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Learning Vocabulary

By Dr. Jon Aske

Any language student will tell you that learning words (vocabulary) is a very important part of learning a language. Sure, you have to learn the grammar too, and the pronunciation, and the spelling, but without knowing words, you cannot make sense of what you hear or read. Some researchers have found that knowing vocabulary is more important than knowing syntax to make sense of a text. According to Laufer, "reading comprehension is strongly related to vocabulary knowledge, more strongly than to other components of reading", such as "syntactic complexity" (Laufer 1997:20-21).

But language instructors typically put little emphasis on the teaching or learning of vocabulary. Vocabulary has been typically "undervalued" and "neglected" in the field of second language acquisition (Richards 1976, Zimmerman 1997). Instructors seem to figure that their time is best spent teaching the grammar and the pronunciation and all those other things, and that the vocabulary is something that students can learn on their own, by memorizing lists, by building their own flashcards, or actually primarily through reading, and listening to some extent, the way native speakers do (as adults anyway). The trend in second language acquisition (L2) studies has been lately to assume that learning of vocabulary will take place, as if through osmosis, from context, by encountering the word through reading and listening to comprehensible input--also known as "contextualized vocabulary learning". Of course, each learned word will have to be repeatedly encountered, for learners must encounter or be exposed to a new word ten to twelve times on average through reading before they actually learn the word well enough (Nagy and Herman 1987, Coady 1997:225).

What exactly is meant by comprehensible input? What makes a text comprehensible? Basically it means that a learner can make sense of the text (knows most of the words, can comprehend the grammar: the way the words are put together. It means that the text is comprehensible to a large extent but with enough new stuff to be a source of learning. This is the way Krashen (19xx), one of the most influential recent scholars of language acquisition, has put it to us. If we are t acquire a language as adults we should mimic the way a child does it and not treat it as an intellectual enterprise, the way we learn (as opposed to acquire) other skills. Although it sounds very good in theory, it still leaves one wondering how a student is supposed to reach the level at which one can comprehend most texts, with all the vocabulary that that entails. Remember it takes a child years of 24/7 exposure to reach that level.

In the area of vocabulary we may wonder how many words should a student know to be able to understand most realistic, non-simplified texts. Actually the truth is that it is not that many words and that it's more or less the amount of words with which children start school in their native languages.

Researchers have determined that for the purpose of reading for meaning, to receive the minimum score in comprehension tests, for instance, one has to understand 95% of the words in the text or 19 in 20 (Laufer 1991, 1997). For the purpose of reading for pleasure, on the other hand, in order to really get most of what one reads, one must know about 98%, or 49 in 50, of the words in the text (Nation 1990).

In terms of vocabulary, this results in what one researcher has called a paradox, since beginners "face a truly a truly paradoxical situation. How can they learn enough words to learn vocabulary through extensive reading when they do not know enough words to read well" (Coady 1997:229).

When we say that you must know 98% of the words in a text to read for pleasure, this may seem like a lot of words. But the truth is that they are not so many, since some words are quite frequent and others are not. So for instance, a fairly large dictionary of the English language contains something like 54,000 word families (Goulden, Nation and Read 1990).1 Our best guess as to what a native speaker knows is 4,000-5,000 word families for a child beginning school and around 20,000 word families for a university graduate. It has been determined, however, that the number a language learner needs to read comfortably for pleasure, understanding texts quite well, is 1/10 of the total, or about 5,000 word families, which is approximately the number of word families that a native speaker knows when he or she starts school (Nation and Waring 1997:7).

First of all, I should tell you what a word family is. In other words, we must talk about what counts as a "word". A word family consists of a base word (e.g. friend) and all inflected forms (e.g. friends) and derived forms made from affixes (e.g. friendship, friendly), as long as their meanings are predictable (Nation 1983, Bauer and Nation 1993, Hirsh and Nation 1992:692). So friend, friends, friendly, and friendship are all four word forms which form part of the friend word family. For English there are on average 1.6 word forms in each word family.

