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Vocabulary Learning: 5 Guiding Principles

Vocabulary Learning: 5 Guiding Principles

Vocabulary is vital to express meaning. Teaching English vocabulary, an important field in language teaching, is worthy of effort. For students to acquire reading, listening, speaking and writing skills, it is important to help them widen their vocabulary knowledge.

The students’ aim in learning vocabulary is primarily to be able to recall a word at will and to recognize it in its spoken and written form.

As Steven Stahl (1999) points out, teaching vocabulary efficiently is certainly important and vitally needed since “Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition, but also implies how that word fits into the world. Vocabulary knowledge is not something that can ever be fully mastered; it is something that expands and deepens over the course of a lifetime.

Therefore, the teachers’ task in helping students to gain success in language learning is to provide them with tools (strategies) to extend their vocabulary and the skills for using those words.

Generally, knowing a word involves knowing its form and its meaning at the basic level. In deeper aspects, it means the abilities to know its (Harmer, 1993):

1) Meaning, i.e. relate the word to an appropriate object or context,

2) Usage, i.e. knowledge of its collocations, metaphors and idioms, as well as style and register (the appropriate level of formality), to be aware of any connotations and associations the word might have,

3) Word formation, i.e. ability to spell and pronounce the word correctly, to know any derivations (acceptable prefixes and suffixes),

4) Grammar, i.e. to use it in the appropriate grammatical form.

Teaching vocabulary does not mean introducing a bunch of words and having students search for definitions and write them out. Instead, it is far preferable to introduce words to them in context by using photos, pictures, or other visual aids. Use analogies, metaphors and invite students to create a symbol or drawing for each word and make time for discussion of the words (individually or in whole groups). Not until they have done all this should the dictionaries come out. They should be used only to compare with those definitions they have already discovered on their own.

There are five guiding principles on vocabulary learning which need to be considered:

1. The Principle of Cognitive Depth:

“The more one manipulates, thinks about, and uses mental information, the more likely it is that one will retain that information. In the case of vocabulary, the more one engages with a word (deeper processing), the more likely the word will be remembered for later use.” (Schmitt 2000: 120).

2. The Principle of Retrieval:

“The act of successfully recalling an item increases the chance that the item will be remembered. It appears that the retrieval route to that item is in some way strengthened by being successfully used.” (Baddeley, 1997: 112)

3. The Principle of Associations:

“The human lexicon is believed to be a network of associations, a web-like structure of interconnected links. When students are asked to manipulate words, relate them to other words and to their own experiences, and then to justify their choices, these word associations are reinforced.” (Sökmen, 1997: 241-2).

4. The Principle of Re-contextualization:

“When words are met in reading and listening or used in speaking and writing, the generative of the context will influence learning. That is, if the words occur in new sentence contexts in the reading text, learning will be helped. Similarly, having to use the word to say new things will add to learning.” (Nation 2001: 80).

5. The Principle of Multiple Encounters:

“Due to the incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition, repeated exposures are necessary to consolidate a new word in the learner’s mind.” (Schmitt & Carter 2000: 4).

Therefore when teaching vocabulary a teacher should try out various activities and types of tasks to help students to enhance their vocabulary in English according to the five guiding principles of vocabulary acquisition discussed above.

The scientific research on vocabulary instruction reveals that most vocabulary is acquired incidentally through indirect exposure to words. Students can acquire vocabulary incidentally by engaging in rich oral-language experiences at home and at school, listening to books reading them aloud, and reading widely on their own. Reading is very important in terms of long-term vocabulary development since extensive reading gives students repeated or multiple exposures to words in different contexts.


To develop vocabulary intentionally, students should be explicitly taught both specific words and word-learning strategies. To deepen students’ knowledge of word meanings, specific word instruction should see vocabulary in rich contexts provided by authentic texts, rather than in isolated vocabulary drills. Such instruction often does not begin with a definition, for the ability to give a definition is often the result of knowing what the word means. It goes beyond definitional knowledge; it gets students actively engaged in using and thinking about word meanings and in creating relationships among words.

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  • Teacher Judy

    Super theoretical but neither practical nor accurate. The pronunciation of individual words is really helpful for learners. Spelling and pronunciation must be somewhere near the top of the list of guiding principles. I'm not talking about IPA either. Learners need a useful tool for pronunciation and IPA has proven for 150 years not to be it. Spoken words bear little to no resemblance to written words. Learners can't 'loo ki du pin the dikshunary' as teachers suggest because words as they are spoken are not in the dictionary. The dictionary is for writing not speaking, another super helpful fact when learning vocabulary. I appreciate the courage and effort it takes to create articles but the industry is much more advanced that this. (I'm Canadian so it actually hurts me too to be this openly critical. sorry)