Basic Principles and Practice in Vocabulary Instruction

 To Appear. The Language Teacher 2002

Rob Waring   Notre Dame Seishin University Okayama



This article presents some of the major ecommon sensef principles of vocabulary instruction and learning. It then discusses whether general language teaching reflects these principles well, finding that often it does not. Several implications for vocabulary teaching emerge from these findings.



Over the many years I have been teaching in Japan, I have become more and more aware that some of the most basic principles of vocabulary teaching and learning have been forgotten or ignored.  This article will try to refocus us on the basic and most fundamental ecommon sensef aspects of vocabulary teaching and learning. Let us start with some of the ecommon sensef notions about vocabulary teaching and learning.

²         Teaching a word does not mean the students learned it. Teaching and learning do not go lockstep, hand in hand, from the easy to the difficult. It is too easy to forget that teaching does not cause learning, and to forget that because students have finished a unit does not mean they have mastered all the words in it.

²         We do not learn a word from one meeting. Research tells us that it takes between 5-16 meetings (or more) to elearnf an average word. (e.g. Nation, 1990: 41).

²         There are 2 major stages in word learning. The first stage is matching the wordfs spelling and pronunciation (its form) with its meaning. When this is known, the student should then work on the deeper aspects of word knowledge. This may include the words it goes with, and does not go with; the restrictions on its use; whether it is formal or informal; whether it is spoken or written; its similarity to other words; its shades of meaning; whether it is frequent or not, and so on. 

²         It is easier to forget a word than remember it. Initial word knowledge is very fragile and memories of new words that are not met again soon, are lost. This is because our brains are designed to forget, not remember. If a student has just learned 10 new words, it is normal for most of them to be forgotten within a few days, and maybe only one or two will be retained in the medium or long term. This is called the gForgetting Curveh (See Pimsleur, 1967 for details).

²         Students cannot guess the meaning of an unknown word from context if the surrounding text is too difficult. Hu and Nation (2000) suggest that students need to know about 98% or more of the other words in the text (1 new word in 50) before successful guessing can take place. At a rate of 1 new word in 10 the probability of guessing the meaning of an unknown word is close to zero.

²         Students do not need to learn every word they meet. This is because not all words are equally useful. The words students need to master are the general service vocabulary i.e. those which are found in almost all texts, including technical works. Students who are specializing in one area of study should start by learning their general service vocabulary first, and later go on to learn the specialist vocabulary – usually after 1500 to 2000 general service words have been learned.

²         Some words are more difficult to learn than others. Research suggests that words which are more concrete and closer to a known concept, or have a similar form in the first language, tend to be learned before those which are more abstract and are relatively dissimilar from the first language.

²         Words live with other words, not in isolation. Languages are made up of sets of words that go together to make individual meanings such as by the way, the day after tomorrow, bus ticket, half past three, sunny day and so on. These are often called collocations, or lexical units.

²         Written and spoken vocabulary are different. Fewer (and often different) words are needed for fluent speaking and listening, than for reading and writing. 

²         Students learn best by making sense of their own vocabulary and internalizing it. The more they work with the words, and the more deeply they are processed (i.e. by working with the new words in many different ways) it is more likely the words will be retained in memory.

²         We do not have enough time to teach everything about a word so students have to become independent word learners.


And now for the $1,000,000 question. In general, does English language teaching reflect these principles?  The simple answer is no, not very well at all.  In a review of how vocabulary is commonly taught Oxford and Scarcella (1994) (and other researchers) have found that:

²         There is very low recycling of vocabulary in coursebooks. Most words which are taught in the text (i.e. featured in a vocabulary exercise) are not later recycled in another exercise, or even repeated in the same book (Schmitt, 2000).

²         Teachers assume the text book is the syllabus and assume that the text book has dealt with the recycling of the vocabulary adequately.

²         Teachers leave vocabulary learning to students and rarely teach vocabulary learning strategies and techniques. Dictionary skills especially are rarely taught and students are not encouraged to keep vocabulary notebooks.

²         Most vocabulary teaching is from the text with an emphasis on identifying and teaching single words, rather than collocations or lexical phrases.

