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ESL: Vocabulary Building

From the ESL Student Handbook, by Young Min, PhD 

A solid vocabulary is essential in every stage of language learning. So, it is crucial that you learn vocabulary acquisition strategies to maximize your vocabulary power. Here are some practical strategies you can use.

“Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed” (Wilkins, 1972, p. 111).

The English language is considered to have the largest vocabulary in the world (Crystal, 2002). Educated native speakers of English are expected to know approximately 20,000 word families or 70,000 words (Nation, 2001); however, educated non-native speakers of English know less than one quarter of the native speakers’ vocabulary (Laufer & Yano, 2001). Non-native speakers of English must increase their vocabulary knowledge in order to become successful in their academic endeavors in English-medium educational environments. A solid foundation of vocabulary knowledge is essential at every stage of the learner’s second language (L2) development. Regardless of the degree of your competency in grammar and pronunciation, you cannot have effective communication without sufficient vocabulary knowledge. This section presents effective vocabulary learning strategies that you can use to enhance your vocabulary acquisition and the learning of English.

Dictionary Potential and Dictionary Training

One of the most essential resources for language learners is a dictionary. The most important aspect of knowing a word is the collocational partnerships of the word (Folse, 2004; Sokmen, 1997). As the word parts “co” and “location” suggest, a collocation is a word or phrase that is frequently used near the target word. Monolingual dictionaries can help you develop a more solid awareness of the collocational partnerships of words since meaning and other information are provided in the same language as the target word. Research also highlights positive effects of bilingual dictionaries on the learners’ L2 development especially on their reading comprehension abilities (Folse, 2004; Knight, 1994; Luppescu & Day, 1993). Bilingual dictionaries help you quickly grasp the meanings of words, especially for words that are difficult to translate into English. The immediate semantic association between the L2 word and the L1 word can help you reinforce the meanings of words and retain them in long-term memory. However, the constant use of a bilingual dictionary can hold you back from developing both a feel or intuition for words and the skill of paraphrasing to make up for words you do not know. Using bilingual dictionaries as the only reference source may hinder you from developing writing vocabulary because bilingual dictionaries focus on the translations of words rather than usages (Nation, 2008).

Based on my experience of learning English as a foreign language and teaching ESL writing courses for over 15 years, a very useful resource that can help ESL students understand the collocational partnerships of words is the encoding dictionary. It is a monolingual dictionary, but it is not a typical dictionary. As the name “encoding” suggests, in the encoding dictionary, words are systematically grouped together by meaning not by alphabetical order. It presents how semantically similar words have different syntactic and pragmatic usages. The most common encoding dictionary available on the market is the Longman Language Activator: the World’s First Production Dictionary. Here is an example of the entry “consist of/be made of” from the dictionary. The encoding dictionary can promote a deeper level of processing words and can help you increase your knowledge of collocational partnerships more effectively by comparing differences in word usages based on the specific examples. As the title of this dictionary suggests, it can help you develop receptive (reading) vocabulary into productive (writing) vocabulary.

The encoding dictionary can also enhance your awareness of the fundamental interdependence between lexis and grammar. You do not need to depend solely on grammar books; you can also enhance your grammatical knowledge through the dictionary. The encoding dictionary illustrates that a dichotomy between grammar and vocabulary is not always appropriate. Research highlights that it is not appropriate to divide a language into grammar and vocabulary (Folse, 2004; Nation, 2008, 2009; Sokmen, 1997). Some aspects of language that have been dealt with under grammar in the area of L2 acquisition are actually lexical in nature (Sonaiya, 1991). Language is a grammaticalized lexis not lexicalized grammar (Lewis, 1993). Remember that communicative competence goes hand in hand with vocabulary competence, and vocabulary competence goes hand in hand with collocational competence.

Word Unit Analysis

Words can be stored in terms of their graphological forms as well as by their meanings. Graphological forms can greatly enhance word storage and recall. There are more words in English that are related by common roots or bases than many other languages (McCarthy, 1996). A knowledge of roots and affixes (prefixes and suffixes) will help you unlock the meanings of many English words. Knowledge of word formation is very important, especially for those whose native language is not of the Greco-Latin family group. It is crucial for ESL students to study Greco-Latin affixes and roots because such knowledge helps you learn many new words “by relating these words to known words or known prefixes and suffixes, and it can be used as a way of checking whether an unfamiliar word has been successfully guessed from context” (Nation, 1990, p. 168). You can also develop inferencing skills by analyzing the left flank (prefixes), the right flank (suffixes), and the center (roots), which can ultimately lead to better word retention.

