Lesson 1: The Importance of Vocabulary

Actively Teaching Vocabulary

Vocabulary is a necessary ingredient for all communication. Language learners encounter vocabulary on a daily basis, and must be able to acquire and retain it. As a language teacher, one of your main tasks is to help students develop a rich and useful vocabulary inventory.

Nation (2001) emphasizes that learning vocabulary is a cumulative process and that it must be deliberately taught, learned, and recycled. This is critical for several reasons:

  1. Learners need to encounter the words in a variety of rich contexts, often requiring up to sixteen encounters.
  2. Learners remember words when they have manipulated them in different ways, so variety is essential for vocabulary teaching.
  3. Learners forget words within the first twenty-four hours after class, so it is important to follow up a vocabulary lesson with homework that recycles the words.

Repeated Encounters with the Same Word

Students need to encounter vocabulary in various contexts in order to remember it and to develop an understanding of the range of usage of a given word. Nation (2001:80) argues that vocabulary words must be repeated in different contexts because contexts-of-use are associated with different cognitive processes during language learning.

With this in mind, let's watch the video to glean a better understanding of learners' needs and why teaching vocabulary plays such an important role.


Why vocabulary must be taught.

Duration: 02:29

Receptive and Productive Vocabulary Knowledge

Nation distinguishes between receptive and productive language knowledge, and applies this specifically to vocabulary. It is important for an instructor to understand what is involved in knowing a word at both of these levels. In order to know a word receptively, Nation claims that the learner must:

  • be able to recognize the word when it is heard;
  • realize that the word is made up of different morphological parts and be able to relate these parts to its meaning, e.g., "underdeveloped" = [under] + [develop] + [ed];
  • know the meaning of the word, and also know what the word means in the particular context in which it has occurred; and
  • understand the concept behind the word in order to be able to understand it in a variety of contexts.

Similarly, according to Nation, productive knowledge implies that the learner must be able to

  • properly pronounce the word;
  • write the word and spell it correctly;
  • produce the word to express its proper meaning; and
  • correctly use the word in an original sentence.

When we consider what it means to know a word, it becomes apparent why it is necessary to actively teach vocabulary and to recycle the same vocabulary item in multiple contexts.