The Principles and the Teaching of English Vocabulary: A Review

Saniago Dakhi

saniagonias@gmail.com

Universitas Kristen Indonesia

ABSTRACT

The importance of vocabulary, types of vocabulary to teach, selection criteria of teaching and learning vocabulary materials, size and depth of vocabulary, and vocabulary teaching principles were found unclear. The present article aims at responding to such challenges. A review of previous studies and related theories shows that the vocabulary was found to be more functional as a basis for communication, the reflection of social reality, emotion booster, and academic ability predictor. It also reveals that its contribution to the basic language skills varies. Finally, the principles of teaching vocabulary, size, and depth, and teaching and learning vocabulary materials (TLVMs) appear to be associated with the student’s vocabulary mastery.

Keywords: vocabulary teaching; principles; vocabulary importance; breadth and depth

INTRODUCTION

Many studies testified a contribution of vocabulary to language skills, namely reading, writing, speaking, and listening, and GPA (Grade Point Average). Roche and Harrington’s (2013) finding showed that vocabulary is associated with both academic writing and GPA. Similarly, vocabulary knowledge has been viewed as a prior ability that has to be mastered used to increase other language abilities. “The vocabulary knowledge is a precondition for most of the other language abilities,” added Roche and Harrington.

There is no exactly the same research result has been reported. Different studies tend to have different findings and conclusions. Taken for an example, according to Staehr (2008) the vocabulary has a more beneficial contribution to reading and writing abilities. It is moderately related to speaking and listening skills. Learners’ receptive vocabulary size was found to be strongly associated with their reading and writing abilities, and moderately influential to speaking and listening performances.

Another important finding is Treffers-­Daller’s and Milton’s (2013). They reported that monolingual speaker vocabulary sizes seemed to be much smaller than is generally was thought. It was about 10,000 English words families were acquired by new enrolled undergraduate students of three British universities. Such report makes a study on vocabulary breadth and depth urgent to pre-service English teachers. More surprisingly, Gogoi (2015) claimed 75% of his participants, the teachers at Golaghat District of Assam, India, reported that teaching materials for early childhood care and educational center were not designed by experts, and more than a half of them said that the materials were insufficient and teachers were not well trained to use them.

To provide a description of the importance of vocabulary, types of vocabulary to teach, selection criteria of teaching and learning vocabulary materials, size and depth of vocabulary, and principles of vocabulary, therefore, are goals of the current article. A review of previous studies and related theories was systematically conducted to accomplish the objectives.

DISCUSSION

The Importance of Vocabulary

Vocabulary as the Basis for Communication

Nothing can be done without vocabulary. Vocabulary is the basis for communication. Such an argument was strengthened by Jamalipour and Farahani (2012) saying that it is commonly recognized as the main communication tool. What language users use in expressing their feelings, ideas, and opinions, a manifestation of the human mind, is vocabulary. More precisely, according to linguistic perspective, vocabulary seems to be more useful and urgent than the grammatical role. “Without grammar very little can be conveyed; without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed,” said Sullivan and Alba (2010).

The recent study shows, regardless of the various degree of its contribution, that the number of vocabulary positively predicts the language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. The vocabulary has a more beneficial contribution to reading and writing abilities. It is moderately related to speaking and listening skills. Staehr (2008) reported that learners’ receptive vocabulary size was found to be strongly associated with their reading and writing abilities, and moderately influential to speaking and listening performances.

To sum up, vocabulary size and depth used in communication appear to be associated with a good interaction meeting the principles of communication, namely maxim of quantity, quality, relevance, and manner (Grice, 1975). The maxim of quantity is normally achieved when the message being delivered is definitely informative, giving an intended word. The maxim of quality is obtained when the speakers’ word is truthful. It is expected to inform the real thing. In contrast, the maxim of relevance is more likely to be gained through the appropriateness of given information. Finally, the maxim of manner is theoretically met as long as the words are clear, brief, and orderly used. 

