Vocabulary – Must It Be Learnt or Taught?

Some years ago, certain people began to claim that in TEFL, (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), relatively more teaching should be given to vocabulary. Morgan and Rinvolucri (1), for example, said that their book “proposes to help students learn words”. This has a certain semblance of logic, since language users need words just as much as structures. The sense of the appeal turns, however, on the assumption that vocabulary can, in any serious sense, be taught through specific practices, and it is this assumption which I would question.

In order to understand what “teaching vocabulary” means, we need to first look at what “knowing vocabulary” and “learning vocabulary” mean.

In examining “knowing vocabulary”, I will take as my example my knowledge of the word cry. I know that it rhymes with fry, etc., that it is both a regular verb, with the past form cried, and a countable noun.

As to meaning, I take it the verb means “shed tears because of a certain feeling”. Cry implies certain sounds, weep or shed tears being more likely if there is little or no sound. Feeling is necessary: on a cold day my eyes water or run, but I wouldn’t say I cry. The emotion has to be sadness or pain (or joy), but if it is frustration we are more likely to use weep:  They wept out of sheer frustration. If the appropriate frustration were sadness but it is in fact absent, I can say that someone is crying crocodile tears. I also know that cry has another meaning, more or less synonymous with shout. However, while the former sentence is common in both speech and writing, the latter is virtually confined to written fiction. I know that we can cry out, cry off and cry somebody down, but I know there is no corresponding cry in, cry on and cry somebody up. I know that the noun has uses corresponding to both senses of the verb, and I have already said that the noun is grammatically countable. We say a cry rather than some cry, etc. However, I also know that while three cries would be normal in the latter sense, e.g.  Three cries were heard from behind the house, such enumeration would be unlikely in the former sense. We would say, e.g. The following day Tom cried three or four times, rather than he had three or four cries.

I know people can have a good cry, related to the first sense, but not a bad cry. I know that there is a far cry but no corresponding a near cry. I know you can insult somebody with crybaby, related to the first sense.

Let us now turn to the learning of vocabulary. My knowledge of the word cry is the outcome of a gradual learning process involving many experiences, verbal and non-verbal, over a long period of time (and my experience will continue to change my vocabulary until I die). Of course a language learner’s knowledge of cry is unlikely to be as extensive as a native speaker’s, but it is just as true of the language learner as it is of me that the word is not fully learnt at one time or through one experience.

It is salutary at this point to consider Nagy and Herman’s (2) study of the learning of vocabulary in the average American school child. On even a considerate estimate of the time needed to teach each item, there is simply not enough class time available for all the words to be taught. There will obviously be an occasional indication of the meaning of a word (though not necessarily by the English teacher), but it is clear that school children pick up the vast majority of their vocabulary through extensive contact with the language, especially through reading. In the case of EFL, clearly the number of words to be learnt will be lower. But, in the vast majority of cases, the time available will be more or less in proportion.

With all this in mind, I suspect vocabulary teaching and specific practice

  • a) can never cover all the words that EFL students need;
  • b) can make some words salient for students and can indicate a basic meaning.

However, I am tempted to say, with but little exaggeration, that when the “teaching” of these items is done, the students’ learning of them is still to come. This learning – the gradual approximation to the multifarious connections of the advanced speaker – will only take place through a wider and wider exposure to English, not through better planned or more intensive vocabulary teaching, even less through specifically prepared materials and exercises.

Linguistics items fall along a continuum from more to less regular. Sentence structures fall towards the more regular end, vocabulary towards the less regular end. It makes sense for language lessons to include some concentration on aspects which, because they exhibit regularities, allow generalisations. However, this intensive study is unsuitable for vocabulary, precisely because it is irregular. The intensive study of structure needs to be complemented by extensive exposure to (not study of) a range of texts. The only way to make a serious improvement in one’s knowledge of words is through extensive and varied reading and listening, not through more teaching or more exercises.

1. In Vocabulary, by John Morgan and Mario Rinvolucri (OUP 1986). Compare also Working with Words by Ruth Gairns and Stuart Redman, (CUP 1986) and the Test Your Vocabulary books by Peter Watcyn-Jones (Penguin 1985).
2. Nagy, W.E. & Herman, P.A. (1987) “Breadth and Depth of Vocabulary Knowledge: Implications for Acquisition and Instruction”, in McKeown & Curtis: The Nature of Vocabulary Acquisition, Erlbaum.


prof. Adina Bobirnichi

Colegiul Național Mihai Viteazul, Slobozia (Ialomiţa) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/adina.bobirnichi

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