Vocabulary is part of all aspects of language learning. As students create, read and write, they are using and assimilating necessary words. Current acquisition theory supports increased emphasis on vocabulary learning because "we acquire morphology and syntax because we understand the meaning of utterances," according to "The Natural Approach."

Students focus on the meaning of the material and begin to develop a feel for the word-building process and the overall grammar. Vocabulary should not just be listed and drilled, but included in all phases of language learning.

According to Keith Folse in TESOL Quarterly, second-language learners need about 2,000 words for conversation, 3,000 words for reading and 10,000 words to read academic texts, making vocabulary one of the most challenging aspects of learning a second language.

Robert Lado tells us in "Readings on English as a Second Language" that teachers need to realize that there are three aspects of words: form, meaning and distribution. The form includes sound segments, stress and — in some languages tone.

The word-form exercises in ESL readers illustrate that words may include a stem "intention" and a suffix "al" as in "intentional." Two word verbs and idioms combine words to form new semantic ideas as in "call up," "look up" and "catch on."

The meaning is related to the whole context. The primary meaning of "get" changes in the expression "He got six months" meaning "He suffered imprisonment for six months. The word "hand" means what you hold on with, but it also is used in the following ways:

  • Hand me the salt, please.
  • I finally have a winning hand!
  • The audience gave her a big hand.
  • Joe needs a new hired hand.
  • The children are in good hands.
  • Can I lend you a hand.
  • Mom keeps some extra money on hand.

Other examples include:

  • ask for her hand in marriage
  • hand-to-hand combat
  • the hands of the clock

"Hand" is a noun but also a verb: "Hand me that book." or "I have to hand it to you, you really did a good job." It's also a modifier "hand tools" or "handheld video camera" or even a "handout" (assignment) or a "handout" (asking for something free).

Another problem is the distribution of a word. "Water" can be a noun as in a "glass of water," a verb as in "water the garden," or as a modifier as in a "water bed."

Sample Exercise:

Are the words similar or different?

  1. car automobile
  2. tree house
  3. house dwelling
  4. country nation
  5. room box

It is good to arrange lessons around topics to allow learners to learn words in semantic groups (foods, sports, stative verbs, etc.)

Sample Exercise:

These words are related. Use the best word in each sentence.

( teacher / instructor / professor / teaching assistant / dean )

  1. The dean is a supervisor.
  2. A ______ is a college or university faculty member.
  3. The high school ______ have a meeting today.
  4. Graduate students often work as ______ .
  5. An ______ is a lower level college teacher.

Input from the instructor provides additional related words as needed since the given vocabulary may not be adequate for the students to express what they really feel.