Good practice in teaching and learning vocabulary

Author: Richard Wakely


The vocabulary of any language is huge and its acquisition takes time, even for a native speaker. Research has concentrated more on how words are learnt than on what should be taught, though everyone agrees that a threshold of around 2000-3000 words is a requirement for further progress. The research suggests that extensive reading leads to good vocabulary gains, though this knowledge needs to be activated, e.g. in productive exercises. The teacher can also help the learner to become autonomous by teaching strategies and ensuring the availability of appropriate, motivating materials.

Table of contents

1. Introduction

Life is short but vocabulary is long, and acquiring it takes time, even in one's own language. In the area of L2 vocabulary acquisition, things have advanced since Meara (1980) pointed out its low status in linguistic research. In addition to stressing its importance (learners know that they need to acquire a lot of words), he distinguished between what vocabulary is taught and how it is learnt. Teachers and textbooks present vocabulary and test learners on their knowledge, but research should ask how learners acquire vocabulary and how they retain their knowledge over many years.

2. Simple?

From one point of view (for example Krashen 1989), vocabulary learning is quite simple (which is not the same as 'easy'). Teachers have to ensure that learners know the basics of the target language, its grammar, phonetics, spelling and vocabulary. Once this threshold (however defined) is reached, learners are sufficiently autonomous to expand their vocabulary by wide reading, which has become possible given the acquisition of a basic vocabulary, and pleasurable, as the learner can take a new text and find it comprehensible and interesting. Things are not easy, but you are launched and can develop further on your own.

Teachers, according to this view, have a reduced role. They can urge, help, encourage and test learners, and they can warn them of the plateau effect (you'll still meet many new items and will feel that you are not progressing), but if learners read a lot, they learn many new words. Much of this seems to happen by what is known as 'incidental' learning - students learn words even when they are not paying any particular attention to them. But teachers still have various roles: they can teach vocabulary relevant to tasks in hand, judge valency, and give instruction in strategies (see below) which help retention.

This view has much to recommend it. Given that classroom time is limited, it is difficult to progress fast with vocabulary tuition given that the vocabulary of any language is huge. It is estimated that there are over 50,000 'base words' (see below) in Webster's dictionary of which an educated native speaker probably knows over 20,000.

3. Read a lot, but what?

For the initial stages, the textbook and teacher normally ensure that a basic vocabulary is acquired in classroom and related homework study. As the course progresses, passages become longer and are less likely to have been written specially for the course. For the intermediate learner, Readers with modified vocabulary load (all words falling within a certain frequency range), and with accompanying explanations, notes and pictures are useful. For the more advanced learner, the best help comes from the unmodified text with notes and glosses (in L1 or L2) to help with difficult passages. There is some debate as to whether literary works are best, since fiction has a high type-token ratio and therefore presents new words in abundance. More important is to ensure motivation by encouraging learners to choose texts that interest them or which relate to their courses. If learners read such material, they feel the need to learn words and they get the continual and repeated exposure to appropriate items in unmodified language.

The stress on reading does not mean that other activities should be abandoned. It may be true that reading is the best way of getting exposure to unknown words, but a language is there to be used, and the teacher should ensure that there is practice, written and spoken, so that passive knowledge is activated. Knowledge is not the same as mastery.

4. But what is a word?

It has been found that learners simplify the task of learning thousands of items by 'entering' in their memory what are known as 'base words'. This means that a simple word is learnt along with its derivatives, so that learning standard also gives easy access to standardise, standardisation. If forms have multiple meanings (polysemy), we may be dealing with more than one base word: is fair 'light in shade' distinct from fair 'just'? But, though the principle of base words reduces the total number to be acquired, this still remains daunting. Indeed, 'lexical item' is perhaps preferable to 'word'. This is because the acquisition of the senses of compound and complex terms presents problems. Some of these are transparent, such as driving test (parts are known, so whole term can be understood), but many terms and idioms have to be learnt as though they were fresh base words, e.g. touchline, kick the bucket.

However we define the items to be learnt, it has been calculated that minimum autonomy starts at around 2000 words, with the 3000-word level being an even more important one, allowing a learner to read a text without the need to refer constantly to dictionaries or the teacher. This level is still insufficient for those studying the language in a university programme. For them, the 5000-word level seems to be the minimum (some estimates say 10,000 – e.g. see the article on Reading in this Guide), and teachers are advised to teach especially the words used in academic discourse and common sentence connectors.

