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Teachers' Perceptions of Learner
Difficulty in Vocabulary Learning
by Craig Smith and Akira Tajino
- 6


Although there was some consensus on relative difficulty of the words in question there was a wide range of principled reasons for teachers’ beliefs. This may be a reflection of their wide range of teaching situations. The teachers view difficulty from a process perspective as shown by their concern for cross-linguistic and frequency issues. Their concern for product can be seen in some of the reasons which were categorized as intralexical.

This research suggests that it may be beneficial to explore teachers’ and learners’ perceptions of the difficulty of vocabulary learning in order to design learning tasks which will help maintain productive levels of both learner and teacher motivation.

This study offers a reminder that although it is important to discover which words will be easy or difficult to learn, why is the key question to ask about difficulty. The causes of difficulty or ease, whether actual or perceived, may be the basis of learning and teaching decisions.

Teachers who use frequency lists in their vocabulary teaching could experiment with the use of sub-lists to try to confirm their perceptions of the degree and cause of learner difficulty. For example, sub-lists which focus on a single cause of difficulty for which a certain teaching strategy may be useful, could help teachers work toward a better understanding of learner difficulty in vocabulary learning.

This study has provided five areas of interest that may be explored by asking the following questions:

1. Teachers agree on certain aspects of vocabulary learning difficulty and they also have different views on the difficulty of learning specific words. Do their varying views reflect the actual difficulties the students face?

2. Are learners’ perceptions of difficulty similar to their teachers?

3. How are teachers perceptions of difficulty related to their actual teaching practices? How are learners’ perceptions of difficulty related to their learning practices?

4. Teachers recognize that the frequency of occurrence of a word in English is only one factor that determines the challenge their students will have in learning the word. If decisions about teaching words at the same frequency level need to be made on a word by word by basis, how should sub-lists be created?

5. Teachers’ perceptions of learners’ difficulties can be organized by type of learning challenge. How can this focus on specific challenges facilitate effective vocabulary teaching?

Note : An earlier stage of this research project on learner difficulty was presented at the Annual IATEFL Conference 2003 in Brighton, U.K.


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Craig Smith is a Professor in the Department of British and American Studies at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, Japan. He is interested in vocabulary acquisition, especially the teaching of delexicalized verbs, and team teaching methodology for vocabulary. He is also involved in several experiential and service learning projects with foreign language students. His email address is

Akira Tajino is Associate Professor of Educational Linguistics at Kyoto University, Japan. His current research areas are curriculum development , pedagogical grammar, and vocabulary learning and teaching. His publications include two books on pedagogical grammar (Kodansha, 1995; Maruzen, 1999) and articles on English language teaching methodology for journals such as ELT Journal, Language Culture and Curriculum, and Prospect. His email address is

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