İngilis dili müəllimləri üçün: TECHNIQUES IN TEACHING VOCABULARY (X fəsil)

Tarix: 29.03.2021



Chapters 2 through 9 have suggested techniques for teaching vocabulary at various levels of instruction. These chapters have offered answers to the basic question of how we teach vocabulary. This final chapter will consider answers to two additional questions that might be raised at any time during the instructional program. The first question is, Which words do students most need to learn? (This is something to think about before teaching any lesson.) The other question comes after we have taught. We then ask, How can we know that the needed vocabulary has been mastered?


No one knows exactly how many English words must be learned for a real command of the language. Approximately 30,000 is the number which is often mentioned. That is the approximate number of words to be understood by anyone who reads newspapers, magazines, and books of general interest to speakers of English.

Notice the phrase “of general interest.” The figure 30,000 does not include terms which are found only in technical books and journals. If such words were included, the figure would be very much larger.

To the ESL teacher, even the number 30,000 seems discouraging. Imagine helping a student learn so many words! It sounds impossible.

Of course, students do not have to learn to use all these words in their own speaking and writing. For many of the 30,000 words, understanding is enough. Students need only understand them when they meet them in the sentences they read or hear. Even in our own native language, we recognize and understand many more words than we say or write. In time, some words which we have learned for comprehension (or recognition) become part of our active (or productive) vocabulary. But there are many that never do.

This is comforting to keep in mind when we talk about teaching 30,000 English words. Only a much smaller number (perhaps no more than 3,000) will be necessary “productive” items. Those are the ones to be learned thoroughly enough to be used in the students’ own writing and speech.

In most English programs, the work of selecting the important words has already been done by the writer of the textbook. Some books, however, are not very helpful in their choice of vocabulary. This is especially true of some books published long ago. It may also be true of some by writers who are not native speakers of the language being taught.

At times, too, there is no book at all for the class. At such times, teachers have to depend on their own judgment for answers to the question: Which words must the class be especially sure to learn?

Even where there is a good textbook, we cannot give equal attention to all the words in the lessons. How do we choose the most important ones? One measure of importance is frequency of use. If students are going to meet a word frequently in their reading of English, that word is important to learn. In the following sentence, for instance, several of the words must be learned by students because of the frequency with which they appear in English: “You are I are considering the significance of frequency in weighing the importance of a lexical item.” In this sentence, the most frequent words are the pronouns you and I, the conjunction and, the auxiliary are, the articles the and a, and the prepositions in and of. (The article the and and the preposition of occur more than once in this sentence, as they do in millions of English sentences.)

Pronouns, prepositions, auxiliaries, articles, and conjunctions are closely related to the grammar of English, so they are usually taught during the part of the class period that focused on grammar. Techniques for teaching grammar are suggested in a different volume of this series.

Although the most frequently used words are pronouns, prepositions, articles, auxiliaries, and conjunctions, there are also many nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs which are used so frequently that students are very likely to meet them in their reading of English. For instance, it is quite obvious that the noun man is used more often than gentleman or fellow, and the verb get is more common than obtain or acquire. There would be value, some teachers think, in having a list that would contain all the words most important to learn, from the standpoint of frequency. Let us consider some difficulties that arise from the listing of words frequently used.

The Limitations of Word Lists

Teachers (and those who write textbooks or syllabuses) often wish they could find a dependable list showing all the words that are most frequently used. The most famous list is The Teacher’s Word Book of 30,000 Words by Edward L. Thorndike and Irving Lorge. But that book was published in 1944. At that time, king and lady were among the 500 words most frequently found in many different kinds of books and magazines. Today those words are less commonly used. On the other hand, drug and sex were rare words in 1944, and nuclear did not appear among the 30,000 at all. If we were to use the Thorndike-Lorge list as the chief guide to our selection of most important words, we would therefore spend too much time on words less frequently used today, and we would fail to teach words that have become very frequent since that list was compiled.

Even lists which were prepared much more recently than the Thorndike list cannot be depended on for guidance in selecting words to teach. To see why that is true, we will take as an example the results of a study made in the United States during the 1970s. The aim was to find out which English words were known by American children in different school grades. After years of work with thousands of children, the results of the study were published by Edgar Dale and Joseph O’Rourke in a book, The Living Word VocabularyThe Words We Know. The book tells what happened when vocabulary tests were given to American students in various grades.

