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What is vocabulary and what needs to be taught
Scris de mihaiela lazar   
Vineri, 08 Septembrie 2017 17:47


Autor: Prof. Felherț Monica, Gradul Didactic I

Liceul Tehnologic Nr.1 Salonta, Bihor

Vocabulary can be defined, roughly, as the words we teach in the foreign language. However, a new item of vocabulary may be more than a single word: for example, post office and mother-in-law, which are made up of two or three words but express a single idea. There are also multi-word idioms such as call it a day, where the meaning of the phrase cannot be deduced from an analysis of the component words. A useful convention is to cover all such cases by talking about vocabulary 'items' rather than 'words'. (Ur, 1996: 60)

What needs to be taught?

1. Form: pronunciation and spelling

The learner has to know what a word sounds like (its pronunciation) and what it looks like (its spelling). These are fairly obvious characteristics, and one or the other will be perceived by the learner when encountering the item for the first time. In teaching, we need to make sure that both these aspects areaccurately presented and learned.

2. Grammar

The grammar of a new item will need to be taught if this is not obviously covered by general grammatical rules. An item may have an unpredictable change of form in certain grammatical contexts or may have some idiosyncratic!

When teaching a new verb, for example, we might give also its past form, if this is irregular (think, thought), and we might note if it is transitive or intransitive.

Similarly, when teaching a noun, we' may wish to present its plural form, if irregular (mouse, mice], or draw learners' attention to the fact that it has no plural at all (advice, information}. We may present verbs such as want and enjoy together with the verb form that follows them (want to, enjoy -ing), oradjectives or verbs together with their following prepositions (responsible for, remind someone of}.(Ur, 1996: 60)

3. Collocation

The collocations typical of particular items are another factor that makes a particular combination sound 'right' or 'wrong' in a given context. So this is another piece of information about a new item which it may be worth teaching.

When introducing words like decision and conclusion, for example, we may note that you take or make the one, but usually come to the other; similarly, you throw a ball but toss a coin; you may talk about someone being dead tired but it sounds odd to say "'dead fatigued.Collocations are also often noted in dictionaries, either by providing the whole collocation under one of the head-words, or by a note in parenthesis.

4. Aspects of meaning (1): denotation, connotation, appropriateness

The meaning of a word is primarily what it refers to in the real world, its denotation; this is often the sort of definition that is given in a dictionary. For example, dog denotes a kind of animal; more specifically, a common, domestic carnivorous mammal; and both dank and moist mean slightly wet.

A less obvious component of the meaning of an item is its connotation: theassociations, or positive or negative feelings it evokes, which may or may not beindicated in a dictionary definition. The word'dog, for example, as understoodby most British people, has positive connotations of friendship and loyalty;whereas the equivalent in Arabic, as understood by most people in Arabcountries has negative associations of dirt and inferiority.

A more subtle aspect of meaning that often needs to be taught is whether aparticular item is the appropriate one to use in a certain context or not. Thus itis useful for a learner to know that a certain word is very common, or relativelyrare, or 'taboo' in polite conversation, or tends to be used in writing but not inspeech, or is more suitable for formal than informal discourse, or belongs to acertain dialect. For example, you may know that weep is virtually synonymousin denotation with cry, but it is more formal, tends to be used in writing morethan in speech, and is in general much less common.(Ur, 1996: 61)

5. Aspects of meaning (2): meaning relationships

How the meaning of one item relates to the meaning of others can also be usefulin teaching. There are various such relationships: here are some of the main ones.

- Synonyms that mean the same, or nearly the same; for example, bright,clever, smart may serve as synonyms of intelligent.

- Antonyms: items that mean the opposite; rich is an antonym of poor.

- Co- hyponms or co-ordinates: other items that are the 'same kind of thing';red, blue, green and brown are co-ordinates.

- Superordinates; general concepts that 'cover' specific items; animal is thesuperordinate of dog, lion, mouse.

- Translation: words or expressions in the learners' mother tongue that are(more or less) equivalent in meaning to the item being taught.

Besides these, there are other, perhaps looser, ways of associating meaning thatare useful in teaching. You can, for instance, relate parts to a whole (therelationship between arm and body}; or associate items that are part of the samereal-world context (tractor, farmer, milking and irrigate are all associated with'agriculture).(Ur, 1996: 61)

6. Word formation

Vocabulary items, whether one-word or multi-word, can often be broken downinto their component 'bits'. Exactly how these bits are put together is anotherpiece of useful information - perhaps mainly for more advanced learners.

For teaching the common prefixes and suffixes: for example, iflearners know the meaning of sub-, un- and -able, this will help them guess themeanings of words like substandard, ungrateful and untranslatable. Theyshould, however, be warned that in many common words the affixes no longerhave any obvious connection with their root meaning (for example, subject,comfortable). New combinations using prefixes are not unusual, and the readeror hearer would be expected to gather their meaning from an understanding oftheir components (ultra-modern, super-hero).

Another way vocabulary items are built is by combining two words (twonouns, or a gerund and a noun, or a noun and a verb) to make one item: a singlecompound word, or two separate, sometimes hyphenated words (bookcase,follow-up, swimming pool). Again, new coinages using this kind ofcombination are very common.(Ur, 1996: 62)


Ur, P. A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and theory.” UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996

Harmer, J.The Practice of English Language Teaching.” New York: Longman Publishing, 1991

Harmer, J.The Practice of English Language Teaching” (3rd ed.). New York: Longman Publishing, 2001

Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching (4thed.)”. New York: Longman Publishing, 2007

Harmer, J. How to Teach English (New ed.)”. Oxford: Pearson/Longman,2007




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