You are on page 1of 14


Teaching and Learning Vocabulary

I.S.P. Nation

Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand


The vocabulary learning task facing a learner of English is partly determined by the nature of vocabulary in general, and by the particular nature of English vocabulary. For well over 100 years, researchers into the frequency distribution of vocabulary have been aware that some words occur more frequently than others. If we take a long coherent written text and count the different words it contains and how often each one occurs, we see a pattern that is repeated in other kinds of texts. The following observations are typical.

• The most frequent word in a text, usually the, will account for about 6%-7% of the running words in the text.

• The ten most frequent words will account for about 25% of the running words in a text.

• The 100 most frequent words will account for about 50% of the running words in the text.

• The 1,000 most frequent words will account for at least 70%-80% of the running words in the text.

This pattern of initially very high coverage for the most frequent words and then a rapidly decreasing coverage for subsequent words is a very striking one. The perceptive scholar George Zipf (1949) attempted to explain this in one of his laws. In essence, Zipf's law says, "If we multiply the frequency of an item in a ranked frequency list of vocabulary by its rank on the frequency list, the result is a constant figure." This constant figure is typically around 10% of the total length of the corpus. Table 32.1 shows these figures for the most frequent lemmas in the 1,000,000 token Brown corpus (Francis & Kucera, 1982) at rank intervals of 10. The match is not perfect and there is clearly a decrease in the frequency times rank figure as we move to lower frequency items. Nevertheless, there is a pattern here. It is possible to make some observations based on this pattern.



TABLE 32.1

Ranked Frequency Figures and the Product of Rank Times Frequency from the Francis & Kucera Count (1982)

Word Rank Frequency Frequency x Rank
to 10 11,165 111,650
as 20 6,029 120,580
an 30 3,727 111,810
make 40 2,312 92,480
could 50 1,782 89,100
come 60 1,561 93,660
may 70 1,307 91,490
must 80 1,017 81,360
so 90 932 83,880
just 100 795 79,500 • Some words occur much more frequently than other words.

• In a ranked list, the frequency of items initially drops very quickly and then drops gradually.

• There is a small number of very frequent words and a very large number of low frequency words.

• If we want to separate high frequency from low frequency words, the dividing line wiIl be arbitrary.

These observations have direct implications for course design for the teaching and learning of vocabulary.

• There is a group of between 1,500 and 2,000 high frequency words that are the most important vocabulary learning goal (West, 1953). These words are so frequently and widely used that they need to be well learned as quickly as possible. Because of their usefulness, they deserve all kinds of attention from teachers and learners.

• The low frequency words, of which there are thousands, do not deserve teaching time, but gradually need to be learned. The most effective way of dealing with them is for the learners to work on strategies for learning and coping with them. These strategies can be the focus of the teacher's efforts.

We have looked briefly at the statistical nature of English vocabulary and the broad implications of this for vocabulary learning. Now let us look at the origins and structure of English vocabulary with the same purpose of drawing implications for teaching and learning.


The vocabulary of modern English largely comes from two major sources and this has a direct effect on the task facing a learner of English both as a first language or as a second language. Germanic languages, particularly Anglo-Saxon, are the main source of the high frequency words of English. According to Bird (1987), Germanic words make up 97% of the most frequent 100 words of English (for example, the, all, have, time, say), 57% of the first 1,000, 39% of the second 1,000, and around 36% of the


remaining vocabulary. These words are the oldest words of English, are typically short, and combine with other words rather than prefixes or suffixes to refer to related ideas (lunch time, horse flesh, head of the school, back door). The other major source is Latin either directly through the influence of the church or indirectly through French. The single major historical event that established the influence of Latin through French was the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Latin-based words make up 3% of the first 100,36% of the first 1,000 (for example, research, company, information, social, important), and 51 % from the second 1,000 on. Typically these words are multisyllabic, have prefixes and suffixes and can make related words by adding prefixes and suffixes, and have some degree of formality about them. Often there are less formal AngloSaxon words that convey roughly the same idea, but with less formality or status (getobtain; make-construct; be-exist; see-perceive). This type of contrast is well illustrated by the Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000). The AWL is a list of 570 word families that occur reasonably frequently across a wide range of academic disciplines and that are not in the most frequent 2,000 words of English. The AWL covers about 10% of the words in academic texts. Over 90% of the words in the AWL come from French, Latin, or Greek. In academic texts a large number of these words can be replaced by Anglo-Saxon words. What is partly lost by this replacement is the air of precision and seriousness that the academic vocabulary conveys.

