What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Second Language Vocabulary Learning
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Frequently asked questions

Why is vocabulary learning important?

Vocabulary knowledge is one factor that determines reading comprehension. If you don't understand most of the words you read, you can't possibly comprehend the text as a whole. Studies have shown that students need to understand 95% of the words they read for text comprehension (Deville, 1985 and Laufer, 1989b as cited in Laufer, 1997). Other research (Laufer, 1991a as cited in Laufer, 1997) has approximated that learners need to know about 5,000 words to be able to transfer learning strategies from their first language to the second. This is known as the vocabulary threshold for reading comprehension. Statistics like these point to the importance of vocabulary teaching and learning.

Who should learn vocabulary?

Everyone could benefit from increasing their vocabulary, but it's especially critical for beginning language learners. They need to learn enough words to pass the the vocabulary threshold in order to be able to read extensively for enjoyment.

How is learning vocabulary in a second language different from learning vocabulary in a first language?

Actually, some theorists (for example, Nagy & Herman, 1987 and Krashen as cited in Coady, 1997) claim that vocabulary acquisition in both languages is a similar process. Children learning their first language acquire vocabulary through repeated exposures to words in an informal setting. In order to simulate that, researchers advocate that second language learners read extensively. However, it is generally thought that because learning vocabulary in a second language usually happens at a later age, it takes place in a formal classroom setting and is promoted by the deliberate use of learning strategies.

What is the lexical approach?

The lexical approach is a way of teaching language, which emphasizes words and word combinations instead of grammar, functions, or notions. Words that normally appear together are are known as "chunks", "word partners", or collocations. These form the basis for teaching and learning.

What can I do to maximize the vocabulary learning of my ESL students?

A combination of methods works best.

  • Extensive reading: If you read a lot, you will increase your vocabulary and fluency.
  • Practice with collocations: Lewis (1997) gives many examples of exercises your students can do to heighten their awareness of word partners. Here are a few examples from Lewis.
    • Match groups of sentence endings to their beginnings.
    • Unscramble words to make sentences. (Note: Each sentence in this set includes the word take to demonstrate the various word partnerships that exist with take.)
  • Instruct students in the use of vocabulary learning strategies (for example, the keyword technique, memorization, context clues, and mnemonic devices).

Where can I learn more about second language vocabulary acquisition?

If you'd like to learn more about vocabulary acquisition, check out the references below, or visit our web links page.


Coady, J. (1997). L2 vocabulary acquisition through extensive reading. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition : A rationale for pedagogy (pp. 225-237). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Laufer, B. (1997). The lexical plight in second language reading: Words you don't know, words you think you know, and words you can't guess. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition : A rationale for pedagogy (pp. 20-34). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, M. (1997). Pedagogical implications of the lexical approach. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition : A rationale for pedagogy (pp. 255-270). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Created by Elizabeth de Sousa and Radhika Lothe
December 2003

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