At first glance, it might seem that a list of words known by most American school children would be valuable to teachers of ESL. Particularly, one might think would be value in a list of words known by English-speaking fourth- grades (pupils approximately ten years old). One reason for assuming such a list would be useful is that children in many countries begin to study ESL at the age of ten or eleven. Furthermore, the fourth grade is the grade in which American children generally start to read textbooks in content areas like history, geography, and science. The Dale-O’Rourke report shows which words those children bring to their reading of books that give them information about the world. Since ESL students also hope to learn about the world through reading English, the report on fourth-grades’ known vocabulary should have special significance. On examining the list of words found in The Living Word Vocabulary, however, one sees how wrong it would be to use such a list as the basis for planning vocabulary lessons in ESL. Students of a foreign language can never hope to acquire all the words that native speakers know, even native speakers in the fourth grade. Some English words known by pupils at a certain school grade may never be learned by ESL students. Indeed, they may never even be needed. Examples include achoo (which represents the sound of a sneeze) and tummy (a child’s word for stomach).

As we have seen, then, lists of words are not reliable guides to the selection of words to be taught. Even when the list is the result of careful work by scholars like Thorndike and Lorge or Dale and O’Rourke, there are reasons why it should not control our decisions about vocabulary to be introduced in our lessons. Perhaps the list was compiled too long ago to give an accurate picture of vocabulary that is important today. Perhaps it was prepared for a purpose which is different from our purposes. These are among the many reasons why we should not use any existing list as a basis for teaching vocabulary, although certain lists are worth looking at from time to time. A carefully compiled list can be useful for reference, and it can serve as one of several factors to take into account in deciding which words should be given more i than other words. Consequently, we have listed “Three Hundred Useful Adjectives” in Appendix B (pages 119-20) and “Twelve Hundred Useful Nouns and Verbs” in Appendix C (pages 121-27). Each of the words has been taken from one or more internationally known lists, which are named on page 119. As we have emphasized in this chapter, however, no list should be used for deciding which words to teach our students. A better guide is a set of questions like the following:

1. Which words must the students know in order to talk about people, things, and events in the place where they study and live? (When such words are learned, the new language can immediately be put to use.)

2. Which words must the students know in order to respond to routine directions and commands? (The vocabulary for “Open your books” and “Write these sentences” and other routine insructions should be learned early, so that such frequently repeated directions can always be given in English.)

3. Which words are required for certain classroom experiences (describing, comparing, and classifying various animals, for example, or having imaginary conversations with speakers of English, or writing letters to pen pals)?

4. Which words are needed in connection with the students’ particular academic interests? (Those who will specialize in science need vocabulary that is different from those who plan business careers.)

Such questions help us decide which words need special attention among the thousands that speakers of English know.


When we start the school year with a new group of Intermediate or Advanced students, it is helpful to know which members of the class have already learned more vocabulary than their classmates. They can serve as helpers and leaders, and the students who most need to learn vocabulary can be given special kinds of work.

At the end of the school year, a test can help to show how much has been achieved by individuals in the class. When an achievement test is given at various times during the school term, it can tell the teacher something about students’ progress in learning the needed words. Moreover ─ as we all certainly know ─ those who are responsible for a language program often require some evidence of students’ learning. Scores on tests are considered important when the value of a program is being weighed.

As many teachers have discovered, however, certain kinds of tests are better than others. There are some tests that give us little helpful information about a student’s actual knowledge of vocabulary.

In many tests, the student is asked to look at a word and to choose some word with same meaning from among three or four listed possibilities. An item on such a test looks like this:

brief: fair     loud    short    warm

The expected answer, of course, is short. Students who make the right choice may really know the meanings of brief, fair, loud, short, and warm. But it is also possible that some of those students have merely made a lucky guess. On the other hand, some students who fail to choose short (as a synonym for brief) might actually understand sentences in which brief and short are used. The ability to do that is the important thing. It is much less important to be able to choose a synonym from a given list.

When the test involves choosing antonyms (words with opposite meanings) the test scores should be trusted even less. Suppose a student is asked to find an antonym for cruel in the following list: fine, merry, stubborn, kind. It is possible that a student with quite a good understanding of cruel may fail to choose the expected answer because of some such reasoning as this: “I know the words fine, merry, and kind. They are very different from cruel,  A cruel person could never be called fine or kind, and I’m sure no cruel person could be merry. I‘ve never seen the word stubborn before. Maybe it’s the right answer ─ a word even more opposite than the other three. I’d better choose stubborn.”

