Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching

This webpage is a summary of the book Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching and its implications for both language and non-language teachers.

Introduction

This page summarizes the main sections of Folse's book Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching: Preface, Introduction, Eight Myths, Conclusion.

Principal insights

For language teachers the main insights from the research that Folse analyses are:

  • Vocabulary is crucial to both communication and comprehension;
  • Vocabulary needs to be explicitly taught and learned. It will not develop quickly enough through simple exposure to written or spoken language.

For non-language teachers the main insights are:

  • It is important to be aware of the English words and phrases that are likely to cause most difficulty for ESL students. [More]
  • Learning a subject entails, to a large degree, learning the vocabulary of that subject.
  • Much of the vocabulary that ESL students need to succeed in a subject is not specific to that subject. [More]
  • ESL students should be encouraged to have a bilingual dictionary with them every lesson - and make appropriate use of it.

Book: Preface

Folse notes that for many years until the mid 1990's researchers and teachers generally underestimated the importance of vocabulary in second language (SL) development. It was assumed that SL vocabulary would grow as naturally and easily as first language vocabulary, through exposure to comprehensible input.

The theory of comprehensible input was promulgated by Krashen. In summary, the theory posits that we acquire language in one way only: when we are exposed to input (written or spoken language) that is comprehensible to us.

Comprehensible input is the necessary but also sufficient condition for language acquisition to take place. It requires no effort on the part of the learner. For more on Krashen's related theory of the different natures of language acquisition and language learning, see:

An introduction to the work of Stephen Krashen

Folse concedes that some vocabulary can be acquired via comprehensible input, particularly when the FL (first language) and the SL come from the same language family (such as English and German) and thus have many cognates.

However, simple exposure to the SL does not work as effortlessly for much vocabulary - especially if the FL and SL are different (as, for example, Japanese and English are different).

Today, there is a greater understanding that vocabulary cannot be left to grow organically. It benefits from direct instruction and testing.

Folse finishes the preface with by stating that the myths chapters of the book will each contain the following sections:

  • In the real world.
  • What the research says.
  • What you [the language teacher] can do.

Book: Introduction

In this section Folse answers two fundamental questions:

  • What do we mean by the term 'vocabulary'?
  • What are the components of 'knowing a word'?

In answer to the first question Folse notes that the vocabulary task facing SL learners encompasses more than the single words that most people imagine: bright, lawyer, simultaneously, etc. It also includes learning set phrases such as once in a while, phrasal verbs such as take on and put up with and idioms such as Don't let the cat out the bag.

In the discussion of phrasal verbs, Folse notes that: "Native speakers have no idea that they are using phrasal verbs, nor do they see why these words are so hard for ESL students to deal with." The same applies to idioms.

These difficult but essential aspects of English vocabulary are comprehensively covered in their own sections of this website: phrasal verbs and idioms.

The second question that Folse discusses is What does it mean to say you know a word? While most non-linguists would answer that knowing a word entails knowing what it means, Folse points out that the implicit knowledge of a word possessed by literate native-speakers includes much more than just this.

It includes knowledge of the word's polysemy (multiple meanings), connotation, spelling/pronunciation, part of speech, frequency, usage/register, and collocation.

Folse claims that collocation is "perhaps the single most important aspect of knowing a word for non-native speakers" (after learning its meaning). Here you can read more about collocation and its difficulties.

Book: Eight Myths

The major part of the book covers the eight vocabulary myths. You can click a link below to go directly to a discussion of that myth and its implications for teachers.

  1. In learning another language, vocabulary is not as important as grammar or other areas.
  2. Using word lists to learn L2 vocabulary is unproductive.
  3. Presenting new vocabulary in semantic sets facilitates learning.
  4. The use of translations to learn new vocabulary should be discouraged.
  5. Guessing words from context is an excellent strategy for learning L2 vocabulary.
  6. The best vocabulary learners make use of one or two really specific vocabulary learning strategies.
  7. The best dictionary for L2 learners is a monolingual dictionary.
  8. Teachers, textbooks, and curricula cover L2 vocabulary adequately.

Myth 1: In learning another language, vocabulary is not as important as grammar or other areas.