Vocabulary as the Reflection of Social Reality

It is crucial to take into account reasons for treating language, in general, to be thought as a tool for social interaction. Richards (2001, p. 161) theorized four reasons, namely (1) language is a system for the expression of meaning; (2) the primary function of language is to allow interaction and communication; (3) the structure of language reflects its functional and communicative uses; and (4) the primary units of language are not merely its grammatical and structural features, but categories of functional and communicative meaning as exemplified in discourse.

This implies the meaning, the reality of human thought seems to be grasped through a language. The language is one of the symbols acquired, mastered, learned, and taught by people. Such an argument is in line with Can’s (2008) opinion about reality and the symbols.  It was stated that the reality can only be received through the symbols.

The symbols refer to the words of a language, and its choice is an accumulation of human social background and feelings when they are communicating. This indicates that the word choice in our communication is definitely determined by our experience. Children with limited experience will have a limited number of vocabularies expressing his or her thought. A politician’s diction will be always associated with political issues and social problems.

However, the vocabulary also constructs human reality. It forms the reality of the world, or even can change the world of human thought, for which language listeners’ attitude and action are developed. With a more philosophical tone, Searle (1995) emphasized it by saying human institutional reality is developed by the linguistic representation.  

Vocabulary as an Emotion Booster

Common sense views that emotion is a physical type that has little association with words used to name it. It is thought the words are just an instrument to label the emotion with the linguistic symbols. Yet psychological constructionist findings showed that language is a fundamental element in the emotion that is constitutive of both emotion experiences and perception (Lindquist, MacCormack, & Shablack, 2015).

It suggests that the words chosen in language help people to produce and perceive the emotion. Of course, such a sensation is contextually linked to the situation where, when, and how it is communicated and received. Supported by Lindquist, MacCormack, and Shablack (2015), language plays a role in the emotion since it supports conceptually an understanding used to create a meaning of sensations from a body as well as the world in a given context. Similar evidence has been reported by Lindquist, Sapute, and Gendron (2015). They claimed that the emotion is built when sensations are categorized using emotion category knowledge and supported by the language.  

Vocabulary as a Academic Ability Predictor

Believing science and technology are widely spread using academic discourses and academic discourse is composed by the string of structured words, it seems to conclude that vocabulary is tightly related to the spread of, communicating, scientific findings. This is caused by the main reason that research articles are formed by the words, a substantial function of the word in academic discourse. Linguistically, the used words appear to be conventional, academic, and specific vocabularies.

Moreover, the size and understanding of vocabulary knowledge are more likely to predict the academic ability. Though effects and research designs conducted, reported by the scholars, vary, they are still in the same direction supporting the power of vocabulary itself. Taken, for example, Roche and Harrington’s (2013) finding showed that vocabulary is associated with both academic writing and GPA (or Grade Point Average). Similarly, vocabulary knowledge has been viewed as a prior ability that has to be mastered used to increase other language abilities. “The vocabulary knowledge is a precondition for most of the other language abilities,” added Roche and Harrington.

Types of Vocabulary

An account for types of vocabulary is important to have a better understanding of how to teach them effectively according to context, learners’ learning style and preferences, and needs. A well-known category of the types of vocabulary is receptive and productive vocabulary and active and passive vocabulary. Table 1 figures out the types of vocabulary. Listening and reading vocabulary are words usually understood during a process of language perception. Speaking vocabulary, like writing vocabulary, refers to productive-active-passive words used. 

Receptive Vocabulary Vs. Productive Vocabulary

The receptive vocabulary is defined as the type of vocabulary a reader encounters during reading and listening. They are the words which the readers and listeners use to comprehend given messages. Such vocabularies are strongly related to receptive skills of language. Stuart (2008) as believed by Susanto (2017) stating that they are the words recognized by the students during the reading, that they don’t produce at all, emphasizes the argument. A broader sense also has been theorized by Laufer and Goldstein (2004). They viewed that receptive knowledge was associated with the listening and reading.

