Memory Techniques in Learning English Vocabulary

Subject: Education
Pages: 18
Words: 4938
Reading time:
18 min
Study level: Undergraduate

Vocabulary Defined

What is a Word?

The meaning of each word is unique and has its own purpose. People have to base their communications on properly chosen words and ideas in order to explain their intentions, plans, and goals. Though it not always easy to comprehend the meaning of each word, people have to take into consideration a variety of meanings and importance to comprehend words while using them. English vocabulary is a complicated item to deal with, this is why it is crucially important to evaluate the definition of each point and be sure the meaning of the “word” is clear. Among the variety of definitions for the term “word”, the information from Merriam Webster Dictionary (2011) seems to be one of the clearest and the most appropriate explanations: word should be defined as “something that is said b plural” or “a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use”. Though it is not the only one definition of the term, such identification of the main aspects is regarded as the successful explanation of a “word” and its role in society. It is hard to develop communication without words, and people have to realize that there are a number of speech components which define their vocabulary. This is why talking about vocabulary used by people, it is necessary to underline and explain the meaning of its main component, a word, in order get a clear understanding of the matter.

What does it mean to know a word?

To understand better the meaning of the term “word” and its role in people communication, it is obligatory to consider several investigations on the field made by different people. On the one hand, such observations of someone’s ideas will help to realize how people define the meaning of the word; on the other hand, such approach will identify several aspects of the term “word” and the variety of its attributes. In this project, the works by Miller, who investigates the chosen item, and Wessman, who creates a particular criterion of word’s meaning, will be taken into consideration. The point is that these works have been created during different periods and such attitude to research will allow to consider the aspect of time and current conditions in society.

In his work “On Knowing a Word”, Miller (1999: 1) states that the individual who “knows a word knows much more than its meaning and pronunciation.” With the help of such contributions to the world of linguistics, people are free to improve their knowledge of the required theme and be able to accept the standards created by society in a clear and coherent way. It may happen that the meaning of a word is not a simple thing to understand, and human achievements as well as actions and thoughts should be based on clear definitions and evaluations.

Miller (1999: 1) writes that it has been the fascination of many psychologists to question what it really means to ‘know’ a word. His own desire to be more aware of the meaning of word makes him taking a variety of steps which were not always rational and understandable. Miller realized that words were interrelated in some way, still, to define their meanings means to neglect their inferential aspects and pay more attention to inherent complexity. For example, he investigated the ideas of Galton (1879) and his experiments with word associations and Binet (1911) testing mental age through use of word tasks. Miller also cites Ogden (1934) who selected 850 words that he deemed the individual must know to master Basic English and Buhler (1834) and his analysis of deictic words that make acquisition of referential value from the contexts in which the words are usedVerbal-linguistic intelligence used in communicating with one another is the method that human beings use to understand one another. Verbal-linguistic communication may be either formal or informal in nature and includes such as writing a letter, creating poetry, keeping a diary, and many other such activities that are comprised by the ability of “thinking words and to use language to express and appreciate complex meanings.” (Miller)

Verbal-linguistic intelligence is reported to be used in other activities such as storytelling, telling jokes as well as the “use of metaphors, similes and analogies…in learning proper grammar and syntax in speaking and writing.” (Wessman, n.d) The verbal-linguistic capabilities are primarily located in the left hemisphere of the brain and specifically in the temporal cortex area in what is known as ‘Broaca’s Area’. Included in verbal-linguistic intelligence are the following four primary sensitivity areas:

  1. Semantics – shades of meanings of words, whereby an individual appreciates the subtle shades of difference in descriptors;
  2. Phonology – the sounds, rhythm, inflection, and meter of words, which give them a kind of interactional effect on one another. It is here that how something is said is as important as what is said;
  3. Syntax – or the order among words, which involves the rules which govern the ordering of words in speech or writing, as well as their meaning within a particular context; and
  4. Praxis – the different uses of words as in sentence structure, or in understanding the cultural nuances of words, or the emotive aspects of language. Though each of these dimensions of VL intelligence can be isolated, in reality they all function as an integrated whole. (Wessman n.d.: 1)

