Is it worth using classroom time to teach vocabulary? What does the research actually show? In this blog, Chiara reviews the evidence and discusses why explicit teaching may be ineffective, why independent study may be more effective and what activities can be prioritised, based on the research.
Raise your hand if one or more of these have happened in your life:
- You were asked to memorise vocabulary from a word list
- You kept a record of new words you learned during a language course that soon ran into the triple digits
- You’ve gone over the same vocabulary with your students again and again… and yet they still seem to forget it!
Personally, I have gone through all of these, which has led me to the question: is it actually worth teaching vocabulary?
As a language learner, I know that different activities I have tried have had different results. As a teacher, I often find myself wondering whether the time and effort I invest in vocabulary teaching in the classroom are well spent after all. I got even more curious about this after learning that vocabulary acquisition seems to be a particularly promising area in Mobile-Assisted Language Learning.
Paul Nation’s answer to my dilemma
Fortunately for me, it looks as if vocabulary learning expert Paul Nation and I have been thinking about the same dilemma. Indeed, he recently published an article (Nation, 2021) in which he answers my very question. In short, he says that some vocabulary learning activities are useful, while explicit teaching can only be useful to a limited extent.
He gives four reasons why spending classroom time explicitly teaching vocabulary is inefficient:
1. It is too big a task
No matter how hard we try, the vocabulary that students realistically need to know in order to understand most texts is simply too much to cover in class. It is a well-known estimate that we need to know about 98% of the words in a text to understand it: Nation claims that this corresponds to the 9,000 most frequent word families - a daunting task if I ever saw one.
2. It is time-consuming
To prevent vocabulary learning from being superficial, we need to spend a bit of time on each word or chunk we teach. Nation claims that this is too time-consuming.
3. It often does not work
Some studies show that when learners are tested on vocabulary straight after explicit vocabulary instruction, they only remember (i.e. can recognise) about half of the vocabulary they learned and they can use even less. Results vary across studies (Webb, Yanagisawa, & Uchihara, 2020), but it seems as if results are even worse when learners are asked to recall and/or use vocabulary after a while. In other words, if learners do not remember what we teach them, we may need to reconsider the time we devote to vocabulary instruction in the classroom.
4. There are more efficient ways of learning vocabulary
This is the core of Nation’s argument: other ways of learning vocabulary, especially when it comes to independent study, are far more efficient and they free up the teacher’s time for more important tasks.
Why independent vocabulary study is efficient
Webb et al. (2020) explain that intentional vocabulary learning techniques can indeed be useful, though it is important to distinguish between different types of techniques.
Overall, their reviews of intentional vocabulary learning techniques (i.e. learning vocabulary with an intentional effort) versus incidental learning (i.e. learning vocabulary while reading, viewing or listening) reveal that two activities are especially useful: flashcards and word lists. According to their review of 22 studies, flashcards and word lists are consistently more useful than writing and fill-in-the-blanks activities. This was true both in terms of meaning recall and the number of words learned per minute.
Speaking of flashcards, Nation (2021) has some great practical tips for their use. These include writing a word on a side and its translation on the other side, which forces retrieval; using an online system (I personally love Quizlet); starting with small numbers of cards (about 15-20); spacing repetition (as Duyen Le-Thi reminds us in Vocabulary: principles and practice 6 and changing the order of the cards.
Optimising vocabulary learning
The key message I got from Nation (2021) and Webb et al (2020) is that spending classroom time purposefully teaching vocabulary can be alternated with (or even gradually replaced by) training learners in the strategies that they can use to learn vocabulary at their own pace - and which look like a better time investment.
This brings me to some of the considerations that Nation (2021) makes about the many roles of a teacher with respect to vocabulary learning. These can be helpful in setting our priorities when dealing with vocabulary. He describes a teacher job as comprising, in order of importance:
1. Planning: teachers should plan so that vocabulary learning happens across four strands: meaning-focused output, meaning-focused input, language-focused learning and fluency development.
2. Organising: teachers should ensure that classroom activities run smoothly and that the best conditions for learning vocabulary occur. These include repetition, noticing, retrieval, meeting and using words in different contexts, elaboration and deliberate attention.
3. Training: teachers should train learners in the autonomous use of vocabulary learning techniques, such as using flash cards.
4. Testing: teachers should be able to get a sense of learners’ vocabulary size and progress in the development of their receptive and productive vocabulary.
5. Teaching (the least important job): if we consider “teaching” narrowly as explicitly explaining vocabulary and having learners do exercises on the vocabulary from a textbook, then very little time should be devoted to this.
The role of incidental learning
Finally, something that is worth exploring is the value of incidental vocabulary learning through extensive reading and listening programmes. As you may remember, I reviewed the potential of extensive reading, i.e. reading extensive amounts of books or other materials for pleasure, in a previous article. In it, I discussed how extensive reading can help increase the quantity of vocabulary learned, but also the quality (e.g. understanding how words collocate).
Although there is less research on extensive listening programmes than extensive reading, they also seem to be rather effective and relatively easy to implement these days, as many of our students will watch TV series and films in the L2 regardless. I reviewed the effects of using captioned videos, including on vocabulary acquisition, in this article.
So, what are your thoughts on vocabulary learning and vocabulary instruction? Which techniques work best for you and your students? Let us know in the comments!
Nation, P. (2021). Is it worth teaching vocabulary? TESOL Journal, 12(4), e564. doi:https://doi.org/10.1002/tesj.564
Webb, S., Yanagisawa, A., & Uchihara, T. (2020). How Effective Are Intentional Vocabulary-Learning Activities? A Meta-Analysis. The Modern Language Journal, 104(4), 715-738. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/modl.12671