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A Common Sense Approach: Vocabulary Building
by Steve Schackne
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The Internal Workings of a Word

Harmer summarizes “knowing a word” in the following way:

  • MEANING
    • Meaning in context
    • Sense relations
  • WORD USE
    • Metaphor and idiom
    • Collocation
    • Style and register
  • WORD INFORMATION
    • Parts of speech
    • Prefixes and suffixes
    • Spelling and pronunciation
  • WORD GRAMMAR
    • Nouns: countable and uncountable, etc.
    • Verb complementation, phrasal verbs, etc.
    • Adjectives and adverbs: position, etc

While discovery techniques encourage students to gain insight into how a language works, they are meant to be introduced in the classroom and, as such, are a somewhat artificial approach to vocabulary acquisition. Native language learners acquire new words by listening and reading to language in context, lots of authentic language, authentic language that, unlike metalanguage,communicates real-world information.

Extensive Reading, Not a Panacea, but a Practical Approach

Native speakers listen to and read contextualized language every day. This exposure gradually imbues them with a thorough internal understanding of how a language works. Stephen Krashen in his research review, The Power of Reading, feels the research supports massive comprehensible input of language (freely defined as a lot of language at or just above the student's level) as a method to not only increase vocabulary, but to improve other skills as well. Krashen cites free voluntary reading or reading for pleasure as a key component in overall language development. Extensive reading, reading for pleasure, free voluntary reading (or whatever you want to call it) has consistently been linked to language mastery; this includes all facets of language from the basic skills of reading and writing to the more subtle grasp of word meaning, use, information, and grammar.

Looking at the data, as Krashen has done, leads us out of the classroom and into the world of reading. The most practical pedagogical approach is encouraging students to read what interests them and to read often. While not a classroom activity, extensive reading can be implemented in a school setting by establishing student libraries stocked with a wide variety of books, magazines, and internet resources that would interest young minds. Other factors crucial in establishing a productive extensive reading environment include: a) furnishing materials that are at or just above student reading levels, b) not tying their extensive reading to grades or evaluations, and c) giving students enough free time to access and use an extensive reading library/reading room.

Why does the simple process of reading have such a salubrious effect on overall language development? Reading recreates, more than traditional classroom exercises, the way language is encountered in the real world. It is contextualized; that is, it is set in a schema of surrounding language which gives the reader opportunities to discover both meaning and structure.

Take the following paragraph, for example:

The blixxet belongs to a family of vegetables famous for nutrition,

but not necessarily taste. Like other green vegetables, it is rich in

vitamins B and C. While not the tastiest option around, there are ways

to “jazz it up.” One popular preparation is to kllumper it in water. It

must be kllumpered for at least 20 minutes as, unlike leafy vegetables,

the blixxet has to be tenderized a bit. Remove it from the water,

sprinkle it with sea salt, olive oil, and parmesan cheese, and you

have a tasty, nutritious (not to mention inexpensive) side dish.

 Blixxet and kllumper are nonsense terms, so we couldn't possibly ascribe a meaning to them as isolated words. In a reading passage, though, with surrounding context, we can learn quite a bit; namely, that blixxet is a noun; it's a green vegetable which is nutritious, cheap, but far from delicious. It is not a leafy vegetable, but probably a stalk-like vegetable, perhaps with some similarities to asparagus, broccoli, or, maybe even celery. Similarly, kllumper can be inferred to represent a verb, a cooking process, probably boiling or a method similar to boiling which involves hot water.

In a paragraph of under 100 words we can learn a lot about unfamiliar language. If the paragraph were extended, further clues would be furnished to the reader because of the recursive or redundant nature of language—terms are often repeated with supplementary descriptive material which gives readers even more insight into the passages. In addition, parenthetical information is common in discourse; e.g., [...the blixxnet, a fibrous, green vegetable grown in Asia,...][...the blixxnet (a fibrous, green vegetable grown in Asia)...]and this, too, defines, clarifies, and enlightens. So, without knowing certain aspects of language, extensive reading serves as a self-actuated education tool which builds our surface and deep knowledge of the language, often without us even being conscious of it.

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