Let’s take a look at the following words: convivial, revive, survive, vitality, vitamin, vivacious, vivid, and vivisection. They all have something in common: each of them is built on the building block of “vit” or “viv”. The Latin roots “viv” and “vit” mean “life” or “to live”. By learning the common Greek and Latin roots and affixes, you can recognize, analyze, build, and use many related words more easily and quickly. Although root prediction does not work all the time, this method will help you make fewer trips to the dictionary both for a new word and for words you have looked up before and will help you expand your vocabulary knowledge. Another effective way to use word roots in acquiring L2 vocabulary is to match a word of Latin origin with one of Greek origin, whenever the meaning of the word and the root corresponds. Let me explain this further in the following section.

Word Parallels

The English lexicon comprises two main strands: Greco-Latin and Anglo-Saxon (Crystal, 2002). The Anglo-Saxon words in English comprise only about 35% of the lexicon as a whole with words of French, Latin, and Greek origins comprising the rest of the lexicon; and Anglo-Saxon words account for 50% of the high frequency words that are used in our everyday lives (Nation, 1994, 2001).

Learning the word parallels of Greek and Latin roots that share the same meaning is a very effective strategy for solid vocabulary development. Here is an example that illustrates the word parallel method (Nurnberg & Rosenblum, 1966, 2005):

Anglo Saxon                  Latin                    Greek
teamwork                        cooperation          synergy
birth                                origin                    genesis
song                                chant                     anthem
belief                               tenet                     dogma
ghost                               specter                  phantom

Anglo Saxon                  Latin
drink                               beverage
forgive                            condone
fatherhood                      paternity
neighborhood                 vicinity
loneliness                       solitude

Latin                               Greek
experiential                     empirical
irregular                          anomalous
selective                          eclectic
circumference                 periphery
transformation                metamorphosis

Most students learn the Anglo-Saxon words in the left column first since they are more commonly used in our everyday lives than their Greco-Latin partners. Many students may not know “dogma” is the Greek word for “belief”, and “tenet” is the Latin correspondent; “beverage” is the Latin word for “drink”, and “paternity” is the Latin equivalent for “fatherhood.” As you get to know the relationships between the Anglo-Saxon and Greco-Latin words, you can develop more awareness of formal and informal registers. Your increased understanding of connotation will ultimately help you develop your writing vocabulary as well as reading vocabulary.

Pronunciation and Spelling for Word Power

To learn a new word, you must learn three things: meaning, pronunciation, and spelling. Learning the exact pronunciation of the new word is very important for L2 vocabulary acquisition (Celce-Murcia, 2001; Laufer, 1998). Many simple words are mis-spelled because they are mispronounced. English is not an easy language to spell. The differing spellings are the result of the complex linguistic history since English was not created at one time or from one source (Crystal, 2002). When you get in the habit of pronouncing words with care and acquire the habit of looking closely at the word, as you read the word or write it down, your spelling is bound to improve. Taking into consideration that the relationship of spelling to sound of the English language is quite irregular, the importance of learning exact pronunciation with vocabulary needs to be highlighted.

Vocabulary Journal

Ideally, one word form would only have one meaning, and each meaning would be associated with only one form. A language such as English, however, has a great number of homonyms (same in spelling and sound but different in meaning), polysemes (word of multiple meanings), synoforms (similar spelling), and synophones (similar sounds). Thus, organizing words in a systematic manner and reviewing them at regular intervals are very important for both word retention and facilitation of your later production. Numerous studies indicate that reviewing vocabulary at regular intervals is a very effective technique for learners to develop a feel for their learned vocabulary and to enhance their learning of English (Carter, 1998; Folse, 2004; McCarthy, 1996; Nation, 2008, 2009; Roberts, 1999).

In a vocabulary journal, you can include various pieces of information about the target word such as pronunciation, part of speech (noun, verb etc), lexical and grammatical patterns, register, etc. One feature that you should include in your vocabulary journal is a synonym or antonym of the word, which can greatly increase your ability to use and retain the word (Bromberg & Gale, 1998; Folse, 2004; Nurnberg & Rosenblum, 2005). You can also include any personal examples (anecdotes, memories, or feelings) that can help you develop a feel for the target word and retrieve the word later. You can organize your vocabulary journal in various styles. You can draw images or create grids and sets to visualize semantic networks of words, which will lead to better retention.

Basically, keeping a vocabulary journal provides you with opportunities to experiment with words. The journal is a space where you can practice words and expand meaning while you are acquiring new vocabulary, which will ultimately help you develop both your writing and reading vocabulary. Keeping a vocabulary journal will also help you become more aware of the interdependence between lexis and grammar, and it can prevent you from being preoccupied with grammatical rules.

References for this piece can be found here.


For More Information on this Handbook

 Contact Young Min, PhD
 Lecturer, Education Program

Vocabulary Acquisition Strategies

For further information about vocabulary acquisition strategies, please check out the article by Dr. Young Min.