Didactic Principles and Terminological Issues in Teaching Vocabulary

Vocabulary has been defined in several ways. For example, Graves (2000: 67) in A vocabulary program to complement and bolster a middle-grade comprehension program, defines vocabulary as “the entire stock of words belonging to a branch of knowledge or known by an individual”.

According to Stahl (2005: 44), “Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition, but also implies how that word fits into the world.”

Vocabulary learning is not a task that can ever be completed; it is something that continues over the course of a lifetime. Dealing with vocabulary involves far more than looking up the unknown words in a dictionary and then using them in speech or writing. Vocabulary acquisition is performed both incidentally, through indirect exposure to new words and intentionally, through explicit instruction in specific words and word-learning strategies and tasks.

Cummins (2000: 93 as cited in Herrel, 2004) states that there are different types of vocabulary which students need to acquire:

  • Reading vocabulary – referring to all the words an individual can recognize when reading a text.
  • Listening vocabulary – referring to all the words an individual can recognize when listening to speech.
  • Writing vocabulary – includes all the words an individual can employ in writing.
  • Speaking vocabulary – meaning all the words an individual can use in speech.

Nations (1990: 59) on the other hand, classifies vocabulary into other three categories:

  • High frequency words (Tier 1) – the most commonly used words in a language (like play, life, apple, child)
  • General academic words (Tier 2) – are more likely to appear in written texts than in speech and often represent subtle or precise ways to say relatively simple things. (like operate, logical, foresee, evidence, manner)
  • Technical or specialized words (Tier 3) – are specific to a domain or field of study (like perimeter, to disjoint, deglaze, stamen, poach, judiciary).

Language comprehension improves from basic to academic when the students continuously learn the meaning of new words. They are the building blocks of communication. When students have learned enough vocabulary, they can improve all areas of communication like: speaking, reading, listening and writing.

When students succeed in having knowledge of academic vocabulary, they can easily deal with a small proportion of new words in a text and are able to comprehend the meaning of the unknown words from the context. Second language learners who encounter difficulties in the learning process and face a slow vocabulary development are not equally able to comprehend texts at a certain level.

Without enough vocabulary knowledge, neither language production nor language comprehension would be possible. Hence, good vocabulary knowledge is one of the most important pre-requisites for language acquisition and the growth of vocabulary acquisition can be possible, if the teachers employ effective and attractive vocabulary teaching and learning strategies.

When it comes to embracing a career that requires a certain, specific vocabulary, the individual faces a more difficult task, that of understanding new, technical concepts altogether with learning the specific words. Most frequently, these specific words are referred to with the syntagm technical vocabulary. This is actually a quite complex concept about which “there has been little agreement about what technical vocabulary is and about how to count it reliably” (Chung 2003: 104). My work definition will consider the technical vocabulary to be represented by those words and phrases that are mainly used in a specific domain or profession. For example, a chef needs to know technical words such as parboil and pare, words that people outside that industry almost never use.

Technical vocabulary is less frequently used than conversational English during the language classes which makes it even harder for students to learn, remember and use the this specific vocabulary.

Chung T.M., Nation P. 2003 Technical vocabulary in specialised texts, Reading in a Foreign Language, Volume 15, 103-116.
Thornbury, S 2002 How to Teach Vocabulary, London: Longman.
Wright, A. 2003, Picture for Language Learning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Graves, M.F., 200, A vocabulary program to complement and bolster a middle-grade comprehension program.
Stahl, S. A., 2005, “Four problems with teaching word meanings (and what to do to make vocabulary an integral part of instruction), Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Herrel. A.L., 2004, Fifty strategies for teaching English language learners. An ESL teacher‘s tool kit. Winnipeg. Canada. Penguin Publishers.
Lee J. & VanPatten B., 2003, Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen 2nd Edition McGraw-Hill Education.
Wallace M., 1988,   Practical Language Teaching, Teaching Vocabulary, Heinemann.
Frisby A.W. , 1957, „Teaching English”, The English Language Book Society and Longmans Green and Co., p.98.
Hyland, P., 2000, Learning from feedback on assessment, in A. Booth and P. Hyland, eds. The Practice of University History Teaching, pp. 233-47.  Manchester Manchester UP.


prof. Aurelia Cucu

Colegiul de Industrie Alimentară Elena Doamna, Galați (Galaţi) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/aurelia.cucu

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