* Vocabulary Learning


I’ve just read Peter Yongqi Gu (2003)Vocabulary Learning in a Second Language: Person, Task, Context and Strategies Here are a few interesting points which emerge. All references can be found at the end of Peter’s article.

1. Intentional reading should supplement incidental reading.

Like Rose Bard (who’s recently talked about her efforts to introduce an extensive reading programme to her students) and many others, I’m convinced of the value of extesive, TAVI, incidental reading. Krashen’s advocacy of extensive incidental reading is well-known, and his 1989 survey concluded that incidental vocabulary learning achieves much better results than intentional vocabulary learning. But I was interested to read Yongqi Gu make a convincing case for a dual approach. He points out that in order to benefit from incidental vocabulary learning through extensive reading, students must have the ability to read, and this is something which low level foreign language learners only possess to a very limited extent. Research studies show that, particularly at beginner levels, intentional reading of short texts leads to much faster vocabulary learning than reading low-level structuural readers. Incidental vocabulary learning through reading seems to be more effective for intermediate to advanced L2 learners who already have at least a basic grasp of the language skills needed, and even these learners benefit from using intentional learning strategies. Yongqi Gu cites studies which suggest that a combined approach is superior to incidental vocabulary learning alone. Looking at it from a slightly different angle, if we regard the purpose of vocabulary learning as both remembering words and being able to use them automatically when the need arises, evidence suggests that the knowledge aspect requires more conscious and explicit learning mechanisms, whereas the skill aspect involves mostly implicit learning and memory. This suggests that vocabulary learning strategies should include strategies for “using” as well as “knowing” a word.

2. Dictionaries help vocabulary learning

I always used to tell students that when they were doing extensive reading (as opposed to reading and studying a short text), they should only resort to consulting a (monolingual) dictionary in extremis, relying for the rest of the time on contextual clues and getting the gist. So I was interested to see Yongqi Gu cite research suggesting that while it is cetainly true that new vocabulary is acquired in extensive reading through contextual guessing, those who used a dictionary as well as guessing through context, learn far more words immediately and remember more long term. For example, in a study of Japanese EFL university students, results suggested that using a dictionary significantly improved vocabulary learning through reading. As to whether bilingual or monolingual dictionaries are better, I alsways thought that monolingual ones were better, but it seems that there’s increasing interest in the “new bilingualised compromise dictionaries”, hybrid dictionaries that essentially provide translations in addition to the good features of monolingual dictionaries. Evaluation of the effectiveness of such dictionaries emerged in the 1990s and it was found that irrespective of the learners’ proficiency level, the bilingualised version was significantly better than the other two types in both comprehension and production tasks.

3. Rote Rehearsal is good for Vocabulary Learning

Well I knew that this was “back in fashion”, but here’s what the article says:

a) Research show that a surprising amount of word pairs can be learned within a relatively short time and not many repetitions are needed before the L2-L1 word pairs are remembered.
b) If a word list does not contain a lot of difficult words, lists of 100 or more words can be studied at one time.
c) Forgetting words mostly occurs immediately after initial encounter, and the rate of forgetting slows down afterwards. Students should start repeating newly learned words immediately after the first encounter. Spaced recall and repetition should follow afterwards at longer intervals.
d) Repeating words aloud helps retention far better than silent repetition.
e) Research shows convincingly that it is necessary and legitimate to employ various repetition strategies, like drills, at the initial stages of vocabulary learning.

4. Beware Mnemonics

Learners of a foreign language should be explicitly warned that mnemonic devices are only meant to complement rather than replace other approaches to vocabulary learning. Too great a focus on learning vocabulary as discrete items leads to neglect of the skill aspect of vocabulary in natural discourse.


5. Organised learners learn faster

From guessing at the first encounter, to possible dictionary use and note taking, to rehearsal, encoding, and contextual activation, vocabulary learning in real life situations is a dynamic process involving metacognitive choices and cognitive implementation of a whole spectrum of strategies. These strategies influence the outcome of learning far more than any task specification. In one study Yongqi Gu cites, two approaches to vocabulary learning were identified. One group approached vocabulary learning in a structured way, setting criteria for the selection of words, engaging in self-initiated learning activities, keeping a systematic note of vocabulary items being learned, and regularly reviewing their records. The other group, by contrast, did little independent learning, kept minimal records of new words being learned, and relied heavily on classroom instruction. The first group learned a lot more, leading to the conclusion that good learners (those who initiate their own learning, selectively attend to words of their own choice, studiously try to remember these words, and seek opportunities to use them) learn faster.

