Current Research and Practice in Teaching Vocabulary

Alan Hunt and David Beglar

The purpose of this article is to present a systematic framework for vocabulary development by combining three approaches to vocabulary instruction and learning (modified from Coady, 1997a; Hulstijn, Hollander, & Greidanus, 1996). In this article, these three approaches--incidental learning, explicit instruction, and independent strategy development--are presented as seven teaching principles. The incidental learning of vocabulary requires that teachers provide opportunities for extensive reading and listening. Explicit instruction involves diagnosing the words learners need to know, presenting words for the first time, elaborating word knowledge, and developing fluency with known words. Finally, independent strategy development involves practicing guessing from context and training learners to use dictionaries.

Although all of these approaches and principles have a role to play in vocabulary instruction, the learners' proficiency level and learning situation should be considered when deciding the relative emphasis to be placed on each approach. In general, emphasizing explicit instruction is probably best for beginning and intermediate students who have limited vocabularies. On the other hand, extensive reading and listening might receive more attention for more proficient intermediate and advanced students. Also, because of its immediate benefits, dictionary training should begin early in the curriculum.

Before proceeding, it is necessary to clarify the definition of a word. In this article, a word (also called a base word or a word family) is defined as including the base form (e.g., make) and its inflections and derivatives (e.g., makes, made, making, maker, and makers). Since the meaning of these different forms of the word are closely related, it is assumed that little extra effort is needed to learn them (Read, 1988). While this may be true, a recent study of Japanese students showed that they did not know many inflections and derivative suffixes for English verbs (Schmitt and Meara, 1997). Thus, these forms should be taught.

Although this definition of a word is convenient and commonly used in vocabulary research, it should be remembered that vocabulary learning is more than the study of individual words. Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) have observed that a significant amount of the English language is made up of lexical phrases, which range from phrasal verbs (two or three words) to longer institutionalized expressions (Lewis, 1993, 1997). Because lexical phrases can often be learned as single units, the authors believe that the following principles apply to them as well as to individual words.

Incidental Learning

Principle 1: Provide opportunities for the incidental learning of vocabulary.

In the long run, most words in both first and second languages are probably learned incidentally, through extensive reading and listening (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985). Several recent studies have confirmed that incidental L2 vocabulary learning through reading does occur (Chun & Plass 1996; Day, Omura, & Hiramatsu, 1991; Hulstijn, Hollander & Greidanus, 1996; Knight, 1994; Zimmerman, 1997). Although most research concentrates on reading, extensive listening can also increase vocabulary learning (Elley, 1989). Nagy, Herman, & Anderson (1985) concluded that (for native speakers of English) learning vocabulary from context is a gradual process, estimating that, given a single exposure to an unfamiliar word, there was about a 10% chance of learning its meaning from context. Likewise, L2 learners can be expected to require many exposures to a word in context before understanding its meaning.

The incidental learning of vocabulary through extensive reading can benefit language curriculums and learners at all levels (Woodinsky and Nation, 1988). According to Coady (1997b), the role of graded (i.e., simplified) readers is to build up the students' vocabulary and structures until they can graduate to more authentic materials. Low proficiency learners can benefit from graded readers because they will be repeatedly exposed to high frequency vocabulary. As many students may never have done extensive reading for pleasure, it may be initially useful to devote some class time to Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) (Pilgreen and Krashen, 1993). Once students develop the ability to read in a sustained fashion, then most of the reading should be done outside of class. More information on extensive reading can be found in the May, 1997 issue of The Language Teacher (Cominos, 1997).

Explicit Instruction

Principle 2: Diagnose which of the 3,000 most common words learners need to study.

Knowing approximately 3,000 high frequency and general academic words is significant because this amount covers a high percentage of the words on an average page. The 2,000 high frequency words in West's (1953) General Service List cover 87% of an average non-academic text (Nation, 1990) and 80% of an average academic text (P. Nation, personal communication, September 18, 1997). The 800 general academic words from Xue and Nation's (1984) University Word List account for about 8% of an academic text. For second language learners entering university, Laufer (1992) found that knowing a minimum of about 3,000 words was required for effective reading at the university level, whereas knowing 5,000 words indicated likely academic success. One way to estimate vocabulary size is to use Nation's (1990) Vocabulary Levels Test or a checklist test which requires learners to mark the words on a list that they believe they know (for more information on checklist tests see Read, 1988; Meara, 1992, 1996).

