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TESLReporter37,2(2004), pp. 1-13

Myths about Teaching andLearning
SecondLanguageVocabulary: What
RecentResearch Says

Keith S. Folse
University of CentralFlorida,USA



Learninga languageentails learning numerousaspectsaboutthat language,

including its pronunciation,writing system,syntax,pragmatics,rhetoricalmodes

for readingand composition,culture,and spelling,but the most importantaspect

is vocabulary. Recentsecondlanguage(L2) researchreflectsthis importance,as

seen in the abundanceof articles during this last decade. This researchhas

looked at methods of vocabulary instruction (e.g., natural context or direct

instruction) (Laufer & Shmueli, 1997; Zimmerman,1997), learners'vocabulary

learning strategies(Gu, 1994; Lessard-Clouston,1994; Sanaoui,1995; Nassaji,

2003), the developmentof L2 learners' vocabularies(Laufer, 1998; Schmitt,

1998; Nesselhauf,2003), the use of Ll or L2 for initial word presentation

(Prince, 1995;Grace,1998),the effect of different practiceactivities on learning

(Joe, 1995, 1998; Folse, 1999), the numberof words L2 learnersneedto know

(Hazenberg & Hulstijn, 1996), and which words students need to know

(Coxhead,2000; Liu, 2003).

The findings of these studies cast doubt on common myths about L2

vocabulary teaching and learning (Folse, 2004b). This paper focuses on the

following eight myths: (1) Vocabulary is not asimportant in learning a foreign

languageas grammaror otherareas. (2) It is not goodto uselists of words when

learningvocabulary. (3) Vocabularyshouldbe presentedin semanticsets. (4) The

use of translationsis a poor way to learn new vocabulary. (5) Guessingwords

from context is as productive for foreign languagelearners as it is for first

languagelearners. (6) The bestvocabularylearnersmakeuse of only one or two

effective specific vocabulary learning strategies. (7) Foreign languagelearners

shoulduse amonolingualdictionary. (8) Vocabularyis sufficiently coveredin our

curriculaand courses.In this article, I will presentresearchfindings to rejecteach

of thesemyths.

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Myth 1

Vocabulary is Not asImportant in Learning a Foreign Languageas Grammar
or Other Areas

Comprehensible input helps learners figure out how a language works.If the

language that a learner is hearing or reading has many unknown words, then that language
is not comprehensible and therefore cannot be input.In other words, without vocabulary,

comprehensible input is neither comprehensible nor input. Adult ESL learners are keenly

aware of their "vocabulary plight." Learnersneedvocabulary and see acquisition of
vocabulary as their greatest challenge (Green& Meara, 1995; Meara, 1980).

Two of the mostimportantskills for academic-boundESL students are reading

and writing. The relationshipbetweenL2 vocabularyknowledgeand L2 reading

ability is clear (Haynes, 1993; James, 1996). Huckin& Bloch (1993) point out,

"Researchhas shown thatsecond-languagereaders rely heavily onvocabulary

knowledge,and that a lack ofvocabularyknowledgeis the largest obstacle for second-

language readers toovercome"(p. 154). Haynes and Baker (1993) found the main

obstacle for L2 readers not to be a lack of reading strategies but ratherinsufficient

vocabularyknowledgein English. Laufer& Sim (1985) list these areas in order of

decreasingimportancein reading ability in L2: knowledgeof vocabulary, subject

matter, discourse markers, and syntactic structure.In sum, Laufer and Sim find that

vocabularyis most important, syntax least important.

Paralleling its role in L2 reading, a large L2 vocabulary base can have a significant

effect onlearners'writing skills (Laufer, 1998) and in listening and speaking tasks (Joe,

1995). Though correlation does not imply causality, empirical studies have shown that

good L2 readers, writers, speakers, and listeners know much more vocabulary.

For far too long, the emphasis in ESL hasmistakenlybeen on grammar. Learners

can expressthemselveswith poor grammar; in fact, much to the chagrin of ESL

teachers, they do this quite frequently. However, with poor vocabulary,

communicationis constrainedconsiderably. You can get by without grammar; you

cannot get by without vocabulary.

