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									Vocabulary Teaching and TESOL: A Need for Reevaluation of Existing

         Elliott L. Judd

         TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1. (Mar., 1978), pp. 71-76.

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                                                                                                     Tue Aug 21 14:16:03 2007
                                                                            TESOL QUARTERLY
                                                                            Vol. 12, No. 1
                                                                            March 1978

Vocabalary Teaching and TESOL: A Need For
Reevalaation of Existing Assamptions*
                                                                           Elliott 1. Judd

          Vocabulary instruction in TESOL has been traditionally relegated to
    secondary status in favor of an emphasis on the teaching of syntactic structures.
    According to the traditional theories, vocabulary acquisition has also been seen
    as a means to improve reading and listening comprehension and not as a skill
    vital in its own right.
          These traditional views are challenged in this paper as being inappro-
    priate for ESL programs on the university level. Massive vocabulary instruction
    should begin as soon as possible and the status of lexical knowledge should be
    given greater emphasis in TESOL programs. Relevant lexical items that are
    within the student's syntactic knowledge should be selected and immediately
    integrated into the classroom setting. Repetition of vocabulary items in a nat-
    ural linguistic context will aid the students in dealing with multiple meanings
    and the sociolinguistic contexts of words and phrases. In short, the author
    argues for a new emphasis on vocabulary instruction in TESOL programs.

      The goal of this paper is to discuss some traditional assumptions of vo-
cabulary teaching and to question their continued use in English-as-a-second-
Language programs. Most of the points are specifically directed to programs
which are training foreign students to enter American universities, but I believe
that the basic ideas can be transferred to other teaching situations. It should
be noted that most of the presentation is on the theoretical level and specific
teaching techniques are not discussed in any depth.
      No one can deny the assertion that one major aspect of fluency in a language
is control over the lexicon. Researchers generally agree that the number of syn-
tactic and phonological rules in any language is finite; the number of words in
a language is nearly infinite in terms of the human potential of the average
native speaker. This means that native speakers of a language have acquired all
the rules of syntax and phonology at a very early age (roughly corresponding
to the time of lateralization of the brain); yet, those same speakers will still
continue to increase the number of words in their vocabularies throughout their
lifetimes and will never master all the lexical items in their native language
(Richards 1976). We generally judge lexical fluency on people's ability to com-
municate effectively in the specific social circumstances in which they need to

     * This author\is indebted to Fonda Fry, who provided much constructive support and
useful criticism in the preparation of this article.
     Mr. Judd, Assistant Professor or Linguistics, Ohio University, is Executive Secretary-
Treasurer of Ohio TESOL. His teaching fields are TESOL and sociolinguistics.
72                               TESOL Quarterly

 function and not in terms of a percentage of the number of words known to the
 total number of words in the language. Stated in another way, a person's vo-
 cabulary ability is evaluated in terms of practical communication; if ideas are
 stated with some degree of clarity, knowledge of the lexicon is assumed. Implicit
 in this statement is another crucial point. Since native speakers function in
 various social milieus, individual vocabularies will vary. No two native speakers
 need to or are expected to know all the same words.
      In looking at the way vocabulary has been traditionally taught in English-
 as-a-Second-Language programs at the university level, two major points emerge.
 First, vocabulary has been relegated to secondary status in favor of syntax. It is
 felt that students need to master basic grammatical patterns first to gain both
 understanding and ability to communicate in English. Learning new words or
 phrases is often viewed as a hindrance to this task because such study distracts
 the learner from observing and using the syntactic patterns of the language.
 Some feel that only after basic syntax is totally mastered can massive vocabulary
 acquisition begin ( Twaddell 1973 ) .
      The second point common in theories of vocabulary instruction also demon-
 strates the secondary status of vocabulary teaching. Vocabulary knowledge is
 generally not taught as a skill in itself. Rather, most methodologies discuss the
 indirect teaching of vocabulary as part of wider areas of language learning such
 as reading or listening comprehension (Chastain 1976; Rivers 1968; and Michel
 and Patin 1972). Vocabulary instruction is thus seen as a means to an end and
 not as a goal in itself. What results from these two suppositions should hardly
be a surprise. Because vocabulary has received secondary emphasis in the class-
 room, students, upon leaving the sheltered atmosphere of the ESL classroom,
 often find themselves at a literal "loss for words" in the uncontrolled English-
 speaking environment which they encounter in the normal American university.
 Consequently, the students encounter frustration and even claim that their ESL
training was of dubious value since they have great trouble understanding and
using English in their daily academic and nonacademic endeavors.
      In order to remedy this situation, the theoretical assumptions underlying
vocabulary teaching in an ESL curriculum should undergo certain changes. First,
vocabulary instruction should begin quite early in English-as-a-Second-Language
programs. There is no reason to assume that vocabulary instruction is incom-
patible with grammar teaching. Even with the format of strict syntactic sequenc-
ing of materials, the introduction of a variety of new words and phrases should
begin immediately. Through the use of methods such as collocation devices,
which are often used to assemble advanced-level vocabulary lessons (Brown 1974
and Anthony 1975), a variety of new lexical items that are within the limits of
the students' grammatical knowledge can be easily incorporated into the teach-
ing design. What this means in practice is that ESL teachers and material de-
velopers should begin to supplement their textbooks with additional vocabulary
items or adopt texts which have greater emphasis on vocabulary learning. How
this might be done will be discussed later in this paper.
                              Vocabulary Teaching                              73