6. Research is needed on learning lexical chunks

While existing research on vocabulary learning strategies suggests that good learners pay more attention to collocations, the field needs a clearer focus on how exactly learners learn multiword units and how these strategies are related to learning outcomes. Fifteen years ago, Scmitt and Carter noted “there is little empirical evidence one way or the other as to the actual effectiveness of Lewis’ lexical approach …. In light of the essential nature of lexical chunks, we need to come to a better understanding of their behavior and to develop innovative ways of incorporating lexical phrase instruction into the language syllabus”. As far as I know, if we lead aside frequency studies, taxonomies, and other essentially descriptive results of computer-based examinations of big corpora, the only contribution to our understanding of the behaviour of lexical phrases is Hoey’s Lexical Priming theory (which I have seen no convincing defence of) and there have been no serious suggestions about how to incorporate lexical phrase instruction into the language syllabus in the last 10 years.


eflnotes says: February 22, 2015 at 7:08 pm
Thx for this Geoff. Ddo you know any reviews that are more recent? i found this one from 2010 – http://www.kushiro-ct.ac.jp/library/kiyo/kiyo36/Brian.pdf but it uses dated references as well
It would be nice as for example the claim that beginners would benefit more from deliberate vocab learning is questioned from this 2013 study with beginners which showed vocabulary gains via incidental learning provided the stimulus used multiple modes – written, pictures and sound.
And there is a 2015 report about effectiveness of gestures http://www.mpg.de/8934791/learning-senses-vocabulary
Also include link to 2013 study on incidental and multi-mode presentation – http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0060912

Geoff says Hi Mura,
There are, of course, lots of more up to date studies on all the topics I picked from Peter Yongqi Gu’s (2003) review. Without looking anything up properly, I think McCarthy, Carter, Biber, N. Schmidt, N. Ellis, Laufer, Skehan, Robinson, and a lot of newer people like Peter from the Far East have all got more recent work on this. A more recent review (more of a bibliography really) is H Mohebbi – (2013) “Investigating Vocabulary Learning in Second Language Classrooms..” If you Google that, you’ll get the pdf file.
I hadn’t seen Peter’s article before and I just paraphrased a few bits that grabbed me. I’d seen Kushiro (2010) but kind of forgotten it. Yesterday (Sunday, relax browse…) I was looking back over stuff that came out around the start of this century and there were a few things which got my attention. Apart from Peter’s article, I noticed a few articles on Laufer and Hulstijn’s Involvement Load Hypothesis, and some things about noticing. It’s got me going on lots of related areas like implicit / explicit; processing; parsimonious v. hugely repetitive storage; connectionism & emergentism and all this priming stuff; imput / intake; …. So I thought I’d just post it and see what happens. I think I’ll do a quick one on the Involvement Load Hypothesis, one on task complexity, one on Susan Carroll’s “Input and Evidence”, one on explicit grammar teaching, and fumble around looking for links. I count on your eagle eye for guidance.

Rose Bard says:
I’m concerned with the level of the learners and whether introducing them to graded readers right at the beginning of the year (for those especially who are beginners like me in German) would be really beneficial or not. I’ve had learners who started the year as a total beginner but took learning on their hands in order to catch up with others in the group. But I also had other learners in the same level who were not as autonomous or motivated to do it on their own.

A pity that teenagers find stories written for children boring. For my own learning of German, I chose children books because, 1) I really love children stories 2) it exposes me to authentic language and 3) grammar structure is not graded. I’m not concentrating on grammar yet. I’m using a dictionary and google translator to aid me in comprehension. I’m using a notebook to keep track and explore language. As I read, I’m also noticing grammar patterns, something that for me is not disconnected of lexis and comprehension though.

I chose trying out learning German through reading (but not reading alone) because it seems much more interesting than learning words/group of words in isolation; and it naturally have repetition of vocabulary and high frequency words in it. I’m really enjoying the experience. The only thing I find hard with the reading by myself is pronunciation, my lower level students also reported that last semester. They would often come to me to ask before the sharing time how to say something. As at this point I don’t have a teacher, I’m using whatever tool there is out there to help me and if the tool proves to be useful, I intend to pass the recommendation to my learners. To minimize the problem with not know how to say something in German, I’m using the audio tool in google translator to practice chunks or whole sentences.
I haven’t had the time to read Natural Approach book yet, but looking into chapter 6 where Krashen discusses Reading as additional source of input for acquisition and learning following his comprehensible input hypothesis, he agrees that one needs to know enough of the second language to derive meaning from the text (p.131) as you know. This makes me think of my initial concern with learner level that I mentioned in my blog and above. I wonder even if we are enthusiasts for bringing graded readers to the class, how much of enough should be learned before. Even Krashen seems to take into consideration the need to have a certain amount of knowledge of the language to start reading which for me is a relief.

