Teaching Vocabulary and the Fundamental Characteristics of the Learner

Teaching vocabulary is like taking a hard journey – long and painstaking. However, no matter how hard it is, there is always a way and all the efforts will be paid off if we have proper attitudes, efficient strategies and strong wills. According to MacIntyre et al. (2002), second language communication is “heavily determined by fundamental characteristics of the learner” (p. 560).

Young children do not come to the language classroom empty-handed. They bring with them an already well-established set of instincts, skills and characteristics, which will help them to learn another language. We need to identify those and make the most of them. For example, children are already very good at interpreting meaning without necessarily understanding the individual words; they already have great skill in using limited language creatively and  frequently learn indirectly rather than directly; they take great pleasure in finding and creating fun in what they do; they have imagination and above all take great delight in talking!

Secondary education learners are going through a period of significant physical, cognitive and emotional change. For instance, the secondary learner’s main characteristic is that of identity building. In this process ego building, self-esteem plays a crucial role.  Teenagers’ gradual increase in reasoning abilities and management of abstractions; their intellectual growth demands challenge, problem-solving activities and thought-provoking tasks where linguistic information, real-life knowledge and procedures need to be put into practice.

High school learners are different from younger learners. The expression “to teach an old dog new tricks” can be applied here but only if we understand the cognitive and social characteristics of high school learners. Most high school students have achieved the formal operational stage, as described by Piaget. These students can think abstractly and need fewer concrete examples to understand complex thought patterns. High school students are experimenting with adult-like relationships and their interests take different forms. It is now that the concern for their future appears.

Using the right instructional strategies to maximize the learning advantages and address the learning challenges of high school learners can make all the difference in their success.

Some methodologists agree on the fact that children of 8/9 can learn 4-5 words in a lesson, children of 10/11 can learn 7-8, high school students (age 14-18) about 15-20 words with the mention that first should be taught 8-10 then a follow up related activity of about ten minutes and only after that the rest of the words.  Celce Murcia suggests that only 20 minutes of a lesson should be spent on teaching 6-7 words. Wallace states that students should not have more than 10% out of the total number of words in a text or lesson as new. Gairns and Redman suggest 8-12 words of active vocabulary be presented in a 60-minute lesson; the lower figure being more suitable for elementary learners and the upper figure for more advanced learners. (Akar, 2010: 23)

Complete beginners are getting younger and younger these days, so some of us have the satisfaction of watching a student grow in confidence and competence from one class to the next, from one level to another. Later on in the learning process, progress becomes less obvious. At the same time, exposure to English outside the classroom – television, radio, films, songs and so on – means that formal lessons constitute only one of many influences.

A committed teacher, in addition to having goals which are concerned with the actual language elements the children learn, will also have attitude goals which relate to the pleasure and confidence in exploring language; willingness to `have a go’; the desire and dare to communicate. The balance between the attitude goals and content goals shifts as a child moves through the education system. It seems that in the later stages of a child’s education the content goals begin to dominate. We should not lose sight of the attitude goals at any level of the educational system.

If we take into consideration all the principles or approaches regarding teaching vocabulary and if we choose efficient strategies in our teaching,  then we are obviously no longer talking about classrooms where the children spend all their time sitting still in rows or talking only to the teacher. We are also talking about teaching which will sometimes involve teachers in adapting the textbook or in devising activities of their own.

Akar, N. (2010). Teaching Vocabulary. Bridging the Gap between Theory and Practice. Ankara: Gündüz Egitim Yayincilik.
Gairns, R. and Redman, S. (1986). Working with words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press .
MacIntyre, P.D., et al (2002). “Sex and age effects onwillingness to communicate, anxiety, perceived competence, and L2 motivation among junior high school French immersion students.” in Language Learning, 52, 3: 537-564. [online]. www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com. 2014. Wiley Online Library. (19.Jun.2014.)


prof. Lavinia Mureșan

Colegiul Național Petru Rareș, Beclean (Bistriţa-Năsăud) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/lavinia.muresan

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