Developing Vocabulary in Second Language Acquisition: From Theories to the Classroom Jeff G. Mehring
This paper examines the theories behind vocabulary acquisition in second language learning in order to put these theories into practice in a class. Learning vocabulary is an ongoing process which requires systematic repetition to help students learn, especially low context vocabulary. Students can retain the vocabulary they find useful and relevant to their subject matter by learning vocabulary through context, cooperative learning, and using technology. Results from an action research project will be reported.
Until recently vocabulary had been widely overlooked in the ESL/EFL classroom. Maiguashca (1993) stated that teaching or studying grammar is based on a set of rules with a coherent structure which students follow or remember, but the same is not true of vocabulary (p. 91). Within the last few years, vocabulary has become viewed as an important aspect in second language learning, in fact, many believe just as important as the main skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Nation (as cited in Nation and Waring, 1997) explained, “Vocabulary knowledge enables language use, language use enables the increase of vocabulary knowledge, knowledge of the world enables the increase of vocabulary knowledge and language use and so on” (p. 6). This contextualized approach to learning vocabulary will help students increase their vocabulary though authentic interaction. In this paper, I will examine the theories behind vocabulary acquisition and some results when they were put into practice during my student teaching.
Building vocabulary is extremely important for success in undergraduate or graduate studies. Nation and Waring (1997) reported that 5-year-old native English speakers beginning school will have a vocabulary of around 4,000 to 5,000 word families, adding roughly 1,000 word families a year until graduating from university with a vocabulary of around 20,000 word families (p. 7). Bauer and Nation (as cited in Nation and Waring) defined a word family as the base
word, its inflected forms, and a small number of regular derived forms (p. 7). This means that students such as those in the English Foundations Program (EFP) at Hawai‘i Pacific University (HPU) have an enormous challenge ahead of them, considering that their previous schooling was in their L1, not English. If one uses Nation and Waring’s statement that native speakers have a vocabulary of around 20,000 word families at the time of university graduation, non-native speakers, before finishing EFP 1310, an advanced-level class in the EFP, and entering the undergraduate program, would have to increase their vocabulary from between 5,000 to 15,000 word families, depending on their previous English language studies. The good news is that according to Jamieson (as cited in Nation and Waring), once ESL students enter a school where English is the primary language, their vocabulary grows at the same rate as native speakers, around 1,000 word families a year; however, the initial gap never closes (p. 7). Understanding where ESL students are starting from will help in providing the vocabulary needed in order for them to improve and catch up. Learning vocabulary is an ongoing process that takes time and practice. Nakata (2006) acknowledged that vocabulary acquisition requires continual repetition in order for effective vocabulary learning (p. 19). Vocabulary acquisition is not something a student can spend time learning or memorizing, like grammar, and be successful. Acquisition requires the learner to be disciplined, spending time each day working on words he/she does not know in order for
4 learners to remember high frequency words and put them into their long term memory, Nation and Waring stated that learners need to encounter the word multiple times in authentic speaking, reading, and writing...
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