²         Many teachers do not seem to take a systematic approach to vocabulary selection. Lessons are often prepared just before class, and there is no long-term planning.

²         Teachers all too often teach too many words at one time.  This can not only confuse students who get them all mixed up, but also overload the studentsf memory leading to evocabulary graveyardsf.

²         Rarer words are often favoured over common words with the assumption that the eeasyf words are already known.

²         Students are exposed to the same materials and thus have limited exposure to words that the teacher does not focus on.

²         For many teachers word teaching only means giving a definition and spelling or pronunciation, not the deeper aspects of word learning.

²         Vocabulary learning goals are rarely set.

²         Most vocabulary exercises only test rather than teach.


So what does all this imply for language teaching and learning?

Firstly, teachers should carefully select words to teach, with  special focus on the most frequent and useful words as they carry the most meaning senses. Special attention should also be given to words which are difficult to learn. Similarly, those which will be relatively easy to learn (i.e. those which there are close relatives in the first language) should be introduced early to build a start-up vocabulary base. Thus an early emphasis on vocabulary growth within language teaching will help kick start their learning (Meara 1995).

Secondly, as we can all but guarantee that most words we teach will be lost to the Forgetting Curve, it is therefore essential that the new words are repeated soon after the initial learning, and repeated at spaced intervals many times and in many contexts thereafter to cement them in memory. As our textbooks do not seem to consciously recycle important vocabulary the required 5-16 times, teachers have to find ways to ensure there are enough meetings. One easy way to achieve both these goals, and one that takes little classroom time, is to require students to read graded readers out of class or ask them to listen to long simplified recordings.  (Waring, 2000 in English or Japanese). Another advantage of graded readers is that as students will be exposed to massive amounts of vocabulary, they can discover new collocations, as well as improving their reading fluency in an enjoyable way.

Thirdly, students should not be faced with material that is too difficult because they will not be able to guess successfully and easily add new knowledge to what they already know. Material that is a little easy is beneficial for language learning because the students can improve their reading speed and fluency. This is because they already know all the words and will be able to build their word recognition speed.

Fourthly, by teaching students how to learn vocabulary effectively, and use their dictionaries well (see Waring 2001 for some ideas), will save them a lot of time and will ultimately make them independent of teachers, dictionaries and textbooks.

Lastly, vocabulary exercises should focus on deepening and internalizing knowledge of words, but not only focus at the surface eform-meaningf level and should deal with collocations and multiple-word units, not only single words. The type of practice in these activities allow the students to notice new words, or new features of words they already know, as well as giving them chances to internalize them. For example, simple gap-fill and matching exercises manipulate only meaning and/or form, and thus call for relatively shallow mental processing. The focus should also be on deepening and internalizing the knowledge by doing activities at a deeper level. Thus, the quality of the mental processing when doing the exercise is more important than simple quantity. Examples of such exercises appear in Lewis (1996).


Recommended titles for further reading on the basic principles underlying vocabulary teaching and learning include Lewis, (1993, 1997), Nation (1990, 2001), Schmitt (2001).


Hu, M. and P. Nation. 2000. Unknown vocabulary density and reading comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language 13, (1): 403-430.

Lewis, M. 1993. The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. 1996. Implementing the Lexical Approach.  Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

Nation, P. 1990. Teaching and learning vocabulary. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

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

Meara P. 1995. The importance of an early emphasis in L2 vocabulary. The Language Teacher 19, (2): 8-10. 

Oxford, R.  and R. Scarcella. 1994. Second language vocabulary learning among adults: State of the art in vocabulary instruction. System. 22 (2): 231-43.

Schmitt, N. 2000. Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pimsleur, P. 1967. A memory schedule. Modern Language Journal. 51 (2): 73-75.

Waring, R. 2001. Getting your students to use their dictionaries effectively. Tokyo: Oxford University Press.

Waring, R. 2000.  The ewhy and ehowf of using graded readers. Tokyo: Oxford University Press.



Dr. Rob Waring has been teaching EFL for 16 years, with 11 years in Japan.  He works at Notre Dame Seishin University in Okayama. He maintains a website devoted to second language vocabulary instruction and learning and Extensive Reading at

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