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Teaching vocabulary to L2 learners
by Kendall Peet
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Aspects of words knowledge

The final element that I want to cover briefly is vocabulary itself. When considering teaching vocabulary, there are several aspects of lexis that need to be taken into account. The list below is based on the work of Gairns and Redman (1986): 

  • Boundaries between conceptual meaning : knowing not only what lexis refers to, but also where the boundaries are that separate it from words of related meaning (e.g. cup, mug, bowl).
  • Polysemy:  distinguishing between the various meaning of a single word form with several but closely related meanings (head: of a person, of a pin, of an organisation).
  • Homonymy: distinguishing between the various meaning of a single word form which has several meanings which are NOT closely related (e.g. a file: used to put papers in or a tool).
  • Homophyny: understanding words that have the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings (e.g. flour, flower).
  • Synonymy: distinguishing between the different shades of meaning that synonymous words have (e.g. extend, increase, expand).
  • Affective meaning: distinguishing between the attitudinal and emotional factors (denotation and connotation), which depend on the speakers attitude or the situation. Socio-cultural associations of lexical items is another important factor.
  • Style, register, dialect: Being able to distinguish between different levels of formality, the effect of different contexts and topics, as well as differences in geographical variation.
  • Translation: awareness of certain differences and similarities between the native and the foreign language (e.g. false cognates).
  • Chunks of language: multi-word verbs, idioms, strong and weak collocations, lexical phrases.
  • Grammar of vocabulary: learning the rules that enable students to build up different forms of the word or even different words from that word (e.g. sleep, slept, sleeping; able, unable; disability).
  • Pronunciation: ability to recognise and reproduce items in speech. 

In presenting vocabulary, I believe it is important to provide as many supports as possible to facilitate the remembering of new words. The list of aspects above can potentially help students to more easily understand a lexical item and therefore reduce the level of stress often associated with learning new vocabulary. Even more, teachers need to try and make the process of learning new vocabulary fun and enjoyable. It is obvious from the list above that teaching vocabulary involves much more than simply presenting a certain number of words on a word list. A network of relevant associations needs to be highlighted and presented in a way that facilitates the effective, efficient learning of a word.

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