Principle 3: Provide opportunities for the intentional learning of vocabulary.

The incidental learning of vocabulary may eventually account for a majority of advanced learners' vocabulary; however, intentional learning through instruction also significantly contributes to vocabulary development (Nation, 1990; Paribakht & Wesche, 1996; Zimmerman, 1997). Explicit instruction is particularly essential for beginning students whose lack of vocabulary limits their reading ability. Coady (1997b) calls this the beginner's paradox. He wonders how beginners can "learn enough words to learn vocabulary through extensive reading when they do not know enough words to read well" (p. 229). His solution is to have students supplement their extensive reading with study of the 3,000 most frequent words until the words' form and meaning become automatically recognized (i.e., "sight vocabulary"). The first stage in teaching these 3,000 words commonly begins with word-pairs in which an L2 word is matched with an L1 translation.

Translation has a necessary and useful role for L2 learning, but it can hinder learners' progress if it is used to the exclusion of L2-based techniques. Prince (1996) found that both "advanced" and "weaker" learners could recall more newly learned words using L1 translations than using L2 context. However, "weaker" learners were less able to transfer knowledge learned from translation into an L2 context. Prince claims that weaker learners require more time when using an L2 context as they have less developed L2 networks and are slower to use syntactic information. To discourage the learners from over-relying on translation, he advises that teachers talk with them about their expectations of language learning and "the pitfalls of low-effort strategies like translation" (p. 489). Furthermore, translation needs to be followed up with other L2-based exercises and learning strategies (see Principles 4 through 7).

Vocabulary lists can be an effective way to quickly learn word-pair translations (Nation, 1990). However, it is more effective to use vocabulary cards, because learners can control the order in which they study the words (Atkinson, 1972). Also, additional information can easily be added to the cards. When teaching unfamiliar vocabulary, teachers need to consider the following:

  1. Learners need to do more than just see the form (Channell, 1988). They need to hear the pronunciation and practice saying the word aloud as well (Ellis & Beaton, 1993; Fay and Cutler, 1977; Siebert, 1927). The syllable structure and stress pattern of the word are important because they are two ways in which words are stored in memory (Fay and Cutler, 1977).
  2. Start by learning semantically unrelated words. Also avoid learning words with similar forms (Nation, 1990) and closely related meanings (Higa, 1963; Tinkham, 1993) at the same time. For example, because affect and effect have similar forms, simultaneously studying them is likely to cause confusion. Also, bilingual vocabulary books often simply list words in alphabetical order, increasing the chances of confusing words that start with the same syllable. Likewise, words with similar, opposite, or closely associated (e.g., types of fruit, family members) meanings may interfere with one another if they are studied at the same time.
  3. It is more effective to study words regularly over several short sessions than to study them for one or two longer sessions. As most forgetting occurs immediately after initial exposure to the word (Pimsleur, 1967), repetition and review should take place almost immediately after studying a word for the first time.
  4. Study 5-7 words at a time, dividing larger numbers of words into smaller groups. As learners review these 5-7 cards, they will more quickly get repeated exposure to the words than when larger groups (20-30) are studied.
  5. Use activities like the keyword technique to promote deeper mental processing and better retention (Craik and Lockhart, 1972). Associating a visual image with a word helps learners remember the word.
  6. A wide variety of L2 information can be added to the cards for further elaboration. Newly met words can be consciously associated with other L2 words that the learner already knows (Prince, 1996), and this word can be added to the card. Also, sentence examples, part of speech, definitions, and keyword images can be added (see Schmitt & Schmitt, 1995).

Principle 4: Provide opportunities for elaborating word knowledge.

Prince (1996) states that simply knowing translations for L2 words does not "guarantee that they will be successfully accessed for use in an L2 context" (p. 488), because knowing a word means knowing more than just its translated meaning or its L2 synonyms. Drawing upon Richards' (1976) list, Nation (1994) identifies various aspects of word knowledge such as knowing related grammatical patterns, affixes, common lexical sets, typical associations, how to use the word receptively and productively, etc. Receptive knowledge means being able to recognize one of the aspects of knowledge through reading and listening, and productive knowledge means being able to use it in speaking and writing. Teachers should be selective when deciding which words deserve deeper receptive and/or productive practice as well as which types of knowledge will be most useful for their students. Many of the 2,000 high frequency words from the GSL or other lists would be good candidates for exercises that elaborate upon both receptive and productive knowledge.

