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A Common Sense Approach: Vocabulary Building
by Steve Schackne
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What About Spoken Language?

Spoken language, of course, is different from written language. Oral discourse is temporally fleeting, full of stops and starts, errors and other idiosyncracies that don't appear in formal writing. There is still context, redundancy (perhaps more than writing) and descriptive or parenthetical clarifiers.

“...that Professor Brown drives me crazy...he's

my history prof...a real hard case, nobody gets

an “A” or even a matter how hard I

work, I'm gonna get a “C”...nothin' higher....”

The listener didn't know who Professor Brown was when he encountered the speaker, but in 10 seconds the listener had discovered quite a bit about Professor Brown. If not, at least the speaker's opinion of Professor Brown. An argument can be made that oral English is too informal, functional, and fleeting to build vocabulary the way reading can. Certainly vocabulary can be acquired orally by the Direct Method (Socratic Method) of asking a question and receiving an answer. For vocab building, this would entail asking the meaning or translation of a word, and then using it immediately in meaningful context. When I was a young man in Taiwan, I had an intestinal upset and needed some toilet! I asked one of my classmates how to say toilet paper in Mandarin (wei sheng jr), went across the street to buy some, and never forgot that term. It was “mapped” or assimilated after using it only once because I quickly used it for real communication. However, this style of “just in time” or “as needed” learning often can't propel the learner to make large, meaningful strides in a language the way extensive reading can. While informal oral discourse often involves limited everyday concerns, extensive reading offers page after page of language—punctuation, syntax, semantics, morphemics—on a variety of topics, all permanently contextualized on a page or a screen.


Thirteen years ago I completed research on extensive reading and concluded, “There is evidence that extensive reading promotes language level increase within a short period of time as measured by cloze.” At that time a colleague chided me, “you don't need studies to tell you that reading is good for you.” Of course, intuition tells us that reading and language mastery are going to have some correlation. But, reading/vocabulary building modules in EFL still tend to over-emphasize short passages followed by traditional vocab exercises. While many of these exercises, whether they be fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, or even more entertaining ones such as crossword puzzles, can be helpful in expanding both active and passive vocabulary stores, it's extensive reading that research cites as the single most important factor in developing overall language mastery. This begs the same question I asked in 1994—why isn't extensive reading both encouraged and used in more EFL-ESL programs throughout the world?


Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of English Language Teaching, Longman, 1991-2000.

Krashen, Stephen D. The Power of Reading, Heinemann, 2004.

Schackne, Steve. “Extensive Reading and Language Acquisition--Two Studies,” ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Literature ED 388 110, 1995.*

*Available at:

Schackne, Steve. "Language Teaching Research-In the Literature, but Not Always in the

Classroom," in Journal of Language and Linguistics, 2002.*

*Available at:


Steve Schackne has spent 25 years in the field of linguistics. In addition to teaching, his background includes teacher training, program administration, and online-distance learning. He was educated at the University of North Carolina and the State University of New York, and has taken post graduate language training at Taipei Language Institute and the University of Macau.
His postings have included Taipei Language Institute, Tunghai University (Taiwan), Kansas University, Culver Educational Foundation, University of California--Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State University, University of Macau, Ming Chuan University (Taiwan), and Fooyin Institute of Technology (Taiwan). He has lectured and published all over the world, but is now best known for his educational resource web site, Schackne Online.

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