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Nature and strategies of teaching english vocabulary

Vocabulary is the first and foremost important step in language acquisition. Vocabulary is the knowledge of words and word meanings. As Steven Stahl (2005) puts it, "Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition, but also implies how that word fits into the world." Vocabulary knowledge is not something that can ever be fully mastered; it is something that expands and deepens over the course of a lifetime [1, 10].

Words are the basic building blocks of language, the units of meaning from which larger structures such as sentences, paragraphs and whole texts are formed. For native speakers, although the most rapid growth occurs in the childhood, vocabulary knowledge continues to develop naturally in adult life. For learners acquisition of vocabulary is typically a more conscious and demanding process. Many learners see language acquisition as essentially a matter of learning vocabulary, so they devote a great deal of time to memorizing lists of words of the second language and rely on their bilingual dictionary as a basic communicative resource. Moreover, after a lengthy period of being preoccupied with the development of grammatical competence, language teachers and applied linguistic researchers now generally recognize the importance of vocabulary learning and are exploring ways of promoting it more effectively. Thus, from various points of view, vocabulary can be seen as a priority area in language teaching [2, 1].

It is necessary first to explore the nature of vocabulary. The everyday concept of vocabulary is dominated by the dictionary. We tend to think of it as an inventory of individual words, with their associated meanings. This view is shared by many language learners, who see the task of vocabulary learning as a matter of memorizing long lists of words of the second language, and their immediate reaction when they encounter an unknown word is to reach for a bilingual dictionary. From this perspective, vocabulary knowledge involves knowing the meanings of words.

However when we look more closely at vocabulary in the light of current developments in language teaching and applied linguistics, we find that we have to address a number of questions that have the effect of progressively broadening the scope of vocabulary.

What is a word? Does vocabulary consist only of single words or should we be thinking in terms of larger lexical items as well? It is a well-established practice to classify idioms as a special category within vocabulary, but there is currently a trend among both theoretical and applied linguists towards analyzing many other types of common phrases and sentences as lexical rather than grammatical units. It seems that there are a lot more fixed expressions in language than we normally realize and thay play a major role in both comprehension and production.

Vocabulary consists of more than just single words. For a start, there are the prasal verbs (get across, move out) and compound nouns (fire fighter, love letters), which are generally recognized as lexical units consisting of more than one word form. Then there are idioms like “a piece of cake”, “let the cat out of the bag”. These are phrases and sentences that cause great difficulty for second language learners because the whole unit has a meaning that cannot be worked outjust from knowing what the individual words mean.

Such multi-word items have long been accepted as part of the vocabulary learning task that students face and as such are often included in vocabulary tests. However, more recently scholars have pointed out that fluent speakers and writers have a latrge amount of other kinds of “prefabricated language” at their disposal. Pawley and Syder (1983) argued that the ability to speak fluently is based on knowledge of thousands of memorized sentence stems and whole sentences that are “lexicalized” to varying degrees. As they put in, “memorized sentences and phrases are the normal building blocks of fluent spoken discourse, and at the same time, they provide models for the creation of many (partly) new sequences that are memorable and in their turn enter the stock of familiar usages” [2, 20-21].

What does it mean to know a lexical item or word knowledge? “Word knowledge” refers to how well learners know the meaning of a word. Research shows that there are three kinds of word knowledge:

  • Unknown: the meaning is completely unfamiliar.
  • Acquainted: basic meaning is recognized after some thought.
  • Established: meaning is easily, rapidly and automatically recognized [3, 21].

At a pre-intermediate level of learning a language, it may be sufficient for the learners to show that they understand the words of the second language by being able to match them with an equivalent word in their own language or with the synonym of the second language. However, as their language proficiency develops, learners need to know more about the words and other lexical items they are acquiring, especially if they are to use them in their own speech and writing [2, 16-17].