Elaboration involves expanding the connections between what the learners already know and new information. One way to do this is to choose L2 words from the surrounding context and to explain their connections to the recently learned word (Prince, 1996). In addition to presenting this new information, teachers should create opportunities to meet these useful, recently learned words in new contexts that provide new collocations and associations (Nation, 1994). Exercises that can deepen students' knowledge of words include: sorting lists of words and deciding upon the categories; making semantic maps with lists either provided by the teacher or generated by the learners; generating derivatives, inflections, synonyms and antonyms of a word; making trees that show the relationships between superordinates, coordinates, and specific examples; identifying or generating associated words; combining phrases from several columns; matching parts of collocations using two columns; completing collocations as a cloze activity; and playing collocation crossword puzzles or bingo (see Lewis, 1993; McCarthy & O'Dell, 1994; Nation, 1994; Redman & Ellis, 1990).

Principle 5: Provide opportunities for developing fluency with known vocabulary.

Fluency building activities recycle already known words in familiar grammatical and organizational patterns so that students can focus on recognizing or using words without hesitation. As Nation (1994) points out, developing fluency "overlaps most of all with developing the skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing" (p. 208), so giving learners many opportunities to practice these skills is essential.

Fluency partly depends on developing sight vocabulary through extensive reading and studying high frequency vocabulary. Fluency exercises include timed and paced readings. In timed readings, learners may try to increase their speed by sliding a 3x5 card or a piece of paper down the page to increase their speed while attempting to comprehend about 80% of a passage. Also, learners need to be given practice in looking at groups of words rather than each individual word when reading. Teachers can ask learners to practice timed reading on passages that have already been read. In paced readings the teacher determines the time and pushes the learners to read faster. One type of paced reading is the "reading sprint" in which learners read their pleasure reading book for 5 minutes and count the number of pages they have read. Then they try to read the same number of pages while the time they have to read decreases from 5 minutes to 4 to 3 to 2 minutes for each sprint. Finally, they read for 5 minutes again at a relaxed pace and count the number of pages they have finished (Mikulecky & Jeffries, 1996).

Independent Strategy Development

Principle 6: Experiment with guessing from context.

Guessing from context is a complex and often difficult strategy to carry out successfully. To guess successfully from context learners need to know about 19 out of every 20 words (95%) of a text, which requires knowing the 3,000 most common words (Liu & Nation, 1985; Nation, 1990). However, even if one knows these words, Kelly (1990) concludes that "unless the context is very constrained, which is a relatively rare occurrence, or unless there is a relationship with a known word identifiable on the basis of form and supported by context, there is little chance of guessing the correct meaning" (p. 203). He also asserts that, because guessing from context fails to direct attention to word form and meaning, relatively little learning occurs.

Although this strategy often may not result in gaining a full understanding of word meaning and form, guessing from context may still contribute to vocabulary learning. Just what is and is not learned will partly depend on text difficulty as well as the learners' level. In particular, more proficient learners using texts that are not overly difficult can be expected to use this strategy more effectively than low proficiency learners. It should also be remembered that learning vocabulary also includes learning about collocations, associations, and related grammatical patterns as well as meaning. Therefore, if regularly practiced, this strategy may contribute to deeper word knowledge for advanced learners as long as they pay attention to the word and its context.

However, given the continuing debate about the effectiveness of guessing from context, teachers and learners should experiment with this strategy and compare it to dictionary training. Guessing from context is initially time consuming and is more likely to work for more proficient learners. A procedure for guessing from context begins with deciding whether the word is important enough (e.g., is part of an important idea and/or is repeated often) to warrant going through the following steps. This decision is itself a skill that requires practice and experience. Teachers can assist learners by marking words which learners should try to infer before using other sources as well as by providing glosses (Hulstijn, Hollander, & Greidanus, 1996). Once learners decide that a word is worth guessing, they might follow a five-step procedure like that of Nation and Coady (1988):

  1. Determine the part of speech of the unknown word.
  2. Look at the immediate context and simplify it if necessary.
  3. Look at the wider context. This entails examining the clause with the unknown word and its relationship to the surrounding clauses and sentences.
  4. Guess the meaning of the unknown word.
  5. Check that the guess is correct.

