The fundamentals of L2 vocabulary teaching

This article aims to answer the following questions:

  • What does ‘learning a word’ actually mean? When can we be satisfied that a student has actually learnt a given vocabulary item?
  • How can we enhance our students’ recall of the target vocabulary? How can we ensure that they do not forget what we taught one, five, ten and twenty lessons ago?
  • How can we effectively embed vocabulary instruction in the teaching of morphology and syntax? How can one ensure that vocabulary learning does not take over and that the whole lesson is not simply about learning to recognize or, at best, recall lexical items in isolation,  but also about deploying them through a range of functional and notional contexts in ways which are communicatively effective as well as morphologically and synctactically accurate?

1. What do we mean by ‘learning a word’?

1.1 Levels of vocabulary acquisition

Learning a word or lexical phrase involves more than memorizing its spelling, pronunciation and denotative meaning if one aims to use that word or phrase effectively in the real world (e.g. when grappling with an online article, attempting to understand a native talking to you in the streets of Paris or when writing an application letter overseas). Acquiring an L1 or L2 lexical item, may it be a word or a lexical phrase, also involves someone’s ability to master the following:

  • its morphology (e.g. if it is a French or Italian adjective, how is it affected by the gender and number of the subject?)
  • its word class (e.g. being aware that a word is a noun rather than a verb)
  • its other (denotative) meanings – in the case of polysemic words (e.g. ‘macchina’ in Italian means ‘machine’ but also ‘car’)
  •  any connotative meaning that word may have  (e.g. in English, is ‘chicken ‘ being used to refer to an animal, or is it used metaphorically to describe a coward?)
  • its collocation(s) (e.g. when learning the French for ‘go horse-riding’ one must be aware of the fact that in French ‘horse-riding’ is preceded by the verb “Faire”, to do, rather than “Aller”, to go).
  • how the meaning of a lexical item changes when in it is used in combination with other words (e.g as part of an idiomatic phrase)
  • its register, that is, knowing in which contexts it is appropriate or inappropriate to use a given word
  • any cultural ‘value added’ (e.g. knowing that a ‘cow’ in India is considered a sacred animal)

Hence, the practice of teaching words, as discrete items, divorced from any communicative and cultural context is not only limited but often flawed and misleading. This is less the case with denotative words such as ‘chair’ or ‘football’ than with words which are polysemic and/or loaded with connotative meaning(s). In what follows I shall focus first on how to maximize the recall of the basic aspects of vocabulary acquisitions, that is the memorization of the denotative meaning of a lexical item and of its spelling and pronunciation. In the second section of this paper I will concentrate on how to deal with the higher order levels of lexical learning.

1.2 Recognition vs Recall

Vocabulary acquisition goes through two stages. The first stage of acquisition is when the learner can recognize the word through its audio and/or visual representation. The second stage, involves being able to recall the lexical item and reproduce it verbally, either in its oral or written form.

Implications for the MFL classroom: in planning a lesson and defining the outcomes, decide which vocabulary items you intend the students to store in their mental lexicon as receptive vocabulary and which ones you want them to use actively and with what degree of accuracy, in their speaking and writing.

1.3 Level of accuracy and processing efficiency

Accuracy and speed of retrieval are two other very important dimensions of vocabulary acquisition. The faster an individual can retrieve the correct desired L2 word from Long Term memory, the more fluent and effective s/he will be in communicating the intended meaning. A vocabulary item that is, so to speak, ‘fully’ acquired, will be retrieved by the learner without hesitation with little cost in terms of Working Memory processing efficiency across a wide range of contexts. Obviously, recalling an item in isolation at relative high speed and with good accuracy is easier than doing that whilst you are holding a conversation across various topics. For learners, novices especially, it can be a very tall order.

Implications for the MFL classroom: make sure you include in your lessons/units of work plenty of opportunities for student to practise words in as many contexts as possible.