Richards (1976) in his article outlined a series of assumptions about lexical competence, growing out of developments in linguistic theory in the 1960s and 1970s:

  • the vocabulary knowledge of native speakers continues to expand in adult life, in contrast to the relative stability of their grammatical competence;
  • knowing a word means knowing the degree of probability of encountering that word in speech or print. For many words we also know the sort of words most likely to be found associated with the word;
  • knowing a word implies knowing the limitations on the use of the word according to variations of function and situation;
  • knowing a word means knowing the syntactic behavior associated with the word;
  • knowing a word entails knowledge of the underlying form of a word and the derivations that can be made from it;
  • knowing a word entails knowledge of the network of associations between that word and other words in the language;
  • knowing a word means knowing the semantic value of a word;
  • knowing a word means knowing many of the different meanings associated with a word [4, 83].

Learners need to have both active and passive vocabulary knowledge. That is, English words the learners will be expected to use themselves in original sentences (active vocabulary), and those they will merely have to recognize when they hear them or see them written down by others (passive vocabulary).

Teaching passive vocabulary is important for comprehension the issue of understanding another speaker needs the listener to have passive vocabulary, that is, enough knowledge of words used by others to comprehend their meaning. This is also called receptive knowledge of English.

Teaching active vocabulary is important for an advanced student in terms of their own creativity. This is because in order to create their own sentences, students need active vocabulary. Active vocabulary contains the words students can understand and manipulate in order to use for their own personal expression. This is called productive knowledge.

There are two major processes by which learners add new words to their vocabulary. One involves systematic procedures to memorize the form and meaning of words, usually based on lists of the words of the second language together with their translation equivalents in the learners’ language. It is a form of learning that went out of fashion – among language teachers, if not learners – with the advent of communicative approaches to language teaching. The other process is incidental vocabulary learning, by which learners acquire knowledge of new words incrementally as they encounter them in context through their reading and listening activities. This is presumed to be the main way that native speakers of a language expand their vocabulary knowledge [2, 39].

John Read (2000) gives the summary of the researches on systematic vocabulary learning. The findings were reviewed by a number of authors. In brief, some of the significant findings are as follows:

  • Words belonging to different word classes vary according to how difficult they are to learn. Rodgers (1969) found that nouns are easiest to learn, following by adjectives; on the other hand, verbs and adverbs are the most difficult. Ellis and Beaton (1993) confirmed that nouns are easier than verbs, because learners can form mental images of them more readily.
  • Mnemonic techniques are very effective methods for gaining an initial knowledge of word meanings in a second language (Cohen, 1987; Hulstijn, 1997). One method in particular, the keyword technique, has been extensively researched (Pressley, Levin and McDaniel, 1987). It involves teaching learners to form vivid mental images which link the meanings of a word of the second language and a word of the native language that has a similar sound. This technique works best for the receptive learning of concrete words.
  • In order to be able to retrieve the words of the second language from memory – rather than just recognizing them when presented – learners need to say the words to themselves as they learn it (Ellis and Beaton, 1993).
  • Words which are hard to pronounce are learned more slowly than ones that do not have significant pronunciation difficulty (Rodgers, 1969; Ellis and Beaton, 1993).
  • Learners at a pre-intermediate level of language learning store vocabulary according to the sounds of words, whereas at more advanced levels words are stored according to meaning (Henning, 1973).
  • Lists of words which are strongly associated with each other – like opposites (rich, poor) or word sets (shirt, jacket, sweater) – are significantly more difficult to learn than lists of unrelated words, because of the crossassociation that occurs among the related words (Higa, 1963; Tinkham, 1993).
  • More generally, learners commonly confuse L2 words which look and sound alike (Laufer, 1997) [2, 40-41].

The scientific research on vocabulary instruction reveals that most vocabulary is required incidentally through indirect exposure to words. Students can acquire vocabulary incidentally by engaging in rich oral-language experiences at home and at school, listening to books read aloud to them, and reading widely on their own [2, 53].

Reading volume is very important in terms of long-term vocabulary development. But the teacher must be selective in the books the learners choose to read. For example, if the students are reading a book that deals with a scientific subject, the definition of various terms should be noted in that book. If they are reading a fiction book, and an uncommon term is used, a definition of that term should be listed. Many authors are now doing this in both fiction and non-fiction books. Placing words within the text increases the chances that the word will be retained.