Verbal-linguistic learning capacities include the following capacities: (1) Understanding the order and the meaning of words; (2) Convincing someone of a course of action; (3) Explaining, teaching and learning humor; (4) Memory and recall; and (5)Meta-linguistic skills. (Wessman) Verbal-Linguistic Capacities Developmental Journey skill levels include the following three levels: (1) the basic skill level; (2) the complex skill level; and (3) the Coherence level. (Wessman)

The basic skills level “involves acquisition and basic development of ‘building block’ language arts capacities, including simple reading and writing and rudimentary patterns of speaking” include the following:

  • Knowledge of the alphabet;
  • Recognition of one’s own name in writing and in conversation;
  • Single word utterances; speaking pairs of words and meaningful phrases;
  • Creation of simple sentences, generally with poor syntax in speaking; a
  • Ability to perform ‘imitation writing’ especially of one’s own name and other letters. (Wessman)

The Complex Skill Level is reported by Wessman to involve the understanding of ‘various aspects of language as a system, for example, grammar, syntax, phonetics and praxis and the development of language comprehension skills” including the following stated skills:

  1. complex and proper use of language to communicate ideas, desires, and feelings;
  2. capacity to tell jokes and understand various kinds of language-based humor;
  3. expanded vocabulary including skill in using new words in speaking and writing;
  4. execution of self-initiated writing to communicate thoughts, opinions, feelings and so on;
  5. Comprehension of information presented in a written format;
  6. self-expression in various creative writing forms.

Coherence level verbal-linguistic developmental journey is reported by Wessman to involve “development of the creative and self-expressive dimensions of linguistic communications and expanded comprehension and interpretive capacities” including:

  1. ability to create original stories and relate classical and previously heard stories;
  2. execution of various types of formal speaking;
  3. skilled use of various figures of speech;
  4. ability to engage in metalinguistic analysis and dialogue.

Wallace (2007) writes that the greatest of all challenges English language learners must overcome to read at the grade level appropriate for their age is certainly a kind of lack of vocabulary development.

His investigations introduce a simple still rather educative truth about the learning process and importance of vocabulary in education:

The use of cognates, teaching the meaning of basic words and review and reinforcement are important steps in developing the vocabulary of English language learners. Direct instruction in vocabulary, combined with word-learning strategies, was also found to be effective. Ultimately, vocabulary knowledge is a critical component of reading comprehension. (Wallace, 2007: 1).

Vocabulary depth

Certain attention should be paid to such term as vocabulary depth and its peculiar features. In fact, vocabulary depth of word knowledge is reported to include all word langiage characteristics such as phonemic, graphemic, morphemic, syntactic, semantic, collocational and phraseological properties (Coyne et al, 2009) Breadth and depth are critically important in learning English vocabulary and this makes the question of what the best method is in the provision of instruction in English vocabulary or specifically what memory techniques for learning English vocabulary are the most appropriate and effective for English vocabulary learning. While breadth or the number of words known by the student or word meanings contained the student lexicon is a “…primary dimension of vocabulary knowledge depth” and another is stated to be that of “significant dimension. Knowledge of each word meaning exists on a continuum from no knowledge to varying levels of partial knowledge to more complete and full knowledge.” (Coyne, et al, 2009)

It is necessary to admit that

Depth of word knowledge has important implications for listening or reading comprehension. How well, or deeply, a word is known determines whether or not it can be discriminated from other words and understood in novel contexts or in different morphosyntactic forms. Therefore, another critical goal of direct vocabulary instruction is to help students develop sufficient depth of word knowledge to support comprehension. Instructional approaches that focus on developing depth of vocabulary knowledge most often provide students with extended opportunities to discuss and interact with words outside story readings. (Coyne et al., 2009)