Having vocabulary from both Germanic and Latinate sources (and also Greek, although this makes up at most 6% of English vocabulary) complicates the learning of English. First, there is more vocabulary to learn. Second, words referring to the same general concept are not visibly related to each other. The classic examples are:

sheep - mutton cows - beef pigs - pork.

Third, although Anglo-Saxon and Latinate words may refer to roughly the same ideas, they carry different status messages. Corson (1985, 1997) describes the GrecoLatin vocabulary of English as being a lexical bar (or barrier). In order to achieve in academic study, learners must cross this lexical bar by gaining control, both receptively and productively, of the Greco-Latin vocabulary of English. If they do not cross this bar they will be unlikely to succeed in academic study. According to Corson, this bar is difficult to cross because the Greco-Latin vocabulary is more difficult to process because the words are long and made up of prefixes, stems, and suffixes, because some native speakers feel that using this vocabulary is like "putting on airs," and because there needs to be considerable reading of formal language to meet and acquire this voca bulary.

Now that we have seen what English vocabulary is like, let us now look at what needs to be learned about it.


Table 32.2 lists various aspects of knowledge that are involved in knowing a word.

These aspects of knowledge fit into three groups: knowing the form of a word (its spelling, sound, and word parts); knowing the meaning of a word (linking its form and meaning, knowing a concept for the word and what it can refer to, and knowing what other words of related meaning it can be associated with); and knowing how a word is used (the grammar of the word including part of speech and the sentence patterns it fits into, collocates of the words, and whether the word is formal or


TABLE 32.2

What Is Involved in Knowing a Word



R What does the word sound like? P How is the word pronounced?

R What does the word look like?

P How is the word written and spelled?

R What parts are recognizable in this word? P What word parts are needed to express the



word parts

Meaning form and meaning R What meaning does this word form signal?
P What word form can be used to express this
concept and referents R What is included in the concept?
P What items can the concept refer to?
associations R What other words does this make us think of?
P What other words could we use instead of this
Use grammatical functions R In what patterns does the word occur?
P In what patterns must we use this word?
collocations R What words or types of words occur with this
P What words or types of words must we use with
this one?
constraints on use R Where, when, and how often would we expect to
meet this word?
(register, frequency, etc.) P Where, when, and how often can we use this
word? Note. In column 3, R = receptive knowledge. P = productive knowledge. Adapted from Nation, 2001, p.27.

informal, polite or rude, used mainly by children and so on, or has no restrictions on its use).

A substantial part of the difficulty of learning a word (its learning burden) depends on whether these aspects of an L2 word are similar for its 11 translation or are regular and predictable from already known L2 words of similar or related meaning (Nation, 1990, 1994). For example, a Japanese learner of English learning the term ice cream does not have a lot to learn because the concept is already familiar from first language experience; the form is very similar "aisu kurimu" because the Japanese word is a loan word from English, it is the same part of speech, and has no restrictions on its use. The differences in pronunciation may be a little interfering but are typical of changes that need to be made to loan words. Learning a word like yacht is more difficult. The spelling does not relate to 11 patterns and in English it is an irregularly spelled word. It is not difficult to pronounce and does not contain any prefixes or suffixes. Linking its meaning and form will require some effort unless it is a loan word, and learning its precise meaning may require learning a new concept. It is a regular countable noun and, if learners are familiar with the behavior of countable nouns in English, should not be difficult to learn.


Teachers can use an analysis of the learning burden of a word to guide their teaching of high frequency words. Such an analysis can help them focus on difficult aspects and help them draw attention to regular features of the word so that learners can see useful patterns.

Notice that each part of Table 32.2 is divided into receptive and productive knowledge. Receptive knowledge is sometimes called passive knowledge and is the kind of knowledge needed to deal with a word in listening and reading. Productive knowledge is sometimes called active knowledge and is the kind of knowledge needed to use a word in speaking and writing. Productive knowledge requires more learning than receptive knowledge (Ellis & Beaton, 1993).

