A Common Sense Approach: Vocabulary Building
by Steve Schackne


Most traditional EFL textbooks have modules designed to increase vocabulary stores. Although there are many different techniques for teaching vocabulary, it can be difficult for students to effectively increase their stock of new words through mainstream approaches; new words are most often simply acquired through use. In this respect, it is somewhat similar to developing reading skills.

Traditional curricula define intensive reading as reading carefully, or in detail, for an exact understanding of the text, while extensive reading is simply reading for pleasure and general understanding, not focusing on every detail. I have previously cited what I felt was the myth of intensive reading. It can’t really teach you how to read; traditional reading courses can describe reading strategies such as skimming (reading for general understanding) and scanning(reading for specific information), and offer practice in utilizing these strategies, but it is the process of reading extensively that really hones skills such as understanding opinion, understanding inference, and recognizing discourse markers. In other words, we learn to be competent readers by…reading.

And so it is with vocabulary. Traditional approaches have not been very effective. We learn vocabulary by using vocabulary, using it in meaningful contexts.

Selecting Vocabulary

A well-known school in Beijing, China preps its students for vocabulary sections of standardized tests by making them memorize long lists of words; the words are culled from previous exams and are occasionally recycled, so at worst one gets practice in the areas of vocabulary commonly tested. Needless to say, this may be somewhat effective for test performance, but most of the words are forgotten soon after the test.

Vocabulary lists have many drawbacks, notably that they are not contextualized and that many items are not relevant to students and, thus, rarely used. Some textbooks “chunk” vocabulary; that is, they group vocabulary items in specifically defined categories, such as colors, vegetables, or home furnishings. This may have the advantage over randomly selected vocabulary in that, sometimes, vocabulary items in categories reinforce each other, which makes them easier to learn. Still, the vocabulary groups may not be relevant to certain students and, hence, go unused and unassimilated.

Jeremy Harmer cites the principles of frequency and coverage which involve how often words occur in the language and how many different meanings a root word can cover, e.g., play being taught with playboy, Play Station, playbook and so on. This system, however, is also flawed as it often ignores topic, function, structure, and the needs of individual students.

Teaching Vocabulary

Presenting vocabulary takes many forms. Using realia or bringing objects into a classroom can often clarify meaning for a student, but the obvious drawbacks include depicting large concrete nouns and abstract concepts. Graphics are also useful, especially when illustrating objects that are too large to be brought into a classroom. Mime and gesture are useful in defining verbs and other concepts involving movement and action. Enumeration, a cousin of chunking, distinguishes the general from the specific in presenting vocabulary. For example, one can introduce the item appliances and then illustrate by enumerating items such as refrigerator, microwave oven, dishwasher, and such. One of the most common presentation techniques is explanation, but the more involved an explanation becomes the more advanced students have to be to really grasp it, a drawback in itself. Translation is also a commonly used presentation technique, but it also comes with its own limitations—culturally complex concepts are often difficult to accurately translate, teachers may not be fluent in the students’ native language, and a class of students from mixed language backgrounds would make translation of little use.

Discovery techniques go beyond simple modeling, explanation, mime, and translation; instead of simply furnishing meaning, discovery techniques also ask students to discover how the language works. The difference can be illustrated by looking at questions on a reading or listening comprehension evaluation that measure type 1 and type 2 skills. Type 1 questions simply ask students to pick out clearly stated information from a written or spoken passage, while type 2 questions demand students understand information that isn’t always directly stated, such as recognizing discourse markers, getting meaning from context, and interpreting attitude and opinion, information that requires students to possess a greater mastery and knowledge of the internal workings of a language. Similarly, discovery techniques have students look at language from different angles, not just from a semantic point of view. Students may be presented language and asked the time framework—is it describing the past, present or future? Students may be asked to note instances of adjectives and prepositions found in a written or spoken descriptive passage. Discovery techniques shift the emphasis from the teacher to students and invites them to use their reasoning processes and problem solving skills to learn the subtle nuances of the language and, hence, to mimic the psycholinguistic approach utilized by native language learners.

The Internal Workings of a Word

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

    • Meaning in context
    • Sense relations
    • Metaphor and idiom
    • Collocation
    • Style and register
    • Parts of speech
    • Prefixes and suffixes
    • Spelling and pronunciation
    • 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.


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 smile...no 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 paper...fast! 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: http://www.schackne.com/Twostudies.htm

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

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

*Available at: http://www.shakespeare.uk.net/journal/1_2/schackne1_2.html


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.

To the original article

Back to the articles index

Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us — Online Development Courses — Lesson Plan Index 
Phonology —  English-To-Go Lesson  Articles Books
 Links —  Contact — Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page

Copyright 2000-2014© Developing Teachers.com