Researchers have found that learners of English as L2, knowing 3,000 word families--or about 5,000 word forms--is enough to understand 95% of most texts, which is enough for pretty good comprehension, or reading for meaning (Liu Na and Nation 1985, Laufer 1991, 1997). This will "allow reasonably successful guessing of the meaning of the unknown words" (Nation & Waring 1997:10).2

For reading for pleasure, and thus pretty much full understanding, all you need to know is 5,000 word families, or about 8,000 word forms (Nation 1990, Laufer 1997). That's only about 1/7 of all the words in Webster's Third New International Dictionary. Similar proportions apply to Spanish and other languages.

The idea here is simple: some words are more frequent than others and we should concentrate on learning the most frequent words first. The most frequent 2,000 words will give you about 85% coverage of written English and even more for easier texts and for spoken English. That means that 1 in 10 words will be unknown, which will hamper comprehension quite a bit. Knowing 5,000 words is closest to the desirable ideal for reading for pleasure since it gives you about 98% coverage (1 in 20 words will be unknown (see Nation and Waring 1997:10).

Many researchers and teachers of languages nowadays think that whereas the least frequent words can be learned slowly through reading, in context, the same way most adult people learn words in their native language, it is important to make it a point to teach and learn the 3,000-5,000 word families that will provide the tools for reading and listening (and thus the tools to have meaningful input), to get the student up to speed. This should be done by any means necessary, using any learner's trick available, not just by reading (one can't read well, after all, until one knows these words). In other words, there is room for the language learner to engage in deliberate and, if necessary, decontextualized word study. Contrary to what has been argued by the contextual acquisition people, words are remembered this way. Although learning a word's use in context is important, one can argue that learning the underlying concept out of context is a good way to start, which will allow the learner to then acquire the words other nuances in context (Nation 2001:299). Furthermore, there is no reason why one cannot add some minimal context to deliberate word study in the form of grammatical information, collocations, constraints on use, and sample sentences.

With deliberate word study one can concentrate in learning high-frequency words which will give the learner the ability to comprehend most naturally occurring language input and this will result in more access to contextualized input, which will result in further acquisition. (As Nation and Waring 1997 remind us, not all words of a language are equally useful: "One measure of usefulness is word frequency," p. 8.)

Nobody denies the value of indirect, incidental learning of vocabulary from context through listening and reading of natural language in context. However that kind of learning comes easiest after a certain level of acquisition and for the purpose of increasing or deepening the knowledge of words already known. As Nation (2001:302), for example, has argued, the direct and purposeful learning of vocabulary with minimal or no context results in the following desirable outcomes:

  • it is efficient in terms of return for time and effort, much more so than incidental learning, especially during the first few years of study, until the student has acquired enough words to use the language like a native speaker
  • it allows learners to consciously focus on an aspect of word knowledge that is not easily gained from context or dictionary use and
  • it allows learners to control the repetition and processing of the vocabulary to make learning secure (remember one needs to encounter a new word at least 10 times before it is securely learned)

Here we are going to propose the use of one traditional study aid for vocabulary in foreign languages, namely the flash card. Flashcards can help a student remember and retain vocabulary (but also other facts about language, as we shall see). I will argue, like others have done, that flashcards should have an important place in language learning (Nation 2002). We will also see advances in flashcard technology which make this tool much more powerful than its original counterpart. Also, we will see that it is important for one to be trained in how to use this powerful and important tool and students should not be left to their own devices when it comes to learning vocabulary.

The next couple of pages at this site talk about these topics:


1: The 54,000 figure for word families is after "compound words, archaic words, abbreviations, proper names, alternative spellings and dialect forms are excluded, and when words are classified into word families consisting of a base word, inflected forms, and transparent derivations" (Nation and Waring 1997:7)

2: Actually, the first 1,000 most frequent words cover anywhere between 74 and 85% of a text, depending on the genre. The second 1,000 most common words cover anywhere between 4.3% and 5.8% of the text. And so on. (Nation & Waring 1997:15.)

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