These different kinds of knowledge require different kinds of teaching and learning, which we will now look at by seeing how vocabulary can be learned through listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Vocabulary and Listening

The research on learning vocabulary through listening reveals a principle that holds true for all kinds of vocabulary learning-the more the teacher can help the learners give deliberate attention to particular words, the more likely these words are to be learned (Hulstijn, 2001). Although it has often been stated that learning best occurs through meaning-focused use-meeting words in context-this statement is not supported by research. In fact, the opposite is true. The more deliberate, decontextualized attention a learner gives a word, the more likely it is to be learned. This research finding should not be interpreted as saying that words should not be learned in context. It is more usefully interpreted as saying that every course should involve some deliberate attention to vocabulary as well as opportunities to meet the words in meaning-focused use. Target vocabulary should be met in the four strands of learning through meaning-focused input, learning through meaningfocused output, learning through deliberate study, and learning through fluencyfocused activities.

Elley (1989) found that vocabulary learning from listening to stories was positively affected if the story was interesting, comprehensible, and involved repetition, and if the teacher drew attention to some words by quickly providing a definition. There are several studies where learners have the opportunity to negotiate the meaning of unknown vocabulary either with the teacher (Ellis, Tanaka, & Yamazaki, 1994; Ellis, 1994, 1995; Ellis & Heimbach, 1997; Ellis & He, 1999), or with each other (Newton, 1995). Negotiation provides favorable conditions for learning, greatly increasing the likelihood that a word will be learned. Negotiation, which involves working out the meaning of a word through discussion, sets up all the conditions needed for effective learning: interest, understanding, repetition, deliberate attention, and generative use (the use of a word in a new context). Negotiation, however, takes time and takes time away from focus on the message of the text. Thus it is not possible for learners to negotiate every unfamiliar or partly unfamiliar item. Newton (1995) found that although negotiation usually resulted in learning, most learning occurred through the less certain procedure of simply putting the word in context without negotiation. This kind of meeting is less likely to result in learning but, because it is the more common default procedure with more likelihood of occurring, accounted for the bulk of the vocabulary learning. Thus, teachers should feel happy when they observe learners orally negotiating unknown words, but they should also realize that there will be a lot of other nonobservable learning taking place. The negotiation studies also show that a learner need not be an active negotiator in order to learn. Those who quietly observe negotiation and have a stake in the task seem to learn equally well (Stahl & Clark,1987).


Although there is no clear research on this for listening, it is likely that there should not be more than one or two unknown words per 100 running words in order for unassisted learning from context to occur. To learn from listening, the unknown words need to occur in easily understood texts with a great amount of supportive context.

If the goal is listening fluency that will develop fluent access of known vocabulary, then the listening input should contain no unknown words and there should be some pressure to perform faster than usual. This can be done by hearing the same story several times with each retelling done at a slightly faster speed, and by listening to graded readers at levels below the level for learning from meaning-focused input. That is, learners who would usually read at Stage 4 in a graded reading series should be listening to develop fluency with stories read to them from readers at Stages 2or3.

When presenting listening material for learning through meaning-focused input, teachers should draw on a range of procedures for getting the learners to give deliberate attention to vocabulary. These include quickly giving definitions or translations of unknown words, encouraging learners to signal when they don't understand a word or part of the story, questioning learners on parts of the story as it is told, quickly noting words on the blackboard and indicating their related derived or inflected forms, and putting up a list of target vocabulary before the reading.

Vocabulary and Speaking

The vocabulary needed for listening and speaking tends to be smaller than the vocabulary needed for reading and writing. Part of the reason for this is that listening and speaking tend to be informal activities using colloquial language. This colloquial language consists largely of words within the first 2,000 words of English. A few of these words, like hello, yeah, please, good-day are largely limited to spoken language. In his study of text types, Biber (1989) found that in the text types of intimate interpersonal interaction and informational interpersonal interaction, the only written text was friendly letters; all the rest were spoken. Schonell, Meddleton, and Shaw's (1956) study of the oral vocabulary of the Australian worker found that the most frequent 1,000 words covered 94% of the running words, and the most frequent 2,000 words almost 99%. This contrasts with the most frequent 2000 words covering barely 80% of the running words in academic text (Coxhead, 2000).

We have seen how negotiation can be a means of setting up conditions for vocabulary learning in spoken activities. Newton's (1995) research showed that all the negotiated vocabulary occurred in the written input to the task, that is, the handout setting out the background, task, and procedure for the speaking activity. Observing learners doing speaking activities and noting what vocabulary is used and how it is used can help teachers get a good feel about how to design such tasks. The careful design of the input sheets can be a major factor influencing vocabulary learning from spoken activities.

Vocabulary learning can be made more deliberate, and thus more likely to occur if the focus of the activity is on a particular word. The following example, focusing on registration, comes from Nation and Hamilton-Jenkins (2000).

