Reading to Learn: Pedagogical Implications of Vocabulary Research

Michael P. Critchley, Josai International University

Building a large vocabulary is essential when learning to read in a second language. Simply put, people with large vocabularies are more proficient readers than those with limited vocabularies (Beglar & Hunt, 1995; Luppescu & Day, 1993). Not so simply put, however, is how learners can best build a large vocabulary through reading. A review of the current literature on vocabulary acquisition reveals a spectrum of theoretical positions ranging from highly cognitive approaches that stress the memorization of decontextualized lists, to highly naturalistic approaches that stress implicit, contextualized learning. This paper will review pedagogical points from various theoretical positions, and combine them in a set of suggestions for teachers of English reading classes.

Word Lists

Decontextualized word lists have been used extensively to teach vocabulary. Presenting vocabulary in list form is an efficient study method in which students can learn large numbers of words in a short time (Meara, 1995). The difficulty with such lists, however, is that they present words that have been stripped of all context-based meaning. To remedy this, lists are now generally tied to a reading passage to provide context. These lists provide a format which is easy to memorize, and subsequent exposure to meaning in context which allows students to fine-tune the approximate meanings learned from the list.

The question of how these approximate meanings should be presented arises. Izumi (1995) argues in favor of translation for initial, pre-contextual word presentation, and cites several studies "showing the superiority of the use of translation equivalents to an inductive approach in vocabulary learning" (p. 233). While these studies suggest that some degree of translation may be helpful, the question of whether or not to use translation in class is ultimately an issue which teachers must resolve individually.

In addition to facilitating memorization and learning, word lists serve another purpose in the reading class: motivation. Upon adopting a corpus-based list of the 3,000 most frequently used words, Shillaw (1995) observed in his students a marked increase in interest, motivation, vocabulary checking, and peer checking. Shillaw introduced the list in response to student feedback indicating that not enough vocabulary had been learned, despite a syllabus that included a significant amount of vocabulary instruction. This shows that students needed proof of their own vocabulary gains.

Despite his positive results, some aspects of Shillaw's classroom methodology are problematic. To begin with, the need for corpus-based word lists can be obviated by the introduction of extensive graded reading into a program. It is much more effective to use lists to help students focus on less-frequently encountered words that require more intensive study and organized review.

Shillaw's suggestion to present word lists at the beginning of the course is also problematic: Defining course content with a prescriptive list limits the ability to negotiate the curriculum through needs analysis. A more student-centered approach is to compile and distribute vocabulary lists periodically throughout the course. Providing learners with an ongoing list gives them the tangible evidence of their own learning which worked so effectively in Shillaw's classes, and better addresses items actually introduced in class.

There are drawbacks, however, to using word lists. As Stevick once observed, "If you want to forget something, put it in a list" (cited in Lewis, 1993, p. 118). Stevick's criticism was no doubt aimed at the inherently inflexible, linear nature of lists: Although they help learners organize words, lists do become tedious as they grow in length. Schmitt and Schmitt (1995) suggest that students write new words on index cards. Thus, whereas the compilation of a word list for the class may be the responsibility of the teacher, it falls on the students to create flashcards or some other organizational device to use the list more effectively for their own purposes.

Extensive Graded Reading and Vocabulary Acquisition

Studies of implicit vocabulary acquisition have shown that learning through extensive reading is not only possible, but is almost certainly the means by which native speakers acquire the majority of their vocabulary (see Saragi, Nation, & Meister, 1978). For such learning to occur, however, the reader must understand approximately 95% of the running words in the text (Laufer, 1989; Nation, 1990; Parry, 1991) in order to infer meaning.

While such high levels of comprehension pose no problems for native speakers, they are clearly out of reach for most foreign-language learners who are using authentic materials. Linguistically graded versions of authentic texts have therefore been created to artificially raise the level of reading comprehension for students of English. As a result, students can make vocabulary gains with each reader they complete (Davis, 1995).

In addition to quantitative gains, extensive reading offers qualitative gains with respect to newly learned lexis. To begin with, readers provide a textual environment from which students can infer context-based meanings which are generally not found in dictionaries, such as connotations, collocations, or referential meanings. Moreover, every time a word is repeated in the text, it is in a slightly different context. This helps the learner develop a deeper and more accurate understanding of word meaning, and fosters vocabulary acquisition (See R. Ellis, 1995, for related research in the spoken mode).

