Foreign language vocabulary: Effective practices for learning and teaching

(Here’s a PDF file of the Vocab. learning report: CASL Vocabulary learning technical report, 2012)

Below are three quotes from one of many “technical reports” published by CASL, the Center for Advanced Study of Language at Maryland University. My intention here is simply to draw your attention to this report on vocab. learning, and, maybe more importantly, to the website. It’s a great resource (Mike Long just told me about it); there’s a rich variety of all sorts of interesting, well-written, well-supported  stuff there, and, since it’s financed by US tax-payers’ money, it’s all available for free download.

Here are the quotes:

Storage and retrieval of FL words

“Initial encoding of new lexical items and repeated encounters leading to additional learning are not sufficient to support fluent language use. Students must be able to reliably store the new items in long-term memory and successfully and quickly retrieve them when needed. In order to understand the specific challenges encountered by foreign language students, it is useful to briefly discuss several critical issues related to bilingual memory and FL word retrieval. For the purposes of this review, FL students at early and intermediate levels of proficiency may be considered to be bilinguals who are much stronger in one of their two languages.

One of the most influential models of bilingual memory within a FL learning context is the Revised Hierarchical Model proposed by Kroll and colleagues (Kroll & deGroot, 1997; Kroll & Stewart, 1994; Kroll & Sunderman, 2003; Kroll & Van Hell, 2010). This model attempts to capture the findings from many empirical studies to explain how the relationship of the L1 lexicon and FL lexicon change in relation to one another, and to the conceptual system, as FL proficiency develops. As shown in Figure 4.3, this model of the development of the mental lexicon incorporates a level of lexical information that is connected to, but separable from, conceptual knowledge, which is argued to be universal in its basic architecture.

The arrows in Figure 4.3 represent the relative strength of connections among different aspects of a bilingual’s memory system, with thicker arrows (Concepts -> L1 and FL->L1) representing stronger, more established relationships, and thinner arrows (Concepts -> FL and L1->FL) representing weaker, or less well established connections that may be strengthened as learning proceeds. These differing connection strengths are employed in the model to capture specific findings from the research literature, such as: Students find it easier to retrieve the L1 translation equivalent when given a FL word than to retrieve the FL word when starting from an L1 word as a prompt.

Beginning learners may rely on the L1 lexicon as a “stepping stone” in order to access concepts when presented with an FL word. For example, a beginning learner whose target language is Spanish and whose native language is English, when presented with the word “casa,” may first retrieve the equivalent English word “house,” and then use “house” to retrieve all of the underlying meaning and associations present for that English word.

Since the publication of the original Revised Hierarchical model, further research from a number of investigators has provided strong support for parallel activation of both the L1 and FL mental lexicons during both word recognition and word production (Kroll & Van Hell, 2010). Because both languages are active by default in the bilingual, researchers have conducted further investigations of how bilinguals are able to function effectively in either the L1 or the FL without massive interference from the other language. The ability to manage this type of  interference is important as bilinguals reach higher levels of proficiency, to enable fluent comprehension and production. However, it may also be important for less-proficient bilinguals to allow them to function fully in either the L1 or L2 without intrusions from the other language. Evidence suggests that the executive control system is necessary to accomplish this task (e.g., Abutalebi et al., 2008; Hernandez, Martinez, & Kohnert, 2000; Isel, Baumgærtner, Thrän, Meisel, & Büchel, 2010). Executive control is an aspect of cognition that is closely related to the control of attention and to aspects of the working memory system (Wagner, Bunge, & Badre, 2004). While it is currently unclear whether or to what extent executive control may be important for word learning specifically, its importance for later stages of FL use, including switching between languages and managing interference, make it an important aspect of effective and fluent bilingual proficiency and word usage in real-world tasks.”

Five Principles for enhancing vocabulary learning

“Research in cognitive psychology and education has produced a set of general learning principles that may be used to guide instruction and learning strategies. As these principles have been derived from hundreds of studies of learning across many different topics, they should provide a solid foundation for adult learning within a school environment. Additional research may provide guidance in terms of which aspects of word knowledge are most likely to follow these general principles, and which aspects, in contrast, may rely on principles specific to FL vocabulary learning. Based on current knowledge, however, the FL instructor can feel confident that incorporating

  1. Dual Coding,
  2. Spacing,
  3. Testing,
  4. Feedback,
  5. and Desirable Difficulties

will provide students with a higher level of learning success and effective long-term retention.”

These five principles are all succinctly described and the case for why they help so much is clearly argued.

Quantitative Research Summary

“The overall pattern of results in this quantitative research summary provides valuable information for the design of foreign language vocabulary learning programs. First, vocabulary learning may be aided by explicitly drawing learners’ attention to specific vocabulary items. Second, vocabulary learning can benefit substantially from reading, and reading leads to greater gains in vocabulary than does listening (alone) or list study. In addition, reading-based vocabulary learning can be augmented significantly by providing learners with glosses so that definitions and/or translation of unfamiliar words can be readily accessed during reading. The results also suggest that while plain text glosses are beneficial, text glosses with pictures and/or videos may provide a small amount of additional benefit. Of course, the utility of additional visual information in glosses is limited to vocabulary items whose meanings are readily depicted in pictures and videos.

On the other hand, while the keyword method seems to lead to reliable gains in vocabulary acquisition relative to experimental controls, comparison of the keyword method to other methods (e.g., rote memorization, word study based on semantic grouping) suggests that at least  some other methods lead to larger vocabulary gains.

The results reported above also support the idea that providing explicit instruction with respect to learning strategies can be beneficial to anguage learners. However, given the small number of studies of this issue included in this descriptive summary, and the substantial differences between the approaches of these studies, it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions about which learning strategies should be taught. Finally, increasing the depth of processing of vocabulary items leads to substantial gains in word learning. Completing fill-in-the-blank passages leads to gains above and beyond gains acquired from reading, and writing sentences and/or longer compositions leads to larger gains than does completing fill-in-the-blank passages.

Hence, the results of this descriptive quantitative summary indicate that foreign language vocabulary gains will be maximized by the inclusion of substantial reading augmented by easily accessible definitions and translations for unfamiliar words and, where possible, additional visual ‘glosses’, as well as active processing of vocabulary items via associated writing exercises. Teachers can profitably draw learner attention to unknown or unfamiliar items, and direct teaching of learning strategies may be beneficial as well.”

P.S. If you can only afford one book on this topic, it must surely be Nation’s.

Nation, I. S. P. (2010). Learning vocabulary in another language (12th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press



9 thoughts on “Foreign language vocabulary: Effective practices for learning and teaching

  1. You know, I drew a remarkably similar diagram for a TOEIC student many years ago illustrating why he needed strategies besides pairing English vocab with Japanese in order to understand new words and interpret them correctly. Rather than cat–>neko–>(picture of cat) he needed work contextualizing “cat” so that he wouldn’t have to do quite so much abstract cognitive work to retrieve what it meant. He didn’t follow my advice, but it’s good to see my intuitions re: vocab learning written by someone with far more academic bona fides.


  2. I’d love to read the original technical report, but as the report’s title isn’t given, I can’t find it on the UM site, neither by using ‘vocabulary’ as a search term nor by filtering only ‘technical reports’. Could you link it? Thank you in advance!


    • Hi Jenny,

      Sorry not to have given the link. In fact, the search function seems to work very badly, so I’ve attached the pdf file “Foreign language vocabulary: Effective practices for learning and teaching”, 2012, at the top of the post.


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