Group these jobs into those that you think require registration (like nursing) and those that do not.

teacher doctor shop assistant

lawyer plumber bus driver

cleaner engineer computer programmer


There are several activities for developing spoken fluency with vocabulary. The simplest of these involve hearing words like numbers, days of the week, months of the year, and names of objects and quickly responding by pointing to first language translations or representations of the words. For example, to practice fluency in listening to numbers, the learners can listen to numbers and quickly write or point to them in figures as in the following list.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Considerable repetition with increasing speed is needed to get real fluency. When listening fluency is good, then the learners act as the teacher and say the items while the teacher responds by pointing or writing.

The classic activity for developing spoken fluency is the 4/3/2 activity, which sets up the conditions typically needed to develop fluency of access to vocabulary. In the 4/3/2 activity the learners work in pairs. One member of each pair, A, is the speaker and the other, B, is the listener. A talks on a topic for 4 minutes while B listens and says nothing. Then the learners change partners and A gives exactly the same talk again to a new B but in only 3 minutes. Once again B simply listens and says nothing. Finally, the learners change partners again. A gives the same talk for the third time to a new partner B but in only 2 minutes. Thus, A has to give the same talk three times in a decreasing amount of time. After this, all the Bs become speakers and the As listeners and the same procedure is followed. Research on 4/3/2 shows that not only does speed of speaking increase from the 4-minute talk to the 2-minute talk, but there is also a decrease in errors and an increase in grammatical complexity (Arevart & Nation, 1991).

Vocabulary and Reading

As with the skills of listening and speaking, reading can be an opportunity for learning through meaning-focused use, deliberate vocabulary learning, and fluency development. A distinction is often made between extensive reading and intensive reading. Extensive reading involves reading for pleasure and reading large quantities of material. From a vocabulary perspective, extensive reading can be a way to learn new vocabulary through meaning-focused input, and to establish, enrich, and develop fluency with known vocabulary. Where the goal is to learn new vocabulary, this unknown vocabulary should appear at a density not more than 1 unknown word in every 50 running words (Hu & Nation, 2000). It should also be repeated with an optimal space between the repetitions so that previous knowledge is still retained and yet there is some degree of novelty to the repetition. Ideally, many of the repetitions should involve some degree of generative use, that is, the word occurs in a new context. For most learners of English, these conditions are most likely to occur in the numerous series of graded or simplified readers, where books are written within a limited vocabulary usually with about six vocabulary stages such as 300 words, 700 words, 1,000 words, 1,500 words, 2,000 words, and 2,500 words. Thus at Stage 1, learners at an elementary level (learners with a vocabulary of around 300 words) can read substantial texts and be familiar with most of the words used in these texts. Descriptions and evaluations of the books and the various series can be found in Day and Bamford (1998) and Hill (1997). Nation and Wang's (1999) research suggests that learners should be reading at least 1 graded reader every 1-2 weeks, and be reading at least 20 graded readers a year.

There is some prejudice against graded readers, largely by teachers, because they feel that graded readers are not authentic in that they involve controlled or adapted text rather than text intended for native speakers. However, these texts should be


seen as authentic in that they provide conditions under which learners at all levels of proficiency can read with a degree of comprehension, ease, and enjoyment that is near that of a native speaker reading unsimplified text. Without graded readers, reading for a second language learner would be one continuous struggle against an overwhelming vocabulary level (Nation & Deweerdt, 2001). Teachers need to be familiar with the various series of graded readers and the procedures for setting up and running an effective extensive reading program.

Intensive reading usually involves the interactive reading of a text that contains a fairly heavy vocabulary load. That is, learners are familiar with less than 95% of the running words in the text. Traditionally, intensive reading involves the teacher explaining a text to the learners often using the first language for the explanation. There are other types of intensive reading including Palincsar and Brown's (1986) reciprocal reading, Scott et a1.'s (1984) standard reading exercise, and learners reading individually with the help of a dictionary. Vocabulary learning during intensive reading fits into the strand of language-focused learning (Nation, 2001) where learners pay deliberate attention to vocabulary. There are various vocabulary aids and exercise types that are used in intensive reading. These include preteaching of vocabulary, glossing, matching words in the text with definitions provided at the end of the text, word part building and analysis, and finding collocations. Nation (2001, pp. 98-108) has an extensive list of these.