The use of extensive graded reading for implicit vocabulary learning does, however, have limitations. First, implicit acquisition can be time consuming. For adults with limited study time, this may cause some frustration. Second, as stated above, the high rate of comprehension necessary for implicit vocabulary acquisition makes the use of authentic materials such as magazines, newspapers, books, short stories, and poems difficult, if not impossible to use without the aid of a dictionary. Finally, while an excellent means through which to learn high-frequency lexis, graded readers, which are based on corpus frequency counts, are not likely to include much of the low-frequency lexis that is typically present in authentic readings.

While a reading program based entirely around extensive graded reading will not respond to student needs in most teaching contexts, at least a portion of class time or homework time should be dedicated to this type of fluency-oriented reading.

Contextual Guessing vs. Dictionary Use

It has been shown that students who use a bilingual dictionary learn more vocabulary than students who read without a dictionary (Luppescu & Day, 1993). However when students turn to a dictionary for every word they do not understand, they lose sight of the meanings within the text as a whole. Teachers and textbook designers have come to understand this, and the result has been a movement toward the explicit instruction of fluency-oriented learning strategies such as guessing from context. Researchers such as David Nunan (1991) have commented that this movement may have gone too far, and the implication in much of the literature today is that good language learners rely on dictionaries less than poor language learners, and are more successful at employing contextual guessing strategies. This implication may not be accurate, however, according to a recent large-scale study on strategy use carried out in China by Wen & Johnson (1997).

These researchers found that dictionaries were used equally by both high and low English achievers. There was, however, a notable difference in how the students used their dictionaries: Dictionary use by high achievers involved a series of questions: "Was it necessary to consult the dictionary? What information in the dictionary was relevant? Was the information worth copying down, and if so, in Chinese or in English?" (Wen & Johnson, 1997, p. 36). Low achievers, on the other hand, followed "a relatively inflexible set of procedures for dictionary use rather than a decision-making process" (p. 36).

It was also found that while all learners consistently used guessing as a strategy, it was the high achievers who tended to guess according to the reading context. When reading for pleasure, high achievers often guessed word meaning without consulting a dictionary. During intensive reading, guesses "were consistently checked against the dictionary" (Wen & Johnson, 1997, p. 37). In contrast, lower level readers tended to rely more heavily on guessing from context in all situations. These findings were supported by qualitative results which showed that the highest achievers were those most skeptical of guessing strategies, as opposed to low achievers, who approved strongly to guessing in all contexts.

The results of this study demonstrate that the issue of dictionary use vs. contextual guessing is not really an issue at all: Good language learners do, in fact, rely quite heavily on dictionaries, but they use their dictionaries in ways which are significantly different than less successful learners. The answer, then, is to help less successful students develop a greater metacognitive awareness of the reading and learning process. Students can be taught, for example, to employ dictionaries differentially according to whether they are reading for pleasure, or whether they are reading intensively, with the intention of focusing on specific grammar points and vocabulary within the text. At the same time, students can benefit from specific instruction in recognizing which words are most fundamental to understanding the overall meaning of the text. Students can be taught to look up content words "that are introduced in a leading sentence and then thematized by repetition," (Parry, 1991, p. 650) or words which are printed in bold-face or italics. A classroom method to help students reach this goal will be described in a later section of this paper.

Memorization Strategies in the Reading Class

Linking new meanings to language that is already known can positively effect vocabulary learning (Gray, 1997; Ney, 1996; Richardson, 1980; Schmitt & Schmitt, 1995). These links are now more commonly known as cognitive strategies, and are widely reported in vocabulary-acquisition research. For the most part, these cognitive strategies take the learner beyond meaningless repetition, and provide mnemonic devices that produce a deep level of semantic processing of the word in question (Craik, 1979; Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Stevick, 1976).