In the real world

Folse relates an incident in a Japanese shop where, despite some knowledge of Japanese grammar and much creative effort, he was unable to communicate what he needed (flour) through the simple lack of the Japanese word for it.

What the research says

This section is best summed up in the quote by Wilkins that Folse includes in his research overview:

While without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.

Vocabulary knowledge plays a fundamental role both in fluent language production (speaking and writing) and efficient language comprehension (listening and reading).

What you can do

  • Understand exactly how much of your students' ability to understand you is impacted by vocabulary issues. Learn the strategies for making your spoken and written language comprehensible. [More]
  • Become more aware of the different kinds of vocabulary challenges your students face. [More]
  • Choose materials that emphasise vocabulary.
  • Include vocabulary in quizzes and tests.

Myth 2: Using word lists to learn L2 vocabulary is unproductive.

In the real world

Folse relates the story of a Japanese woman who had learned English to a good standard using the audio-lingual method. He uses the story to make the point that some of the old-fashioned methods of learning a second language, that have generally fallen into disrepute, could in fact help students to acquire strong vocabularies.

What the research says

Folse discusses several studies indicating that the fairly prevalent aversion among language teachers to having their students learn vocabulary lists is unfounded.

What you can do

  • Don't hesitate to use vocabulary lists.
  • Don't rely only on lists.
  • Include your students' likes and dislikes as well as their classroom expectations in your teaching.

Myth 3: Presenting new vocabulary in semantic sets facilitates learning.

In the real world

Folse writes that he has authored over 30 ESL textbooks, many of which have the explicit purpose of developing students' vocabulary. For all of these he needed to decide how to organize the words to be presented to the students. The intuitive way is to organize the words by semantic set. For example, to present body parts in one unit and clothes in the next.

A looser semantic connection is by theme; e.g. holiday words. Folse relates that, while being himself a good vocabulary learner, he cannot say with any confidence that having words presented in semantic or theme-based sets helped him to learn them better.

What the research says

The intuitive way is not the best way. As Folse states:

...the research results are clear...semantic sets are not only unhelpful, they actually hinder vocabulary retention. [p52]

A more effective approach appears to be to use themes such as holidays, cooking, etc. Folse notes, however, that the limited amount and nature of the research into thematic groupings does not yet permit a definitive assessment of its effectiveness.

What you can do

  • Do not present words initially in semantic sets.
  • Use thematic presentations of new words when possible.
  • Teach the most frequent words first, then cover other items within that semantic set.
  • Use exercises and activities that juxtapose semantic set members for reviewing items, not for initial learning.

Myth 4: The use of translations to learn new vocabulary should be discouraged.

In the real world

Folse writes of a lesson when he failed to understand a Japanese word, despite the patient explanations of his teacher. He was put out of his misery when another student in the class told him the meaning of the word in English.

What the research says

Folse starts this section with an overview of the reasons why many teachers try to avoid all use of L1 in the L2 classroom. He goes on to cite recent research that he summarizes as follows:

Research is clear: Translations are not bad but are in fact a helpful tool in learning new foreign language vocabulary.

What you can do

  • Do not stop a student who is jotting down a translation of a new English word.
  • Let a more knowledgeable student help another student who speaks the same language.
  • Learn what you can about your students' native language.

Myth 5: Guessing words from context is an excellent strategy for learning L2 vocabulary.

In the real world

Folse relates an incident where he failed to guess a word in context, despite applying the usual "word attack" strategies.

What the research says

We typically acquire much of our L1 vocabulary by guessing the meaning of new words from the comprehensible contexts in which they are set. Several relatively recent studies, however, have found that this method is less effective for L2 vocabulary acquisition.

Essentially, this is because L2 learners may not know several of the surrounding words in any given context. They consequently do not have enough clues to make accurate guesses about new word meaning, and thereby develop their vocabulary in the way L1 learners do.

What you can do

  • Teach the use of context clues as a good reading strategy, but recognize that learners cannot rely on this compensatory strategy for vocabulary growth.
  • Choose context clues and activities that match the proficiency level of your students.
  • Exercises that ask students to guess word meanings should be done in class so that the teacher can give immediate feedback. Another option is to have your students do these exercises on a computer-based program that gives immediate feedback.
  • Reading can be a conduit for vocabulary growth, especially when done with vocabulary exercises.