There are important vocabulary coping and learning strategies that can be first approached through reading. These are guessing the meaning of unknown words from context clues, using word cards to learn new vocabulary met in reading, using word parts to help words stick in memory, and using dictionaries to find the meanings of new words and to enrich knowledge of previously met words. We will look at these strategies in detail later.

Developing fluency in reading can be done very effectively through the use of speed reading texts. Typically, these are texts around 500-1,000 words long that contain no unknown vocabulary and which are accompanied by comprehension questions. These texts are read under timed conditions and the speed of reading in words per minute and the comprehension score are noted on charts. Most learners are expected to double their reading speed after 3-4 weeks' practice, reading four or five texts a week. It is usually not difficult for learners to increase their reading speed because initially they tend to read very slowly at speeds around 100 words per minute. Untrained native speakers can read at 250 words per minute and it is possible with practice to reach speeds around 500 words per minute. Speed reading courses encourage fluent access to vocabulary. The conditions needed for fluency development are (1) no unfamiliar language features including no unknown vocabulary in the text, (2) a focus on the message of the text, (3) some pressure to perform at a higher than normal speed, and (4) quantity of such practice. These conditions may also be met by getting learners to read graded readers that are below their normal level. That is, a learner who is reading a Stage 4 graded reader for meaning-focused vocabulary growth where 98% of the running words are already known, should be reading a Stage 2 or 3 reader for fluency development where 100% of the running words are known.

Vocabulary and Writing

Studies have shown that there is a relationship between richness of vocabulary in writing, the learners' level of proficiency, and raters' assessment of the quality of the writing. There does however seem to be a considerable lapse of time before items that are learned receptively become a part of learners' productive use in writing. Corson's


(1995) work on the lexical bar suggests that it is important for learners to be able to display their knowledge of academic vocabulary in writing to show that they are members of the academic community.

Just as it is possible to design speaking activities to help learners focus on and use target vocabulary, so it is possible to design writing activities that help items in the input to the writing task become a part of the written output. This is likely to be most effective if the items focused on are already part of the learners' receptive vocabulary. Linked skills activities can be a major means of bringing receptive vocabulary into productive use.

A linked skills activity consists of about three activities that build on each other in a sequence and involve a mixture of listening, speaking, reading or writing. In linked skills activities aimed at writing, the writing activity will be the final part of the sequence. For example, a reading, speaking, and writing linked skill sequence could be arranged in the following way: (1) The learners read a text on a topic like family violence, (2) they then form small groups and discuss what they have read, guided by some discussion questions prepared by the teacher or by following a set format of questions, and (3) after discussing, they then work together to produce a written report of the results of their discussion. If the topic is a difficult one, or if learners' proficiency is low, step 2, the discussion, could be carried out in the first language. Research (Lameta- Tufuga, 1994) has shown that discussion in the first language can result in better performance in the final task in the second language, partly because learners truly get to grip with the ideas, and the necessary. second language vocabulary gets clarified and set in a helpful context during the first language discussion.

The Dictogloss activity (Wajnryb, 1988) is a linked skills activity where learners listen to a text, take notes while they listen, work together in small groups to reconstruct the text, and then compare their text with the original.

Activities that directly focus on vocabulary can encourage the use of the vocabulary in later writing, but research indicates that preteaching has to be substantial before it affects the following task (Graves, 1986).

Linked skills tasks encourage the development of writing fluency, largely because by the time the learners do the final writing task, they are well in control of the language and ideas that they have to deal with. They are thus able to perform at a higher level than normal because of this preparation, and this is one of the conditions necessary for fluency development.

Vocabulary Strategies

There are four major vocabulary learning and coping strategies that need to be worked on until learners are able to use them with confidence and ease. This means that each strategy needs to be studied, practiced with feedback, and developed to a high level of fluency. Typically this will involve working on the strategy for several weeks for a few minutes several times a week. The strategies deserve such time and effort because they enable learners to deal with the thousands of low frequency words that they will meet in their use of English. After learners know the high frequency words of the language, the teacher's main focus should be on strategy development. Strategy development, however, should start while the learners are working on high frequency vocabulary.

