Review of Coady J. and T. Huckin "Second Language VocabularyAcquisition: a Rationale for Pedagogy." Cambridge UniversityPress for the Modern Language Journal.

Nove,mber 1999

Rob Waring

In recent years quite a number of books have been publishedin English that deal with issues surrounding second language vocabularyacquisition (SLVA). In 1997, Cambridge University Press publishedtwo books, both essentially about second language vocabulary.One of them was edited by Norbert Schmitt and Mike McCarthy called"Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy"and the other, the book to be reviewed here, is "Second LanguageVocabulary Acquisition: a Rationale for Pedagogy." editedby James Coady and Thomas Huckin. Both books cover much of thesame ground.

The Coady and Huckin book contains 14 chapters. The first,by Zimmerman, reviews the historical trends in second languagevocabulary instruction, then Laufer examines the lexical plightfacing L2 readers, and Koda looks at the importance of the bottomup processing of orthographic knowledge. Chapters 4 through 6present three case studies of subjects learning second languagevocabulary. Parry's study examines the benefits of using differentreading and vocabulary learning strategies, Altman reports herlongitudinal study of her attempts to gain productive commandof English, and Grabe and Stoller provide an account of the useof a bi-lingual dictionary in the learning of Portuguese fromnewspapers. Chapters 7 through 9 look at three pieces of empiricalwork. Yang reports on the learning of an artificial vocabularyunder three conditions; Arnaud and Savignon describe the passiveknowledge of lexical idioms and some rare words at varying levelsof ability, and Paribakht and Wesche examine the effect of readingactivities and explicit vocabulary teaching on incidental vocabularylearning. The pedagogy section (Chapters 10 through 13) presentsand an excellent chapter by Hulstijn on the theoretical and pedagogicalimplications of mnemonics. Coady's chapter discusses the relationshipbetween vocabulary acquisition and extensive reading, the chapterby Nation and Newton is concerned with the selection, sequencingand presentation of vocabulary and finally, Lewis presents anaccount of his view of vocabulary acquisition as multi-word units. The book concludes with a chapter by Coady that attempts to synthesisethe research surrounding second language vocabulary acquisitioninto a rationale for pedagogy.

The book covers quite a number of areas that deal with secondlanguage vocabulary acquisition however, several key areas whichhave an enormous impact on pedagogy were not directly addressedin this book. There is little mention in the book about the relationshipbetween vocabulary and the language skills other than reading.This criticism could in fact be levelled at the field in general.All to often the emphasis is on vocabulary and reading ratherthan vocabulary and listening, speaking or writing. Another crucialarea that was not discussed was the relationship between receptiveand productive vocabulary - how the two are different or similar,how one may affect the other, how the two interact over time andwhat effect this has on pedagogy, selection and sequencing andso on.

The role of vocabulary testing and its relationship with whatwe know about the tests we use for gathering data and assessinglearners was hardly addressed. Of the several chapters that presentempirical data, none of them explicitly mention why a particulartest was the most suitable one for what was being investigated.Importantly, there seems to be an assumption in most of the articles(see Arnaud and Savignon for one example) that the tests we usein vocabulary research are adequate and sufficient resourses forinvestigating the effects of various strategies and methods ofvocabulary learning. My own experience has taught me that weknow very little about the properties of the tests most commonlyused for research and for assessing vocabulary, and that our faithin them maybe rather too exaggerated. For example, it is widelybelieved that a multiple-choice test is a test of receptive vocabularywhereas a sentence completion test is one of productive vocabulary.This assumption arose in the recognition-recall debates of the1920s and 1930s, and has stayed with us largely unquestioned eversince.

Another important aspect of second language vocabulary acquisitionthat was hardly discussed in the book was what role context playsin SLVA. Most typically the role of context is discussed in termsof a subject's ability to guess from context rather than whatrole context plays in the acquisition process. In other words,what is it that context adds, how does it add it and what factorsprevent learning from context? Coady mentioned this briefly,but I feel it was in need of much more in-depth investigation.The several articles that did discuss context seem to concentrateon whether we can or can't learn from context or how much we canlearn from context or whether incidental vocabulary learning iseffective. The more important question of why, when and in whatenvironments we may best learn from context, or from other methodsis largely unexplored and it is this question that besets pedagogy.

Overall the book feels like a collection of papers that dealwith SLVA rather than a synthesis of research for pedagogy. Thisis not meant to imply that the book is not worth a close read.It certainly is. But when giving an overall impression of thebook, I am in two minds. If the book is to be used as a coursebook at the graduate level as an overview of SLVA, then it mustcover the field in some depth as well as covering it widely. But, as I have mentioned several major areas within SLVA are inneed of more discussion and a fair amount of supplementary materialwill be needed to complement the book. On the other hand, asa background reader for researchers in SLA in general and in SLVAin particular, it is a welcome addition to any library shelf.

My feeling is, though, that sadly this book will not be readby the people who really need to learn from the findings presentedhere. The title suggests that the book is aimed at pedagogy andits voice should be heard loudest and clearest within the wallsof teacher training establishments and TESOL staff rooms. Unfortunately,it is precisely this sort of book that we do not find on theirshelves, but instead these books are found within the ivory towersof academia.