2. The fundamentals of vocabulary teaching.

2.1 Recycling and reviewing

Figure 1, below illustrates very clearly why recycling is important. The human rate of forgetting is such, that we already lose around 25% of what we attempt to commit to memory 30 minutes after having rehearsed it in Working Memory (henceforth WM). Seven days later, if no regular reinforcement has occurred, we will have lost 80 % of it. One month later, we will have forgotten virtually everything. That is why distributed practice is important and constitutes a more powerful way to consolidate memory than massed practice (i.e. better four sessions of 15 minutes a week every other day, than two sessions of thirty minutes two days away from one another ).

Implications for the classroom: Well, first of all, one should ensure that the words within a given lesson are recycled over and over again with several mini-check points every now and then to verify uptake and identify problem areas. Secondly, the students must be given plenty of opportunities to practise those words at home. Thirdly, words should be methodically recycled not just within the same unit, but across units – although this seems pretty obvious, I have rarely seen this happen in any of the institutions I have worked at: whenever one has completed a unit of work, the items taught in that unit should constantly and systematically be revisited in the context of every single unit of work to come. For instance, if we have just covered ‘staying healthy’ and we are moving to the topic of ‘holidays’, we could recycle some of the health-related vocabulary just learnt by discussing whether the food at the hotel the students were staying at was healthy and why; how the hotel’s menu could be made healthier; how healthy the students were during the holiday and what they are planning to do to get back into shape after two or three weeks of reckless eating and drinking, etc.

2.2 Factors facilitating recall

According to research, an exceptionally able student needs to have processed a word 4 times to learn it at its most basic level, an average student, 14-15 times. However, although the Latins used to say ‘Repetita juvant’, “repetitions help”, it is not simply how many times one comes across or repeats out aloud a vocabulary item which seems to be crucial in enhancing its recall. The following factors play a very important role in determining how efficient end effective memorization will be.

1. Shallow vs Deep processing – The more complex the cognitive operations involved in the learning process, i.e. the deeper the processing, the stronger the memory trace will be. On the shallow-to deep processing continuum we find, at one extreme, repeating word-lists aloud – the most classical example of shallow rehearsal. On the other end of the spectrum we find  problem solving activities where the brain has to think laterally and creatively (e.g. creating a complex mnemonic). Examples of  problem-solving activities commonly found in textbooks are sorting/categorizing activities, odd man out, riddles, definition games, etc. ( has a great variety of these).

Implications for the MFL classroom: the foreign language teacher should try as much as possible to involve students in forms of deeper processing in order to speed up the learning process. This means going beyond the textbook page, as very few MFL textbooks designed for the British curriculum, provide sufficient recycling for the words they aim to teach (that is why I created : )

2. Spread of associations – Human forgetting is often cue-dependent; that is to say, the words may be in our Long Term Memory (henceforth LTM), but we have lost the ‘access’ code so to speak to get to them.  Research has clearly shown that  the greater the number of associations/connections that we create at the physical (e.g. graphemic, phonemic, etc.), semantic and emotional level with pre-existing material in LTM, the greater the chances will be for the target item to be retrieved successfully and efficiently in the future. The explanation for this is that when WM (Working Memory) is trying to fish out the word we need from LTM, all the words related to it in meaning, spelling and sound, and word class become activated automatically, especially those that are closer in meaning and end and start with the same letters.

Implications for the MFL classroom: teachers should include as many opportunities in their lessons for new vocabulary to be linked to previously learnt one so as to create as many connections as possible. The more elaborate (deeper) the connections, the better. Point 3, below, mentions other forms of associations which widen the range of possible connections we can make.

3. Synergy of stimuli – empirical evidence has shown (e.g. Paivio, 1981) that using different stimuli synergistically to appeal to various senses simultaneously may enhance recall. This is why a lot of us have used or still use flashcards. But this explains also why videos, by combining sound, images and often the spelling of the target words are even more powerful. Getting the students to respond to a video introducing new language items by emulating the movements they see on the screen would enhance the power of the video a notch further.

