Approaches to Teaching Vocabulary

Vocabulary knowledge increases the communicative power of language. Recognizing this, a learner will aim to learn a large number of words considering that the more words he knows, the better he can express the message he intends. When learning a new word, students should realize that one word has more than one meaning that meaning can change, being stretched or limited, according to the way it is used.

Decoding the meaning means the understanding of the context (the entire non-verbal environment which has linguistic relevance for the clarification of the message) and the co-text (the linguistic environment itself, the words in the text which play a role in specifying the meaning of a certain vocabulary item). This is why vocabulary teaching should be done together with the teaching of phonetics and grammar. Thus, knowledge of a word refers to the acquisition of information of various types:

• Correct pronunciation and spelling. Pronunciation is quite problematic, because of the lack of correspondence between written and spoken form. Thus, the same grapheme is uttered as different phonemes (table-/t/, action-/ʃ/, picture-/tʃ/, ballet-mute t). Things get more complicated with homographs (read – /ri:d/ or /red/) and homophones (knight/night). Incorrect pronunciation may cause misunderstandings or even a gap in communication.

• The denotative meaning – “the objective, impersonal and intellective meaning of a word” the meaning which is acquired by the whole people, the cognitive and communicative aspect of meaning. It carries the neutral information of a word, from the speaker’s point of view as it refers to an object, action or event in the physical world.

• The connotative meaning – “the subjective, personal and emotive extra-meaning of a word” the emotional charge the speaker associates with every use of a word, the suggestions and implications which surround it.

• Knowledge of collocation: the possible associations between that word and other words. Words co-occur because their combination reflects a common state of affairs. For example, “read” and “a book” collocate because people often read books.

• The relations of synonymy (the possibility of exchanging one linguistic item for another without changing the meaning), antonymy (with its different forms of oppositeness: complementarity – male/female, converseness – husband/wife, multiple taxonomy – spring/ summer/ autumn/ winter, gradable antonymy – huge/ big/ small/ tiny), homonymy (a single word form with different meanings which are not closely related) and hyponymy (the relation where one word includes another in hierarchy: furniture-bed, table, chair).

• Style and register. Style refers both to the level of formality (slang, colloquial, neutral, formal, frozen) and to humorous, ironic, poetic or literary style. The following words are similar in meaning, but different in style: children (neutral), offspring (formal), kids (colloquial). Registers are varieties of language according to the context of use: the language of medicine, education, law, cooking. Thus, minor is the legal term for child, insolvent is the banking term for penniless, etc.

• The appropriate grammatical forms. When teaching vocabulary, teachers need to clarify to their students what part of speech one particular word is, the irregular forms it may have, the way in which adjectives are different from adverbs, etc.

• Word building refers to the following forms of word formation: affixation (adding prefixes and suffixes to the base form of the word – man manly/ unmanly), compounding (the formation of words from two or more separate words – to babysit) and conversion ( the using of an item as different parts of speech, without changing its form).

Therefore, it is the teacher’s job to create the learning conditions that will help the learners to acquire some or all of these different types of knowledge of the new vocabulary items, according to the students’ needs and level.

Sources of vocabulary

Acquisition of vocabulary requires great effort, as most of the words someone knows are learnt actively. There are also words that become part of someone’s vocabulary in an incidental way.

a. Lists of words represent an important source of active study. Although it may seem strange, students like learning words from lists, another plus being that a large number of words can be learnt in a relatively short time. A variation of lists, considered to be even more effective, are the word cards. The sequence of words can be varied and, this way, the “serial effect”, one word being remembered in connection to the next one, can be eliminated.

b. Course books also offer a vocabulary syllabus, chosen according to criteria like usefulness, frequency, learnability and teachability. A prediction has to be made upon what words the students are going to need in the future. This is how the notion of core vocabulary appeared, referring to the words used to define other words (we use the word laugh to define both giggle and guffaw). The frequency of words is another important reason for introducing them in a syllabus, while the fact that some words are easier to learn than others, being alike mother tongue words, indicates their learnability. Teachability refers to a teacher’s possibility to demonstrate the word as easy as possible. In course books, vocabulary appears in three ways: grouped into lexical sets, in texts and incidentally, in tasks and grammar explanations.

c. Vocabulary books, as an important source of vocabulary, are now available, reflecting the growing interest in vocabulary teaching. They give the learners the possibility to concentrate on the vocabulary area they are interested in.

d. The teacher is a very productive source of vocabulary. He uses classroom language such as “Whose turn is it?”, “Do you understand?”, “Who wants to read?”, “Is anyone absent?” and interpersonal language: “You were very good!”, “Can you turn on the light?” He can also tell the class a short story while students should write (the way they hear them) the words they do not understand and ask the teacher to explain the meaning and the spelling.

e. A good source of vocabulary can be represented by the other students. Learners can sometimes be more interested in what a colleague says than in the course book. One way of letting the students share words is through brainstorming. During the activity, the teacher can record on the blackboard words that he is not sure all the students know and afterwards he can challenge the students to translate them.

f. The best way to provide the necessary exposure is through extensive reading, as Thornbury points out: “Extensive reading provides the opportunity to meet words in their context of use, and also supplies repeated encounters with many of these words” The fact that in a reader the vocabulary is restricted to lots of familiar words makes the students understand the meaning of unknown words from context. Extensive reading can be very enjoyable, especially if the teacher provides a class library and gives the students the freedom to choose the texts they want to read.

g. As sources of words and of information about words, dictionaries are of great importance. Even course books nowadays have designed tasks that encourage the use of dictionaries. Such activities require students to think of a word in terms of pronunciation, spelling, meaning, grammar, connotation and frequency.

All these sources provide opportunities for both incidental and intentional learning of vocabulary. The two approaches are not only complementary, but they need each other. For instance, students will better remember words acquired incidentally, if the teacher adds them on a list of intentional learning afterwards. It is also important to understand, as Schmitt acknowledges, that “an effective vocabulary learning program needs to be principled, long-term, and one which recognizes the richness and scope of lexical knowledge.  Teachers and learners should work permanently at increasing the lexicon in size, depth and fluency. It is also important that the lexical information be reactivated regularly so that it can be quickly accessible.

Findlay-Shaw, Michael, Language and Communication, A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia, ABC-Clio, Ink, Santa Barbara, California, 1998.
Levițchi, D., Leon, Limba Englezã Contemporanã, Editura Didacticã şi Pedagogicã, Bucureşti, 1970.
Thornbury, Scott, How to Teach Vocabulary, Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, 2002.
The Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary, 1989, p. 1629.


prof. Felicia Farcaș

Școala Gimnazială Nr. 1, Orbeni (Bacău) , România
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