The Teaching of Vocabulary in the Primary School Foreign Language Classroom

Term Paper, 2003

26 Pages, Grade: 2.0



I. Introduction

II. Main Part
1. The Importance of Teaching Vocabulary
1.1. Vocabulary Development in the Primary Grades
1.2. Educators View on Teaching Vocabulary
1.3. Memory and Storage Systems
1.4. Why Vocabulary is Important
1.5. Levels of Word Knowledge
2. Teaching Vocabulary
2.1. Which Words Should be Taught
2.1.1. Basic Functional Vocabulary
2.2. Ways of Teaching vocabulary
2.2.1. Strategies
2.2.2. Teaching Concepts
2.2.3. Teaching Methods
2.2.4. Specific Approaches to Teaching Oral Language
2.2.5. Different Learning Styles
2.3. Pronunciation
2.4. Definitions Help To Build Up Vocabulary
2.5. The Importance of Practice
2.6. Assessment

III. Conclusion

IV. References

V. Appendix

I. Introduction

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could purchase all the words we needed to know at the market? In real life, “owning” words is a much more complicated enterprise. Research shows that we need to encounter a word about 12 times or more before we know it well enough to help us comprehend what we read (McKeown, Beck, Omanson and Pople, 1985). When students had enough encounters with a word, they’ll begin to use it in their writing and speech. That word then becomes a part of their personal vocabulary bank. The goal is that students should improve their vocabularies through listening, speaking, reading, and writing. At this point it is important to mention that oral language development follows a sequence from single words to more and more complex phrases. Children learn to listen and to talk long before they learn to read and write. The same sequence should be followed in classroom teaching. Extra difficulty would be created if one would try to develop English reading and writing skills before children can speak the language. In order to be able to speak the language, students need to know some vocabulary first. In this paper I will focus on how to teach vocabulary that enables students to construct a rich vocabulary bank. Guiding methods are introduced and sample activities are provided.

II. Main Part

1. The Importance of Teaching Vocabulary

1.1. Vocabulary Development in the Primary Grades

The findings of the “National Reading Panel” indicate that vocabulary instruction does lead to gains in comprehension, but that methods must be appropriate to the age and ability of the reader. Using both indirect and direct teaching methods to build students’ oral and reading vocabularies should be a part of a balanced reading program. Indirect methods would include read-alouds, shared reading and writing experiences, and independent reading. Direct teaching of vocabulary should respond to the needs of the students and should actively engage them in the process (National Reading Panel, 2000).

All word learning tasks are not equal in difficulty. A child may understand the concept behind a word, but not know the word itself. For example, the word cease represents a known concept to most children; however, a young child has probably not heard this word used for stop. Learning a new word that represents a known concept is not as difficult as learning a new word that represents a new concept. Teachers in the primary grades introduce many new concepts, and direct instruction is necessary to build up the understanding of these concepts and the vocabulary words that represent them.

When teaching vocabulary words that represent known concepts, the emphasis should always be on the context in which the word appears. Discussing the meaning of the word from the context of the reading selection together with supplying a definition of the word will help to build meaning for students. If students are to acquire this word as part of their vocabulary, then they must be given repeated exposure of the word in a variety of contexts. They must also have opportunities to practise using the word in conversation and/or writing.

By the time children enter second grade, they are likely to know between 2,000 and 5,000 vocabulary words. This amazing growth continues throughout the elementary years, as most children gain 3,000 - 4,000 new vocabulary words each year that they can read and understand (Teaching Reading in the 21st Century, 2001). By encouraging independent reading and providing both indirect and direct instruction in vocabulary, students can be helped to develop the vocabulary knowledge they will need for effective comprehension.

