The Word Doctor

Henrik Gyllstad offers remedies to stalled vocabulary acquisition. See Susan Finn Miller's Out of the Box article, "When Learners Become Vocabulary Teachers," Essential Teacher, September 2005 (pp. 28-30).

Postbeginner vocabulary acquisition in a foreign language is often seen as something that takes care of itself. Without the same guidance they receive when learning grammar, students are often left to their own devices and are expected to acquire lexical items through a process similar to osmosis.

Perhaps underlying this problem is a fairly widespread and unfortunate lack of knowledge among us language teachers as to how best to help students expand their vocabulary and deepen their understanding of the words they already know. Luckily, there are remedies to our illness.

Resources for Teaching and Assessing Vocabulary

The last one and one-half decades have seen a formidable explosion of books and electronic resources on vocabulary acquisition. Here are a few texts and resources that I have found especially helpful for vocabulary teaching in higher education.

Over-the-Counter Remedies

Two well-thumbed texts that have been sitting on my desk for quite some time are Learning Vocabulary in Another Language (Nation 2001) and Assessing Vocabulary (Read 2000). Nation's book is a practical account of how to approach vocabulary as part of any language syllabus. Its eleven research-driven chapters cover most of the essential questions you as a language teacher should ask yourself:

  • What is a word?
  • What is involved in knowing a word?
  • What teaching and learning techniques are effective?
  • What do I need to know about memory, repetition, and mnemonic techniques?
  • How can speaking and listening, and writing and reading activities, respectively, contribute to vocabulary growth?

The book also works well as a reference and is an almost inexhaustible source of research-based knowledge and practical recommendations for vocabulary learning and teaching.

For vocabulary testing, I've found Assessing Vocabulary an indispensable tool even if it is not as readily digestible as Nation's book. Its eight chapters provide an authoritative review of research on vocabulary acquisition and use, and in-depth analyses of four well-known and widely used vocabulary tests. If you customarily put together vocabulary tests with little guidance, Read's book can help you analyse what you are really testing and what assumptions underlie your tests.

A final printed resource is Oxford Collocations Dictionary for Students of English (Lea 2002). This collocations dictionary is a helpful resource for teachers, particularly nonnative speakers of English, when reading and marking essays. It may be especially valuable for intermediate- and advanced-level learners who struggle to acquire the often elusive lexical patterns that native speakers use and for students who do a lot of writing in English.

No Prescription Required

Moving on to online resources, I highly recommend Tom Cobb's Compleat Lexical Tutor (http://www.lextutor.ca/), a great collection of useful resources for learners, teachers, and researchers. The section geared toward learners includes diagnostic tests learners can use to uncover gaps in their vocabulary. Also available are word lists arranged according to word frequencies and linked to concordancers, speech plug-ins, and dictionaries, and a full English novel (Jack London's The Call of The Wild), with accompanying sound files, word lookups, and concordancing devices.

For the teacher-researcher, the site hosts, among other things, a tool called VocabProfile, which breaks texts down into frequency categories, as determined by the frequency of words in the language at large. This tool can be used to help determine the potential difficulty level of a reading passage by estimating the vocabulary load of a text. For example, a text with many low-frequency words will probably be quite challenging for low-proficiency learners.

With Hopes for a Speedy Recovery!

The remedies I have prescribed here are at least a start if you seek to know more about teaching and learning vocabulary. The resources described will help you better understand the process of vocabulary acquisition and offer ways to promote and measure students' vocabulary learning.

References

Cobb, T. The compleat lexical tutor. http://www.lextutor.ca.

Lea, D., ed. 2002. Oxford collocations dictionary for students of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nation, I. S. P. 2001. Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Read, J. 2000. Assessing vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Henrik Gyllstad (henrik.gyllstad@englund.lu.se) teaches English for specific purposes courses in the Swedish Armed Forces and is working on his PhD in English linguistics at Lund University, in Sweden.