Coyne et al (2009) report that benefits have been shown to be linked to extended vocabulary instruction as it aims to “receive more encounters with and exposure to target vocabulary. Extended vocabulary instruction also provides students with opportunities to interact with words outside the narrative constraints of the story” (Coyne, et al, 2009: 3). Such evaluation of the details provides teachers with a possibility to find appropriate examples of target words and the ways of how they may be used in novel contexts. In addition, the focus of activities of extended instruction is on “enabling students to engage in rich dialogic interactions around words and word meaning. The deep and refined knowledge of word meanings that is the goal of extended instruction may better support comprehension across varied contexts.” (Coyne, et al, 2009) The primary limitation of extended vocabulary instruction is the amount of time required to teach each target word.” (Coyne, et al, 2009)

Vocabulary breadth

Breadth, or the “number of words known” can be clearly differentiated from vocabulary depth. The work of Coyne et al (2009) reports a study that compared two methods for direct teaching of word meanings to kindergarten students. The participants in the study included 42-kindergarten student who were taught nine target words and three with each method used in this study. Coyne et al states that students enter school “…with significant differences in vocabulary knowledge and these differences grow larger in the early grades. Converging evidence has suggested that instruction in code-based skills is insufficient to meet the needs of students who are at risk for experiencing reading problems because of language and vocabulary difficulties.” This highlights the growing acknowledgment of the critical nature of vocabulary development acceleration in students at a young age through use of “targeted and teacher-supported instruction and other intervention efforts.” (Coyne, 2009)

Coyne et al (2009) additionally reports that individuals interested in academic achievement being accelerated are presented with barriers in regards to the better way to “leverage scarce instructional time. In vocabulary intervention research, discussions about leveraging instructional time often revolve around the trade-offs between teaching for breadth or depth.” When kindergarten begins each year the students generally know literally thousands more meanings to words than peers who are considered “at risk of language and learning difficulties” with this gap growing even wider in the primary school grades. (Coyne, et al, 2009, paraphrased)

Biemiller and Slonim (2001) have stated estimations that children with large vocabularies by second grade “…know approximately 4,000 more root word meanings than children with delays in vocabulary development.” (Coyne, et al, 2009) It is reported that the breadth of a learner’s word knowledge “is the number of words for which the individual has at least some familiarity with their meaning. “ (Curtis, nd) The importance of the individual’s vocabulary breadth is important because the more word meanings learners know, the easier it is for them to acquire new ones.” (Curtis, nd)

The Size of the Mental Lexicon

Native Speakers

Having a big vocabulary is reported to be “a prerequisite for reading (and presumably) listening ability” (Meara, 2010). Vocabulary size also is stated to be, potentially, a reliable predictor “not just of reading success, but of overall linguistic competence.” (Meara, 2010) In first language acquisition, “the processes of vocabulary development and grammar development are closely intertwined, with the former possibly driving the latter.” (Meara, 2010) It is reported that only after children have vocabularies of several hundred forms of [do], they begin to produce in earnest grammatical speech. Within a short period of time, it becomes clear that the process of learning words and the process of learning different grammatical constructions are the two main aspects of the whole educative process.

Learners of English

English as a second language

Certain changes and evaluations are required in case teachers should introduce new information and teach learners who have English as their second language.

It is essential to determine whether students have adequate receptive and expressive vocabularies in their first, if they can read in their first language, and their developmental age and age of acquisition for their second language, which can affect their ability to understand concepts. It is important to decide which expressive and receptive vocabularies to assess, the first language, or the target language; the student’s second language. (Miller & Taylor, n.d.)

There are various factors known to affect the vocabulary learning of students therefore, teachers “…have to know as much as possible about the individual students. It is important to keep careful records of speech interactions and seek to understand the student’s history with regards to language learning.” (Miller and Taylor) A student’s vocabulary is reported to be greatly influenced “…by the amount of talk in their environment, bilingual students’ vocabulary is influenced by the amount of talk in each language. Therefore, bilingual students may have a restricted vocabulary in each language. Their teachers need to understand this as they interpret assessments, and they should work to expand their students’ vocabulary (Tabors & Snow, 2004). It might behoove teachers to assess oral language proficiency in both languages to better understand their students’ strengths and weaknesses in this area.” (Miller and Taylor) Tabors and Snow (2004) have reported concern that learning to read in a language that the individual has not yet mastered “carries with it the risk that students will not understand that reading is about making meaning.”