Guessing from Context. The most important strategy is guessing the meaning of unknown words from context clues. Some researchers do not like to use the term "guessing" and prefer a term like "inferring" because the process should be systematic


and focused on a range of available clues. It is most convenient to develop the strategy through reading and there are several important prerequisites if guessing is going to be successful. The learners must have developed some skill in reading and should read a lot. Ninety-eight percent of the running words in the texts that are used for guessing should be already familiar to the learners. This means that there will be a substantial amount of comprehensible supportive context for each unfamiliar word, on average about 50 familiar words. If these prerequisites are satisfied, then training in guessing can have useful effects. Training can focus on the linguistic clues available for guessing-the part of speech of the word, its immediate context, and its wider context of conjunction relationships-and on the background knowledge clues. Because the linguistic clues are more generalizable, these should get more attention, but successful guessing depends on a combination of a language item and a message focus. Initially guessing may be slow, but the aim is to reach a level of skill where guessing does not disrupt the flow of reading.

Learning from Word Cards. Rote learning of second language words and their first language translations has long been out of favor in language teaching. However, there is a very substantial amount of research to show that such learning is very efficient and effective and that there are useful guidelines to follow to optimize such learning. It is important that this direct learning supports and is supported by opportunities to meet and use words in context and to develop fluency in using the words. The four strands of learning from meaning-focused input, deliberate study (of which learning from word cards is a part), learning from meaning-focused output, and fluency development should be equally present in a course, each occupying about the same amount of course time.

The learning from word card strategy involves learners in making small cards about 1.5 inches (4 em) by 1.2 inches (3 em) and writing useful vocabulary taken from lists, reading, or lessons on one side and the first language translation on the other side of the card. Phrases may be written as well as words. Other information can be added to the card, but in general it is best to keep the cards simple. Some dictionaries, the COBUILD dictionary and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, mark high frequency words in the dictionary and learners should initially focus on these. The learners should carry a pack of about 50 cards around with them held together by a rubber band and when they have a free moment, for example while traveling on the bus or train or waiting for someone, they quickly go through the cards trying to recall the meaning of each word and turning the card over when they cannot in order to see the meaning. Learning is most effective if the following guidelines are followed.

1. Try to retrieve the meaning of the word before turning the card over to look at the translation. This retrieval is the factor that is important for learning.

2. Space the repetitions so that going through the cards is not concentrated in an hour of study, but is spread a few minutes at a time across the day and week. Ideally the repetitions should become increasingly spaced, eventually with intervals of a month or more between repetitions.

3. Keep changing the order of the cards in the pack. This avoids serial learning where one word becomes the cue for the following word. It also allows words requiring more attention to be placed at the beginning of the pack and others that are easily learned to be placed in other packs or later in the pack.

4. Say the word to yourself when looking at the card. This helps words enter longterm memory.


5. Use L1 translations when making the cards. These are preferable to L2 definitions because they are easier to understand. Several pieces of research have shown the superiority of L1 translations over L2 definitions (Nation, 2001, p.304).

6. Where a word is difficult to learn, make sure you have a clear idea of its pronunciation, and use mnemonic tricks like the keyword technique (Nation, 2001, pp. 311-314) or breaking the word into prefix, stem, and suffix to see related forms and the meaning of the parts. Putting the word in an illustrative sentence may also make it easier to learn.

7. Avoid putting related words together in the same pack of cards. Opposites, synonyms, and members of the same lexical set like names of fruit, months of the year, or things in the kitchen should not be learned at the same time because they tend to interfere with each other and make learning more difficult (Nation, 2000).

8. When the words have been learned receptively (see the L2 word recall the L1 translation) they should then be learned productively (see the L1 translation and recall the L2 word). Productive learning is more difficult than receptive learning. If time is short and there is a need to choose between receptive and productive learning, it is more effective to do productive learning because this includes the knowledge needed for receptive use as well as for productive use.

Learning from word cards is a very effective way to quickly boost vocabulary size.

Learners should make their own cards because making the cards is the first important meeting with the words that allows later retrieval. It is not unusual to be able to correctly retrieve the meaning of about 70% of the words in a pack after one run through the pack.

Word cards are much more preferable than vocabulary notebooks. Vocabulary notebooks have the disadvantages of presenting the word and its meaning together and thus not providing an opportunity for retrieval. The words are in a fixed sequence and thus flexibility of attention is lost.

Learners need training and encouragement in the use of word cards and this can take the form of rules to learn, demonstrations of learning, display of cards, and reports on successes and problems in learning.

Using Word Parts. As we have seen, a large proportion of English words come from French, Latin, or Greek. As a result many English words have prefixes and suffixes, and have stems that appear in other words, for example, transport, porter, importation, deportation, important, reporter, supportive, export. In general, the suffixes mostly signal the part of speech of the word, although some like -less, -ful, and -able have strong lexical meanings. The prefixes often add a strong lexical meaning to the word, sometimes more than the stems do.

