The Importance of Vocabulary in ELT – Part 1

By Jenny Hardacre
TEFL teacher and trainer with 30 years experience

Teaching vocabulary

If you were setting off to live in a country where you didn’t know the language and had the choice of a dictionary or a grammar book, which would you choose?

Just how much meaning can our students really ‘guess from context’?

In ELT there is a lot of emphasis on encouraging students to ‘guess meaning from context’ rather than reach for their dictionaries. The idea of top-down reading skills was keenly embraced by Communicative Language Teaching; focusing on global understanding of texts and trying to move students away from a word by word approach to reading. This is completely valid, but it doesn’t mean we should neglect the need for thorough comprehension, and that is largely arrived at through understanding vocabulary.

I’ve come to realise that those students my colleagues and I used to chuckle at with their long unwieldy lists of translated words and phrases were actually not so wrong in their feeling that what they really needed to know was lots of new vocabulary.

Whenever I give teacher training sessions on teaching reading, non-native speakers invariably exclaim about how infuriating they found it when teachers told them not worry about words they didn’t know. Teaching at a British university with high numbers of overseas students has made it obvious to me that one of the things they really need is a wider vocabulary. Attention to vocabulary is, as writers such as Dave and Jane Willis, Paul Nation and later Michael Lewis argue, much more important to learners than modern approaches to language teaching sometimes imply.

Fascinating facts about vocabulary

There are about 54, 000 word families in English. A word family is a base word and all the words that are obviously derived from it (e.g. happy, unhappy, happiness, unhappiness, happily, unhappily).

An educated native speaker of English is estimated to know about 20, 000 word families. Much of this would be receptive (passive) – that is, words you recognise and understand but don’t actually use in the language you produce.  A 1996 study* concluded that to cope in an English speaking university students need a vocabulary of about 10, 000. To get a place at a British University students usually need an IELTS score of 6.5. In a talk at Anglia Ruskin University  Diane Schmitt said that an IELTS score of 6.5 normally equates to a vocabulary of about 4, 500 – 5,000. This is about the same as that of a five year old native speaker child. So, if your students are learning English because they want to study in an English speaking country, they will be at a massive disadvantage. One of the things we must do as teachers is help our students learn more vocabulary. The question is, of course, how? Clearly we can’t teach them 10,000 items.

A very good starting point is to encourage your students to organise their vocabulary properly as Yolande Deane suggests in her blog on autonomous learning. I’ll look at more ideas for vocabulary teaching in my next blog.

*Hazenburg and Hulstijn (1996) Defining a Minimal Second Language Vocabulary for Non-native university Students: An Empirical Investigation’, Applied Linguistics 17 (2) OUP

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4 Responses to “The Importance of Vocabulary in ELT – Part 1”

  1. Katie
    November 22, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

    Thanks for an insightful post about our approach to vocabulary in the ELT classroom. I come from a Communicative Language Teaching background where we were always told to discourage the use of dictionaries in the classroom. It might be time to reconsider how we expect our students to learn vocabulary. I agree that a more explicit approach to vocabulary would benefit students.

    On a personal level I tend to agree with these findings: without a dictionary to help me make sense of what I’m reading, I get fed up and put the book back on the shelf very quickly! Expecting too much from students can be counterproductive. If they can’t complete the task, it’s demotivating.

    This doen’t mean giving up on inference all together. Inference is a valuable skill: students won’t always have their trusty dictionary to hand in real life situations, nor would we want them to. Likewise, it’s vital to prepare students for dealing with unknown vocabulary in exams. But these tasks should be directed at teaching inference as a skill, rather than teaching new vocabulary.

  2. Judy Steiner
    July 24, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

    Hi Jenny,

    My name is Judy Steiner and I am the Chief Inspector for English Language Education in the Ministry of Education in Israel. We are presently in the process of coming out with a Practical Guide for Teaching Vocabulary. This guide will be posted on the site of the Engish Inspectorate and will also be sent to English teachers, free of charge. I am writing to ask your permission to use the WORDLE in our document.
    Many thanks,

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