As a foreign language learner in Latin America, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and

Japan, I managed quite well with limited grammar; however, my worst and (in

hindsight) sometimes funniestcommunicationbreakdownexperienceswere when I

did not know theappropriatevocabulary. On one occasion, I spent a long and trying

hour in a small store in Japan trying topurchaseflour without knowing the word for

flour in Japanese. Icouldn'tdraw it. I couldn'texplain it. At one point, I even tried

saying"pre-bread,"but thatjust producedmore looks of confusion.In the end, I left

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showedthat some studentsperformbetterwhen they were given only a listof L2 words

and theirtranslations.

Researchis clear: Translationsare not bad;translationsare in fact ahelpful tool

in learningnew foreign languagevocabulary. Our focus nowshouldbe onquestions

such as when(proficiency level) translationsare mosteffective, whethertranslations

work better with certain kinds of vocabulary (e.g., verbs oridioms), and whether

translationswork betterat the initial presentationstage orsubsequentreview stages.


GuessingWordsFrom Contextis asProductiveFor ForeignLanguageLearners
as it isFor First LanguageLearners

For a native speaker, there may be only oneunknownword in apassage,and all

of theotherwords presentthe nativespeakerwith acontextconsistingof 100%known

words. The L2learnerwith the samereadingpassage,on theotherhand, most likely

facesmultipleunknownwords that serve asnoncluesor misleadingclues (Folse, 2002;

Folse, 2004b). In spite of theirlexical knowledge,nativeEnglishspeakersare not very

successfulat guessingword meaningsfrom realcontextsbecausehelpful contextclues

are rare in reallanguageexcerpts(Schatz& Baldwin, 1986). Therefore,it is unclear

why we expect L2 learners,who lack the linguistic luxuries possessedby native

speakers,to be successfulat this when nativespeakersare in fact not so good at it.

Of all the myths,perhapsthis one causes the most debate. This myth, like many of

the others, has its root in the falseassumptionthat learning a secondlanguageis a very

similar process tolearningour first language. These twoprocessesare in fact quite

different. In ourLl , we did notexplicitly learn most of ourvocabulary;we acquired

our vocabularythroughseeing and hearing the wordsnumeroustimes in many contexts.

In contrast, an L2learnerdoes not have the luxury ofencounteringa word numerous

times. Most adult learners have a very short time to achieve acertaindegree of fluency

in the L2. They do not have the luxury of the time needed to do theextensiveamount

of readingnecessaryto meetacademicvocabularymultiple times in natural language.

At the height of the emphasison communication and "natural approach"

techniques,instructionthat includedlanguagecomponentssuch asgrammar,spelling,

and vocabularyand teacheractions such aserror correction was greatly frowned

upon. Vocabularywas notexplicitly or systematicallytaught; it was assumedthat

studentswould automaticallyacquirewhatevermaterial-includingvocabulary- that

was madeavailableby the comprehensibleinput. Students(and teachersin training)

wereencouragednot to focus onunknownwords butratherto focus onunderstanding

the gist.

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Folse-SecondLanguageVocabularyMyths 7

Ironically, alearnermust have a largevocabularyto be able to guess themeaning

of unknown words from surroundingcontext clues successfully. This puts lower

proficiency studentsor studentswith less vocabularyat a distinct disadvantage. In

researchon the effect of type of writtenpracticeexercise(Folse, 1999), I found that

learnerswho know more words are able to use those known words to learn even more

words from context. Stanovich (1986) and James (1996) discuss thisso-called

"Matthew effect," the phenomenonby which the rich get richer and the poor get

poorer. (The parable from which this is takenappearsin Matthew 25: 14-30,

specifically verse 29.)

In a seminalstudy, Hulstijn (1992) concludesthat using naturalcontextto guess

word meaningsis a verycomplexand error-proneprocessfor L2 learners. He found

that while learners are more likely torememberthe form andmeaningof a word when

they haveinferred its meaningby themselvesthan when themeaninghas been given

to them, these samelearnersare more likely to infer anincorrect meaningof an

unknownL2 word in an L2 text when no cue has been given to its meaning.

What ESL studentsneed isnot just exposureto reading materials; they need

readingwith explicit, plannedvocabularywork. In a studyof adult intermediateESL

studentsin a university (n = 38), Wesche andParibakht(1994) compareda reading-
only group with a reading-plus-treatment(i.e, with follow-up written practice

exercises)group. While thereading-onlygroup did havesubstantialgains in word

knowledge,the gains weresignificantly largerin the reading-plus-treatmentgroup and

exhibiteda greaterdepth ofknowledgeof the target words.

