The Importance of Lexis. How do primary school kids acquire knowledge in vocabulary on an ESL/EFL basis?

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2018

16 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The value of teaching lexis
2.1 The process of learning new vocabulary
2.2 Three principles for teaching vocabulary

3. VBS II – Analysis of an English class with 3rd grade pupils
3.1 Lesson plan
3.2 Analysis of teaching strategies and procedures
3.3 Teaching material/ used objects
3.4 Student reactions and possible occurring difficulties in class

4. Conclusion

Work cited

1. Introduction

Acquiring knowledge in lexis is a vital component in the process of learning a second or a foreign language. Lexis and grammar form the fundamental basis of the four language skills; speaking, listening, reading and writing. Those four give a person the ability to master a different language apart from one´s mother tongue, for instance, the English language. Nowadays, English, as the lingua franca, is basically taught to students on a global level. For this reason, it is crucial for students to develop a certain set of skills, oftentimes already at a young age, that helps them come to terms with contemporary expectations raised by the society and the global market. In connection to these established expectations in society, teachers from around the world try their best to teach their ESL/ EFL (English as second or foreign language) students the necessary basics of the English language, which gives them the ability to communicate with people form different countries or to even act in the international world of business later in life. Depending on the country and its curricula, from kindergartners and first up to forth grade students are already introduced to the English language. Teaching young children therefore requires special methods, which need to fit the age of the pupils. This brings up a few questions: How do young children make meaning of new words and in which way is new vocabulary taught to students? What are the most guiding principles concerning vocabulary acquisition? Also, which didactic strategies are best suited to teach vocabulary?

In order to find out the answers to these questions, this paper investigates how primary school kids acquire knowledge in lexis within the framework of the VBS II, an internship, in which students form the TU Brunswick participate. For this reason, I will analyze the value of teaching lexis based on Scott Thornbury´s book “How to teach vocabulary”. In the following, I will explore how learners of English as foreign/ second language make meaning of new vocabulary and introduce three of the most common effective principles, which are used as guidance for teaching vocabulary to younger children. In the framework of internship, I will hold an English lesson on my own with 3rd grade students and therefore shape a lesson plan. In connection, I will analyze my English lesson and present and explain the didactic strategies and procedures as well as teaching material, which I used in class. In addition, the students´ reactions and possible occurring difficulties concerning the selected methods will be collected and summarized in 3.4.

In the end, I will draw a conclusion by summarizing the main results of my research and highlight those principles, which are especially appropriate for teaching vocabulary to primary schoolers in an English class. Thereby, I will be able to answer the question of my thesis statement form the beginning of my paper. Afterwards, this answer will be summed up in a final statement.

2. The value of teaching lexis

Scott Thornbury is an established author and internationally recognized teacher trainer, who emphasized the importance of lexis in his book “How to teach vocabulary”. This part of the paper will focus on the actual meaning of lexis and its relevance for foreign language teaching.

Before one can talk about the value of lexis, the term needs to be defined first. The authors Joe Barcroft, Gretchen Sunderman and Norvert Schmitt explain that “the term lexis , from the ancient Greek for 'word,' refers to all the words in a language, the entire vocabulary of a language. [For instance,] Plato and Aristotle spoke of lexis in terms of how words of a language can be used effectively. […]” (Barcroft et al. 283) This means that lexis is basically concerned with the acquisition of vocabulary as well as its meaning.

According to Thornbury, the importance of lexis, thus having an extensive core vocabulary only became evident in the advent of the communicative approach in 1970. This approach “ [...] set the stage for a major re-think of the role of vocabulary.” (Thornbury 14) Especially “[...] the communicative value of a core vocabulary has always been recognized, particularly by tourists” Thornbury states in his book. (14) For example, a leaner would benefit more form a phrase book or a dictionary rather than a grammar book if hypothetically he or she was in a situation, in which a larger vocabulary would be of greater use and value. Furthermore, Thornbury underlines the meaning-making effect of words and also identifies vocabulary as a “ learning objective in its own right.” (14) Thornbury also agrees with the statement of the authors Walter and Swan that “'language acquisition is the largest and most important task facing the language learner [and teacher].'” (14) He also explains that this has become evident in activity and course books. Those books provide specific exercises which are especially suitable for vocabulary acquisition. (14) For example, teachers mostly choose these course books specifically focusing on lexis for their lower grade students, who have yet to acquire a decent amount of vocabulary. This process requires special methods which will subsequently be explained in this paper.