 In contrast, productive vocabulary refers to the set of words used to produce the messages. Two basic skills naturally make use of productive vocabularies are speaking and writing. In short, they are termed as they are to correspond to the productive skills of language.

Another equally important account of the types of vocabulary is their contribution to the growth of receptive skills and productive skills. Many studies testified such effect on those language skills domains, like oral ability, reading competence and cloze test ability. Jamalipour and Farahani (2012) reported that vocabulary knowledge positively predicted reading comprehension. This spells out that vocabulary knowledge functioned as a predictor of reading comprehension competence, evidence for the receptive skill. More specifically, the vocabulary knowledge that seems to influence the research result comprises knowledge of word form, meaning, and use. A similar finding also showed that the receptive vocabulary is closely related to the cloze test result of Spanish primary who studied English. The higher the score on the cloze test, the higher the score on the VLT (Vocabulary Levels Test), Catalan and Gallego (2008) reported. In vocabulary and oral skill relationship, Uchihara and Saito (2016) discovered that the productive vocabulary scores significantly correlated with L2 fluency, but not with comprehensibility and accentedness. This means the L2 speakers with a sophisticated productive vocabulary are more likely to speak spontaneously with fewer pauses and repetitions, and at a faster tempo.

Active Vocabulary Vs. Passive Vocabulary

With reference to a word frequency use, it is more likely to group the vocabulary into the active and passive vocabulary. The active vocabulary is the words by which listeners and writer usually use as they are completely understood. They are the words that are recalled and used at will when the situation of speech and writing requires them. Practically, the active words are those we can automatically use when writing and speaking without stopping and forcing ourselves to remember. Yet Laufer (1998) in his research divided it into two subgroups, namely controlled active and free active. In contrast, the passive vocabulary is meant as the words that are not completely understood, so that they are infrequently used when writing and speaking. Related to this, therefore, it seems to conclude that passive vocabulary is a precondition of the active vocabulary. It is a step, of course, it is optional as people have different abilities and words have different degrees of comprehensibility, that has to be acquired anterior to the active vocabulary mastery.

As for the growth of passive and active vocabulary, Laufer (1998) explained that both passive and controlled vocabulary increased and mutually correlated. Yet passive vocabulary increased more than the controlled active. The free active vocabulary was found unrelated to the two types. Accentuated by Laufer and Parabakht (2008), it revealed the passive vocabulary and the controlled active vocabulary were acquired more than the active one. They argued that free active vocabulary developed more slowly and less predictably than did passive vocabulary.

The Teaching of Vocabulary

Approaches to Vocabulary Teaching

Implicit Vocabulary Teaching

Implicit vocabulary teaching refers to a procedure of teaching in which language learners unconsciously, indirectly, and contextually learn the vocabularies. The leaners of vocabulary who are applying such approach always learn naturally. This is based what Ellis (1994) and  Choo, Ai Lin, and Pandian (2012) argued that the implicit learning is viewed as a process of learning through a natural and simple procedure without any conscious operation.

As for its disadvantage, the implicit vocabulary teaching is time-consuming. Preparation of English teachers is required to operate the teaching and learning attractively. An unprepared teaching and less attractive interaction will lead to confusion in the classroom. However, implicit learning contains many benefits. Reviewed by Chu-Min and Hsiu-Tin (2003), the implicit learning showed a positive association with a number of domains, such as artificial grammar learning, sequence learning, control of computer-simulate dynamic systems, and probability learning. In addition, it also has shown to be more applicable knowledge.

Explicit Vocabualry teaching

Explicit vocabulary teaching is a conscious process of mastering the vocabulary. There has to be a direct and systematic procedure and awareness toward objectives of vocabulary learning. It also requires the learners to understand the process it has, predict answers to the problem, evaluate and reflect a result. This is more likely to be accomplished by cognitive strategies, note-taking, dictionary, and some other associational learning methods, such as semantic approach and mnemonic method (Dakun, 2000).  