English as a foreign language

The work of Yamashita and Jiang (2010) investigated first language and its influence on the acquisition of second language collocations using a framework based on Knoll and Stewart (1994) and Jiang (2000) through a comparison on the performance on a phrase-acceptability judgment task among native speakers of English, Japanese English as a second language (ESL) users and Japanese English as a foreign language (EFL) learners. The test materials are reported to have:

Both congruent collocations, whose lexical components were similar in L1 and L2, and incongruent collocations, whose lexical components differed in the two languages. Findings in the study show that EFL learners made more errors with and reacted more slowly to incongruent collocations than congruent collocations. ESL users were found to perform generally better than EFL learners (low error rate and faster speed) but they still made more errors on incongruent collocations than on congruent collocations. The results suggested that: (a) both L1 congruency and L2 exposure affected the acquisition of L2 collocations with the availability of both maximizing this acquisition; and (b) it is difficult to acquire incongruent collocations even with considerable amount of exposure to L2; and (c) once stored in memory, L2 collocations are processed independently of L1. (Yamashita & Jiang, 2010: 647)

Summary and Conclusion

The notion of vocabulary breadth have to be distinguished as vocabulary depth of word knowledge by means of which the vast majority of word’s characteristics like phonemic, graphemic, morphemic, syntactic, semantic, collocational and phraseological are defined as language main properties (they were properly defined by Coyne and his team); while vocabulary breadth is the number of words the individual actually knows. The relation between these two items is close indeed, and linguistic researchers should focus on their role in the field and their impact on the vocabulary development. The number of words known by an individual directly affects their ability to read and listen. The more the individual hears the words spoken and uses them in speaking the more proficient the individual becomes at reading. This means that the native speaker and the English as Second Language learner are more familiar with the words making them more proficient at reading than the English as a foreign language learner who rarely if ever hears the English words spoken aloud.

Children Learning Their First Language

Characteristics of Young Learners

There are many different aspects of vocabulary knowledge, and the process of education should be based on properly defined items and peculiarities. In this chapter, certain attention will be paid to the ways of how children are ready to perceive new material and new vocabulary during their educative programs. According to Miller and Taylor (n.d.) vocabulary is “not decoding or word identification; rather, the focus is always on meaning.” When the time for students to develop their reading abilities comes, certain attention should be paid to focus on reading the vocabulary as vocabulary knowledge as any other type of knowledge is closely tied to human comprehension. The work of Lefever (2007) explains how young learners have to consider the following characteristics:

  • they are keen and enthusiastic;
  • they are curious and inquisitive;
  • they are outspoken;
  • they are creative and imaginative;
  • they are active and like to move around;
  • they are interested in exploration;
  • they learn by doing;
  • they are holistic, natural learners searching for meaningful messages. (Lefever, 2007)

According to Pinter (2005) “There are some advantages that young learners have over older ones. Young children are sensitive to the sounds and the rhythm of new languages and they enjoy copying new sounds and patterns of intonation. In addition, younger learners are usually less anxious and less inhibited than older learners.” (Lefever, 2007)

Lefever additionally states that the needs and characteristics of young learners “have implications for language instruction. Teachers should provide a wide range of opportunities for hearing and using the language and play should be an active part of the teaching. Tasks should be meaningful and help children to make sense of new experiences by relating them to what they already know. The use of routine and repetition should be emphasized along with opportunities for interaction and cooperation.” (2007) Lefever reports that maintaining the positive attitudes, motivation and self-confidence of children requires both praise and encouragement.

