Thursday, May 24, 2007

Teaching and Learning Vocabulary

The following book review originally appeared in the spring 2007 issue of TESL Canada Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2.

Elfrieda H. Hiebert & Michael L. Kamil (Eds.). Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing scientific research to practice. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. (2005). 273 pages.

Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice (TLV) is aimed at researchers, and graduate students whose focus is children learning to read English as their first language. In fact, the U.S.-based National Reading Panel, whose investigations is largely the impetus for TLV, specifically excluded from its research database studies dealing with “foreign languages or non-English-speaking groups, or… special populations, including second-language learners” (NICHHD, 2000, p 4-16). A quick scan through the references confirms that the same approach is evident in TLV; the major TESL publications and vocabulary researchers are largely overlooked. This gap aside, there is a great deal of valuable research and insight but it all needs to be considered through the lens of an ESL environment.

Interestingly, the findings and recommendations of the various authors across the chapters largely mirror much recent L2 vocabulary literature (e.g., Nation, 2001; Folse, 2004). For instance, like Nation and Folse, TLV argues strongly that direct instruction in vocabulary is needed. Following Zeno, Ivens, Millard, & Duvvuri (1995), it identifies a core set of 5,586 unique word forms that establish the basis for further reading and vocabulary development: almost the same 2,000 high frequency word families promoted in the L2 literature (e.g., Nation, 2001). And it similarly identifies 95% as a vocabulary knowledge threshold below which independent reading is too difficult.

The structure of the book, with each chapter authored by different researchers, leads to some overlap and redundancy. Often, however, this is helpful in reinforcing and recontextualising the information. Unfortunately, inconsistencies, such as widely different estimates of vocabulary sizes do remain and are sometimes hard to reconcile. Part of the problem is that although there are many word counts and frequencies discussed, it is sometimes unclear what is being counted. Word is used variously to mean individual word forms (e.g., run and runs = 2 words) and “word families” (e.g., run, runs, ran, running, & runner = 1 word family) and it is not always clear which meaning is intended. Despite this issue, the text is generally precise and easy to read.

The first section sets out the empirical and theoretical basis for the rest of the book: why vocabulary is important for success in reading, why it needs to be taught directly, and why students need to read extensively. The second section then goes into how this should be realised in the classroom. In particular, the chapter by Stahl provides many techniques that could be used with any ESL class. The third section focuses on which words to teach. It is likely the one with the least direct applicability to ESL contexts although the theoretical basis behind it remains pertinent; focus on the “Goldilocks words”—those not to frequent and not too rare, but just right.

In short, TLV is not the kind of book that belongs on every ESL teacher’s bookshelf but it does fill a gap in the literature, and it does so with much scholarship and perspicuity.

  • Folse, K. S. (2004). Vocabulary myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  • Nation, I.S.P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved Dec. 16, 2006 from
  • Zeno, S. M., Ivens, S. H., Millard, R. T., & Duvvuri, R. (1995). The educator’s word frequency guide. Brewster, NY: Touchstone Applied Science Associates.

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