The importance of vocabulary in language learning and how to be taught

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International Journal of Teaching and Education

Vol. III, No. 3 / 2015

DOI: 10.20472/TE.2015.3.3.002



Vocabulary learning is an essential part in foreign language learning as the meanings of new words are very often emphasized, whether in books or in classrooms. It is also central to language teaching and is of paramount importance to a language learner. Recent research indicate that teaching vocabulary may be problematic because many teachers are not confident about best practice in vocabulary teaching and at times don’t know where to begin to form an instructional emphasis on word learning (Berne & Blachowicz, 2008)
In this article, I summarizes important research on the impotence of vocabulary and explaining many techniques used by English teachers when teaching English, as well as my own personal view of these issues.




MOFAREH ALQAHTANI, King Khaled Academy, Saudi Arabia, Email:


MOFAREH ALQAHTANI (2015). The importance of vocabulary in language learning and how to be taught . International Journal of Teaching and Education, Vol. III(3), pp. 21-34., 10.20472/TE.2015.3.3.002


Vocabulary, as one of the knowledge areas in language, plays a great role for learners in acquiring a language (Cameron, 2001). Harmon, Wood, &Keser, (2009) as well as Linse (2005) statethat learners’ vocabulary development is an important aspect of their language development.Although it has been neglected for a long time, researchers have increasingly been turning their attention to vocabulary e.g. Carter and McCarthy (1988), Nation (1990), Arnaud and Bejoint (1992), Huckin, Haynes and Coady (1995), Coady and Huckin (1997), Schmitt (1997, 2000) Read (1997).

Literature Review

The importance of learning vocabulary
Vocabulary knowledge is often viewed as a critical tool for second language learners because a limited vocabulary in a second language impedes successful communication. Underscoring the importance of vocabulary acquisition, Schmitt (2000) emphasizes that “lexical knowledge is central to communicative competence and to the acquisition of a second language” p. 55)
Nation (2001) further describes the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and language use as complementary: knowledge of vocabulary enables language use and, conversely, language use leads to an increase in vocabulary knowledge.
The importance of vocabulary is demonstrateddaily in and out the school. In classroom, the achieving students possess the most sufficient vocabulary.
Researchers such asLaufer and Nation (1999), Maximo (2000), Read (2000), Gu (2003), Marion (2008) and Nation (2011) and others have realised that the acquisition of vocabulary is essential for successful second language use and plays an important role in the formation of complete spoken and written texts. In English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL) learning vocabulary items plays a vital role in all language skills (i.e. listening, speaking, reading, and writing (Nation,2011).Rivers and Nunan (1991), furthermore, argue that the acquisition of an adequate vocabulary is essential for successful second language use because without an extensive vocabulary, we will be unable to use the structures and functions we may have learned for comprehensible communication.
Research has shown that second language readers rely heavily on vocabulary knowledge and the lack of that knowledge is the main and the largest obstacle for L2 readers to overcome (Huckin,1995). In production, when we have a meaning or concept that we wish to express, we need to have a store of words from which we can select to express this meaning or concept. ‘‘When students travel, they don’t carry grammar books, they carry dictionaries’’ (Krashen, as cited in Lewis, 1993, p25Many researchers argue that vocabulary is one of the most important-if not the most important- components in learning a foreign language, and foreign language curricula must reflect this. Wilkins (1972) states that: ‘‘There is not much value in being able to produce grammatical sentences if one has not got the vocabulary that is needed to convey what one wishes to say … While without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed’’ p97).Other

scholars such as Richards (1980) and Krashen (1989), as cited in Maximo (2000)state many reasons for devoting attention to vocabulary. “First, a large vocabulary is of course essential for mastery of a language. Second language acquirers know this; they carry dictionaries with them, not grammar books, and regularly report that the lack of vocabulary is a major problem’’.
On the other hand, vocabulary has been acknowledged as L2 learners’ greatest single source of problems (Meara, 1980). This remark may possibly reflect that the open- endedness of a vocabulary system is perceived to be a cause of difficulty by learners. Another possible reason is that, unlike syntax and phonology, vocabulary does not have rulesthe learners may follow to acquire and develop their knowledge. In other words, it is not clear in L2 vocabulary learning what rules apply or which vocabulary items should be learned first. Oxford (1990)also claims that vocabulary is “by far the most sizeable and unmanageable component in the learning of any language, whether a foreign or one’s mother tongue, because of tens of thousands of different meanings” Despite these difficulties that language learners face in L2 vocabulary, they still have to deal with it in their examinations as ‘‘vocabulary has traditionally been one of the language components measured in language tests’’ (Schmitt, 1999, 189). Furthermore, many learners see second language acquisition (SLA) as essentially a matter of learning vocabulary and therefore they spend a great deal of time on memorising lists of L2 words and rely on their bilingual dictionary as a basic communicative resource. As a result, language teachers and applied linguists now generally recognise the importance of vocabulary learning and are exploring ways of promoting it more effectively. Some of this research takes the form of investigation of strategies learners use specifically for vocabulary (VLS), which is our focus of attention.

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