What teachers should know about English vocabulary

This page discusses aspects of English vocabulary that mainstream teachers should be aware of, and how they can help their ESL students learn it.


Modern-day English vocabulary can be broadly conceived as deriving from two main sources. It consists firstly of the predominantly one-syllable Anglo-Saxon words like fire, climb, ask. And secondly there are the multi-syllable words like conflagration, comprehension, interrogate which came into the language from Latin and Greek after the Norman invasion in 1066.

Although the short Anglo-Saxon words constitute only about 10% of total English vocabulary, they are the mainstay of everyday conversational English. In fact they make up almost all of the 100 most commonly-used words in the English language. The longer French, Greek or Latin-origin words are found in formal settings such as education and government.

Ease of learning

In general, the short words in the Anglo-Saxon category are easy to learn and use. Since these words are also the most common ones in the language, it is no surprise that many ESL learners pick them up quickly and soon become proficient in conversational English.

Words in the second category (of French, Latin or Greek origin), however, comprise about 90% of the language. And in general they are harder to learn, often because they convey abstract concepts.

Interdependence of vocabulary and academic success

Unfortunately for ESL students, words in the second category are a prerequisite for the comprehension of academic texts. Reading comprehension, in turn, is a prerequisite of academic success. This interdependence of vocabulary knowledge, reading ability and academic achievement is summarized by Folse (2004):

Nonnative speakers must have good reading skills if they expect to have any chance of academic success. Numerous researchers have shown the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading ability.

Marzano (2008) says something similar:

One of the most generalizable findings in the research is the strong relationship between vocabulary and several important factors such as intelligence, one's ability to comprehend new information and one's level of income. ...

In fact @ some researchers have concluded that systematic vocabulary instruction is one of the most important instructional interventions that teachers can use, particularly with low-achieving students ~.

It is evident, therefore, that students who want to do well in school will have to build a large vocabulary.

The role of the mainstream teacher

Clearly, ESL teachers are the ones most responsible for their students knowing how to learn words and which ones they need most at any given stage of their language development. But mainstream teachers can play an important role too.

  • In general, @@ it is very helpful if mainstream teachers also consider themselves to be language teachers and, on occasion, devote a little more attention to key words than just offering a definition. ~~

    For example, instead of simply explaining that photosynthesis is the conversion of carbon dioxide into carbohydrates under the influence of sunlight, the teacher could ask if anyone knows the meaning of the prefix photo.

    She could also ask if anyone can suggest other words beginning with the prefix. The word exhale could start a similar brief discussion.

  • As well as focusing on the key words, it is necessary to be aware of the crucial importance of the non-subject specific (or general) academic vocabulary that the student needs to know - words like duration, sequence, reduction etc.

    Read more about general academic vocabulary

  • It is good, occasionally, to ask non-native speakers what a word is in their own language. This conveys to them that their languages are important. It also enables the teacher to check whether the student has understood.

  • Another possibility is to provide a definition and see if an ESL student can supply the correct word. Students whose own language shares similar roots with English will often come up with a word almost identical to the English one. Such words are called cognates.

    For example, in mathematics or science the students could be asked to think of the word in their language for the increase in speed of an object (acceleration). French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese native speakers will supply the words accélération, accelerazione, aceleración, or aceleração.

    Showing an interest in their native language is a simple way to raise their self-esteem and it demonstrates effectively how the mother tongue can be very helpful in learning English.


This page has introduced many of the central issues of English vocabulary and its importance.

A further aspect of English vocabulary is the polysemous Polysemous words are words with multiple meanings. For example, arms are a part of the body, but also weapons. nature of many words. The issue of polysemy, and its difficulty for ESL students, is covered in depth elsewhere on this site.


In summary, vocabulary development is the most important aspect of language that ESL students should focus on in order to achieve academic success.

Teachers who follow the above advice will be making a significant contribution, not only to the students' English vocabulary development, but also to their ability to do well in the subject.

Further reading

The Learners section of his site has two pages of information and advice about vocabulary:

There is a summary of recent research into vocabulary learning and teaching, together the implications for both language and non-language teachers on the page Vocabulary Myths.


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