There have been several frequency counts of prefixes that show that a small number of prefixes occur very frequently while the remainder are of rather low frequency. Bauer and Nation (1993) created a graded list of affixes based on the criteria of frequency (the number of different words containing the affix), regularity (how much the spoken or written form of the stem or affix changes when they are joined), productivity (how much the affix is still used to create new words), and predictability (the number and relative frequency of different meanings of the affix i.e., how easy it is to predict that a particular form will have a particular meaning). This list can be used as a rough syllabus for dealing with affixes.


Level 4

-al, -ation, -ess, -ful, -ism, -ist, -ity, -ize, -ment, -ous, in-, all with restricted uses.


A different form is a different word. Capitalization is ignored.

Level 2

Regularly inflected words are part of the same family. The inflectional categories are: plural; third person singular present tense; past tense; past participle; -ing; comparative; superlative; possessive.

Level 3

-able, -er, -ish, -less, -ly, -ness, -th, -y, non-, un-, all with restricted uses.


-age (leakage),-al (arrival), -ally (idiotically),-an (American), -ance (clearance),-ant (consultant), -ary (revolutionary), -atory (confirmatory), -dom (kingdom; officialdom), -eer (black marketeer), -en (wooden), -en (widen), -ence (emergence), -ent (absorbent), -ery (bakery; trickery), -ese (Japanese; officialese), -esque (picturesque), -ette (usherette; roomette), -hood (childhood), -i (Israeli), -ian (phonetician; [ohnsonian), -ite (Paisleyite; also chemical meaning), -let (coverlet), -ling (duckling), -ly (leisurely), -most (topmost), -ory (contradictory), -ship (studentshipi.-ward (homeward),-ways (crossways),-wise (endwise; discussion-wise), anti- (anti-inflation), ante- (anteroom), arch- (archbishop), bi- (biplane), circum(circumnavigate), counter- (counter attack), en- (encage; enslave), ex- (ex-president), fore- (forename), hyper- (hyperactive), inter- (inter-African, interweave), mid- (midweek), mis- (misfit), neo- (neo-colonialism), post- (post-date), pro- (pro-British), semi- (semi-automatic), sub- (subclassify; subterranean), un- (untie; unburden).

Level 6

-able, -ee, -ic, -ify, -ion, -ist, -ition, -ive, -th, -y, pre-, re-.

Level 7

Classical roots and affixes

The main value in learning word parts is to use them as a kind of mnemonic for new vocabulary. This works in a way similar to the keyword technique in that the new word is broken into parts, then its meaning is rephrased to contain the meaning of the parts. This then relates the new knowledge of the word form and its meaning to the old knowledge of the word parts and their meaning. So, the word progression would be broken into pro- (forward), -gress- (to move), -ion (noun) and have its meaning phrased as "a movement forward."

Using this word part strategy involves learning a relatively small number of prefixes and suffixes (about 20-40), being able to recognize them in words, and being able to relate their meanings to the meaning of the word with the help of a dictionary. Like all the vocabulary strategies we have looked at, this strategy deserves teaching time because of the large number of words it can be applied to.

Using a Dictionary. The guessing from context strategy can provide access to the meaning of a word in a given context. One of the steps in such a strategy can be checking that a guess is correct by looking up the word in a dictionary. The guessing from


context strategy can also be a way of acquiring new vocabulary. Dictionary use may also have this goal, especially if the learner is able to make use of the various kinds of information in a dictionary. Learners' dictionaries like the (CO BUILD English dictionary, like the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary) contain a wealth of information on the range of aspects of what is involved in knowing a word. In addition, they attempt to present this information in as clear and as accessible a way as possible, through the use of controlled defining vocabularies, numerous examples of words in use, and information about related words.

Research on dictionary use, however, shows that most learners make limited use of this information and are largely unfamiliar with how to make use of the information provided. Training in the use of dictionaries can have benefits both for receptive and productive vocabulary knowledge.

Because most defining vocabularies are around 2,000 words, learners will need to have control of the high frequency words of English before making use of monolingual dictionaries. Before this, bilingual and bilingualized dictionaries need to be used, and training in dictionary use can begin with these.

Vocabulary Testing

The need to focus on the high frequency vocabulary has often been mentioned in this survey of vocabulary learning and teaching. There are now several tests that help teachers discover whether their learners know the high frequency words of English and to what extent the low frequency vocabulary is known.