Retention is one of the most important aspects in improving learners’ vocabulary. But while many people enjoy reading fiction books, non-fiction books are much more effective when it comes to enhancing vocabulary. Fiction books are generally written for the purpose of entertainment. Non-fiction books tend to be written on concepts that are challenging and their tone is more formal. Learners are implied to be exposed to new words multiple times and then to use them daily on a regular basis [5, 31].

Life is short but vocabulary is long, and acquiring it takes time, even in one's own language. In the area of the second language 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, 17].

Vocabulary is the first and foremost important step in language acquisition. In a classroom where students are not finding themselves comfortable with the second language, language learning can be made interactive and interesting with the introduction of appropriate vocabulary exercises. The theory of teaching vocabulary is a very interesting subject for many scholars and language teachers. The given topic was discussed from different points.

From the point of view of Krashen (1989), vocabulary learning is quite simple (which is not the same as 'easy').

Robert Lado (1955) talked about patterns of difficulty in vocabulary teaching. He highlighted key issues related to words, the native language factor and about patterns. He even analyzed Spanish, French and Mexican patterns of difficulty in their respective vocabulary items. He stated that while dealing with vocabulary one should take into account three important aspects of words their form, their meaning and their distribution and one should consider various kinds of classes of words in the function of the language. He said that the forms, meaning distribution and classification of words are different in different languages. He revealed that these differences might lead to vocabulary problems [4, 13].

Visnja Pavicic (2003) dealt with a way to improve students' abilities to explore, store and usage of vocabulary items. He determined the role of vocabulary teaching and how a teacher could help the learners. He laid emphasis on self initiated independent learning with strategies, in which formal practices, functional practices and memorizing could be included. He said that the teacher should create activities and tasks to help students to build their vocabulary and develop strategies to learn the vocabulary on their own [1, 28].

N. K. Mehtadescribed various effective methodologies that can be incorporated in the teaching of vocabulary items in a language classroom.It is noteworthy to mention that vocabulary items are imparted mostly by translation: either a list of words with their translation at the beginning of the lesson or the translation of the content having new words or glossaries at the very end. This is an erroneous practice as it leads to a state of confusion for the learners. On the teaching skills of vocabulary items, Frisby (1957) commented that "While the teacher is not, himself, concerned with the actual selection of vocabulary for text book purposes since practically all the books we use are based on limited vocabularies, it is important that he/she (the teacher) should know the principles, which underlie vocabulary selection" [5, 31]. Thus it signifies that a language teacher should be innovative and proficient in the application of methodologies pertaining to teaching vocabulary items in a classroom situation.

N.K. Mehta also enumerated the following main methodologies for teaching vocabulary items in an English language classroom:

  • listening carefully,
  • pronouncing the word,
  • grasping the meaning.

In the opinion of Robert Lado, careful listening to the words may be a good option in teaching vocabulary items in a heterogenic classroom. "Let the students hear the word in isolation and in a sentence. If the sounds of the word have been mastered, the students will hear it correctly with two or three repetitions" [2, 121]. Slow pronunciation without distortion will help. Breaking the word into parts and building up to the whole word will also be helpful.

Pronouncing the word enables the students to remember it longer and identify it more readily when they hear or see it.

The methods of grasping the meaning are very important as the teacher should try to get the meaning to the class without using translation. This is not preferable on the ground that translation may or may not provide the meaning of the word accurately and precisely. It is advocated as it enables the class to go without grasping the meaning of a word that they have learned to pronounce rather than to depend upon the translation [2, 15].

Just as with any skill, those who wish to enhance their vocabulary must be taught to learn how to read, speak, and write properly. Generally, when it comes to teaching vocabulary, learners are typically presented with two options: spelling or phonics. The method that should be used depends on the age and skill of the learners.

If the learners are the first graders, it is better to start with phonics. Starting with phonics will allow building a strong foundation. The learners will gain a deep understanding of phonics, and this will give them the skills they need to start working on spelling.

