The Essential Role of Vocabulary in Teaching/ Learning a Second Language

Vocabulary or lexis is the most important element in teaching and learning a foreign language well, as one of three basic parts (phonetics, vocabulary and grammar).

Vocabulary could be defined as ”words we must know to communicate effectively; words in speaking (expressive vocabulary) and words in listening (receptive vocabulary)” (Neuman & Dwyer, 2009). or as ”the total number words in a language; vocabulary is a list of words with their meanings”. (Hornby, 1995)

Vocabulary represents an important focus of literacy teaching and, as mentioned above, deals with ‘the knowledge of words’ that is, with their structure (morphology), with their meaning (semantics), with their use (grammar) and with their connections to other words (word/syntactic relationships).

Vocabulary refers to the words we must understand in order to communicate effectively and represents a set of familiar words within a person’s language, usually developed with age. The word is the smallest speech sound (or combination of sounds) which, taken by itself, is meaningful both in oral and in written communication. The words are representations of an idea and as a consequence they have special denotations.

Words can be analyzed, from various perspectives, in point of:
• Meaning – depending on the context, they can have various meanings;
• Phonology – the sounds that form words;
• Morphology – the structure of the words;
• Syntax – the arrangement of words to make up sentences or phrases;
• Cases of usage – depending on the context.

English specifically has got a large vocabulary with an estimated to between 450,000 and 750,000 words (Stahl, 1999): However, most teachers of English as a Second Language agree that mastering the 3000 most common words in English will give their students a rate of 90 to 95% comprehension of English newspapers, books, movies, and conversations. In addition, most learners easily expand their vocabulary as they go by learning from context.

  Oral vocabulary consists of the words a person can understand or use while being engaged in a communicative situation (while speaking or listening). Written vocabulary refers to the graphic representation of the words a person uses in writing.

Having a rich vocabulary is generally regarded as an important part of the language learning process or as the development of a person’s ability in a language that has been mastered. Schmitt, by highlighting the importance of vocabulary acquisition, stated that “lexical knowledge is central to communicative competence and to the acquisition of a second language”. Vocabulary is central and essential to English language teaching and learning, because without sufficient vocabulary, students cannot understand others and cannot express themselves in a meaningful way. Underlining the importance of vocabulary acquisition, Schmitt states that “lexical knowledge is central to communicative competence and to the acquisition of a second language”.

Language is the reflection of thinking. A person’s ability to think cannot be measured by others unless it’s being verbalized, orally or in writing. Focusing on vocabulary is extremely useful for developing knowledge and skills in multiple aspects of language and literacy. This includes phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, and fluency. Vocabulary is a vital component that links together the four basic skills needed to master a language: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

The famous English applied linguist Wilkins stated that “‘There is not much value in being able to produce grammatical sentences if one has not got the vocabulary that is needed to convey what one wishes to say…while without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.” (Wilkins, 1987).

Language learners need to have a rich vocabulary that continually develops through language and literacy experiences, in order to understand and to produce increasingly complex texts and to participate in oral communication.

The importance of vocabulary has been demonstrated in and out the school. Students often instinctively recognize the importance of vocabulary to their language learning, as Krashen (as cited in Lewis) noted ‘‘When students travel, they don’t carry grammar books, they carry dictionaries’’ (1993)

Recent research has shown that language learners rely mostly on their vocabulary knowledge in order to communicate and that their lack of knowledge in this field represents the largest obstacle for second language readers to overcome (Huckin, 1995). The same idea was depicted in a course book for language learners which mentioned (Dellar H and Hocking D, Innovation, LTP): “If you spend most of your time studying grammar, your English will not improve very much. You will see most improvement if you learn more words and expressions. You can say very little with grammar, but you can say almost anything with words!” (Thornbury, 2002)

When teaching English to language learners, ESL teachers must take into consideration three significant aspects of words: form, meaning, and use. According to Nation (2001), the form of a word involves its pronunciation (spoken form), spelling (written form), and any word parts that make up this particular item (example: prefix, root, and suffix – UNCOMFORTABLE).

Allen (1997) stated that in all language teaching, students “must continually learn vocabulary as they learn structure”. Vocabulary teaching and learning process can be managed through various methods. The methods can be applied through different techniques. Every method has its own characteristics, objectives, advantages and disadvantages.

To conclude, the language skill ability of a person depends mostly on the quantity and quality of the vocabulary they master. A person who has got good vocabulary skills is able to communicate in a foreign language easily, even if his/ her grammar skills are not very well developed.

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Krashen, S. D. (1987). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. London. Prentice Hall International.
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Thornbury, S. (2002). How to teach vocabulary. Pearson Education Limited.                                                                                                          Wilkins, D. (1987). Linguistics in Language Teaching. London: Edward Arnold.


prof. Andra-Rodica Oneci

Școala Gimnazială Radu cel Mare, Găești (Dâmboviţa) , România
Profil iTeach:

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