     Second, more emphasis must be given to direct vocabulary teaching. By
devoting time to the lexicon, the students will acquire the needed vocabulary
items in a logical manner, and the chances of randomized appearance of vo-
cabulary in listening comprehension or reading activities will be avoided. The
direct teaching approach, when systemically and logically applied, can help
ensure that our students will receive those words and phrases which they need
to know when they leave ESL programs. Furthermore, I believe that if vo-
cabulary training is begun early and receives separate attention, students will
improve their other skills, especially reading and listening. Too often students
become bogged down in these tasks and thus lose the meaning of the discourse
being presented. If students had stronger, more diversified lexical knowledge,
the chances of focusing on the entire message would be increased and thus the
ultimate goals of these skills would be better achieved.
     Since most traditional textbooks and curricula delay vocabulary instruction,
teachers who believe in massive vocabulary expansion at early stages must create
their own materials. The choice of which lexical items are to be included in the
material is a complex problem. As a general starting point, two criteria should
be used in the vocabulary selection process. Each item should be: ( a ) usable
within the students' grammatical knowledge and ( b ) useful to students' needs,
both present and future.
     Most people agree that vocabulaly ought to be taught in context (Nilsen
1976; Chastain 1976; Rivers 1968). Words taught in isolation are generally not
retained. In addition, in order to grasp the full meaning of a word or phrase,
students must be aware of the linguistic environment in which the word or
phrase appears. Therefore, in selection of vocabulary, the teacher must be sure
that the words or phrases chosen can be immediately incorporated into the stu-
dents' linguistic repertoire. If the students' knowledge of a specific syntactic
structure is only at a receptive level, then the students should only be expected
to know vocabulary items which cooccur with that pattern on a receptive level.
The same relationship between vocabulary and syntax holds true on a productive
level. Students who understand and use lexical items chosen in this manner will
actively see the usefulness of vocabulary learning. A byproduct of this method
is that the learning of grammatical patterns becomes a less tedious process for
students since they and their instructors are able to alternate lexical items, de-
velop more mature contexts and present more interesting ideas due to the in-
creased verbal repertoire.
     The second criterion for vocabulary selection, which should always be ap-
plied simultaneously with the first, is the utility of the lexical items chosen.
Words and phrases should be meaningful to students' present and future lives.
The teacher needs to consider such factors as the students' age, educational
background and field of interest. The teacher also ought to be cognizant of such
sociolinguistic variables as the situations in which the words will be used, the
medium (oral, written or both) in which the item is employed, and the people
with whom the words will be used (Richards 1976). Granted that in any class
74                               TESOL Quarterly

there will be some variations among the students in terms of present needs and
future aspirations, yet there are many things which a group will have in com-
mon that will guide an instructor in vocabulary selection. For example, a class
studying ESL at an American university will usually have students from several
different countries who are ~ l a n n i n g study a variety of academic disciplines
and may even vary greatly in terms of socio-economic status. Yet they all share
the common environment at that university and need to function in this situa-
tion. Furthermore, many of them share the same type of leisure activities out-
side the classroom, face the same problems of coping with an English-speaking
environment and will all need a common academic lexicon to function at an
American university.
     The specific technical words of their fields of specialization are less im-
portant. Most Americans who begin a field of study do not possess the technical
vocabulary of that field; the acquisition of such vocabulary is part of the aca-
demic process. For example, I do not expect my beginning students in linguistics
to know such words and phrases as "isogloss," "allophone," or "generative-
transformational grammar." What is demanded is that the students have the
appropriate lexical knowledge to follow lectures, ask questions, read the as-
signed texts and write examinations and term papers. The same analogy holds
true for nonacademic tasks. For example, I do not possess the technical vo-
cabulary of a plumber or an automotive mechanic. The point being made is
that the selection of vocabulary should make our English-as-a-Second-Language
students able to function at the same level as their fellow native English-speaking
students. Massive vocabulary instruction begun at the early stages of the ESL
curriculum adds greater flexibility to a classroom and increases performance by
the students because the material appears meaningful to them and useful in their
daily lives.
     In order to further ensure success in vocabulary instruction, the lexical items
presented must be constantly reviewed. This process is important for three rea-
sons. Both research (Forai 1968; Michel and Patin 1972) and common sense
tell us the more exposures given to a word or a phrase, the better the chances
for retention. Too often lexical items are introduced in one unit and are never
repeated. Rarely do native speakers incorporate new words into their lexical
repertoires on a single exposure; the ESL student should not be expected to do
so either. Another reason for repeated exposures has to do with the notion of
polysemy (Twaddell 1973; and Keller 1974). Words can either have multiple
meanings which are totally unrelated (such as the word "port" meaning a harbor,
a wine, the right side or to carry) or can contain various shades of meaning which
are generally related but differ in specific usage (as in "foreign" which can
be used in phrases "like foreign student 'or' a foreign chemical element)" (Nilsen
1976). Multiple exposures to words will help students to acquire knowledge of
the sociolinguistic parameters of a word or phrase (Paulston 1974). Students
need to be guided to see whether a word or phrase appears in written or oral
usage and whether it is used in all conversations or has a more limited use.
                                 Vocabulary Teaching                                   75

