Improving Vocabulary & Comprehension in English

In the last time, research on vocabulary learning and teaching in second languages has gained a privileged position within the investigation of second language learning and teaching.

Many studies confirm the connection between vocabulary size and reading comprehension. Some even argue that increase in vocabulary improves quality of reading comprehension and learning (Cunningham 2010) .Schmitt ( 2000) mentions that a person needs to know between 95- 98 % of the words in a text in order to understand it successfully.

Educators and scientists alike view vocabulary as stepping-stone in developing reading comprehension.

Vocabulary size acts as a bottleneck that prevents learning.

Lexical Quality Hypothesis explains how vocabulary affects reading comprehension (Perfetti & Hart, 2002). Lexical representations are orthographic, phonologic, and syntactico-semantic. The theory argues that quality of representations controls how easy or difficult is to retrieve information from memory. Also, access depends on how detailed is one’s knowledge of each representation, and how integrated the items are in one’s memory (Perfetti and Hart 2002; Perfetti & Lesgold, 1979).

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Another research shows that comprehension and novel word learning is increasingly difficult when individual reads printed texts containing over 2% unknown words (Carver, 1994).

Educators are increasingly aware of the importance of vocabulary for mastering comprehension of written text. This is especially relevant for nonnative language speakers. These students suffer even more delay in word acquisition. This paper will briefly review the literature on word knowledge definition and the aspects involved in knowing a word. In the second part, the paper will propose that strategies involving morphology and incidental learning are successful at improving vocabulary.

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Knowing a word.

Knowing a word involves much more than knowing its meaning (the concept that designates a word) and its acquisition.

Richards (1985) states that knowing a word involves knowing about its frequency of use, the syntactic and situational limitation on its use; its underlying form and the forms that can be derived from it, the network of its semantic features and the various meanings associated with the item.

Whereas Nation (1990) says that knowing a word also implies knowing its spelling, pronunciation, collocation and appropriateness.

Seal (1991) agrees with Nation regarding considering that word knowledge is an essential component of communicative competence, and it is important to develop receptive (listening, reading) and productive (writing and speaking) skills in a foreign language. “Receptive carry the idea that we receive language input through others by listening or reading and try to comprehend it, productive that we produce language form by speaking and writing to convey messages to others” Nation, I. S ( 2001: 24).

Therefore, after analyzing different researcher’s points of view, what can be asserted is that word knowledge, in a strict sense, means ability to recognize the meaning of a word. It can refer to passive recognition of words in speech, or to active production of words. To clarify the idea, consider this example: student Anna deduces the meaning of a word from its use, but does not actively use the word in his or her own speech. In this example, word knowledge consists of passive understanding of meaning from context. Conversely, recognizing the meaning of the word, and correctly using it in one’s speech, describes production of the word. An individual may score positively or negatively on word knowledge, depending on whether the test focuses on word reception or production.

A language receptor has different knowledge than a producer. Communication concerned with reception means form recognition, awareness of the correct sound, shape, and recognizable parts. For meaning and form, one must deduce connotation from context. Also, one must recognize grammatical roles from word pattern, collocations, and neighboring words and constraints on word use.

In the previous example, student Anna may read the phrase ‘transition from kindergarten to primary school’, and deduce that transition means progression. She recognizes the shape, sound, and identifies transit as word root. It means change, and uses prepositions as collocations. Student Anna, as passive listener, has a satisfactory knowledge of transit.

If word knowledge needs production of the word, then student Anna does not know the word. She cannot say or spell the word, or recall synonyms, collocations, grammatical forms, and prescriptive rules.

Nation (2003), Schmitt (2000) and Miller (1999) suggest that there are several factors involved in knowing a word.

Table 1 includes these features. I will use the same word mentioned before to exemplify.

Core meaning or connotation: This is the literal meaning of the word, usually find in the dictionary.

. E.g. Transit: the process of moving, or the movement of goods or people from one place to another.