Development Psychology on Language Learning


One of the prominent figures in the field of sociology and linguistic was Jean Piaget. His contribution to the sphere of human development is huge indeed, still, his studies about children and their development raise a number of discussions even nowadays. The point is that Piaget (1973) believed that the development of logical thought is dependent on social interaction. In Becker and Varelas’ work (2000), the ideas of Piaget are clearly identified. This thinker admitted that

Complete reversibility presupposes symbolism, because it is only by reference to the possible evocation of absent objects that the assimilation of things to action schemes and the accommodation of action schemes to things reach permanent equilibrium, and thus constitute a reversible mechanism. The symbolism of individual images fluctuates far too much to lead to this result. Language is therefore necessary and thus we come back to social factors. (Becker & Varelas, 2000: 22)

Piaget linked the role of social interaction to the importance of language. Piaget (1995) held that language played a role in the development of conceptual and logical understandings. The work of Becker and Varelas states that this theory “…provides an account of two developments of the semiotic function. The first is a development from the absence of representation to the generation of mental images that arise from perception and action, which Piaget considered to be strongly tied to experiential knowing. The second is a development from such mental images to arbitrary conventional signs, which Piaget considered to be less directly tied to experiential knowing. In this theory, the signifier is at first an internal image derived from perceptions and actions and resulting from extended accommodation. At this point, thought is still particular and individual. The development from the first signifiers to signifiers that support the development of logical thought arises from the “intervention of language.” (Becker and Varelas, 1997) Piaget wrote the following to illustrate this view:

We have to attempt to determine the connection between the imitative image, ludic symbolism and representative intelligence, i.e., between cognitive representation and the representation of imitation and play. This very complex problem is still further complicated by the intervention of language, collective verbal signs coming to interfere with the symbols we have already analyzed, in order to make possible the construction of concepts. It is moreover unnecessary to emphasize that this irreversible centration of the first conceptual representations is mainly expressed socially as egocentrism of thought. (Becker and Varelas, 1997)

In other words, since a “concept centered on typical elements corresponding to the lived experience of the individual and symbolized by an image rather than by language, could neither be a general notion nor be capable of being fully communicated.” (Becker and Varelas, 1997) The idea of Piaget in the foregoing passage is stated to be that “the arbitrary nature of the signifiers of a language facilitates a relative detachment of the concept from the lived experience to which it refers and that this relative detachment is necessary for the concept to become an instrument of logical reasoning.” (Becker and Varelas, 1997) It is reported that Piaget viewed language, as “inherently a social factor partly because of the conventional nature of words and it is just this conventional nature of words that Piaget saw as crucial for conceptual development.” (Becker and Varelas, 1997)


Certain attention should be paid to the achievements of Russian psychologist and linguist who worked during the Soviet Union period, Lev Vygotsky. His ideas and approaches deserve recognition because of several factors: first, Vygotsky defines a child in his own particular way; and second, his evaluation of language is based on some psychological factors. The work of LeGard (2004: 2) states that Vygotsky perceived the child “as a social being who is able to appropriate new patterns of thinking when learning alongside a more competent individual.” Such attitude to knowledge and studies promoted him to create a new concept in the sphere of linguistic and define it as the zone of so called Proximal Development. Such clearly defined expanse takes place between a particular child’s level of development and his/her potential level of knowledge. According to LeGard (2004: 2) social interaction “supports the child’s cognitive development in the ZPD, leading to a higher level of reasoning.”

Vygotsky defined two types of language functionality which are inner sppech that may be used by people because of some mental reasons and external speech that is usually used to be converse with other speeches. As a rule, such languages should be separated at the very beginning of the process during a particular age of a child. Before the child is two years of age the words are used by the child socially but have no internal language meaning. However, upon thought and language merging “the social language is internalized and assists the child with their reasoning” (LeGard, 2004: 2), still, it is necessary to keep in mind that social environment is usually perceived by a child during the process of education, and any kind of mistake or misunderstanding will become a crucial point in child’s development.

The nature of the chosen constructivist theory is usually exploratory; it means that some investigations and innovations are obligatory for proper understanding of the matter. This is why the process of why a learner comprehends something depends on a number of outside factors which are predetermined by a particular event. LeGard (2004: 2) writes that social constructivism “maintains that knowledge is constructed by an understanding of social and cultural encounters and by the collaborative nature of learning. Social constructivist theory emphasizes the significance of adult tuition with the teacher occupying an active role.”