For older people, improving vocabulary is easier, because most would have already gone through a formal education. For them, it is a matter of reading more, and learning new words. They should also learn how to use these new words in the proper way. For children, learning how to spell is difficult if they do not already have a mastery of phonics [2, 3].

To be taught vocabulary properly, the learners must have a foundation. The most foundation for vocabulary can be called a root. The learners need to learn all the basic roots to move on to more advanced concepts. If they don't master the roots early on, they will have a difficult time with improving their vocabulary. Enhancing vocabulary is an issue of phonics combined with spelling. When these two factors are developed in conjunction with each other, the learners have the structure that allows their vocabulary to become much more impressive.

Vocabulary is a vital part of language teaching. New words have to be introduced in such a way as to capture the students’ attention and place the words in their memories. Students need to be aware of techniques for memorizing large amounts of new vocabulary in order to progress in their language learning. As it has already been stated, vocabulary is acquired incidentally through indirect exposure to words and intentionally through explicit instruction in specific words and wordlearning strategies. According to Michael Graves (2000), there are four components of an effective vocabulary program:

  • wide or extensive independent reading to expand word knowledge,
  • instruction in specific words to enhance comprehension of texts containing those words,
  • instruction in independent wordlearning strategies,
  • word consciousness and word-play activities to motivate and enhance learning [1, 26].

Explicit instruction of vocabulary is highly effective. To develop vocabulary intentionally, students should be explicitly taught both specific words and word-learning strategies. To deepen learners' knowledge of word meanings, specific word instruction should be robust. Seeing vocabulary in rich contexts provided by authentic texts, rather than in isolated vocabulary drills, produces robust vocabulary learning. Such instruction often does not begin with a definition, for the ability to give a definition is often the result of knowing what the word means. Rich and robust vocabulary instruction goes beyond definitional knowledge; it gets students actively engaged in using and thinking about word meanings and in creating relationships among words.

Research shows that there are more words to be learned than can be directly taught in even the most ambitious program of vocabulary instruction. Explicit instruction in word-learning strategies gives students tools for independently determining the meanings of unfamiliar words that have not been explicitly introduced in class. Since students encounter so many unfamiliar words in their reading, any help provided by such strategies can be useful. Word-learning strategies include dictionary use, morphemic analysis, and contextual analysis. For learners whose language shares cognates with English, cognate awareness is also an important strategy. Dictionary use teaches students about multiple word meanings, as well as the importance of choosing the appropriate definition to fit the particular context. Morphemic analysis is the process of deriving a word's meaning by analyzing its meaningful parts, or morphemes. Such word parts include root words, prefixes, and suffixes. Contextual analysis involves inferring the meaning of an unfamiliar word by scrutinizing the text surrounding it. Instruction in contextual analysis generally involves teaching students to employ both generic and specific types of context clues [1, 18].

A more general way to help students develop their vocabulary is by fostering word consciousness, an awareness of and interest in words. Word consciousness is not an isolated component of vocabulary instruction; it needs to be taken into account each and every day [2, 36]. It can be developed at all times and in several ways: through encouraging adept diction, through word play, and through research on word origins or histories. According to Graves (2000), "If we can get students interested in playing with words and language, then we are at least halfway to the goal of creating the sort of word-conscious students who will make words a lifetime interest” [1, 25].

The principle of effective vocabulary learning is to provide multiple exposures to a word's meaning. There is great improvement in vocabulary when students encounter vocabulary words often. According to Stahl (2005), students probably have to see a word more than once to place it firmly in their longterm memories. "This does not mean mere repetition or drill of the word," but seeing the word in different and multiple contexts. In other words, it is important that vocabulary instruction provide students with opportunities to encounter words repeatedly and in more than one context [4, 17].

Vocabulary learning can often be seen as a laborious processor memorizing lists of unrelated terms. However, there are a lot of much more successful and interesting ways to learn and teach vocabulary in the English classroom.

