An approach to basic-vocabulary development for English-language learners

An approach to basic-vocabulary development for English-language learners

Anh Tran

According to research findings in English-language teaching, vocabulary acquisition is not given enough attention. As a result, second-language learners are caught in a difficult situation in reading comprehension. This paper proposes helping English-language learners develop basic vocabulary so that that they can read effectively. The approach to building basic vocabulary involves identification of the most basic vocabulary, the appropriateness of simplified materials, the benefits of extensive reading, the strengths of explicit instruction in vocabulary and the importance of using word notebooks and dictionaries. Vocabulary according this approach is to be acquired in the context of extensive reading modified for English-language learners. Suggested strategies derived from research findings follow.


Updating L2 reading development, Grabe (2001) found two dilemmas: lack of vocabulary and lack of extensive reading. English-language learners (ELLs), as a result, face a learning paradox: On one hand they need vocabulary to be able to read effectively; on the other hand, the best way for them to acquire vocabulary is through reading. This paper contends that part of this problem could be solved by combining developing basic vocabulary with extensive reading. This approach to vocabulary development is addressed in the following order: identification of the most basic vocabulary, the appropriateness of simplified reading materials, the benefits of extensive reading, the strengths of explicit vocabulary instruction, the importance of using dictionaries and word notebooks, and the strategies for vocabulary development.

Identification of the Most Basle Vocabulary

Researchers have identified vocabulary that occurs very frequently and recommended that English-language teachers give it priority in their classroom practices. Coady (1997) believed a group of 2,000 to 3,000 high-frequency words should be studied until they become sight words. This is also the range of the colloquial language for listening and speaking (Nation, 2005). Specifically there is a Dolch word list which contains 220 sight words (Jesness, 2004). The General Service List of English Words (GSL) contains 2,000 high-frequency words and covers 87% of a general text. It also provides information about the relative frequency of the meanings of each entry (Schmitt, 2000). Out of these words are 270 function words which carry grammatical meaning and account for about 44% of words in a general text (Macaro, 2003). Other basic words that ELLs need to know later on can be found in the Academic Word List by Cox-head (2000) and the University Word List by Xue and Nation (1984). The former consists of 570 words and accounts for about 10% of words in academic texts; and the latter, 800 words, about 8%.

The Appropriateness of Simplified Materials

The basic vocabulary is used with high frequency in simplified reading materials. According to various research findings, syntactic simplification is one of many factors that can enhance foreign and second language reading comprehension (Carrell, 2001), and specifically acquisition of short-term vocabulary (Leow, 1993). Simplified texts also save learners from struggling unnecessarily with difficult vocabulary (Nation & Deweerdt, 2001). According to Coady (1997), the graded readers are useful to ELLs because they provide learners with repeated exposure to vocabulary and syntactic structures. These kinds of reading materials are written within a specific vocabulary range, and there are usually several ranges or stages. The Oxford Bookworm series, for example, has six stages–400, 700, 1,000, 1,400, 1,800, and 2,500 words. A stage-2 book has 700 words which includes 400 words from stage 1 plus 300 new words (Nation, 1999). An appropriate text, Eskey (2005) suggested, needs to be slightly difficult for the learners’ reading ability. In other words, it should meet Krashen’s i + 1 (input + 1) standard for comprehensibility. The graded readers written in stages as illustrated above satisfy this requirement.

The Benefits of Extensive Reading

The positive role of extensive reading in development of language skills and vocabulary has been evidenced by numerous research findings (Renandya & Jacobs, 2001). Extensive reading, as Carrell and Carson (1997) defined, has two characteristics: reading a large number of reading materials, and focusing on the meaning rather on the language. According to Renandya and Jacobs (2001), extensive reading helps develop sight vocabulary, general vocabulary and the knowledge of the target language. Krashen (2004) called extensive reading free voluntary reading, and considered it superior to direct instruction in terms of acquisition of reading, vocabulary as well as grammar and writing. Krashen’s idea about extensive reading has been successfully implemented by educators. Herrell and Jordan (2004) reported that free voluntary reading supported not only vocabulary development but also spelling, grammar and writing development. The advantages of the book series they suggested using were that the materials could satisfy different reading levels, and the series included even simplified classics. Similarly this paper suggests developing basic vocabulary in the context of modified extensive reading: the reading materials are either graded readers or reading materials written especially for ELLs.