One cognitive strategy that has proved to be effective in the memorization of vocabulary is the keyword technique (Atkinson, 1975), in which students connect the sound of a word they are learning to one they already know in either their first language or the target language. They then create an image to help remember the association (Pressley, Levin & Delaney, 1982). For example, during a class of keyword strategy training, in order to remember the word "adjust," one of my students produced a picture of a person adjusting the focus of a camera while saying, "Ah! Just!" (which translates to the corresponding Japanese expression, chodo ii).

Although not every word lends itself so easily to this method, it does provide a powerful tool with respect to words which have a high degree of "imageability" (Richardson, 1980, p. 99), or to word pairs between which the learner can form some kind of semantic link (N. Ellis, 1995). And while not all students will be disposed to using keywords on a regular basis, most will find some use for the technique with words that are particularly difficult to remember.

Classroom Applications

1. Vocabulary acquisition through semi-extensive reading

To help teach students to balance guessing strategies with dictionary use when reading non-graded materials, teachers should train students in semi-extensive reading. With this technique, students read for fluency, but are allowed to circle the words that they feel are the most troublesome in terms of understanding the text. The reading is timed to discourage them from getting bogged down in difficult areas, and dictionaries are not allowed. Although some students may not understand much of what they are reading, by the time they finish, most will have some understanding of the global context.

Next, students analyze the vocabulary that they circled. While learners can guess the meaning of some words based on contextual clues, they generally need to use a dictionary for most. Since students have read the entire text, and have some understanding of global and local context, they are able to "fine-tune" and build on the dictionary denotations to include context-based meanings. Thus, their analysis involves both bottom-up and top-down approaches.

A final stage in semi-extensive reading involves post-reading activities such as writing down main ideas or giving simple opinions or explanations to activate new vocabulary (See Helgesen, 1997, for related tasks). This indicates to the teacher whether students have understood the keywords in the text, and provides students with a scaffold upon which to transfer their passive vocabulary knowledge to productive use.

2. Recycling vocabulary

Research reported by Stevick (1976) has demonstrated that learning and revision of vocabulary is much more effective when distributed over a period of time. Thus, teachers should provide periodic review of words. Such review may take the form of informal vocabulary quizzes or readings that mirror earlier topics. For example, if students read an article on bullying in a class reader, the teacher might introduce an authentic newspaper article on an actual case of bullying further along in the course.

3. Testing

Teachers should avoid tests or quizzes which are based on dictionary definitions alone. Giving such tests sends the metamessage that students don't need to consider context. Tests that provide and require context, on the other hand, result in a "washback" effect. That is, if students know that contextualized meanings will be a part of a test, they will study words in context. An example of such a test is gap-filling. In addition to denotative meaning, gap-filling tests can check understanding of grammar, word-group associations and collocations (See Ur, 1996). Although these kinds of tests need not be used all the time, they should be the rule rather than the exception.

Pedagogical Implications

The primary pedagogical implications based on the preceding discussion are:

  • Present all vocabulary in context.
  • Plan to integrate newly learned vocabulary items into future lessons through readings on related topics, or through informal quizzes.
  • Maintain a running list of new vocabulary items and distribute it at regular intervals. The list should be a combination of the formally presented vocabulary and the unplanned vocabulary generated throughout the course.
  • Set up a library of graded readers (See Hill 1997a and 1997b for suggestions on how to go about this). Even a very small collection of readers can be a great asset.
  • Teach and encourage the explicit use of memorization strategies such as keyword or other strategies that encourage deep processing.
  • Through the introduction of semi-extensive reading, encourage students to combine top-down and bottom-up approaches: Have students read for meaning and fluency while circling unknown key content words, which can later be checked during a more intensive reading.
  • Test by instruments that include collocations, grammatical meaning, appropriateness and so on. The resulting washback effect will encourage students to consider context when studying vocabulary.


This article has presented an overview of vocabulary acquisition research, and suggested how these findings can be applied to second language reading classrooms. One area in need of further attention is the development of techniques that show to less effective readers and vocabulary acquirers how to apply the skills employed by more successful learners. This involves reviewing the research on vocabulary acquisition and transforming the empirical results into effective classroom practice. In my own classes I have developed the technique of semi-extensive reading to help learners balance contextual guessing with dictionary use. However, there remains a need for more techniques and activities which reflect the practices and strategies of good language learners.



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