Image courtesy of Premshree Pillai

I really enjoy being a language teacher, but I make a terrible language learner. When I was younger, I barely scraped by in my French lessons, but when we moved to another province in Canada when I was in grade nine, I found out how far behind I was in regards to the other students. One of the biggest things I noticed was how small my personal lexicon was compared to my classmates. Sure my grammar was bad, but since I didn’t have the words to put together meaningful sentences, no one really noticed.

Fast forward a number of years to when I had moved to Lithuania and was taking Lithuanian language lessons while working as an English language instructor. There was this initial rush of learning as my vocabulary grew while taking lessons and living my day-to-day life shopping, working, and socializing with others. My confidence grew as did my vocabulary, but it was somewhere around the six month mark that I started to notice a levelling off in my lexical growth. I decided I needed to take action, so I bought myself a set of CDs that promised to help me learn a pile of new words. I transferred the audio files to my iPod and listened intently as I walked to and from work each day. It was at that time that something hit me. The words I had learned in my first six months were sticking in my brain much better than the ones I learned while walking. At first I thought it was the fact I wasn’t seeing the words, so I wrote them out to look at as I walked. That didn’t really help. “Okay,” I thought, “what else could it be?” Then it hit me — context. That is what I was missing. The words that stuck around and became fairly easy to recall, almost natural at times, were the words that I had not only learned in class, but they were the words I saw in the supermarket, read in the newspaper (okay, mostly just the headlines), and heard over and over again at work, church, and in discussions with friends. I saw and heard those words in differing contexts and in various forms. Those were the key terms that I needed to live and survive as a foreigner in Lithuania. The other words, such as ‘rabbit’ and ‘pipe’ basically went in one ear and out the other. I might remember them if I saw them again, but my ability to recall them when I needed to was limited.

What does it mean to know a word?

Does it mean that you can define it? How about using it in the proper place? Might it also include the collocation and lexical bundles? To find out the answer, I dug into my books and looked at the research done on this topic. In the simplest of terms, it encompasses three main areas: meaning, form, and use (Nation, 2005). When I was learning my words on the go, I was only touching on the meaning, not on the form or use. In Lithuanian, form would entail all of the word changes depending on things such as case or declension. Unless I came across the word multiple times in various contexts, use was never even touched. The words that did stick in my brain and became part of my everyday speech were often the ones that I had not only learned the meaning, but also the forms (most of them anyway), and especially their use. An example for me was the the verb for ‘need’ in Lithuanian, reikėti. In English, we would say, “I need”, where as the Lithuanian form takes a more possessive approach, “my need is”, man reikia. If I just memorized the word reikėti and conjugated it as I had done for “I have”, the results would have been laughable. As you can imagine, I did do that and found out the hard way. Needless to say, I asked why and got my answer. This stuck with me like no other phrase did in Lithuanian.

Freeman and Freeman (2004) break the categories of vocabulary learning down even further: phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic. All of these would fit nicely within Nation’s list, but helps us see how complex vocabulary meaning, form, and use are in ‘the real world’. What caught my attention with this list was the connection between recognizing a word while reading, and even possibly using the word in writing, and the pronunciation of the word. As a language teacher, I am aware of this distinction, but I am noticing more and more students who know the word to hear it and are able to say it properly, but have no idea how to write it. It reminds me of the term mondegreen, a misunderstanding of a phrase or word in poems or lyrics. All of us have been guilty of this in our lifetime. Students learning new words from someplace like The Cartoon Network or Friends often make spelling or word choice mistakes based on homonyms or other phonological errors.

What are some ways to learn or teach vocabulary?

This is where the idea for this post got started. Some of the teachers I work with were discussing the use of flashcards in learning the Academic Word List (AWL). I have never been one to really take to flashcards, but I can see how they can be useful in certain circumstances. The conversation centred around the idea of what is on the backside of the card. Some students were putting translations, others simply the English definition straight from an English-English dictionary, and some were adding sample sentences. No matter how you slice and dice it, flashcards only work for meaning and possibly form.

Then there is reading. There are those who advocate for intensive reading (which opens up the can of worms known as graded readers), while some put the focus squarely on form. For myself, I try to choose texts for my students that are only slightly above their reading level (à la Stephen Krashen’s i+1) (Terrell & Krashen, 1983). This provides the scaffolding that they need to be able to pull out words from context instead of running to their dictionary all of the time, although there are limitations to this approach and shouldn’t be used exclusively for vocabulary instruction (c.f. Lightbown & Spada, 2006). As I continue to grow as a language instructor, especially in the area of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), I am seeing how complex it is to help students expand their lexicon with what goes on in the classroom. There are things that I can do to assist them, but so much is riding on their interaction with the language outside of the classroom. Yes, flashcards can work, but I have found that having the students create their own is much better then handing them something prefabricated.

As someone involved in teacher training, I am becoming very intentional in my evaluation of everything I do or use in my classroom on the basis of my philosophy of language education (POLE) (c.f. Graves, 2000). Everything you do in preparation for or while in the classroom is based on your own belief of what language is, how it is learned, and the roles of the student and the teacher in this process. In the case of vocabulary, memorization of words and their definitions as the goal of vocabulary development shows a product-based approach to learning. Think of it like a transaction between the customer (student) and the vendor (teacher). If you give something, you get something in return. When you start to work with the language in context, such as in the case of intensive reading, you are starting to move towards a more process-based learning approach. When you start to dissect the word choice usage, such as in the case of gender-based language, and students work on creating change in their usage, you are leaning into a more praxis-based approach. Each have their merit, but it is important to recognize their strengths and limitations.

In my classroom, I have used flashcards, corpus-linguistics, intensive reading, and collaboratively created dictionaries to just name a few ways that I have consciously attempted to help my students expand their vocabulary and develop solid learning tools that they can use outside of the classroom. This has been an interesting journey for me and I am sure this is only the beginning.


Freeman, David and Freeman, Yvonne. (2004). Essential linguistics: What you need to know to teach reading, ESL, spelling, phonics, and grammar. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Graves, Kathleen. (2000). Designing language courses: A guide for teachers. Boston: Heinle.

Lightbown, Patsy and Spada, Nina. (2006). How languages are learned (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nation, Paul. (2005). Teaching vocabulary. The Asian EFL Journal Quarterly, 7(3). 47-54. Retrieved from

Terrell, Tracy and Krashen, Stephen. (1983). The Natural Approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Alemany Press.


5 thoughts on “Acquiring

  1. Another great post, Nathan.

    Far too often, students don’t follow the best ways to learn vocabulary. And as they aren’t educators, they don’t realize like you did why they can’t make much progress.

    When students enter my school, part of the packet the receive explains (briefly) vocabulary acquisition. Teachers also show students how to keep a vocabulary journal of new words, select graded readers and other level-appropriate materials, among other ideas. All of this not only builds their vocabulary, but also empowers them to continue without the aid or direction of the teacher.

  2. Reblogged this on Teacherpants and commented:
    I really like Nathan’s post, and it totally clicked with what I was thinking about empathy — mirroring language teaching with language learning. His reflections on his own learning process are clear and detailed, but at the same time very powerful.

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