The need for an early emphasis on vocabulary.


Rob Waring

Notre Dame Seishin University

2-16-9 Ifuku-Cho waring @

Okayama 700 (w) 086 252 1155


Most current vocabulary teaching / learning.

* Instruction tends to be haphazard, unprincipled. * Usually all students receive the same words.

* Teachers often leave vocab learning to learners. * Little help with vocab learning strategies is given.

* Most vocab learning / teaching is done from context. * Most word teaching is of definition and spelling.

* Principled recycling of vocabulary in textbooks is rare. * Dictionary skills rarely taught.

* Common belief among teachers that 'grammar' is more 'important' (students feel vocab is more important).

* Many teachers don't know how to deal with vocabulary systematically and in a principled way.

* Extremely strong focus on single words at the expense of fixed and semi-fixed phrases and collocation.


Which words?

* A small number of words make up most of the words learners meet. These words are the essential start-up vocabulary. Without these words very little can be done or understood.

* Most words need not be learned. Only 5000 word families is usually enough for fluent speaking, listening and reading at advanced levels. (Word family = help, helping, unhelpful, helplessness, etc.)

* 3000 word families is the approximate critical level at which learners can learn new vocabulary from context without too much recourse to dictionaries.

* The first words to be learned must be commonly occurring, cover a wide range of texts and a wide range of meanings and meet student needs. Add in culture specific words, loan words, classroom words.

* Frequent and useful sentence heads, fixed and semi-fixed phrases should be learned also.

* Learners should not only build the number (breadth) of words they know but also the depth of knowledge of these words (their collocates (word partners) / their restrictions on use etc.). One without the other is not enough.


What order should these be learned / taught? (see page 3 for more detail)

* The most important / frequent words should be learned first followed by less important words.

* The topic specific vocabulary in the main should be left until the important words are well known.

* Direct learning strategies are faster to build a basic vocabulary so leave 'guessing vocabulary from context' and 'word building from affixes' till later. Vital supplementation with HUGE amounts of reading / listening and fluency work especially at early stages.


What reasons are there for building an initial start-up vocabulary quickly?

Affective / Psychological Linguistic

*Students expect to learn many words. We should capitalize on this expectation.

* A program of systematic learning will enable learners to see real measurable language gains.

* Learners feel empowered if they have larger vocabularies. They feel they can do things. *Without a start-up vocab the teacher can't be understood in the native lang..

* Our brains are good at finding patterns in language. With a small vocabulary this is hindered. Finding patterns in 'grammar' will be more difficult at early stages, better to build vocab first. Same applies to 'learning from affixes' and 'guessing from context' too early.

* Communication Strategies will be easier with a larger vocabulary (paraphrasing / restructuring / summarizing / elaboration etc.)

* Research evidence shows that we don't start speaking in sentences until a critical threshold of language has been learned (1st and 2nd langs.).

* Vocabulary knowledge enables language use which enables vocab growth.

* Larger vocabularies enable language experimentation providing vital feedback on performance. If there is little experimentation / reflection there is little language development.

* Learners avoid aspects of language use and avoid errors due to a lack of vocabulary.


Benefits (Pino-Silva)

* Faster language growth * Less vocab questions come up in class *Higher % of students passing tests

* Increased motivation * fewer trips to dictionaries * reading teachers spend less time on vocab problems


How might this be done?



Advantages Disadvantages

Intentional (direct) teaching Can be effective Slow

(In class study) Can be helpful if done right Teacher selected


Intentional (direct) learning Self selected (personal) Need self discipline

(Self study) Efficient and fast May need to ask questions

Doesn't suit all learners


Contextualized learning See words in use Extremely slow (often 1 word learned per 2000 met)

(from free reading or listening) Can be enjoyable

Can be self selected Repetition infrequent

May see patterns Need 98%+ coverage to learn new words from context.


De-contextualized learning Fast & Efficient, Flexible Time consuming to set up

(word cards ) Forces word retrieval Unnatural?

Can measure progress, personal Too dependent on translation

Forces more attention than normal Takes time to develop skill

Frequent spaced repetition Building breadth not depth


Important aspects of vocabulary learning

* Learners must be forced to think about the words (aids retention).Mnemonics and memory tricks help here.

* Learners must make connections between old words and new ones.

* Vocab exercises must raise the learner's awareness of the word. Constant vocab tests will not help.

* Words are not learned at one meeting (often 10-20 meetings are needed only for receptive use).

* Constant repetition needed.

* Systematic learning is vital.

* Setting realistic targets helps goals to be attained. Teachers must ensure targets are met.

* Not all words need to be learned for production (use).

* Takes more time to learn words for production than reception.

* Words must be met in different contexts and in different skills. Words learned in isolation stay in isolation.

* Only doing direct intentional learning will not aid growth. Must combine with indirect learning.

* Fast word recognition is vital to lessen the load on short term memory.

* Experimentation is vital.

* Huge amounts of reading and listening are needed to deepen direct intentional vocabulary building.




Some questions for you to consider.

Do you concentrate too much on single words at the expense of phrases / collocations / expressions?

There are several thousand loan words between Japanese and English. Do you exploit them?

How does your text book deal with vocabulary? Is it satisfactory?

Does the textbook recycle words? If not what will you d to recycle tohe words?

Is the only method of presentation in your textbook word learning by translation?

Do you rely on the textbook to do the vocabulary teaching for you?

Can you trust your text book to teach vocabulary well? Does it have a range of strategies and methods?

Are your students using too few vocabulary learning strategies?

Do your students meet vocabulary in the same way only? (say by you giving a definition)

Do your students meet too many unknown words together (in one text)?

Do you explain the word or do you let the learner think about it first?

Do you give adequate time for your learners to think about the words?

Do you give a definition and hope the learners understood? How do you check they understood?

Do you find your learners forget words you have taught them? Why is this do you think?

What can you do to help your learners to remember words?

Do you recycle the vocabulary at all? How do you plan to recycle vocabulary?

Do you have a well thought out vocabulary learning plan for your learners, or do you grab exercises from books for your convenience?