The explicit vocabulary teaching, according to the natural entity of languages, such as form, meaning, and use, contains three additional techniques, that appears to be functional in learning. They are form-based explicit teaching, meaning-based explicit teaching, and rule-based explicit teaching. The form-based explicit teaching refers to the process by which forms of the vocabulary, like its free morphemes, bound morphemes, and spelling are directly taught to the students. The meaning-based explicit teaching is understood as a procedure where the meaning of an intended vocabulary is taught. Finally, the rule-based explicit teaching is related to the teaching of vocabulary based on the rules of the vocabulary being learned.

Yet knowing a better technique in teaching vocabulary is another interesting topic for many scholars. Wang’s (2014) work showed that the meaning-based implicit teaching is more beneficial for meaning-based language features, and the rule-based explicit teaching is more beneficial for form-based language features. Such finding means that the teaching of vocabulary through implicit teaching allows language learners to better understand the meaning of vocabulary. It also indicates that the teaching of the use and rules of vocabulary explicitly is more likely to improve the learners’ ability to master ways to spell and to understand parts of the vocabulary, like root, base, suffix, infix, prefix, and many more.

The Selection of Teaching and Learning Vocabulary Materials (TLVMs)

Vocabulary teaching material, traditionally, is restricted to printed teaching sources, like books, magazines, newspapers, articles, etc. In a broader sense, vocabulary material is any sort of tools that are used to accomplish teaching objectives. The Ministry of Education of Ghana (2016) views vocabulary materials are all things used in teaching, like chalk, blackboard, papers, pens, books, bottle tops, everyday objects, a technology of any kind, environment, and even human body.

However, the part of this article only addresses the selection of vocabulary teaching material that seems to be prepared by an English teacher. It is because considering the criteria of teaching materials is a must for language teachers. Once it is met, the teaching and learning activities will be attractive and make planned learning objectives achievable. Moreover, it assists the Engish teacher with a presentation and transmission of knowledge, helps learners master content, and profiles various academic abilities and values, Bušljeta (2013) confirmed. More importantly, she or he described six functions of teaching and learning materials, namely (1) motivating students, (2) developing creativity, (3) evoking prior knowledge, (4) encouraging process of understanding, decoding, organizing and synthesizing educational content, and (5) influencing the growth of different skills.

Conversely, it is found that there are still problems on the availability of teaching materials. Suprisingly, Gogoi (2015) claimed 75% of his participants, teachers at Golaghat District of Assam, India, reported that the teaching materials for early childhood care and educational center were not designed by experts, and more than a half of them said that the materials were insufficient and teachers were not well trained to use them.

To respond to the aforementioned problem, a more beneficial coursebook, one of teaching and learning material sources, is obliged to be combined with other alternative materials. This is in accordance with Johansson’s (2006) finding. She reported that all interviewed teachers agreed that the coursebooks were not the only source of teaching materials as it seemed to be boring and did not stimulate the learners to better learn.

Referring to the previous importance and problems, criteria, like in teaching materials in general, selecting vocabulary has to be taken into account. Proposed by Honeyfield (1997), the criteria for vocabulary selection in language teaching comprises availability, familiarity, coverage, and frequency. Additionally, from grounded theory and conceptually-driven data analysis Shi (2009) highlighted five criteria of effective resource selection. She reported that the selected material has to (be) (1) curriculum-appropriate, (2) make students interested, (3) balance students’ interests and other factors when facing conflicts, (4) student-appropriate, and (5) flexible.

Breadth and Depth of Vocabulary Teaching

Vocabulary breadth is defined as the number of words a person understands. The breadth is characterized as a surface-level knowledge of the words. Emphasized by Miao and Kirby (2015), the breadth of vocabulary is the number of known words.

