McCarten posits that “[t]he acquisition of vocabulary is arguably the most critical component of successful language learning” (2007: 26). The numbers seem to bear this claim out: 'Heinemann Guided Readers' for 'Upper Level' students use about 2,200 words (Hedge 2008:111). In comparison, the number Aitchison gives for the vocabulary range of the average 5-year-old english
native speaker is 3,000 (2003: 188). Naturally, these figures are even higher for adults – Aitchison estimates an educated native speaker of english
is “unlikely to [know] less than 50,000” words (2003: 7); Schmitt speaks of “between fifteen and twenty thousand word families” (2008: 116).
However, vocabulary competence is not only a quantitative, but also a qualitative challenge. To say one 'knows a word', multiple pieces of information have to be processed together. To start with, there is what one would call the 'meaning' of a word. This can be split into connotative and denotative meaning. Connotative meaning can be an issue when labels between english
and the student's native language are different – in chinese
, for example, 'younger brother' and 'older brother' are represented by two distinct words. Denotative meaning concerns the “cultural, political, social, and historical” (Hedge 2008: 113) impact of words and may be best grasped by extensive exposure to the language. Additionally, a student should be aware when and in which setting it is appropriate to use a particular vocabulary item – in the semantic as well as in the grammatical sense. A further point is word interaction. Hedge divides this into syntagmatic relations between words (commonly referred to as collocations and phrases) and paradigmatic relations (synonyms, antonyms and hyponyms) (cf. Hedge 2008: 114-116). Next comes the issue of a word's pronunciation. As Hedge points out, “learners process speech partly by recognizing syllable patterns and stress” (2008:120
). Closely intertwined is spelling – however, english
spelling is often misleading in this regard; Roach even goes so far as to say that “traditional phonemic theory would not accept [spelling] as relevant” (2000: 83). Moreover, students may also have to contend with interference from their native language when the native language's sound/symbol relationship is either much closer (e.g. Serbo-Croat), much weaker (e.g. Hebrew) or simply different (e.g. Arabic languages) than in english
(cf. Schmitt 2008: 50); it is also worth noting that students whose language does not use the Latin alphabet or young learners
who may not yet have a firm grasp on their native writing system will have additional needs.
When considering all these aspects, it quickly becomes apparent that the task of learning vocabulary is a formidable one; as McCarten puts it, “[i]t is unlikely that teacher
s can cover in class the huge number of vocabulary items that the students will need to use or understand” (2007: 2). Therefore, besides direct instruction, the teacher
should also make sure to show the students tools that will enable them to study and make sense of vocabulary on their own. Some of the most important tools in this regard are dictionaries; teacher
s may also wish to draw students' attention towards various computer or online resources, such as vocabulary computer games or corpora; the latter can help students explore the use and frequency of certain words or phrases in different text types (cf. McCarten 2007: 4ff.). Another way of aiding vocabulary learning is encouraging students to keep their own word cards or vocabulary notebooks; the more creative and thorough the students are when designing these, the more useful they will be (cf. Hedge 2008: 127); and especially students living in non-english
-speaking environments should profit from practising vocabulary by e.g. labelling things in their everyday lives (cf. McCarten 2007: 25).
To sum up, vocabulary acquisition is a rather complex process, and the teacher
's task is not only to help the students acquire hard-and-fast knowledge of a word, but also to help them combine and navigate the different kinds of knowledge that together make up a 'word'; ideally, the teacher
s' efforts will empower the students to take charge of their own vocabulary store.
Aitchison, J. (2003). Words in the Mind – An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon. Padstow: Blackwell Publishing.
Hedge, T. (2008). Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McCarten, J. (2007). Teaching Vocabulary - Lessons from the Corpus. Lessons for the Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
/touchstone/images/pdf/McCarten_booklet.pdf; last accessed: 10.5.12)
Roach, P. (2000). english
Phonetics and Phonology: A Practical Course. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schmitt, N. (2008). Vocabulary In Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(http://books.google.at/books?id=ugT6ImoQO-8C&printsec=frontcover&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false; excerpts; last accessed: 10.5.12)