Vocabulary and Language Skills

Most of the language researchers defined vocabulary and studied the fact that it plays an important role for the language learners, especially foreign language learners. For instance, Harmer states that “if language structures make up the skeleton of a language, the vocabulary provides the flesh and the vital organs” .

There is a strong connection between vocabulary and grammar. Grammar without vocabulary cannot afford conveying meaning to language. And a sentence structure without interpretations becomes only some meaningless graphics. Moreover, he focuses on seven aspects of words knowledge. The first aspect is the definition provided by a dictionary or what a word is referring to. The second aspect is the meaning in context or the intended meaning of the addresser. The third is to have knowledge about the words` different meanings or uses. The fourth aspect is to know the opposite and equivalent of the meaning. (fifth aspect) The sixth one is the idea or image that is associated with the word in addition to the seventh aspect which refers to where the word fits in the world of words. It is not compulsory to know all the seven aspects, but the more you know, the better you can use it effectively and trustfully .

Another definition of vocabulary is provided by the Macmillan English Dictionary:
1. “all the words that a person knows”
1a. “all the words in a particular language”
1b. “the words used for talking about a particular subject”
1c. “all the words used or produced by a computer program, game or talking toy”
2. “a list of words and their meanings, especially in a book for learning a foreign language”.

Analyzing this definition, vocabulary is defined at different levels. First, related to an individual, vocabulary is all words that a person knows. Second, related to the body of literature, it is all words that exist in a language. Third, related to its own, vocabulary represents all words that make a language. Consequently, there must be highlighted the importance of words in what vocabulary concerns.

One definition of the word WORD is offered by Merriam Webster Dictionary and it states that a word is “a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use”.  Collins Dictionary provides another definition for word as it is “one of the units of speech or writing that native speakers of a language usually regard as the smallest isolable meaningful element of a language”.

Chira draws some conclusions on the most important characteristics of the term ‘word’:
• “words are certainly linguistic signs” ;
• “words have attached meaning” ;
• “cohesiveness” , meaning that “just as a part of a word does not, as a rule, appear on its own, so the parts cannot, as a rule, be separated by other forms” ;
• “positional mobility” ;
• “impenetrability – no material can be inserted between their constitutive elements” ;
• “words are the smallest sentence units – no smaller units being able to form a sentence in its own right” ;
• “As minimal signs, words can be polymorphic” ;
• “fixed ordering of constituent elements” .
Moreover, in his lecture, Lexicology, from 2015, he mentions the fact that the word is the basic linguistic unit of speech that consists of one or more morphemes. It is made of a speech sound or combinations of speech sounds. It can have a syntactic function on its own and at least one notional meaning. Words can be defined by taking into account its phonemic, morphological, syntactic and semantic status.

Vocabulary and Skills

Wilkins (1972) states that “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.” Vocabulary is responsible for good skills in listening, reading, writing or speaking and the four skills are responsible for good mastery of vocabulary, so there is a tight connection between them, there cannot exist one without the other. Vocabulary can increase the learners` level of communication and provides strong basis to develop the four language skills.

Listening comprehension is part of the receptive skills because it involves the ability to understand the spoken language. Reading is also a receptive skill because it involves two aspects: decoding the written language and also, making sense of it. Reading helps the learners to acquire vocabulary that may help in listening comprehension and speaking. Writing and speaking are productive skills, more complex aspects of communication. Speaking is the most complex skill because it is more than pronunciation, it involves mental processes in order to produce on – the – spot messages. Consequently, as Richards stated, “developing vocabulary knowledge in language learners is an important issue if language teachers want to ensure a high language proficiency in English as a second language” . Moreover, the four skills are the only methods one can use in order to learn vocabulary.

i. Vocabulary and listening

The two of them, vocabulary knowledge and effective listening are interconnected. Knowing and understanding vocabulary is fundamental for listening comprehension because vocabulary interferes with comprehension. Adolphs and Schmitt stated that “more vocabulary is necessary in order to engage in everyday spoken discourse than was previously thought.”  Vocabulary knowledge is necessary in communication because the failure to distinguish different meanings and uses of vocabulary may be the cause for disagreement and confusion. On the other hand, adequate vocabulary leads to an adequate decoding of speech.

ii. Vocabulary and reading

Constantinescu, in her article from The Internet TESL Journal, Using Technology to Assist in Vocabulary Acquisition and Reading Comprehension, emphasizes the fact that “reading is an active skill that involves the reader, the text and the interaction between them” . Reading becomes a dynamic and interactive process in which learners use a variety of skills, strategies, all combined with background knowledge based on vocabulary.

There are close connections between reading comprehension and vocabulary in both directions. The vocabulary is important and strongly implicated in reading comprehension (the richer the vocabulary the better the reading compression or the poorer the vocabulary, the worse the reading comprehension). As Tozcu and Coady point out, “learning vocabulary is an important aspect of language acquisition and academic achievement and is vital to reading comprehension and proficiency.”