1.2. Educators View on Teaching Vocabulary

"Teaching one word at a time out of context is the worst way of teaching vocabulary, with rapid forgetting almost guaranteed," asserts Frank Smith, author of "The Book of Learning and Forgetting" (1998), recently published by Teachers College Press. According to Smith, people assimilate new vocabulary words from context the first time they read them, "provided that the gist of the material being read is both interesting and comprehensible. Within five more encounters, the word and its conventional meaning are usually firmly established in the mind of the reader."

Other educators who share this view add that when reading material isn't instantly interesting or comprehensible, it's the teacher's job to build context by activating students' prior knowledge of the topic. With regard to vocabulary, that means having students identify difficult words themselves and pool their knowledge to get the meaning. Ann Marie Longo, director of the Boys Town Reading Center, argues that teens can't use context effectively when their vocabularies are limited. Limited vocabulary is the most common problem among weak readers she's worked with. Longo begins with indirect instruction in words and their meanings and then provides high-interest opportunities to use the words. Vocabulary expert Isabel Beck of the University of Pittsburgh embraces both approaches. For her, there are four ways to learn vocabulary: wide reading, hearing unfamiliar words in speech, direct instruction in words and "gimmicks" to boost students' interest.

Beck suggests teachers incorporate difficult words into their classroom routines and encourage students to look for the words in reading outside class. Longo agrees that students need to put new words to use in writing and conversation as well as reading. "For vocabulary instruction to increase comprehension," says Longo, "you have to see those words over and over again" (When Adolescents Can´t Read: Methods and Materials that Work, 1999).

1.3. Memory and Storage Systems

Understanding how our memory works might help us create more effective ways to teach vocabulary. Research in the area, cited by Gairns and Redman (1986) offers us some insights into this process. It seems that learning new items involve storing them first in our short-term memory, and afterwards in long-term memory. We do not control this process consciously but there seem to be some important clues to consider. First, retention in short-term memory is not effective if the number of chunks of information exceeds seven. Therefore, this suggests that in a given class we should not aim at teaching more than this number. However, our long-term memory can hold any amount of information.

Research also suggests that our “mental lexicon” is highly organised and efficient, and that semantic related items are stored together. Word frequency is another factor that affects storage, as the most frequently used items are easier to retrieve. We can use this information to attempt to facilitate the learning process, by grouping items of vocabulary in semantic fields, such as topics (e.g. types of fruit). Oxford (1990) suggests memory strategies to aid learning, and these can be divided into creating mental linkages (grouping, associating, placing new words into a context), applying images and sounds (using imagery, semantic mapping, using keywords and representing sounds in memory), reviewing in a structured way and employing action (physical response or sensation, using mechanical techniques). The techniques just mentioned can be used to greater advantage if we can diagnose learning style preferences (visual, aural, kinesthetic, tactile) and make students aware of different memory strategies.

Meaningful tasks, however, seem to offer the best answer to vocabulary learning, as they rely on students’ experiences and reality to facilitate learning. More meaningful tasks also require learners to analyse and process language more deeply, which should help them retain information in long-term memory. Forgetting seems to be an inevitable process, unless learners regularly use items they have learnt. Therefore, recycling is vital, and ideally it should happen one or two days after the initial input. After that, weekly or monthly tests can check on previously taught items. The way students store the items learned can also contribute to their success or failure in retrieving them when needed. Most learners simply list the items learnt in chronological order, indicating meaning with translation. This system is far from helpful, as items are de-contextualised, encouraging students to over generalise their usage. It does not allow for additions and refinements nor does it indicate pronunciation. Teachers can encourage learners to use other methods, using topics and categories to organise a notebook, binder or index cards. Meaning should be stored using English as much as possible. Diagrams and word trees can also be used within this topic/categories organisation. The class as a whole can keep a vocabulary box with cards, which can be used for revision/recycling regularly.