Nation and Newton (1997) argued that there are four levels of vocabulary: highly-frequent, academic, technical, and low-frequency words. The high-frequency words are 2,000 and more likely to be covered 87% in texts. The academic vocabulary contains 800 words and is used 8% in the texts. Ultimately, technical (3% covered) and low-frequency words (2% covered) are sequentially 2,000 and 123,200 words. This suggests that the total number of intended learning words, excluding the low-frequency, is 4,800 (98% covered in the texts).

On the contrary, the vocabulary depth is concerned with learners’ level knowledge of a word. According to Shen (2008), the depth of vocabulary knowledge is termed as the learners’ understanding of various aspects of a given word, or how well the word is comprehended. More technically, Qian (2002) stated the leaner with vocabulary depth should comprehend more than just a superficial understanding. Pronunciation, spelling, meaning, register, frequency, and morphological, syntactic, and collocational elements have to be included.

Comparing the relationship between the breadth and depth of vocabulary, and their contribution to reading performance seems to be an interesting issue. To discuss them, we need to consider Qian’s (2006), Ṣen’s and Kuleli’s (2015), and Schmitt’s (2014) works. Qian (2006) reported that vocabulary size or the breadth, depth and reading comprehension are highly, and strongly, correlated. Supported by Ṣen and Kuleli (2015), it was argued that vocabulary size and vocabulary depth were both significantly correlated to the reading performance. However, the vocabulary depth predicted the reading performance better.

To better understand the relationship of depth vocabulary and breadth vocabulary according to word frequency level, it is to give credit to Schmitt (2014). He discovered that it seemed to have a low correlation between the vocabulary depth and breadth for students who had higher frequency words and the low vocabulary breadth. On the contrary, it was found a difference between the size and depth of vocabulary for learners with the lower frequency words and larger vocabulary sizes.  

Principles of Teaching Vocabulary

As for principles of teaching vocabulary, an account for what vocabulary forms need to teach and the principles of how they are taught is crucial. Firstly, though teaching vocabulary is obliged to be in line with teaching objective and students’ needs, teaching the depth and breadth of vocabulary are suggested. To accomplish them, Nation (2001) proposed nine aspects in vocabulary need to teach to language learners, namely spoken form, written form, parts of word that have meaning, concept a word has and items it may associate, association of the word, grammar of the word, collocation of the word, register and frequency of the word.

Secondly, the principles of teaching vocabulary. There are many theories about teaching vocabulary guidelines and principles. Amongst of them, two writers are thought to be plausible. To Nation (2005), five principles in the teaching vocabulary which should be met are (1) keeping teaching simple and clear without any complicated explanations, (2) relating present teaching to past knowledge by showing a pattern or analogies, (3) using both oral and written presentation, (4) giving most attention to words that are already partly known, (5) telling learners if it is a high frequency word that is worth noting for future attention, and (6) not bringing in other unknown or poorly known related words like near synonyms, opposites, or members of the same lexical set. Lastly, according to Graves (2006), providing rich and varied language experiences, teaching individual words, teaching word-learning strategies, and building consciousness in readers and writers are frameworks for successful vocabulary programs.

CONCLUSION AND SUGGESTION

It is plausible that vocabulary plays an important role in language. It is the heart of language skills. More importantly, it appears to function as a basis for communication, a reflection of social reality, emotion booster, and academic ability predictor. Regardless of vocabulary contribution to the basic language skills, receptive and productive vocabularies, and active and passive vocabulary according to previous studies have varied contributions to language skill performances. Taken, for example, the productive vocabulary scores significantly correlated with L2 fluency, but not with comprehensibility and accentedness. Furthermore, principles of teaching vocabulary, breadth, and depth, and teaching and learning vocabulary materials (TLVMs) appear to be associated with student’s vocabulary mastery.

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Note: This article was presented UKI English Education Department Collegiate Forum held on Friday, February 10, 2017

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