5. Strategies

Strategies are classified as ranging from 'shallow' to 'deep'. Shallow strategies are quicker but lead to less acquisition and poorer retention. They are best used by learners reading a lot, fast, for gist comprehension, ignoring many unknown words provided that the general sense is clear and making limited use of dictionaries. Such strategies include 'inferencing' (guessing using contextual clues) and 'retrieval' (repeating a word several times to try and fix it in the memory).

Deep strategies take more time but ensure greater retention and ease of retrieval from memory. They include learning lists, reading a variety of texts on the same theme so as to ensure multiple exposure to relevant items, making extensive use of dictionaries, building up deep knowledge through word associations and revising to ensure retention.

Teachers may have little role to play where a learner is using shallow strategies appropriately. But they have a clear and ongoing role both in using deep strategies in classwork and in training learners in their use. This is especially true for weaker learners, who tend to use even shallow strategies ineffectively: they guess inaccurately from context and do not later modify wrong guesses, and they do not read widely enough.

Traditional approaches seem to work. Teachers insist that learners read a range of texts - testing ones, but not too difficult; they train them in matters like using dictionaries for more than swift reference; they give importance to vocabulary relevant to the subject of study; they set exercises to encourage active use of items already met with; they train learners to negotiate output (modifying the words of an exercise until the teacher finds them acceptable). For discussion of strategies and various teaching techniques see Hulstijn 1992, Sökmen 1997, Schmitt 1997, Parry 1997, Nation & Newton 1997, Huckin & Coady 1999, Ellis & He 1999, Fraser 1999, and Lotto & de Groot 1998.

6. Conclusion

Some of the above suggestions might seem self-evidently useful, though there is nothing wrong with research putting flesh on the bones of the obvious. Further work will no doubt continue to concentrate on learning, which will in turn inform teaching. Though vocabulary acquisition will always be a long haul, the general pattern is one in which students become increasingly autonomous learners and the teacher is less the instructor and more the guide.


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Clark, E.V. (1993). The Lexicon in Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coady, J. & T. Huckin (eds) (1997). Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, R. & X. He (1999). The Roles of Modified Input and Output in the Incidental Acquisition of Word Meanings. In Wesche & Paribakht 1999:285-301.

Fraser, C. A. (1999). Lexical Processing Strategy Use and Vocabulary Learning through Reading. In Wesche & Paribakht 1999:225-41.

Huckin T. & J. Coady (1999). Incidental Vocabulary Acquisition in a Second Language: a Review. In Wesche & Paribakht 1999:181-93.

Hulstijn, J. H. (1992). Retention of Inferred and Given Word Meanings: Experiments in Incidental Vocabulary Learning. In Arnaud & Béjoint 1992:113-25.

Krashen, S. (1989). We acquire vocabulary and spelling by reading: additional evidence for the input hypothesis. Modern Language Journal 73:440-64.

Laufer, B. & J. Hulstijn (2001). Incidental Vocabulary Acquisition in a Second Language: the Construct of Task-Induced Involvement. Applied Linguistics 22/1:1-26.

Lotto, L. & A. de Groot (1998). Effects of Learning Method and Word Type on Acquiring Vocabulary in an Unfamiliar Language. Language Learning 48/1:31-69.

Meara, P. (1980). Vocabulary Acquisition: a Neglected Aspect of Language Learning. Language Teaching and Linguistics: Abstracts 13:211-46.

Nation, I. S. P. (1990). Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Nation, P. & J. Newton (1997). Teaching vocabulary. In Coady & Huckin 1997:238-54.

Parry, K. (1997). Vocabulary and comprehension: two portraits. In Coady & Huckin 1997:54-68.

Schmitt, Norbert (1997) Vocabulary learning strategies. In Schmitt & McCarthy 1997:199-227.

Schmitt, N. & M. McCarthy (eds) (1997). Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schreuder, R. & B. Weltens (eds) (1993). The Bilingual Lexicon. Amsterdam/ Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Sökmen, A. J. (1997). Current trends in teaching second-language vocabulary. In Schmitt & McCarthy 1997:237-57.

Wakely, R. (2001). The Study and Acquisition of Lexis. In N. Peacock (ed.) Tous azimuts, Volume 1: Directions in French Language Studies, 33-71. Glasgow: University of Glasgow French and German publications.

Wesche, M. & T. S. Paribakht (eds) (1999). Incidental L2 Vocabulary Acquisition: Theory, Current Research, and Instructional Implications. Special number, 21/2, of Studies in Second Language Acquisition.

A non-definitive list of journals which frequently include relevant articles includes: Applied Linguistics; International Journal of Lexicography; Language Learning; Modern Language Journal; Reading in a Foreign Language; Studies in Second Language Acquisition.

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