Myth 6

TheBest VocabularyLearnersMake use ofOnly Oneor Two Effective Specific

The existence of one specific "magical" strategy for learning foreign language

vocabulary is a myth. The truth is that there are numerous good vocabulary learning

strategies, and there are bad ones, too. What research shows is that good learners use a

wide variety of vocabulary learning strategies; however, the good students have developed

an individualized set of strategies that works best for their needs and personalities.

In a qualitative study of French-as-a-second-Ianguagelearners in British

Colombia, Sanaoui (1995) found that learners' proficiency level and type of

instructiondid not impacttheir vocabularylearning;what matteredwas theindividual

learner'sapproachtoward overall vocabularylearning: structuredor unstructured.

The good learnershad a specific plan or strategy for learning English, including

vocabulary,while the weakerstudentsdid not. In other words, it does not seem to

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Joe, A. (1998). What effect do text-basedtasks promoting generationhave on
incidentalvocabularyacquisition? AppliedLinguistics,19,357-377.

Knight, S. (1994). Dictionary use while reading: The effects oncomprehensionand
vocabulary acquisition for studentsof different verbal abilities. The Modern
Language Journal,78, 285-299.

Kojic-Sabo,1.,& Lightbown, P. (1999). Students'approachesto vocabularylearning
and theirrelationshipto success.Modern LanguageJournal, 83, 176-192.

Laufer, B. (1998). Thedevelopmentof passiveand activevocabularyin a second
language: Same ordifferent? AppliedLinguistics,19(2),255-271.

Laufer, B., & Hadar,L. (1997). Assessingthe effectivenessof monolingual,bilingual,
and "bilingualised" dictionaries in the comprehensionand production of new
words. Modern LanguageJournal, 81, 189-196

Laufer, B.,& Hulstijn, J. (1998,March) What Leads toBetterIncidentalVocabulary
Learning: ComprehensibleInput or ComprehensibleOutput? Paperpresentedat
the Pacific SecondLanguageResearchForm (PacSLRF),Tokyo.

Laufer, B.,& Kimmel, M. (1997). Bilingualiseddictionaries:How learnersreally use
them. System,25, 361-369.

Laufer, B., & Shmueli, K. (1997). Memorizing new words: Doesteachinghave
anythingto do with it? RELCJournal, 28(1), 89-108.

Laufer, B.,& Sim, D. (1985). Measuringandexplainingthe readingthresholdneeded
for English foracademicpurposestexts. Foreign LanguageAnnals,18,405-411.

Lessard-Clouston,M. (1994). Challengingstudentapproachesto ESL vocabulary
development.TESL CanadaJournal/RevueTESL du Canada,12(1),69-80.

Liu, D. (2003). The mostfrequently used spokenAmerican English idioms: A
corpusanalysisand itsimplications. TESOL Quarterly,37, 671-700.

Lotto, L., & de Groot, A. (1998). Effects oflearning method and word type on
acquiringvocabulary in anunfamiliar language.LanguageLearning, 48, 31-69.

Luppescu,S., & Day, R. (1993). Reading,dictionaries,and vocabulary learning.
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Meara, P. (1980). Vocabularyacquisition: A neglectedaspect oflanguagelearning.
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Nassaji, H. (2003). L2vocabularylearning from context: Strategies,knowledge
sources, and theirrelationshipwith successin L2 lexical inferencing. TESOL
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Folse-SecondLanguage Vocabulary Myths 13

Nesselhauf,N. (2003). The use ofcollocationsby advancedlearnersof English and
someimplicationsfor teaching. AppliedLinguistics,24, 223-242.

Olsen, S. (1999). Errors andcompensatorystrategies: A study of grammarand
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translationsas afunction of proficiency. Modern LanguageJournal, 80, 478-

Sanaoui,R. (1995). Adult learners'approachesto learning vocabulary in second
languages.Modern LanguageJournal, 79, 15-28.

Schatz,E., & Baldwin, R. (1986). Contextclues areunreliablepredictorsof word
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Schmitt, N. (1998). Measuring collocational knowledge: Key issues and an
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About the Author

Keith Folse isAssistantProfessorand MATESOLProgram Coordinator at the

University ofCentral Florida. He is theauthorofnumerousESL books and afrequent

conferencepresenterall over the world. This article isbasedon his most recent

publicationVocabularyMyths (UniversityofMichigan Press).

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