Equally, reading is a source of vocabulary acquisition; if reading is deficit, than the vocabulary acquisition is at a low level. A study conducted by Oxford University states that “context provides a powerful cue to discovering the meaning of new words. Once children begin to learn to read, texts provide many opportunities for vocabulary development and it is known that reading provides a more effective context for learning new words than oral conversation. And a single encounter with a new word in the text can be enough to allow its meaning to be inferred and learned”  although, in order to learn more nuances in meaning you must have multiple encounters in different contexts.

More researchers have investigated this topic, meaning the role of vocabulary in reading proficiency, and the conclusion was that it has a major part in what reading comprehension consists of. For example, Nation  states that the effective language instruction should also concentrate on cultivating vocabulary. Chanier and Selva point out that “vocabulary knowledge is a key factor in reading comprehension” . Groot argues that “functional language reading proficiency requires mastery of a considerably large number of words.”  Moreover, it is said that second language learners need to recognize about 95 percent of the words in a given text in order to comprehend the meaning.

Teachers play an important role in good language learning and acquisitions and they should pay more attention to the existence of various teaching tools that help in vocabulary development, both traditional and technology enhanced. For example, for vocabulary improvement teachers may use multimedia glossed texts, electronic dictionaries, corpora and  various vocabulary-building soft wares.

Constantinescu draws a clear conclusion, that “there is this reciprocal relationship between vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension. The better the students` vocabulary knowledge is, the better they perform with reading comprehension tasks. Similarly, the more the students read, the more their vocabulary develops and multimedia plays an important part in both vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension.”

iii. Vocabulary and writing

A good writing skill is dependent on good vocabulary knowledge. Writing is a challenge for language learners because it requires words in their complex use (multiple, complex meanings must be known). In order to create a good reading script, one must have a well-developed vocabulary. Limited vocabulary knowledge limits the writing ability. Learners have problems when they fall into an adequate choice of words greatly because vocabulary holds within the meaning of message and the purpose of the writer.

iv. Vocabulary and speaking

There is a direct relationship between vocabulary and oral / spoken production. According to Nation, “vocabulary knowledge and language use are interconnected” , “it means vocabulary knowledge makes able a successful use of the target language, conversely, the use of the target language improves the vocabulary knowledge.”

Very often we see students feeling embarrassed to speak, ashamed to use language in oral communication because of two main reasons: one, because of the pronunciation, and two, because of the insufficient level of proficiency in vocabulary knowledge that prevents them from expressing their ideas coherently. These two reasons end up in the lack of confidence and a struggle to communicate in an effective way, coherently and fluently. According to Harmer, there are two distinctive features of elements of speaking that are necessary for fluent oral production. The two aspects are:
• “Knowledge of language features such as grammar, vocabulary and structure
• Ability to process information on the spot (mental/ social processing)”

Many researchers suggest that students should learn and improve their vocabulary in order to become fluent while speaking. Memorizing the words in a speech is not a correct option, but remembering and training every day will develop their speaking skills. Moreover, students should be more self-confident when speaking, and this can happen only if their vocabulary is well-developed.

Adophs, S., & Schmitt, N. (2003). Lexical coverage of spoken discourse. Applied Linguistics, Oxford University Press
Anderson, N. (1999) Exploring Second Language Reading. Issues and Strategies. Boston: Heinle&Heinle Publishers
Chanier, T. And Selva, T. (1998) The ALEXIA System: The Use of Visual Representations to Enhance Vocabulary Learning. Computer Assisted Language Learning from www.learntechlib.org/p/88124/
Chira, D. (2007). On the Word ‘Word’, Studia Universitatis Babes-Bolyai, Philologia, LII, 2 from www.diacronia.ro/ro/indexing/details/A15353/pdf
Constantinescu, A. (2007). Using Technology to Assist in Vocabulary Acquisition and Reading Comprehension. from iteslj.org/Articles/Constantinescu-Vocabulary.html
Groot, P. (2000) Computer Assisted Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Language Learning and Technology from core.ac.uk/download/pdf/84320825.pdf
Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching (3rd ed.). London: Longman
Nagy, W.E., Herman, P. A., & Anderson, R. C. (1985). Learning words from context. Reading Research Quarterly from ltl.appstate.edu/reading_resources/RE_6120_Readings_CHAPTERS/Nagy_et_al.pdf
Richards, Jack C. (2015). Key issues in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Tozcu, A. and J. Coady. (2004) Successful Learning of Frequent Vocabulary through CALL also Benefits Reading Comprehension and Speed. Computer Assisted Language Learning,
Wilkins, D.A. (1972). Linguistics in Language Teaching, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press


prof. Ana-Emilia Crișan

Școala Gimnazială, Viișoara (Cluj) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/ana.crisan

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