Myth 6: The best vocabulary learners make use of one or two really good specific vocabulary learning strategies.

In the real world

Folse relates an incident from his own teaching when a student made him realise that often a simplistic word attack strategy can be superior to a more sophisticated and specific approach.

What the research says

Folse discusses numerous studies on the various vocabulary learning strategies. His conclusion is that there is no specific strategy that can be recommended above all others. There are several strategies that may be effective depending on learner and context variables, and there are also strategies that likely to be ineffective.

What you can do

  • No vocabulary strategy or training is a substitute for knowing vocabulary.
  • There is no one strategy or training that is better than another.
  • Some students are totally ignorant of strategy use; others use only a handful. Folse states that this implies teachers should make learners aware of as many strategies as possible. He then outlines three different strategies to teach the words review, valley and call off.
  • Your students may have strategies that are related to their cultural or educational background. If these strategies are successful, then encourage their use - even if it goes against what you would normally do or how you were taught.
  • Teach learners how to keep a neat and spacious vocabulary notebook.
  • Teach learners how to keep a vocabulary notebook in such a way that it actually promotes student retrieval practice. Folse outlines what such a notebook could look like and how it could be used.

Myth 7: The best dictionary for L2 learners is a monolingual dictionary.

In the real world

Folse relates an incident when he failed to choose the right Japanese word for an essay, despite assiduous use of a dictionary.

What the research says

Folse discusses research which reveals the prevalent teacher notion that students should be discouraged from using a bilingual dictionary. Many teachers believe that students should first try to guess the word from context and, if unsuccessful, consult a monolingual dictionary.

Folse notes that there is an insufficient research base to support this typical teacher aversion to their students using bilingual dictionaries.

What you can do

  • Teachers should continue to teach context clues and understand the critical limitations of context clues - but not in lieu of vocabulary itself.
  • Teach context clues but not at the expense of explicit teaching of vocabulary.
  • Teachers should be aware that the real value of teaching context clues may not necessarily be in the learning of using of context clues per se but rather in better overall English proficiency.
  • Relatively few words are learned through incidental acquisition; drawing learners' attention to words enhances vocabulary retention.
  • Teachers must stop saying emphatically that the goal of L2 learners is to move toward the use of a monolingual dictionary as soon as possible.
  • Dictionaries are part of the language learning process and are here to stay.
  • Teachers must teach students how to deal with polysemous words.
  • Consider allowing your students to use a bilingual dictionary.

Myth 8: Teachers, textbooks, and curricula cover L2 vocabulary adequately.

Folse writes about a vocabulary course he taught that was demanding of both him and the students, but which was well received by the students who understood the importance of developing their vocabularies.

What the research says

Folse divides his discussion of the research into three perspectives:

  • Vocabulary in the curriculum in general. Folse notes that vocabulary is typically the area where student have most questions but is poorly covered in the majority of the language learning materials analysed.
  • Vocabulary in specific areas of the curriculum. Folse reviews research which highlights the prime importance of vocabulary in reading comprehension and ability, and notes that ESL curricula typically do not adequately cover vocabulary.
  • Vocabulary in practice activities in the curriculum. Folse analyses research into the plethora of different activities to teach, practice and test vocabulary. The key finding is that "simple" activities such as doing multiple-choice quiz can result in as much vocabulary learning as more time-consuming tasks such as writing original sentences with new words.

What you can do

  • Do something with vocabulary in EVERY lesson.
  • Once you teach vocabulary, you must test vocabulary.
  • Vocabulary practices can take many forms; what appears to be most important is not the form of the exercise as much as the number of "forced retrievals" of the word or its meaning.
  • Make use of the vocabulary software as well as resources on the internet.

Book: Conclusion

In this section Folse reviews the eight myths that his book has aimed to dispel. He reiterates the primacy of vocabulary in the language learning process and his conviction that language teachers should place vocabulary at the heart of teaching, testing and student learning.

Conclusion

This book has important insights for language and non-language teachers alike. In general, the greater significance attached to vocabulary learning than to grammar learning is welcome.

Reference

Folse, Keith. Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research To Classroom Teaching. N.p.: University of Michigan Press, 2004. Print.