All About Vocabulary Part II — What Does the Research Say?

All About Vocabulary Part II — What does the research say?

Welcome to part II of this blog series on vocabulary teaching and acquisition. I had pretty clear goals for this series initially, and they were simple: 1) talk about my experiences with vocabulary and some qualms I’ve had about it, 2) dive into the research on vocabulary acquisition and share that with readers, and 3) look into how research functions in the actual classroom. Straightforward indeed, up until #2. It did not take long as I was accumulating PDFs and sources that I realized, holy….there is a ton of research on vocabulary! Not that this should be any surprise though: people have been trying to learn new languages for centuries; of course there’s going to be abundant research. It’s just that putting all of that research into one blog post, what was I thinking? You could write a book about all the research on vocabulary (and, well, people have). One post for everything? Never gonna happen.

Instead, I’ve decided to divide part II of this blog series into different sections on the research. Part 2.1 (out of ??), this post, will focus on a general overview of the research, starting with that book linked above, Vocabulary and the Four Skills, as one of our main sources.

I was excited to get this book and, while acknowledging the density of the subject, I knew there would be immediate takeaways. And one of those immediate takeaways comes straight from the title, encouraging us to look at vocabulary and its relationship with the four skills, instead of, say looking at vocabulary as a whole.

When we isolate the four skills of language learning (not the vocabulary itself, as I referenced in the first post) and their relationship with vocabulary, we see vocabulary in a clearer light. I, for one, feel more confident with my Chinese vocabulary when I’m writing, as there’s always more pressure to produce when speaking. The same goes for the input-based methods: because it requires immediate processing, listening will always be more difficult than reading. From a pedagogical standpoint, then, we cannot look at vocabulary in the same way when developing different skills with our students. We cannot assume students can speak everything they can write. We cannot assume they can perfectly understand everything they hear, even if they can understand the same language in written form.

Many teachers, myself included, would do well to heed this simple approach to language teaching. Regardless of the content we are teaching, we have to consider the skill (reading, writing, listening, speaking) our students are developing in whatever classroom activity we are conducting. Sometimes of course, this can be more than one skill, or even all four at once (I’m looking at you, dictations), but regardless, we cannot assume it will all work out the same way.

Okay, let’s dive into a bit of research.

Research Takeaways

As I have scoured and pored over article after article, I’ve noticed a few consistencies of vocabulary learning and teaching across many of the sources I’ve encountered. These consistencies come in two forms: 1) factors that influence vocabulary development and acquisition and 2) strategies that can be implemented to foster such acquisition.

Two factors that influence development

You (2011) talks about two different types of factors that influence vocabulary acquisition, both of which are pertinent towards our classroom practice. The first is instructional factors: how do we teach vocabulary? What do instructors do to best prepare students to learn the words? These factors are more or less out of the learners’ hands, but they will greatly influence the learners’ ability to acquire new words, whether they know it or not.

Still, as all of us have experienced in teaching, the results are not the same for every student. How is it that some of our students can totally master vocabulary through the way we teach, but others sitting right next to them grasp much less? You (2011) attributes these differences in effectiveness towards personal factors: individual differences among learners. These include “a learner’s background knowledge, motivation, and L2 proficiency.” Thus, the greater the motivation, the stronger the background knowledge, and the higher the proficiency, the more success a learner will likely have in acquiring new words. Rasouli and Jafari (2016) also mentioned this, even touching upon the differences between male and female learners.

Classroom connection

Of the many takeaways from You’s (2011) piece, the instructional and personal factor discussion stuck with me the most. There are times when I’ve done a lesson and am convinced it’s gone well, but for some reason only half of the class has achieved the day’s learning objective. This is something that has always vexed me. How can that be? Taking a step back though, there is analysis to be conducted. What personal factors might be more prevalent for the students who didn’t get it? What instructional factors influenced those who did? Posing these questions and trying to answer them, though difficult at times, is why I love teaching: there are always questions about how we teach and how learners learn. Approaching them and discussing these questions is what improves our craft, even if the answers are elusive. In a word, it’s through reflecting on our lessons that we grow the most.

Strategies that influence vocabulary development

Let me again reiterate that there are entire books dedicated to developing vocabulary in both a learner’s L1 and L2. So just know that this is not exhaustive! Anyway, some of the most consistently appearing strategies for influencing vocabulary development were repetition (and frequency) and reading.

Repetition was probably the most commonly referenced strategy for vocabulary acquisition. Unsurprisingly, to learn a new word, we need to see it many times, say it many times, and then do this consistently, not just during one study session. Rasouli and Jafari (2016) also reference Nation (2001) (this source is practically a bible for L2 vocabulary development), who notes not to overlook the amount of time between intervals of learning, something we can emphasize today using spaced repetition.

It’s no surprise that reading also finds itself on this list. Stephen Krashen himself has talk after talk expounding the value of reading in regards to language development, in both the L1 and L2. Reading also remains the strategy that can be achieved in the lowest-pressure environment. Moreover, through reading, learners can store, elaborate on, and retain various words (You, 2011). 

Still, we can’t just assume that we can throw a book in front of students and they’ll automatically know the words. Elgort (2021) also referenced Nation (2007), and noted that for lower-level learners, “contextual word learning from reading needs to be supplemented with deliberate form-focused and meaning-focused learning activities.” There has to be something we attach to our readings, whether its assessing comprehension, encouraging retelling, or having students react to what they just read.

Classroom connection

Personally, I’ll always turn towards reading when I know my students need something to boost their confidence. Output-based activities can always be challenging, and listening (particularly to Chinese, given the extremely small amount of cognates) carries plenty of other pressures. Reading, however, can appropriately set the stage for output-based activities and can better prepare students for listening. And by encountering the same text and its iterations frequently, students can engage in meaningful repetition of the target language and work closer to fully acquiring it.

Still to come...

Writing about reading and how students connect with new words immediately had me thinking about comprehensible input, and to a further degree, TPR(S). What is it about these methods that prove to be so effective when done right? How do we go from students acquiring words to students actually producing them? Tune in next time...

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Works Cited

Elgort, I. (2021). Vocabulary and reading: future research, tools, and practices. In J. Clenton & P. Booth (Eds.), Vocabulary and the Four Skills: Pedagogy, Practice, and Implications for Teaching Vocabulary. Routledge. pp 114-118

Fooziyeh, R. and Khadijeh, J. A Deeper Understanding of L2 Vocabulary Learning and Teaching: A Review Study. International Journal of Language and Linguistics. Vol. 4, No. 1, 2016, pp. 40-46. doi: 10.11648/j.ijll.20160401.16

You, Y. (2011). Factors in Vocabulary Acquisition through Reading. ITJ, 8(1), p.43-57.

Zimmerman, C. (1996). Historical trends in second language vocabulary instruction. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition: A Rationale for Pedagogy (Cambridge Applied Linguistics, pp. 5-19). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139524643.003

What does the research say?