The key strategies to teach vocabulary are enumerated by N.K. Mehta:

  • Definitions – definition in the target language may be very handy if they are expressed in terms that are better known or more easily guessed than the word that is defined. In this direction teachers and students can refer to authentic and reliable dictionaries.
  • Self-defining context The context makes the situation clear, and this in turn illuminates the meaning of the new word. This practice saves time and develops an intensive reading habit and better understanding.
  • Antonyms when one member of a pair of opposites is understood, the meaning of the other can be easily comprehended. This helps the student to understand the different shades of meanings of a word.
  • Synonyms a synonym may be used to help the student to understand the different shades of meaning if the synonym is better known than the word being taught. Synonyms help to enrich a student's vocabulary bank and provide alternative words instantly.
  • Dramatization this method can be practiced at ease. It can win the favor of the students as learners (especially young) like dramatizations and can easily learn through them. Many situations can be dramatized or demonstrated.
  • Pictures and drawings pictures of different types and colors can be used successfully to show the meaning of words and sentence. Handmade pictures can also be used as there is no need to be very artistic. The given strategy is also very helpful with young learners. Drawings can be used to explain the meaning of things, actions, qualities, and relations. A line drawing of a head, for example, provides many useful nouns and verbs.
  • Realia real objects or models of real objects are very effective and meaningful in showing meanings but in handling of real objects a teacher must be practical and should not be superfluous.
  • Series, scales, systems the meaning of words such as the months of the year, the days of the week, the parts of the day, seasons of the year, ordinal numbers, cardinal numbers, etc. that form part of well-known series can be made clear by placing them in their natural order in the series.
  • Parts of words the parts of complex and compound words may be more common than the words themselves. Separating such words into their component parts generally elaborates the meaning.
  • Illustrative sentences most words have a variety of restrictions on their use. Systematic descriptions of these restrictions and idiomatic uses would be laborious and not very effective in teaching. It is better to give appropriate examples that elucidate the range and variation of usage.
  • Practice from meaning to expression this is controlled practice in which the class does not create new uses or new contexts but simply recalls the ones presented. There are many types of practices for this purpose. Pictures, realia, context, and dramatization can be used. Series and systems can also be used.
  • Reading the word reading words aloud is also very beneficial. It makes a learner familiar with the word and also improves pronunciations of the learners.

Writing the word it will enable the class to write the new word while the auditory memory is fresh, even if the objective is only to read. Writing or copying the word from the blackboard, whiteboard or active-board will give the student a chance to understand the grammatical aspect of the word such as noun, verb, adverb, adjective etc.

Shift of attention under this practice, the teacher provides a context by description or through reading which elicits the use of the word. The learners should be asked to pay attention to and develop an attitude or a point of view which he defends or attacks [5, 28-30].

According to N.K. Mehta, specific techniques or special combinations of the above-mentioned techniques may be applied for particular groups of words:

  • Words that are easy to learn it has been seen that the words that are similar in form and meaning to the first language are easy to understand and comprehend. They should be taught for listening and reading rather than for speaking and writing.
  • Words of normal difficulty words of normal difficulty are best taught in contextual realms, such as food, clothing, sports, work, and so on. There are advantages to using a connected context illustrating the words that are to be taught. Additional words can be taught as alternatives to those chosen in the connected context. Practice can be controlled in varying situations by changing a key word or phrase.
  • Difficult words some words and sets of words are especially difficult to understand. They have to be taught as special problems with the strategy determined by the particular problem in each case [5, 31].

The important thing to be kept in view is the following: if vocabulary is taught in an uninteresting way such as by drilling, simple repetition and learning lists, then the words are likely to be forgotten. Teachers need to teach vocabulary so that the words are learned in a memorable way, in order for them to stick in the memory of the student. Indeed, learners need to retain large amounts of vocabulary in their long-term memory.



  1. Linda Diamond, Linda Gutlohn. Teaching Vocabualry. Cambridge University Press. 2006.
  2. John Read. Assessing Vocabulary. Cambridge University Press. 2003.
  3. Beck, I.L., M.G. McKeown, and L. Kucan. Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction.New York: Guilford. 2002.
  4. Richards, J. C. The role of vocabulary teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 1976.
  5. Naveen Kumar Mehta. Teaching Vocabulary in the English Language. TESL Journal, #3, 2009.

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