaries so that anybody could find any unknown vocabulary if necessary. I monitored during the activity and observed which words they were looking up. They were doing fine until they got to a simple question: How many sides does a square have? Almost simultaneously, they all started flicking through their dictionaries.

It was a couple of years back when, for the first time ever, I asked my students to take the Nation’s Vocabulary Level Test. It was a group of pre-intermediate learners (A2-B1) and my intention was to find out how large their vocabulary was. I remember I was pretty surprised that although they were familiar with lots of academic vocabulary items, they didn’t know the word square. They knew one of the meanings - a large open area in the centre of a town - but they were genuinely amazed that it also refers to a geometrical shape (they obviously got it that there was a relation between the two meanings as soon as they'd learnt the new meaning). According to the Longman Communication 3000, the word is one of the 2000 most common words in spoken English and one of the 3000 most common words in written English. 

I wondered why my pre-intermediate weren’t familiar with such a common word but they knew, for example, what persuade means – a word that is less common in spoken English than the word square. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure Czech students are familiar with the word circle or round at fairly early stages of learning English. These words are present in most coursebook instructions, as in circle the correct word, or put a circle round the correct word. This is usually demonstrated visually. I tried to go through all the coursebooks my students had used up to that moment but I couldn’t find or remember a context in which we had talked about squares.

What I find interesting is that in most proficiency listening tests, the word square is included at very early stages, i.e. in the KET exam or at A1 level. As if the test designers knew that this is a general problem. Thus my students invariably fail to answer the corresponding question whenever they sit a mock test, and I always realize that I forgot to teach this word – again! I think I forget because the coursebook authors don’t remind me. But why don't I actually need the word in the classroom context at all? Why does it rarely emerge during the lessons if it's so frequent and common in everyday life?

Maybe I’m wrong and maybe we use the wrong coursebooks. Maybe the word can already be found in elementary coursebooks, but at the school where I teach we usually start with higher levels so it's so easy to miss it. Nevertheless, even if the students had been told earlier, by somebody else, say, their primary school English teacher, I can claim that the word is not even part of their passive vocabulary because the low-level tests are designed using lots of visuals and the question is usually something along these lines: Look at the picture and circle the correct answer. Do they want the round table or the square one?

Why is the word so elusive? In my view, the problem is the discrepancy between the visual and the verbal aspect. The truth is that kids learn to distinguish basic shapes at very early stages of their cognitive development, so they definitely are familiar with the concept. However, in L2 learning, we must also consider the verbal aspect. To put it simply, the word square is not easy to pronounce and thus it’s not easy to remember. Moreover, the spelling of the word is rather confusing for a beginner, and there seems to be little relation between the written form and the actual sound. If you compare it to other words introduced in early stages such as cat, dog, pen, desk, red, swim, walk or book, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Is it the reason why coursebook writers avoid this word early on? And why do test designers like to include it in proficiency tests then? I’d say that it’s because they know the word is pretty frequent and quite useful – not only does it describe a common shape but one can use it to define nouns, especially everyday objects.

We teach what's in the coursebook because we trust the coursebook writers. We believe they know what is frequent and useful. But I'm not convinced all coursebooks are written according to this philosophy. Thus we're sometimes made to teach things which are easy to learn but which are pretty useless in a larger context. I understand that it's good to teach words that represent objects which the learners can see and touch on the spot, but we easily forget other, more important ones. Why teach a long list of animals when it'd be much handier to present, for example, lots of adjectives and actions to describe two or three most common/popular pets? Am I trying to square the circle?