Learning Vocabulary Incidentally and Deliberately (with the Help of e-Flashcards)
By Jon Aske, Department of Foreign Languages
Any language student will tell you that learning words (vocabulary) is a very important part of learning a language. Sure, you have to learn the grammar too, and the pronunciation, and so on, but without knowing words, you cannot make sense of what you hear or read. Some researchers have even argued that knowing vocabulary is more important than knowing structural intricacies to make sense of a text.
But language instructors typically put little emphasis on the teaching or learning of vocabulary. Vocabulary has been typically “undervalued” and “neglected” in the field of second language acquisition. Instructors seem to figure that their time is best spent teaching the grammar and pronunciation and other things, and that the vocabulary is something that students can learn on their own, by memorizing lists of words and through actual reading and listening, the way native speakers do. The trend in second language acquisition (L2) studies has been lately to assume that learning of vocabulary will take place, as if through osmosis, from context, by encountering the word through reading and listening to “comprehensible input.” This kind of incidental word learning is known as “contextualized vocabulary learning”. One thing that is often left out is that each word will have to be repeatedly encountered, for learners must encounter or be exposed to a new word ten to twelve times on average through reading before they actually learn the word well enough.
What exactly is meant by comprehensible input? What makes a text comprehensible? Basically it means that a learner can make sense of the text—he or she knows most of the words and can comprehend the grammar, i.e. the way the words are put together. It means that the text is comprehensible to a very large extent but with enough new stuff in it to be a source of learning. This is what Stephen Krashen, one of the most influential recent scholars of language acquisition, has argued for a long time. The idea is that if we are to acquire a language as adults, we should mimic the way a child does it (and not treat it as an intellectual enterprise, the way we learn—as opposed to acquire—other skills).
Although all this sounds very good in theory, it still leaves one wondering how students are supposed to reach the level at which they can comprehend most inputs or texts, with all the vocabulary that that entails. Remember it takes a child years of 24/7 exposure to reach that level or learning in his or her own language.
In the area of vocabulary we may wonder how many words should a student know to be able to understand most realistic—or non-simplified—texts. Actually, it turns out that we are not talking about all that many words. It is also more or less the amount of words with which children start school in their native languages.
Researchers have determined that for the purpose of reading for meaning, to receive the minimum score in comprehension tests one has to understand 95% of the words in the text or 19 in 20. For the purpose of reading for pleasure, on the other hand, in order to really get most of what one reads, one must know about 98%, or 49 in 50, of the words in the text.
This results in what researcher James Coady has called a paradoxical situation for beginners, for [h]ow can they learn enough words to learn vocabulary through extensive reading when they do not know enough words to read well?”
When we say that you must know 98% of the words in a text to read for pleasure, this may seem like a lot of words. But in actuality they are not so many, since some words are quite frequent and many others are quite infrequent.
A fairly large dictionary of the English language contains something like 54,000 word families. However, a child beginning school knows just around 4,000-5,000 word families and a college graduate knows at most 20,000 word families. Furthermore, it has been determined that the number a language learner needs to read comfortably for pleasure, understanding texts quite well, is 1/10 of the total, or about 5,000 word families, which is approximately the number of word families that a native speaker knows when he or she starts school.
We should clarify what it is meant by a word family. In other words, we must talk about what counts as a “word”. A word family consists of a base word (e.g. friend) and all inflected forms (e.g. friends) and derived forms made from affixes (e.g. friendship, friendly), as long as their meanings are predictable. So friend, friends, friendly, and friendship are all four word forms which form part of the friend word family. For English there are on average 1.6 word forms in each word family.
Researchers have found that learners of English as L2, knowing 3,000 word families—or about 5,000 word forms—is enough to understand 95% of most texts, which is enough for pretty good comprehension, or reading for meaning. This will “allow reasonably successful guessing of the meaning of the unknown words.”
For reading for pleasure, and thus pretty much for full understanding, all you need to know is 5,000 word families, or about 8,000 word forms . That’s only about 1/7 of all the words in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Similar proportions apply to Spanish and other languages.
The idea here is simple: some words—high frequency words—are more frequent than others and we should concentrate on learning the most frequent words first. The most frequent 2,000 words will give you about 85% coverage of written English and even more for easier texts and for spoken English. That means that 1 in 10 words will be unknown, which will hamper comprehension quite a bit. Knowing 5,000 words is closest to the desirable ideal for reading for pleasure since it gives you about 98% coverage, that is, 1 in 20 words will be unknown.
Some researchers and teachers of languages nowadays think that whereas the least frequent words can be learned slowly through reading, in context, the same way most adult people learn words in their native language, it is important to make it a point to deliberately teach and learn the 3,000-5,000 word families that will provide the tools for reading and listening (and thus the tools to have meaningful input), to get the student up to speed and able to comprehend most inputs. This should be done by any means necessary, using any learner’s trick available, not just by reading and listening to contextualized input, as the experts might have it (one cannot read well, after all, until one knows these words). In other words, there is room for the language learner to engage in deliberate and, if necessary, decontextualized word study.
Contrary to what has been argued by contextual acquisition only proponents, words are indeed remembered when studied in a decontextualized way. Although learning a word’s use in context is important, one can argue that learning the underlying concept out of context is a good way to start knowing a word, although no doubt the learner can subsequently acquire the word’s nuances from context. Furthermore, one can argue that when one studies a word out of context, there is no reason why one cannot learn at the same time some contextual aspects of the word, such as grammatical information, collocations, constraints on use, and sample sentences.
With deliberate word study of the most commonly occurring words, the learner can concentrate in learning high-frequency words which will give him or her the ability to comprehend most naturally occurring language inputs and this will result in more access to contextualized input, which will result in further acquisition.
Again, nobody is denying the value of indirect, incidental learning of vocabulary from context through listening and reading of natural language. However that kind of learning comes easiest after a certain level of acquisition and it is perhaps best for the purpose of increasing or deepening the knowledge of words already known. As Paul Nation has argued, the direct and purposeful learning of vocabulary with minimal or no context results in the following desirable outcomes:
- it is efficient in terms of return for time and effort, much more so than incidental learning, especially during the first few years of study, until the student has acquired enough words to use the language like a native speaker
- it allows learners to consciously focus on an aspect of word knowledge that is not easily gained from context or dictionary use, and
- it allows learners to control the repetition and processing of the vocabulary to make learning secure (remember one needs to encounter a new word at least 10 times before it is securely learned)
I would like to propose the reintroduction and expansion of the use of one traditional study aid for vocabulary in foreign languages, namely the flash card. Flashcards can help a student remember and retain vocabulary (but also other facts about language, as we shall see). I will argue, like others have done before, that flashcards should have an important place in language learning. We will also see advances in flashcard technology which make this tool much more powerful than its original counterpart. Also, we will see that it is important for one to be trained in how to use this powerful tool and students should not be left to their own devices when it comes to learning vocabulary.
To read parts 2 and 3 of this article, go to these pages at the Language Resource Center’s website:
 The 54,000 figure for word families is after “compound words, archaic words, abbreviations, proper names, alternative spellings and dialect forms are excluded, and when words are classified into word families consisting of a base word, inflected forms, and transparent derivations” (Nation and Waring 1997:7). See also Goulden, Nation and Read 1990.
 Nation & Waring 1997:10. As Nation & Waring 1997:15 tell us, the first 1,000 most frequent words cover anywhere between 74 and 85% of a text, depending on the genre. The second 1,000 most common words cover anywhere between 4.3% and 5.8% of the text. And so on.