For this reason, lexis has been recognized as a vital component in the process of leaning and teaching a foreign language. Without an appropriate core vocabulary, pupils will not gain the ability to communicate properly with people speaking in a different mother tongue. Therefore, it is the teacher´s duty to introduce his pupils to new vocabulary and help them make meaning of the new words. In this way, students have the chance to develop their language skills. This shows the value of lexis because learning a foreign language without a proper vocabulary would not be possible. As Thornbury says: “[V]ocabulary is no longer treated as an 'add-on'.”(14)

2.1 The process of learning new vocabulary

“But what does it mean to know a word?” Thornbury asks in his book. (15) Also, how exactly is vocabulary learned? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to know of what other components a word is made of. According to Thornbury, learners of the English language need to be aware of a word´s form and also its meaning. He exemplifies his answers to these important questions with an example. To illustrate his point, Thornbury uses a Maori word that takes the form t angi. If one comes across this specific word, it is not quite difficult to identify the word´s form. (15) So what does tangi actually mean? The literal meaning of the word would be sound. At this point, one might think of the noun sound or the verb to sound. Hypothetically, a student who wants to add this particular word to his or her vocabulary needs to know about the grammatical functions of tangi. Additionally, t angi has more than one meaning of which a student should be aware of. Next to ' sound ', it can also mean l a mentation or dirge. Moreover, tangi might appear in certain multi-word functions, for instance, waita tangi. This word can be translated with a ' funeral lament '. In this case, tangi is basically associated with a funeral, but not in the European sense. Thornbury explains: “ [K]nowing the meaning of a word is not just knowing its dictionary meaning (or meanings) – it also means knowing the words commonly associated with it (its collocations) as well as its connotations, including register and its cultural accretions.” (15)

Nevertheless, it is just not enough to know all the different meanings of a word, its connotations and collocations. Thornbury says that it is crucial to distinguish between receptive and productive knowledge. For example, a person might know all the variations of the word 'tangi', but does not know how to apply it in a conversation. This means that this person might have more receptive knowledge of the word rather than productive knowledge. “Receptive knowledge exceeds productive, but not productive, knowledge of the word. Receptive knowledge exceeds productive knowledge and generally – but not always – precedes it. That is, we understand words then we utter, and we usually understand them before we are capable of uttering them” Thornbury clarifies. (15)

But to what extent is vocabulary now accurately learned? According to Thornbury, every human being has their own mental lexicon in mind. (15) This lexicon is loaded with countless mental representations which are arbitrarily linked to real objects in life. In order to explain this phenomena, it is important to have a look at Saussure´s theory of the sign.

Saussure´s theory states the existence of a signifier, for example the sounds [t], [r] and [I:] in this particular order. This signifier is then encoded in the common code of a culture linked arbitrarily to a mental concept of a tree concerning this example. Saussure named this the signified. Together both parts constitute a sign which can be used to talk about instances of the concept (the signified) in the real world. Since one sign alone can not be used as a viable system, multiple signifiers must remain distinguished from others. Each of these signifiers is connected to a different mental concept, for instance, individual mental representations of objects. For example, the versatile concept of a dog. According to Thornbury, children typically learn new words through labelling in their first language. Thornbury explains this as followed: “That is, mapping words on to concepts – so that the concept, for example, of a dog has a name, dog, Or doggie. But not all four-legged animals are dogs; some may be cats, so the child then has to learn how far to extend the concept of dog, so as not to include cats, but to include other people´s dogs, toy dogs, and even pictures of dogs.” (Thornbury 18) This means: In order to be able to distinguish different concepts, a child needs a certain set of categorizing skills. Also, the child needs to know about subordinate terms which could be replaced by other words, for instance, the subordinate word animal could replace dog. “This involves a process of network building – constructing a complex web of words, so that items like black and white, fingers and toes, or family and brother are interconnected. Network building serves to link all the labels and packages, and lays the groundwork for a process that continues for as long as we are exposed to new words (and new meanings for old words) […] “ Thornbury explains. (18) So leaning new vocabulary also means, knowing the entire conceptual system of a word. This is especially difficult for young children learning a foreign or second language because they have already learned the conceptual system of words in their first language. This system is connected to their own individual network of associations which links the words together one by one – their mental lexicon, which they have in their minds. Finally, if pupils are introduced to new vocabulary ,for instance, in primary school, they need to construct a “new vocabulary network” - in other words, a second mental lexicon. (18) It is the teacher´s duty to help them with this process.

2.2 Three principles of teaching vocabulary

These are three of the most common principles for vocabulary acquisition at which teachers orientate themselves to shape the lessons. The first principle is the Principle of Cognitive Depth: “The more one manipulates, thinks about, and uses mental information, the more likely it is that one will retain that information. In the case of vocabulary, the more one engages with a word (deeper processing), the more likely the word will be remembered for later use” (Schmitt 120)

During an English lesson, an activity which is constructed in guideline of this principle would be the “I pack my suitcase ” game. In order to play it, the pupils must sit in a circle. One pupil starts saying the phrase “I pack my suitcase and take with. me...”. Then, the child can liberally choose what he or she wants to put in his or her suitcase. It all starts with one object. The next pupil has to repeat the already said object from his or her predecessor. Afterwards, the child adds his own object that should be in the suitcase. This goes on until the last pupil in the circle has to repeat all of the objects which have been mentioned before. In this way, the entire class ponders deeply about the vocabulary that had been said before. This helps the kids remember the words more easily.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


The Importance of Lexis. How do primary school kids acquire knowledge in vocabulary on an ESL/EFL basis?
Technical University of Braunschweig
Mediating Languages and Cultures/ Foreign Language Pedagogy - Teaching Lexis and Grammar
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
#lexis #teaching #pedagogy #researchpaper #efl #esl #university #primaryschool #teaching #foreignlanguageteaching
Quote paper
Desiree Halves (Author), 2018, The Importance of Lexis. How do primary school kids acquire knowledge in vocabulary on an ESL/EFL basis?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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