Phonological structure: The use of sounds to encode meaning in spoken language

. E.g. Transit generally pronounced /ˈtræn.zɪt/

Orthographic structure: Word spelling.

E.g. t-r-a-n-s-i-t

Part of speech: Grammar classification.

E.g. Transit is a Noun and a verb.

Collocation behavior: Word which co- occur together with high frequency.

E.g. Mass transit, rapid transit.

Register: a particular style of language which is appropriate in certain circumstances.

E.g. Transit is a broadly accepted word for the process of moving.

Grammatical function: The syntactic relationships between words in a sentence

E.g. The transit of Venus. In this case transit is the subject of the sentence and it is been used as a noun.

Synonymy: a word that can be exchanged for another without changing the meaning of the sentence.

E.g. Transit and Journey are synonyms.

Connotation: The emotional associations that a word may contain.

E.g. A positive connotation of transit may be good memories of a Journey.

Polysemy: multiple meanings of a single word

E.g. Transit means its core meaning as above or a type of road vehicle used especially for carrying goods.

Vocabulary improvement in ESL

Language acquisition is complex, and begins in the early stages of child development (Leach, 2007). For nonnatives, learning new words is difficult because of interference of the new language with the first language. In addition, acquisition of new words occurs at different ages for nonnatives and natives.

Laufer (1997) describes several interlexical causes that make difficult or easy learning of a new language. These are: pronounceability, orthography, word length, morphology, synformy, specificity and register restriction, abstractness, part of speech, idiomaticity, polysemy / multiple meaning. Consider these examples:

Survey of school performance during the formative years (6-12) show that ELLs and ESLs experience most difficulties when moving from primary to middle and secondary level (Kieffer, 2004). Explaining the language gap between natives and ESLs through lack of motivation is untrue. On the contrary, parents of ELLs put high value on their children’s knowledge of the language and their school achievement (Suarez-Orozco, 2001). Rather, students do poorly in reading comprehension and learning because they have limited vocabulary (Stanovich Carlo, 1986).

Research shows that teaching vocabulary through introducing students to long lists of words is ineffective. This is not a surprise, since long lists require root memorization. In addition, as students advance in their academic studies, the number of new words they face rises exponentially. The teacher could introduce all new words to students in primary classes, but later this becomes time-consuming. A more effective strategy involves presenting students with tools that enable them to learn new words on their own.

Amount and types of words to be teach.

According to Chonell, Meddleton, and Shaw, (1956). People regularly use about 2000 words in their daily conversation. Two thousand words seem to be the most commonly mentioned initial goal for L2 learners.

The 2000 thousand word vocabulary size threshold is the answer to which words to teach. Nation, (1995) proposes that the most frequent 2000 thousand words are essential for any real language use, and so are worth the effort required to teach and learn them explicitly.

Here comes another important topic in teaching vocabulary, which words should be taught explicitly and which ones should be taught incidentally. I agree with Meara, (1995) when he says that the 2000 thousand words should be taught explicitly and that they are so important that we should concentrate on teaching them right at the beginning of a language course. I have seen that the lack of vocabulary in students is an impediment to the development of speaking, reading comprehension, writing and listening. Therefore having a good vocabulary would be a solid base to teach students how to develop more advance skills.

Furthermore, according to Ellis, (1997) vocabulary knowledge can help grammar acquisition, knowing the words in a text or conversation permits learners to understand the meaning of the discourse, which in turn allows the grammatical patterning to become more transparent.

Schmitt (2000) says that there is no “right” or “best” way to teach vocabulary. The best practice in any situation will depend on the type of student being taught, the words targeted, the school system and curriculum, and many other factors.

Morphology as Method of Teaching

Many studies point to morphology as one of the most successful strategies that aid students in individual or collective study of new words. Morphology refers to study of word with emphasis on morphemes, the smallest word unit (Kieffer, 2007).

For example, consider the morphological analysis of pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism. It contains four prefixes (pseudo-, pseudo-, hypo, para-) and one suffix (-ism). Pseudo- means fake, or false; hypo- means less than normal; para-means alongside, beside; and -ism means distinctive cause. The word means false pseudhypoparathyroidism.