Repeated exposures to a word or phrase better prepare students to function in
a real, uncontrolled English-speaking world and minimize ESL students' frustra-
tion, embarrassment or inability to communicate effectively.
     The process advanced in this paper is a gradual one. At first instructors
should tolerate some degree of vagueness in the specific lexical items being
taught. More precise meanings will develop as the teacher repeats the vocabulary
item and as the students are taught to infer meaning through the use of lexical
and grammatical cues, as well as through their knowledge of the outside world
( Twaddell 1973 ) .
     As a final point, it is worth noting that much research now indicates that
syntactic errors are a natural developmental phenomenon in second language
learning (Selinker 1972; Dulay and Burt 1973; and Corder 1967). Instead of
spending excessive time in perfecting the syntactical performance of our stu-
dents, we should begin to work on our ESL students' vocabulary. Since many
of the errors in syntax will only disappear with time, classroom exercises might
be better devoted to vocabulary enrichment. I t should be remembered that
former ESL students who are now functioning in the uncontrolled English-
speaking world of the American university are evaluated as much on their lexi-
cal knowledge as they are on their grasp of syntactic patterns.
     In summary, we owe it to our ESL students to begin instruction in vo-
cabulary as soon as possible and to consider word use a vital skill in its own
right. The benefits of this approach are numerous. Students will gain a better
communicative competence in the language. This will in turn improve the
atmosphere of the ESL classroom in which they must daily function and also
help create more successful student performance when they leave the ESL
classroom. We in the profession have done a fine job in teaching the ESL stu-
dent the syntactical rules of the language. Let us continue to do so. I t is now
time to devote more attention to vocabulary instruction as well.
Anthony, Edward M. 1975. Lexicon and vocabulary. RELC Journal 6, 21-30.
Brown, Dorothy F. 1974. Advanced vocabulary teaching: The problem of collocation.
     RELC Journal 5, 1-11.
Chastain, Kenneth. 1976. Developing Second-Language Skills: Theory to Practice, 2nd
     edition. Chicago, McNally.
Corder, S. P. 1967. The significance of learners' errors. Intertlational Review of Applied
     Linguistics 4, 161-169.
Dulay, Heidi and Burt, Marina K. 1973. Should we teach children syntax? Language
     Learning 23, 235-252.
Forai, Ernest. 1968. Theory and practice in language teaching. Canadian Modern
     Language Journal 24, 3, 49-50.
Keller, Howard K. 1974. Polysemy and homonymy: An investigation of word form and
     concept representation. ERIC ED 108 570.
Michel, Joseph and Patin, Paul. 1972. Some techniques for teaching vocabulary: ERIC
     focus report on the teaching of foreign language. ERIC ED 066 084.
Nilsen, Don L. F. 1976. Contrastive semantic vocabulary instruction. T E S O L Quarterly
     10, 99-104.
Paulston, Christina Bratt. 1974 Linguistic and communicative competence. TESOL
     Quarterly 8, 347-362.
76                               TESOL Quarterly

Richards, Jack C. 1976. The role of vocabulary teaching. TESOL Quarterly 10, 77-89.
Rivers, Wilga M. 1968. Teaching Foreign Language Skills. Chicago, University of
     Chicago Press.
Selinker, Larry. 1972. Interlanguage. International Reuiew of Applied Linguistics 10,
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Twaddell, W. Freeman. 1973. Vocabulary expansion in the TESOL classroom. TESOL
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You have printed the following article:
       Vocabulary Teaching and TESOL: A Need for Reevaluation of Existing Assumptions
       Elliott L. Judd
       TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1. (Mar., 1978), pp. 71-76.
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    Contrastive Semantics in Vocabulary Instruction
    Don L. F. Nilsen
    TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 1. (Mar., 1976), pp. 99-103.
    Stable URL:

    Linguistic and Communicative Competence
    Christina Bratt Paulston
    TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 4. (Dec., 1974), pp. 347-362.
    Stable URL:

    The Role of Vocabulary Teaching
    Jack C. Richards
    TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 1. (Mar., 1976), pp. 77-89.
    Stable URL:

    Vocabulary Expansion in the TESOL Classroom
    Freeman Twaddell
    TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 1. (Mar., 1973), pp. 61-78.
    Stable URL:

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