1.4. Why Vocabulary is Important

Teachers may wonder why it is important to teach vocabulary. Well, there is a very clear answer to that question, namely that vocabulary is critical to reading success for three reasons, which I will explain now briefly. First of all, comprehension improves when you know what the words mean. Since comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading, you cannot overestimate the importance of vocabulary development. Secondly, words are the currency of communication. A robust vocabulary improves all areas of communication which are listening, speaking, reading and writing. Last but no least, when children and adolescents improve their vocabulary, their academic and social confidence and competence improve, too.

In turn, a deficit in vocabulary knowledge causes comprehension problems, and comprehension problems prevent people from improving their vocabulary knowledge on their own. Intensive vocabulary instruction can be effective in turning this situation around. What is required, though, is a clear and deliberate focus on facilitating students’ creation of meaningful contexts for the word meanings they are learning, and a frequent and consistent emphasis on helping them make connections to what they already know.

1.5. Levels of Word Knowledge

“Word knowledge” refers to how well you know the meaning of a word. Research shows that there are three kinds of word knowledge. Firstly, there is a lack of word knowledge where the meaning is completely unfamiliar. Secondly, there is acquired word knowledge where the basic meaning is recognized after some thought. And last, there is established word knowledge where the meaning is easily, rapidly and automatically recognized (Beck, McKeown, and Omanson, 1987). Words from the third category are already established in the personal vocabulary bank and are the words you would use in conversation and writing. Though it’s enough for students to have a surface understanding of some words in a selection, for most words students must have this same established level of knowledge if they are to understand what they are reading (Nagy, Herman, and Anderson, 1985).

2. Teaching Vocabulary

2.1. Which Words Should be Taught

When making instructional decisions as to which words to teach, it is helpful to have a framework for decision-making in this area. Knowing what words to teach is the first step in providing effective vocabulary practice. Graves and Prenn, for instance, classify the words that should be devided into three types, each requiring a higher investment of teacher and learner time for instruction. With words that are already in the student's oral vocabulary, the students need only to identify the written symbol for such a word. When the word is one for which the student has acquired no concept and it appears frequently in the context, the teacher must take time to develop the concept through instruction. When the word is in the student's listening vocabulary, it may be taught though writing experiences and activities. Focus should be on helping students become independent learners; they should be encouraged to become actively involved in selecting words.

I will shortly mention a practical guide that helps teachers to remember the types of words that they should teach explicitly. First of all, there are Type A Words. These words belong to academic language and the content areas. Academic language describes the language of schooling, words used across disciplines like genre and glossary. Content area words are specific to the discipline, words like organization in social studies and organism in science. Then there are Type B Words which are the basics. There are hundreds of high-frequency words. The basics make up a large percentage of students´ reading and writing. Students must be able to read words like the, is, and, are, been and because.

The so-called Type C Words are connectors and act as signal words. There may be some overlap with the basic words. Students need to understand the signals for cause and effect relationships, sequence and other important indicators of how text is organized. In Type D Words the D stands for difficult - words with multiple meanings are a challenge for all students and may be especially so for learners of the English language.

When considering words with multiple meanings teachers should also pay attention to the consonant-vowel-consonant words children encounter when first learning to read - for example words like jam and ham. These words have accessible meanings if you think of something you may eat with eggs in the morning (ham) or of the sweet, sticky stuff on toast (jam). But jam also describes a music playing session. So learning to decode should not be meaning-free, but should provide a good opportunity for teaching the meanings of words including multiple ones. This kind of experience with words improves comprehension.

At last there are also Type X Words which are the extras. These are the words that will not be encountered frequently but in a certain story or context they are important for decoding meaning. A good example of this type of word is spindle in “Sleeping Beauty.” It is important to the fairy tale, but it is not a very high-utility word. I just tell kids what words like this mean without any special teaching.

2.1.1. Basic Functional Vocabulary

In order to understand, speak, read and write a language, the students must acquire the basic functional vocabulary. New words are carefully selected, gradually introduced, and graded to make language learning smooth and easy. The following overview will demonstrate which words are considered basic functional vocabulary.