“How Did They Do It? Language Learning in Bruner and Wittgenstein” is an outstanding work by Richers during which the author explains the peculiarities of the ideas of another famous linguist, Bruner. This researcher admitted that children should not be drilled, still, they have to be guided by a kind of natural tendency “both mutual attention and agreeing on reference which is augmented by a device to acquire language” (Richers, n.d.) As it is mentioned in Richer’s (n.d.), Bruner believed that a child should be “natural disposition systematicity and means-end abstraction, which is augmented by the constrained, familiar situations of action and interaction, which support a high degree of order. Infants are extraordinarily social and communicative.” Richers writes that children provide an eager response to the actions of other people and find it interesting to spend a great many hours playing and observing. The activities of children deserve certain attention:

Doing a limited number of things with their caretakrs, repeatedly going through the child’s ever-growing repertoire of games, responding to prompts, exchanging smiles, and so forth. Underlying a child’s approach to the world is a nave realism: children do not question the existence of mental phenomena, other beings or physical objects. At first they cannot distinguish between thoughts and things, or between others’ and their own mental activity. But even extremely young children have communicative intentions that they try to make clear through constant and repeated negotiations. Over time, such negotiations lead to ever more complex communicative and then to recognizable linguistic procedures, to language-games. Language learning consists not only of learning grammar, but “of realizing one’s intentions in the appropriate use of that grammar. (Richers, n.d.)

Bruner posited a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) to explain children’s language learning.

Children Learning a Foreign Language

Monolingual Children

The work of Erika Hoff and Jodi McKay entitled “Phonological Memory Skill in Monolingual and Bilingual 23-Month-Olds” reports that word learning includes the formation of a lexical entry or stated otherwise, when the child encounters a new word that word must be stored in the child’s memory as a new sound sequence. (Paraphrased) According to Hoff and McKay memory is dependent on possessing a “system of rrepresentation that captures the to-be-remembered stimuli.” (2004) Children who are learning two languages are reported to potentially have systems of phonological representation for each language that are not established as well as their monolingual peers. In fact, evidence from a study of two year old children indicates that bilingual children “…may process both their languages through a single phonological system—the system of whichever language the child hears more.” (Navarro, 1998; Navarro, Pearson, Cobo-Lewis, & Oller, 1998 in: Hoff and McKay, 2004)

The evidence is stated to demonstrate that: (1) phonological memory is related to vocabulary learning; (2) phonological memory is related to knowledge of the phonological system to which new sound sequences conform; and (3) bilingualism affect phonological development suggest that bilingual children have phonological memory skills that are less developed than their monolingual peers. (Hoff and McKay, 2004) In fact, sound evidence exists to indicate that bilingual children and young adults “have smaller vocabularies in each of their languages than do monolingual children of the same age.” (Hoff and McKay, 2004) It is currently held that this difference is related to the amount of input received by the children in each language. The evidence in this area of study indicates that bilingual children are more challenged in learning new words due to a difficulty experienced in new sound sequence memory.

Bilingual Children

Reports state that children who grow up with two or more languages are many times “slower to talk than a monolingual child.” It is reported that this is not surprising “given the amount of analysis and code-cracking necessary to organize two systems simultaneously, but the lifelong advantage of knowing two native languages is considered an appropriate balance to the cost of potential delay.” (Lewin, 2011) Bilingualism is reported to be the norm throughout the modern world with monolinguals being the exception to the rule. It is reported that learning of each language for the bilingual child “proceeds…much the same way as it does [for] the monolingual child…” although “some mixing may be observed, in which the child uses words or inflections from the two languages in one utterance.” (Lewin, 2011)

Summary and Conclusion

In summary, Chapter 2 has reviewed the various theorist including Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner and their beliefs on language learning. Each of these individuals held that language learning is a social type of learning or in other words, that speaking and listening assist the child in learning to read and in their memorization of new sound sequences. Children who are bilingual experience more difficulty in remembering new sound sequences than do monolingual children.


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