Of course that student’s wrong choice does not tell us he has failed to learn the meaning of cruel, even though the test was intended to give us that sort of information.

Why Certain Tests Do Not Show What Students Know

When we ask students to give synonyms or antonyms, we ask them to demonstrate skills that are needed for teaching a language or for writing dictionaries. Such skills are not needed for speaking, reading, or writing in the practical situations where language is used.

The same point applies to another kind of exercise often used for finding out whether a student knows a certain word. Students are sometimes asked to use a certain word in a sentence for the purpose of showing its meaning or use. This is a skill needed by teachers. A language teacher should always be able and ready to put a into an example sentence. But people who do not teach language have little need for that skill. Students with quite satisfactory vocabularies may not be able to compose good example sentences upon request. A student who actually knows the word satisfactory, for instance, may be unable to use satisfactory in a sentence when requested to do so.

Furthermore, even when such a sentence has been composed by the student, it is hard to decide what the sentence shows about his understanding of the word. Suppose his sentence is this: “Your plan is satisfactory,” or this: “Everyone likes satisfactory houses.” Would either sentence show that the student knows the difference between satisfactory and interesting or convenient? Does either sentence tell us he can understand satisfactory when he meets it in his reading?

We learn little about students’ command of vocabulary by asking them to use new words in sentences. Even native speakers’ minds become blank when they are asked to make up sentences without relation to reality.

The problem, then, is to find a really dependable way of testing vocabulary. Probably no test which can be given in a classroom will provide a true picture of what the student knows. The form of a test is too different from the situations where communication occurs in life. Nevertheless, we often must use vocabulary testsand some kinds are better than others.

Some Better Types of Tests

In one of the better kinds, the student is given two or three paragraphs in which several words are underlined. The purpose is to discover which of the underlined words the student understands. For example, one such paragraph may look like this:

For some reason Richard West has been having great difficulty in getting to sleep lately. Last night he thought it might help if he went to bed even earlier than usual, so at 9:30 he lay down, closed his eyes hopefully, and began counting sheep. Thinking of all those energetic little animals jumping over fences made him feel energetic himself, so he stopped, went downstairs, and found the most boring book he had. It was a book called Home Rug-Making.

After reading the paragraph, the student is asked to find words w hose meanings correspond to the meanings of the underlined words, choosing from the following list (which in some programs may be in the students’ language): carpet, desire, dress, lively, necessary, rubbed, shut, trouble, ininteresting. (Notice that some extra words are included here, to reduce the chance of merely guessing right.)

If a student decides that difficulty (the first underlined word in the paragraph) has a meaning close to trouble, we know something important about his practical command of vocabulary. We know that he would probably understand a sentence in his reading where difficulty appeared. Such a test also gives useful information about a student who chooses dress (instead of carpet) for the underlined word rug in the last sentence.

In a somewhat different type of vocabulary test, the student uses as paragraph from which some words have been omitted. A blank space indicates where each omitted words belongs. The student must find the omitted word in an alphabetzed list which is given below the paragraph.

Here is how the paragraph about Richard West could be used in a cloze test (where students find words that are needed for completing sentences):

For some reason Richard West has been having great ___ in getting to sleep lately. Last night he thought it might help if he went to bed even earlier than usual, so at 9:30 he ___ down, closed his eyes hopefully, and began counting sheep. Thinking of all those energetic little ___ jumping over fences made him feel energetic himself, so he ___, went downstairs, and found the most boring book he had. It was a book ___ Home Rug-Making.

The numbered blanks are to bed filled by choosing from the following alphabetized list: animals, called, children, difficulty, fell, fun, lay, sleptstopped. (Notice that only one of the listed words could properly be used in each blank, and some words are not needed for any blank.)

A fairly true picture of students’ vocabulary can generally be obtained from scores on such tests. In addition, certain uses of dictation can also help us find out which words the students actually know. Here is one such use of dictation for vocabulary testing:

On a blank sheet of paper, the student writes his name and these numbers:

 1.                                              6.

 2.                                              7.

 3.                                              8.

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