Chapter 2 Vocabulary teaching and learning – Selected aspects of vocabulary acquisition

2.1. Selected aspects of vocabulary acquisition

Vocabulary acquisition is an important part of language learning. By dint of knowing as many words as possible we can have better access to information and communicate with each other more easily. This subsection is focused only on some selected aspects of vocabulary teaching and learning, like the importance of acquiring vocabulary for language learning and the role of memory in these processes.

2.1.1. The importance of acquiring vocabulary

Vocabulary is a very important aspect of our life. Without knowing words it would be impossible to name objects around us or communicate with other people. Moreover Linda Taylor (1999: 1) states that the act of naming objects is essential for the process of constructing the reality. Without a name it is difficult to accept the existence of an object, an event, and above all, an abstract thing, like a feeling. By assigning names we impose a pattern and a meaning which allows us to manipulate the world.

Michael F. Graves (2009: 1-2) enumerates, after a few authors, some points to support the statement of the importance of lexical knowledge:

  • Vocabulary knowledge contributes to young children’s phonological awareness, which in turn contributes to their word recognition (Goswami 2001, Nagy 2005),
  • Vocabulary difficulty strongly influences the readability of text (Chall and Dale 1995, Klare 1984),
  • Teaching vocabulary can improve reading comprehension for both native English speakers (Beck, Perfetti and McKeown 1982) and English language learners (Carlo 2004),
  • Learning English vocabulary is one of the most crucial tasks for English language learners (August, Carol, Dressler and Snow 2005, Goldenberg 2008).

Vocabulary knowledge is inseparable from reading comprehension, therefore the larger the lexical knowledge, the better access to different sources of information. Thanks to it we can understand more and be understood better by others.

2.1.2. Active and passive vocabulary

Teachers should also take into account that there is active and passive vocabulary. Nation (2001: 25) states after Meara that the difference between active (productive) and passive (receptive) vocabulary is the result of different types of association between words. Active vocabulary can be activated by other words, because it has many incoming and outgoing links with other words.

Passive vocabulary consists of items which can only be activated by “external stimuli.” As a result, vocabulary that second language learners know can be divided into two groups – passive vocabulary and active vocabulary. Passive vocabulary contains all the words that learners understand when they read or listen, but which they do not use (or cannot remember) in their own writing and speaking (receptive vocabulary). Active vocabulary is all the words second language learners understand, plus all the words that they can use themselves (productive vocabulary).

Their active vocabulary is usually more limited than passive vocabulary. Thus, the more vocabulary the learners get to know, the better their language competence is. To help them master as much vocabulary as possible, teachers should use different teaching techniques.

2.1.3. The role of memory in vocabulary acquisition

As Višnja Pavičić Takač (2008: 10) points out, the role of memory is significant for any kind of learning. Memory and its components can be extremely helpful in vocabulary acquisition. One should remember that memorising vocabulary is not a linear process, a view supported by Schmitt (2000: 129). In short-term as well as in long-term memory forgetting and backsliding can occur. That is why vocabulary remembering and retrieval is a constant struggle. Language learners should remember not only to seek for some vocabulary learning strategies but also to try to help their memory.

There are two main types of memory: short-term memory and long-term memory. According to Baddeley (1999: 9-10), short-term memory (STM) is a term applied to the retention of small amounts of material over periods of a few seconds, whereas long-term memory (LTM) is a system or systems assumed to underpin the capacity to store information over long periods of time. Kellogg (2002: 130-31) gives us more details about STM and LTM. He states that the capacity and duration of STM is much smaller than that of LTM.

When using short-term memory we are able to store and recall five to seven items for the period no longer than 30 seconds. In contrast, for long-term memory we don’t know the limits of the capacity or the duration. Although STM is not as efficient as LTM, it can be broadened by the process of chunking. René Fassbender (2007: 15-16) explains that, to manage the storage, our mind stores prefabricated chunks of language, which means that we do not store separate words but some “pieces” of language.

Kellogg (2002: 130) gives an example of an experiment with sets of numbers to be remembered. Six lines of digits in random order were to be memorized. The first one consisted of four digits, the second one of five digits, the third one of six digits and so on. The last line consisted of nine digits from 1 to 9. What is quite surprising, the last one, comprising of nine items, was the most easy to remember and recall, because it consisted of a single “chunk”: the ascending order of single-digit numbers’ from 1 to 9. It was easy to remember because we know the numbers follow each other e.g. number 2 is after 1 and number 6 is after 5. Similarly, when it comes to vocabulary remembering and retrieval, the words and the structures have to be connected with each other.

This makes the remembering and retrieval process easier. Allan Baddeley (1999: 19) describes also another division of memory that includes sensory memory apart from STM and LTM. As John R. Anderson (2000: 155-159) states this categorisation refers to cognitive psychology. He claims that cognitive psychologists believe that there is one memory system, but it is divided into three functions for storage: sensory, short-term (also called working), and long-term (also called permanent) memory. He explains that the sensory memory retains an exact copy of what is seen or heard for only milliseconds (so one could also call it short visual and auditory memory) and it has unlimited capacity.

It is as important for vocabulary acquisition as the STM also called working memory. As Prahlad Gupta and Brian MacWhinney (1997: 267-333) assert, human brain has a unique ability to retain sequences of words in short-term memory and “without this additional mnemonic ability, it would be impossible to understand anything but the simplest of sentences.”

We also need sensory and short-term memory to recognize the connection between the new things and the ones we know. Allan Baddeley (1988: 586-595) described a patient with a pure STM deficit. The patient was able to learn meaningful paired associates in a familiar language but she was unable to learn to associate an unfamiliar word (in an unfamiliar language) with a familiar word in a familiar language. Baddeley (1988: 586-595) follows with an explanation that “learning in the second (vocabulary acquisition) condition involved mapping an arbitrary, novel phonological form to a known semantics.

The first (paired associates) condition involved mapping of an arbitrary but known phonological form to a known semantics. Thus both conditions involved an associative mapping of a phonological form to a known semantics, but only the second condition required learning a new phonological form.” As the patient with a pure STM deficit was unable to make a connection and associate new words in a foreign language with the known words in the mother tongue, one should notice immmediately that short-term memory is a starting point for vocabulary acquisition and thus language acquisition.

Once the new vocabulary items are presented to language learners and the connection between them and the words in mother tongue is made either verbally or visually, the next step is to transfer the items just learned to the long-term memory. When a new vocabulary item has eventually been placed in long-term memory, it is never going to be forgotten. However, the learner can have a problem with “finding” it in the vastness of his memory.

That is why the learner should revise the acquired vocabulary in a specific manner, lenghtening the periods between revisions until he is able to recall vocabulary items anytime he wants. As it was mentioned before, to make the vocabulary remembering and recall process even more effective and easy, the brain makes connections between separete items and stores them in chunks.