Basic vocabulary items begin with names of objects, the nouns, which include people, parts of the body, and clothing. Moreover, there are classroom objects such as table, cupboard, book, desk, and chalkboard. Home objects such as pot, saucepan, stool, basket, and bed demonstrate another area of basic vocabulary. Besides that, there are objects from the environment, such as church, shop, and market, and garden objects like hoe, spade, etc. which the students should learn. In addition to nouns, action words (i.e. verbs and verbal phrases) are also taught. By nature, children are very active and need to move. They love to work and play; therefore, they need to know how to use English to describe what they do. The verbs are carefully selected to relate to the activities which children do at home and in school. Other word classes which are taught are pronouns (I, you, they, he, she, it, we), prepositions (on, under, near, in, to, from), adjectives (good, dirty, clean, short, red, etc.), adverbs (slowly, quickly, loudly, etc.) and conjunctions (and, but). These items should not be taught in isolation. Content words are vocabulary to be fitted into the structure to produce meaningful sentences (e.g. This is a… ).

2.2. Ways of Teaching vocabulary

2.2.1. Strategies

The question is which strategies are most successful in teaching vocabulary? Vocabulary instruction which requires active student involvement seems to improve comprehension more than passive vocabulary activities. Other than free voluntary reading and the teaching of words that are essential to the learning of specific concepts, there seems to be no strategy that is consistently superior. Methods using a variety of techniques seem to be advantageous. Repeated exposure to chosen words aids in learning those words. Good teaching provides the learner with strategies not only for learning the task at hand but for independent learning beyond the task at hand. Students should be responsible for learning a variety of methods to acquire word meanings. Active involvement and deep processing of words are important. Students should connect words to meaningful contexts or known synonyms.

2.2.2. Teaching Concepts

First of all, we have to understand what concepts are. Concepts are categories into which experiences are organized and the larger network of intellectual relationships brought about through categorization. Understanding a concept requires some level of critical thinking in order to make associations between words and ideas according to certain criteria. Objects or events are sorted into concept categories according to their basic characteristics or critical attributes. The critical attributes must be present in a particular sequence, relationship or patterns to qualify for category placement. These represent the concept criteria. The specific ordering of attributes is known as the concept definition or rule.

Word meanings are best learned through conceptual development. This approach stresses in-depth understanding as opposed to surface understanding. Existing concepts can be used as a basis for acquiring new concepts. For example, a student who knows what a horse is can relate the new concept of unicorn to horse in order to understand the new concept. Word meanings should be learned in context. The contextual setting gives student clues to word meanings. The teacher should provide examples in which the new word is used correctly and students should have opportunities to apply the word's meaning. Vocabulary instruction should be based on learner-generated word meanings. Learner involvement increases understanding and memory; thus, when students use their experience and background knowledge to define words, they learn better. The words serve as labels for concepts and students associate words to a larger vocabulary and experiences. Vocabulary should focus on usable words. The use of vocabulary related to a theme or instruction in "word webs" is helpful. Students should be taught how to figure out related words. Students should be taught the use of contextual clues and structural analysis skills (prefixes, suffixes, root words).

2.2.3. Teaching Methods

A student’s vocabulary - the words he or she can understand when reading and listening and use when writing and speaking are critical to success in school. This is the reason why vocabulary is an essential element of effective language teaching. So how do students learn all the words they need to know? The combination of direct instruction and wide reading is a good formula for word learning. In the following overview I will briefly mention some methods that encourage word learning.

The direct instruction is explicit teaching of carefully selected words which improves understanding and helps students’ vocabulary grow. Often, it is best to pre-teach key words.


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The Teaching of Vocabulary in the Primary School Foreign Language Classroom
University of Erfurt
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Teaching, Vocabulary, Primary, School, Foreign, Language, Classroom
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Daniela Pohl (Author), 2003, The Teaching of Vocabulary in the Primary School Foreign Language Classroom, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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