(p. 104-105)

In step 5, the guess needs to be the same part of speech as the unknown word. Moreover, the learner should try to see if the unknown word can be analyzed into parts (unlock becomes un + lock) and to check if the meaning of the parts matches the meaning of the unknown word. Finally, the guess should be tried out in the context to see whether it makes sense, and a dictionary may be consulted to confirm the guess. In the case of a wrong or partially correct guess, it is important for learners to reanalyze how the "correct" answer is more appropriate in the context. Finally, Liu and Nation (1985) suggest practicing this strategy as a class rather than as individual work, and Williams (1986) advises that it be demonstrated on an OHP or a chalkboard by circling the unknown word and drawing arrows from other words that give clues to its meaning.

Principle 7: Examine different types of dictionaries and teach students how to use them.

Bilingual dictionaries have been found to result in vocabulary learning (Knight, 1994; Luppescu & Day, 1993). Hulstijn, Hollander, and Greidanus (1996) showed that, compared to incidental learning, repeated exposure to words combined with marginal glosses or bilingual dictionary use lead to increased learning for advanced learners. Luppescu and Day's (1993) study on Japanese students reports that bilingual dictionaries did result in vocabulary learning unless the unfamiliar word had numerous entries, in which case the dictionaries may have confused learners. Finally, a bilingual dictionary may be much more likely to help lower proficiency learners in reading comprehension because their lack of vocabulary can be a significant factor in their inability to read (Knight, 1994).

Bilingualized dictionaries may have some advantages over traditional bilingual or monolingual dictionaries. Bilingualized dictionaries essentially do the job of both a bilingual and a monolingual dictionary. Whereas bilingual dictionaries usually provide just an L1 synonym, bilingualized dictionaries include L2 definitions, L2 sentence examples, as well as L1 synonyms. Bilingualized dictionaries were found to result in better comprehension of new words than either bilingual or monolingual dictionaries (Laufer & Hader, 1997). A further advantage is that they can be used by all levels of learners: advanced students can concentrate on the English part of the entry, and beginners can use the translation. For beginners, teachers may want to examine the bilingualized Longman-Mitsumura English-Japanese Dictionary for Young Learners (1993), which includes Japanese translations, definitions, and examples. Currently, neither Collins COBUILD, Longman, nor Oxford (all publishers with access to large, up-dated computerized English language data bases) have bilingualized dictionaries for intermediate and advanced learners.

Electronic dictionaries with multimedia annotations offer a further option for teachers and learners. Chun and Plass' (1996) study of American university students learning German found that unfamiliar words were most efficiently learned when both pictures and text were available for students. This was more effective than text alone or combining text and video, possibly because learners can control the length of time spent viewing the pictures. Hulstijn, Hollander, and Greidanus (1996) suggest that, because computerized entries are easier to use than traditional dictionaries, students will be more likely to use them. Teachers may want to investigate the CD-ROM dictionaries published by Collins COBUILD, Longman, and Oxford. However, unlike the dictionary in the above study, these CD-ROM dictionaries do not link most of their entries to a visual image. The one exception is The New Oxford Picture Dictionary CD-ROM (1997), which includes 2,400 illustrated words (mainly concrete nouns) and is available in a bilingual version.

Finally, training in the use of dictionaries is essential. Unfortunately, in most classrooms, very little time is provided for training in dictionary use (Graves, 1987; Summers, 1988). In addition to learning the symbols and what information a dictionary can and cannot offer, learners may need extra practice for words with many entries. Furthermore, learners need to be taught to use all the information in an entry before making conclusions about the meaning of a word (Laufer & Hader, 1997). The learners' attention should also be directed toward the value of good sentence examples which provide collocational, grammatical, and pragmatic information about words. Finally, teachers should emphasize the importance of checking a word's original context carefully and comparing this to the entry chosen because context determines which sense of a word is being used.


Learning vocabulary through incidental, intentional, and independent approaches requires teachers to plan a wide variety of activities and exercises. The amount of emphasis that teachers and programs decide to place on any given activity will depend on the learners' level and the educational goals of the teacher and the program. In general, it makes most sense to emphasize the direct teaching of vocabulary for learners who still need to learn the first 3,000 most common words. As learners' vocabulary expands in size and depth, then extensive reading and independent strategies may be increasingly emphasized. Extensive reading and listening, translation, elaboration, and fluency activities, guessing from context, and using dictionaries all have a role to play in systematically developing the learners' vocabulary knowledge.


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