The Strengths of Explicit Instruction of Vocabulary

Research has proved that explicit instruction can help develop English language skills and especially vocabulary. According to Lightbown and Spada (1999), older and more advanced learners benefit from intentional instruction more than younger learners. Students learning through interactive instruction were also found to develop more vocabulary (Zimmerman, 1997). Research also showed that learners could increase their vocabulary size effectively with explicit, de-contextualized study of vocabulary. The learning of a particular word through speaking is likely to occur when developed activity is focused on it (Nation, 2001). The same is also true with learning vocabulary through listening (Hulstijn, 2001). Coady (1997) used explicit instruction to help his learners with 3,000 high-frequency words. After the words became sight vocabulary, the students read better.

It is true that vocabulary can be learned incidentally, too. Paribakht and Wesche (1999) showed adult ELLs do acquire vocabulary as a byproduct of reading. Other researchers–Ellis (1999) and Krashen (2004), for example–argued that ELLs should learn vocabulary incidentally through extensive reading. Nation and Waring (1997) cautioned that incidental learning of vocabulary would not be enabled until a vocabulary-sized threshold had been reached after some explicit learning. The threshold for extensive reading of authentic texts is around 3,000-5,000 words. In other words, teachers should not plan authentic text reading until their students have reached at least the last stage of a graded reader’s series (Remember the stage-6 reader of the Oxford Bookworm uses only 2,500 words). Modified extensive reading in this paper involves using not only simplified reading materials instead of L1 reading materials as mentioned earlier but also explicit teaching and learning of vocabulary instead of learning vocabulary incidentally.

The Importance of Using Word Notebooks and Dictionaries

Related to explicit teaching of vocabulary is the use of dictionaries and vocabulary notebooks. Schmitt (2000) divided the vocabulary-learning strategies he gathered into two groups: one for consolidating a word after it has been introduced, and another for discovering the meaning of a new word. One strategy from the first group is to keep a word notebook. A similar strategy that Nation (2005) suggested is using word cards, each of which is a combination of a new word and notes on its usage. Using a notebook, according to Blachowics and Fisher (2000), is one of the ways for ELLs to personalize their word learning, and notebooks become personal dictionaries. A common strategy from the second group is using a bilingual dictionary. The benefits of using dictionaries were mentioned in Luppescu & Day (1993) and Knight (1994). Laufer & Hadar (1997) found bilingualized dictionaries better than bilingual and monolingual dictionaries: While the latter provide only an L1 translation, the former give an L1 translation, an L2 definition, and an L2 sentence example. According to Laufer and Shmueli’s study (1997), words glossed in L1 were retained better than those glossed in L2. In other words, concise translations from a bilingual or bilingualized dictionary help ELLs remember L2 vocabulary. Jesness (2004) cautioned that, while picture dictionaries can be used for all ages, other kinds of dictionaries are suitable only for literate and older learners.

The strategies for Basic-Vocabulary Development

From all the research findings mentioned above, it is possible to derive a number of feasible strategies of basic-vocabulary development for ELLs:

1. The reading materials used for this purpose are graded readers or materials written specially for ELLs. For a bibliography of high-quality ELL literature, see Day and Bamford (1998). Starting with one book at the lowest level of difficulty, teachers can divide it into short passages for a specific number of learning sessions.

2. Learning sessions are either teacher-centered or learner-centered. In a teacher-centered session, teachers teach needed vocabulary for a particular passage and provide learners with various skill-building activities that focus on vocabulary development and reading comprehension. In a learner-centered session, learners identify needed vocabulary for a particular passage, and engage themselves in learning vocabulary and understanding the passage.

3. After one book is finished, teachers can divide the next one into longer passages. They can also introduce a useful way to expand the word base: learning words related to a particular word. For example, five more words can be easily learned from happy: happiness, unhappy, unhappiness, happily, and unhappily.

4. Teachers need to remind learners that learning what a word means and how it is used in context should always go together. For example, remember to buy is different from remember buying, and of is used after proud and in after pride.

5. Various activities can help with vocabulary retention: listening to songs or recordings of the passages that learners have read, watching a short movie with subtitles, going over words that learners have learned before starting on a new passage.

6. Follow-up activities need to be provided for both vocabulary recycling and reading comprehension. Some examples are answering questions about a part of the book or the whole book, writing summaries, and giving simple oral reports on what has been read so far.


This paper has contended that by combining modified extensive reading with explicit teaching and learning vocabulary, teachers can help ELLs build basic vocabulary. Successful implementation of this approach depends not only on the strengths of explicit instruction in vocabulary and the benefits of extensive reading, but also on the appropriateness of simplified materials and the use of dictionaries and word notebooks. Since ELLs do not have the opportunity to be exposed to the vocabulary of the English language after birth, they have no choice but to learn vocabulary in a somewhat artificial but effective way. The saying “No pain, no gain” is very relevant here.


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