Using a modified version of the Vocabulary Knowledge Scale to aid vocabulary development

Dale Brown, Nanzan University


Quick Guide

  • Key words: Pre-teaching vocabulary, demonstrating progress, vocabulary depth
  • Learner English level: Beginner to advanced
  • Learner maturity level: High school and above
  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  • Activity time: 15 minutes in one session, 10 minutes in another
  • Materials: Handout of the modified Vocabulary Knowledge Scale

The Vocabulary Knowledge Scale (VKS) is a 5-point self-report scale developed by Wesche & Paribakht (1996) that allows students to indicate how well they know items of vocabulary. It measures small gains in knowledge in order to compare the effectiveness of different vocabulary instructional techniques. The VKS utilizes the idea of vocabulary depth, the idea that there are many different aspects to knowing a word and that vocabulary acquisition means gradually building up more extensive knowledge of items. The VKS thus allows students to indicate partial knowledge of items, which allows a finer measurement of vocabulary gains.

The following activity uses a simplified version of the VKS to pre-teach vocabulary when starting a textbook unit and shows students their ongoing progress. The activity works best with units that take three or four class sessions.


Enter 10–20 words from a forthcoming unit into the simplified VKS, as in this example: (See Appendix for a blank printable copy)

A = I know what this word/phrase means and I can use it in a sentence.

B = I know what this word/phrase means, but I’m not sure how to use it.

C = I’ve seen this word/phrase before, but I don’t know what it means.

D = I’ve never seen this word/phrase before.






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Step 1: Give each student a copy of the VKS handout. Read over the key and make sure students understand the four choices.

Step 2: Ask students to mark the appropriate column for each word. Do not allow them to use dictionaries.

Step 3: While students are working, write the following on the board:

A → Make a sentence using the word.

B → Explain what the word means.

Step 4: Referring to your instructions, have students work together and go through the words they marked as either A or B.

Step 5: Again while students are at work, add the following to the board:

C & D → Find someone who checked A or B.

Encourage the students to move around the room if necessary to find someone. For words for which all students marked C or D, explain or give examples yourself. Alternatively, tell the students to look out for the words in the forthcoming unit. Make sure the students keep their copy of the VKS for Step 6.

Step 6: At the end of the unit follow Steps 1–5 again. If there are still words for which all students checked C or D, have the students race to find the words in the unit and then to work out their meaning.

Step 7: Have students compare the columns they checked the first time and this time. Ask students to award themselves one point for each move to the left along the scale, and to subtract one point for any moves to the right (very rare). Then see who has the most points.


Use this procedure at the very beginning of a unit before the students even open the textbook. After Step 5, have the students predict the topic of the unit considering the vocabulary listed and think about what issues will be discussed.


I find this activity useful in several ways. First, it shows me how much knowledge the students have of the words initially, thus helping me plan how much focus to give the vocabulary. Secondly, it is motivating for me and for the students to see how much they have learnt when we finish a unit. Step 7 also gives a useful confidence boost to the lower level learners in the class since they usually win (by nature there are more opportunities for them to score points). Finally, the activity moves us away from the approach that sees words as either known or unknown, so that after some use students begin to pinpoint their problems for you, explaining, for example, that they have seen a word before but do not know what it means.


Paribakht, T.S. & Wesche, M. (1996). Enhancing vocabulary acquisition through reading: A hierarchy of text-related exercise types. The Canadian Modern Language Review 52(2): 155-178.

Appendix: Available below