The Vocabulary Levels Test (Schmitt, Schmitt, & Clapham, 2001: Schmitt, 2000; Nation, 2001) uses the following format:

1 business 2 clock

3 horse

4 pencil

5 shoe

6 wall

__ part of a house

__ animal with four legs

__ something used for writing

It is divided into five levels: the 2,000 word level (high frequency words), the 3,000 word level (low frequency), the 5,000 word level (low frequency), the AWL level (high frequency for learners with academic purposes), and the 10,000 word level (low frequency). Each level contains ten blocks of items like the one illustrated here and thus tests 30 words. It tests receptive knowledge and does not require the learners to have a precise knowledge of the meaning of each word because the distractors are not related in meaning. It measures whether there is some knowledge of the word to build on. There is also a productive levels test (Laufer & Nation, 1999) that uses items like those shown next. It is also divided into the same five levels as the Vocabulary Levels Test.

They need to spend less on adminis and more on production.

He saw an ang from Heaven.

The entire he of goats was killed.

Two old men were sitting on a park ben and talking.

She always showed char toward those who needed help.

The tests are diagnostic tests intended to help teachers find out whether their learners know the high frequency words, and how many low frequency words they


know. This is important because the way teachers deal with high frequency and low frequency words should differ considerably.

There is now a growing body of research on vocabulary testing and an excellent book (Read, 2000) devoted solely to this topic. A common finding in vocabulary testing research is that if learners are tested on the same words using different test formats, the results correlate at .7. This indicates that while there is a substantial amount of shared variance, there are also substantial differences between the tests. Different formats tap different aspects of vocabulary knowledge with different degrees of sensitivity. This has implications for choosing vocabulary tests and for measuring vocabulary learning in experimental research.

When choosing a test to use with learners, it is important to think clearly about what aspects of knowledge need to be measured (see Table 32.2) and what kind of knowledge (receptive/productive, precise knowledge/partial knowledge) is most suitable and fair to measure (Joe, Nation, & Newton, 1996).

For example, when designing a weekly test to encourage vocabulary learning and to see what is remembered of the new words met during the week, the teacher should be aware that learning a word is a long-term cumulative process and only partial knowledge could be expected after one or two meetings. This partial knowledge, however, is a very important first step toward gaining full control of the word. The most appropriate kind of test in these circumstances is one that focuses on a very central aspect of word knowledge, knowing the meaning of a word, and that allows the learners to make use of partial knowledge. A receptive multiple-choice test using first language synonyms, or a matching test with three or four words and six or seven simply expressed definitions, could be a sensible choice.

When measuring vocabulary learning in experimental research, it is very useful to test the same words in several different ways. For example, in an experiment investigating the amount of vocabulary learning from graded reading, if there were three tests of the same words, say a multiple-choice test, an interview test, and a collocation test, then the strength of knowledge of each word could be determined and different types and strengths of knowledge could be related to the different ways the words occurred in the texts.

Vocabulary teaching is usually seen as teaching words. A major aim of this review has been to show that there is much more to it than this. Vocabulary teaching should have different focuses when learners move from high frequency to low frequency vocabulary learning. For the teacher this means a move from a focus on particular high frequency words to a focus on strategies. For the learners, the change will not be so noticeable as learners should continue to expand their vocabulary. Vocabulary teaching must also be seen as ensuring that there is a balance of opportunities to learn from each of the strands of meaning-focused input, language-focused learning, meaningfocused output, and fluency development. Neglect of one or more of these strands will mean that learning is not efficiently done and that vocabulary is unlikely to be ready for use. Vocabulary learning needs to occur within a well-planned vocabulary program.


Arevart, 5., & Nation, I.S.P. (1991). Fluency improvement in a second language. RELe Journal, 22,84-94. Bauer, 1., & Nation, l.S.P. (1993). Word families. International Journal of Lexicography, 6, 253-279.

Biber, D. (1989). A typology of English texts. Linguistics, 27, 3-43.

Bird, N. (1987). Words, lemmas, and frequency lists: old problems and new challenges (Parts 1 & 2). Al-

manakh, 6, 42-50.

Corson, D. J. (1985). The Lexical Bar. Oxford: Pergamon.

Corson, D. J. (1995). Using English Words. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.

Corson, D. J. (1997). The learning and use of academic English words. Language Learning, 47, 671-718. Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly 34, 2, 213-238.