This post was really helpful. Thanks again. I’m convinced that intentional reading of short texts for beginners is more beneficial. And that seems to be what I am doing right now with the stories for children in German. I should revisit some of John F. Fanselow ideas on this topic actually and Kevin STein’s blog. I remember John talking about this in the courses at iTDi as well.

Geoff : Hi Rose,
I didn’t want to suggest for a minute that there was anything wrong with getting beginners to read extensively, because I don’t think there is. The evidence from studies is extremely mixed and anyway, you know better than any university-based researcher what’s happening with your students. I think Krashen is basically right about extensive reading, but I don’t trust his studies or his “attitude” – I think there’s LOTS of politics involved in his promotion of the extensive reading programme in the US. Don’t be bowled over by any one report on anything; it’s all interesting and it should make us think, but, as long as you critically assess what you’re doing, which you do, trust your instincts.

Rose Bard says:

Hi Geoff, don’t worry! I’m still following what I think is best for my learners. You know that I never link what I read without linking to practice and of course this always raise extra questions. I still believe that reading extensively is beneficial but I agree with proponents of pure ER that one has to have LOADS of reading at the right level and reading should be for pleasure. Anything out of this might become intensive reading. However, I do not agree with them when comes to use ONLY extensive reading for learning a second language. Even if you read loads (I’m a reader), choice of book will affect your need to check meaning of unknown vocabulary. I see it as supplementing the program whatever that program might be, not substituting it. The point is beginners do not have the amount of knowledge to read a text on their own, hence why explicit instruction will be needed. Whether one hire a teacher, enroll in a course, use digital tools or just a book and a dictionary to assist, one will need to work out the language (lexis and grammar) at least at its basic before they can read, but there will always be words we don’t now until we achieve a certain level of knowledge. That is why I mentioned what Krashen wrote in his book above. He agrees with that.

I see that a lot of people (those who I trust at least) agree with studies when comes to the amount of language needed to be able to achieve comprehension of a text: 98%! So if we take this number into consideration beginners will indeed have trouble reading even a starter. That was my main concern. I was trying to think whether I should introduce at the beginning of the year or leave it for later like I did last year. But I did it for other reasons though. Anyhow, if I do bring readers at the beginning, most learners will benefit and it will become ER for them but not for all. If I introduce ER more towards the end of the year, they will not have really experienced it. Another concern is should I do it with the sharing time or not. I’m still pondering here… or thinking aloud. Your insights/questions/critics or anyone’s else is really welcome, but I haven’t been able to make up my mind yet. I also have to take into consideration that I still need my supervisor on board.

Back at the vocabulary topic, I agree with the study you reviewed in your post. Reading with a dictionary is useful. It is not ER though, but it is still useful for vocabulary learning. I have been for the past year and half reading together with groups and individuals in my classes to understand how they make sense of what they read. Low level learners always guess wrongly a word they do not know and it takes a lot of eliciting and giving way clues to help them, but it doesn’t always work anyway. I have found no evidence among my students that they are able to guess from context as some suggest without considering the level of learners. On the other hand, I have showed my intermediate students upwards that they can make educated guesses about words in a text if they consider all the information they have about it. This is something that needed to be worked on with them. They do not look for clues, they glue their eyes in the word and wear a puzzled look on their face. The question with reading is are students comfortable reading a book with their dictionaries on the side? My experience will say no. In Breaking Rules, John F. F. makes the proposition that much of we do in class is not natural and that has implications when we try to link something that is natural, reading a book in our own language for pleasure for instance to something that is not, read things we do not understand. How can we make learning natural for beginners in a world that is not willing to wait, to invest time or take risks? How can we make learning natural when everything in the room seems so unnatural, staged and predictable?

Anthonyteacher says:

Just to clarify, was the article suggesting using dictionaries during extensive reading?

Hi Anthony,
Thanks for this. Yes, the suggestion was that using a dictionary while reading extensively helps with vocab. acquisition. It’s not so simple of course. In the study those who use dictionaries took twice as long to read the text, and it’s suggested that more than vocab. learning is involved in extensive reading, so one has to be careful with what implications one draws. I’d modify my advice, but only a bit: OK, use a dictionary, but don’t let it interfere with the primary aim of getting the info. from the page. I’d say that if you need to look up more than 3-5 words a page, the text isn’t suitable.

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