Effective Teaching of Second Language Vocabulary

Seminar Paper, 2004
20 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Rudiments and Aims of Vocabulary Instruction
2.1 Native Speakers and What They Know
2.2 Knowing a Word

3 Implicit Approach

4 Explicitly Optimised Implicit Approach

5 Explicit Approach
5.1 Word Lists and Dictionaries
5.2 Deep Processing
5.3 Multiword Phrases and Fluency

6 Conclusion: Proposed Application

7 Bibliography

1 Introduction

The first thing many authors of books about second language vocabulary do is mention the relative neglect of their subject compared to grammar and other linguistic fields. Nowadays, this is rather a cliché (Schmitt & McCarthy 1997: 1) and an introductory sentence like that would be too superficial to stand on its own as interest in second language vocabulary (SLV) significantly increased in the late 1980s and a considerable number of books concerning themselves with it have been published since then.

On the other hand, despite this changed condition, curricula in schools are still considering teaching vocabulary a marginal subject: It is scarcely an issue itself and quite often only mentioned casually when dealing with subjects that are thought to be more demanding and important. However, vocabulary is indeed both demanding and important. Thus, SLV research must not become a playground of linguists with little or no effect on the ‘real world’, which – from a teacher’s point of view – is the classroom. The findings of research can make teachers aware of important aspects of vocabulary and help them to impart these aspects in school.

Therefore, this paper will take into account what SLV research is actually good for in school routine. A glance at the desired aims and possible restrictions of vocabulary teaching will provide the basis for a further examination of both the implicit and explicit approach, as well as the grey area in between.

2 Rudiments and Aims of Vocabulary Instruction

2.1 Native Speakers and What They Know

The principal aim of learning a second language is to achieve native-like competence. All too often, however, this is erroneously mixed up with perfection. One easily forgets that native speakers do not know everything. Teachers and students probably gain more when they view the development and current state of native speakers matter-of-factly.

As Eve Clark (quoted in Carter 1998: 184) points out, children at the age of 1.5 years may have around fifty words, and a couple of years later, many have several hundred. But the process does not stop there at the age of 4 or 5. Children as old as 8 or 9 are still working out word meanings, e.g. the meanings of terms like promise, cousin and although. Adults go on acquiring vocabulary, too. Words like inconcinnous or widdershins send many of them to the dictionary. The development of native speakers can give us a first idea of a teaching program as each step could have its counterpart in the classroom:

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Of course, there are dissimilarities as well but not all of them are necessarily disadvantages. In general, L2 students have much less input than native speakers. Therefore, input for L2 students must be more effective for example by deep processing (see chapter 5.2). L2 students are usually much older and more mature than L1 speakers when they start learning the target language so they can acquire their first words much faster. The most significant difference is of course that L2 students already have a working L1 language system in their mind. It is one of the major challenges for teachers to use this system as an advantage by linking the two languages and avoiding transfer errors like false friends at the same time.

Another area which deserves special attention is the number of words in the target language. Measuring the amount of existing words in English is an extremely difficult task and experts rarely come up with similar numbers. This is, as Nation and Waring (1997: 7) explain, due to different definitions, e.g. are car and cars different words, or should proper names be included, are talk as a noun and talk as a verb the same word, how should expressions like goose bumps count? Because of these and many similar questions, experts nowadays tend to use the term ‘word family’, which consists of a base word, inflected forms and transparent derivations. This is at least an attempt to cast some light on this hazy issue but of course it is still unclear and a matter of definition which derivations are transparent and which are not.

Just to give a number as a starting point, Webster’s Third International Dictionary (1963), one of the largest non-historical dictionaries of English, contains about 54,000 word families, excluding compound words, archaic words, abbreviations, proper names, alternative spellings and dialect forms (Nation and Waring 1997: 7). However, if one browses through a dictionary of one’s mother tongue, we usually find many unknown words. Thus, 54,000 word families is certainly much more than native speakers really know. This, however, is exactly what we should be interested in if we want to decide what a realistic aim for students is. According to Nation and Waring (1997: 7) a university graduate has a vocabulary of about 20,000 word families, which is still discouraging for learners and teachers since in contrast to this vast amount the number of words that could be explicitly taught seems minute and insignificant. On the other hand, studies have found that people only use about 2,000 different words during their daily conversations (Schmitt 2000: 142). Not only in spoken but also in written language the most frequent 2000 words give access to the majority of the text as the following tables prove:

Table 1 Vocabulary size and text coverage in a corpus of 1,000,000 running words based on written texts

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Table 2 Vocabulary size and text coverage based on written academic text

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Thus about 5,000 word families, which is a realistic aim, should lead to a high level of competence, maybe even to native-near competence in spoken, informal language.

2.2 Knowing a Word

Regardless of the way students learn vocabulary, in the end they are supposed to ‘know’ the words. But when do we actually know a word? When we can give an equivalent in our first language, when we somehow know what is meant by it, or when we are able to use it in a sentence? Studies have shown that students are frequently wrong when they claim to know a particular word (Carter 1998: 199).

In fact, knowing a word involves a variety of different factors. As the following table of Nation (2001: 27) shows, each factor can be covered receptively or productively:

Table 3 Word knowledge

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Most researchers have accepted that different types of word knowledge are learned in different ways, that different types of word knowledge entail different purposes for vocabulary use, and different kinds of storage of the word in the mind (Carter 1998: 204). It is obvious that there is not the one, miraculous way of teaching or explaining a word that covers each type of word knowledge immediately, they cannot be learned all at once. Just as the students vocabulary grows, the knowledge of each word increases. Therefore one can say that the knowledge of a word is incremental and has to be consolidated and extended by steady exercises and language input. The latter is what the implicit approach offers.


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Effective Teaching of Second Language Vocabulary
University of Heidelberg
Second Language Acquisition
1,0 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Effective, Teaching, Second, Language, Vocabulary, Acquisition
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René Faßbender (Author), 2004, Effective Teaching of Second Language Vocabulary, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/31684


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