Vocabulary learning strategies

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2006 14 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of contents


1. Definitions and Research into vocabulary learning strategies

2. General conclusions about vocabulary learning strategies

3. Vocabulary learning strategy classifications
3.1. Oxfords system
3.2. Cook, Mayer and Nation´s distinction
3.3. Schmitt´s taxonomy

4. Discussion of selected vocabulary learning strategies
4.1. Guessing and inferrring meaning
4.2. Mnemonic devices with special regards to the Keyword technique





The following paper provides a brief insight into the topíc of „vocabulary learning strategies“, and will present selected aspects of this extensive and complex field of language study. After briefly dealing with the question of „defining“ learning strategies, an overview concerning research into the field will be presented, and some general conlusions which can be drawn about vocabulary learning strategies will be portrayed. Subsequently, three classification systems of vocabulary learning strategies will be delineated, whereas thereafter the paper will elaborate on two selected areas of vocabulary learning strategies, namely „guessing and inferring meaning“ and „mnemonic devices with special regards to the keyword technique“.

1. Definitions and Research into vocabulary learning strategies

Nation (2001) points out, that vocabulary learning strategies are a part of language learning strategies which in turn are a part of general learning strategies. He points out the difficulty of defining a learning strategy, and alludes to the characteristics a vocabulary learning strategy should have:

„A strategy would need to involve choice, that is, there are several strategies to choose from, be complex, that is, there are several steps to learn, require knowledge and benefit from training, and increase the efficiency of vocabulary learning and vocabulary use“ (Nation 2001: 217)

Chamot (2004) states that „learning strategies are the conscious thoughts and actions that learners take in order to achieve a learning goal. Strategic learners have metacognitive knowledge about their own thinking and learning approaches, a good understanding of what a task entails, and the ability to orchestrate the strategies that best meet both the task demands and their own learning strengths“.

(A.U. Chamot 2004. „Issues in language learning strategy research and teaching“. Electronic journal of foreign language teaching. http://eflt.nus.edu.sg/v1n12004/chamot.htm#2.4%20%20Influence%20of%20culture%20and%20context (5. Feb. 2009).

Whereas the time between the 1970´s and the 1990s was characterized by a recurring engagement and interest in the study of vocabulary as well as the field of learner strategies, the period showed a noticeable lack in the intersection of these two areas, namely vocabulary learning strategies. Research which had been carried out until the end of the 90s, paid considerable attention to individual strategies, however, a comprehensive, systemized list did not exist. While a variety of strategies were being identified, researchers were also attempting to develop a categorization framework which could adequately describe them. Despite this, few individual vocabulary learning strategies have been researched in any depth, the main exceptions being guessing from context and certain mnemonics like the Keyword Method, which will be referred to below in greater detail. Research into vocabulary learning strategies earnestly began during the 1970s, with shift from a more teaching-oriented perspective to a focus on the learner, as well as interest in how his actions would affect the acquisition of language. Researchers increasingly became aware of the fact that the impact of studying vocabulary not only was a question of inherent ability, but also strongly depended on the learner´s effort. Consequently, this insight led to a growing interest in how learners managed to gain knowledge, what techniques they favourably used to learn new words, and what methods they applied in order to achieve their goals in the language learning process. Whereas the beginning of research into the topic was signified by a focus on finding out the most beneficial vocabulary learning strategies, there were cumulative attempts categorize and develope an adequate framework for those strategies (cf. Schmitt 1997).

2. General conclusions about vocabulary learning strategies

A combination of general language-learning strategies and vocabulary-specific studies sheds light on some tentative general conclusions about vocabulary learning strategies (cf. Schmitt 1997). First of all, Schmitt (1997) states that many learners actually do use vocabulary learning strategies, especially when compared to other language activities. The reasons for the higher usage of strategies in this field could on the one hand be the fact that vocabulary learning strategies can more easily be applied in comparison to more integrative language tasks. On the other hand the higher strategy use could also be due to the learners´awareness of the importance of vocabulary in the language learning process. When it comes to the most used or most favoured vocabulary strategies, Schmitt (1997) on the one hand refers to Cohen and Aphek (1981), who figured that a lot of students just tried to learn the new words by heart. On the other he cites Ahmed (1989), who found out that most students just take notes above the new words or at the margins of their books. Out of line with current insights from the field of cognitive psychology, which states that „deeper“ activities in the study of vocabulary contribute and tremendously promote the progress of efficient learning, many students seem to favour more mechanical strategies over more complex ones (cf. Schmitt 1997). „Deeper“ vocabulary strategies would for instance include the „Keyword method“, or making associations, which in opposition to „simpler“ strategies, advance and intensify the retention of the target word. However, this does not mean that shallower activities do not have benefits for their users. As success with regards to vocabulary learning is imbedded in a multifactorial process, which always depends to a great extent on the context in which the learning strategies are applied, it is crucial for learners to figure out those specific strategies which individually suit them. In this regard, it is important to keep in mind that vocabulary learning activities are not to be considered inherently beneficial. As emphasized by Chamot and Rubin (1994), active management of vocabulary strategy use proves to be important.

„Thus, the effectiveness with which learning strategies can be both taught and used, will depend on a number of variables, including „proficiency level, language task, text, language modality, background knowledge, context of learning, target language, and learner characteristics“ (Chamot and Rubin 1994: 772).

Generally speaking, more complex or „deeper“ vocabulary learning strategies might be more suitable for advanced learners, whereas basic or shallower activites contain more benefits for beginners (cf.Schmitt 1997). In this context, Schmitt also adverts to the importance of „culture“ as a learner characteristic, since different culture groups often have different opinions about the effectiveness of certain vocabulary learning strategies. Chamot also refers to cultural issues in the field of vocabulary learning:

„The learner’s goals, the context of the learning situation, and the cultural values of the learner’s society can be expected to have a strong influence on choice and acceptability of language learning strategies. For example, in a culture that prizes individual competition and has organized its educational system around competitive tasks, successful language learners may prefer strategies that allow them to work alone rather than social strategies that call for collaboration with others.“



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Title: Vocabulary learning strategies