Implications for the MFL classroom – (1) On presenting words with denotative meaning for the first time try to use a video combining sound, picture and written form of the word; (2) When a word appears challenging, get the students to create a mnemonic which combines as many stimuli as possible. For instance, for the Italian word ‘occhiali’ (= glasses), one could picture in their mind a big pair of OCCHI (=eyes) with ALI (=wings) flying towards a pair of glasses and choose a suitable background music. I have used this technique personally a few times and has always been very effective.

4. Distinctivenes – distinctiveness refers to whatever makes the encoding (learning) of a given item in LTM ‘stand out’, ‘special’, more ‘vivid’. The factors making an item distinctive could be purely accidental (e.g.the teacher fell from a chair whilst teaching that item); intrinsic to that item (e.g. the target L2 word sounds funny, or like a swear words in one’s native language); there are personal, emotional circumstances surrounding the learning of that item that make it stand out (the teacher showed a picture whilst teaching that item, which evoked personal memories or triggered some strong emotions in the learner).

Implications for the MFL classroom: teachers should try to make the presentation of more challenging words as memorable as possible and/or teach the students to make them so, as they try to learn hem independently, by associating them with (a) powerful images; (b) items or situations in their lives which stir strong emotions, (c) humorous anecdotes etc. The way we pronounce words as we model their pronunciation can make a huge difference in terms of their distinctiveness, too. It is not rare for students to complain about how dull the voice of their teacher or of the actor on the recording is – surely, dullness is the antonym of distinctiveness.

5. Personal/affective investment – this refers to the processing of the to-be-learnt item that taps into our affective world, our own personal experiences related to it and its relevance to our lives.

Implications for the MFL classroom: include activities which involve a degree of personal response. for instance, when teaching adjectives, ask them to use them to describe their best friend, favourite cousin, pets, etc.

6. Target-item learnability – One dimension of a word’s learnability refers to the intrinsic challenges posed by the word to Working Memory. A word is more difficult to process and therefore learn when it is hard to pronounce (Baddeley, 2005); when it is so similar to an L1 item as to cause ‘cross-association’; when it is long (this is due to the fact that WM efficiency is quite limited as it can only process between 5 and 9 digits at any one time -Miller’s magic number). Other threats to learnability may intervene when the target items are not seen by the learners as relevant to their interests/goals and when their meaning is fuzzy, unclear. Moreover, generally, abstract words which are more connotative in meaning, tend to be less easily learnt. The word class the item falls into will also affect its learnability; for instance function words (e.g. prepositions, indirect object pronouns, etc.) are going to be less easy to be recalled as they are less semantically salient. Finally, the extent to which the words taught in a lesson are semantically related will affect their intrinsic learnability. 

Implications for the MFL classroom: (1) when selecting which vocabulary items to teach, consider the threats to learnability posed by the the first language of the student and devise some strategy to enhance their learnability using the tips above; (2) when more than one word exist in the target language for an item, choose the one that is more learnable, especially if it is more frequent than the others anyway; (3) You may want to teach the learners to break up longer and/or more challenging words into chunks in order to make it easier and more efficient for the articulatory loop in WM to process the item; when possible, break the word up into chunks which resemble words in the students’ first or second language.

7. Focal attention on the target item – although this factor is the most important, I left it for last because is the most obvious of them all: for any effective learning to occur, the students must be focused on the target stimulus. All of the above will be meaningless if the students are distracted, as interference during rehearsal is the most lethal cause of forgetting. The most important fact to note is that any given information does not last in WM for longer than 15-30 seconds without rehearsal; if any disruption to attention occurs and no further rehearsal of that item takes place, forgetting by interference will occurr.

Implications for the MFL classroom: obvious, but not easy: make your teaching as motivating, engaging and stimulating as possible.
(to be continued)


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