Morphemes separate into bound and unbound. Unbound morphemes appear individually in speech and writing. Bound morphemes, as geo- geography, are prefixes or suffixes. (geo- means land and graphy, means representation). Suffixes divide in two types: inflectional and derivational. Inflectional suffixes ( -ed, or -s), change word meaning, but not the part of the speech. Derivational suffixes (-ity or -tion), change both meaning and part of speech. Addition of inflectional morphemes as in talked make a word inflected. Persuasion is derived by addition of suffix -ison (Kieffer, 2010).

Studies in psychology show that recognition of morphemes occurs very early in children’s development. An interesting experiment studies recognition of repeated short sequence in infants. Results showed that infants are sensitive to certain input configurations. The input was easier detected when it involved addition of short sequences, repeated often (Salasoo, 1985). The authors deduced the findings may suggest that infants have a perceptual ability in the auditory centers that allow for later acquisition of language (Gervain, 2008; Reader, 2002).

Other studies claim that inflectional morphology is already mastered by first years of elementary school (Kuo & Anderson, 2006). Mastery of derivational morphology continues into adolescence and for some students even later. Since children detect morphemes before instruction, educators predicted that learning morphology would be accessible.

Learning of new words occurs in stages, and calls for both means of encoding information, as well as methods for recovering the information. Morphology can benefit both. Indeed, studies show that native and nonnative students improved significantly their vocabulary, after learning morphological principles. Studies disagree on whether improving vocabulary associates with better reading comprehension and learning. What is certain is that morphemes have helped many ESLs children gain a solid knowledge of the English language.

Principles of teaching new words through morphology

Teaching morphology should consider specific principles (Carlo et al. 2004; Stahl and Nagy 2006; and Graves 2006; Kieffer & Lesaux, 2007). These principles intend to transform morphology into an instrument that students can use independently, throughout their academic development. The principles consider both method of teaching, and the content.

Principle 1: Teach Morphology as a Cognitive Strategy

The first principle recommends that morphology is taught as a cognitive strategy. This principle follows from idea of metacognition, which simply put refers to “thinking about thinking.” Metacognition involves planning the word analysis, monitoring understanding, measuring progression towards goal. Apart from morphology, metacognition is necessary for successful learning ( Borkowski, Sternberg, 1984).

Researchers recommend that morphology is taught to children as a series of stages in thinking (Kieffer, 2010). The strategies involve practical steps, guiding students in performing a task. When analyzing a difficult word, students must perform these subtasks: 1) recognize that the word in the text is unknown 2) analyze the structure and come up with morphemes that make the body of the word (suffixes, prefixes, roots) 3) formulate a hypothesis about the meaning of the word based on its parts 4) use context to verify and correct if necessary their hypothesis.

Steps must be taught through extensive modeling to achieve scaffolding and be weary of exceptions to the rule. Despite its advantages, the technique has limits. Consider this example: prefix in- from incorrect, is different from the same syllable seen in this word input (Kieffer, 2010). This is because same syllables may be morphemes, or just normal syllables.

Principle 2: Teach Morphology in the Context of Rich Vocabulary

Second principle states that teachers should introduce morphology in a context of rich vocabulary instruction. Application of this principle ensures that students become familiar with morphological rules and exceptions from this rules. In addition, in introducing the students to large number of words the teacher helps them become familiar with unknown words.

As mentioned earlier, the transition from primary to elementary school is difficult. Educators believe that high volume of new words make understanding and learning difficult. Thus, introduction of students to new words must be deliberate. A review of major studies on learning new words sets these specific guidelines. New, high utility words should appear in various contexts, in print or verbal discussions. The vocabulary must be rich. However, the goal is to focus attention on a few words, characteristic in usage and meaning to the morphological rule they describe.

Principle 3: Describe Rules and Exemplify in Meaningful Contexts

Teacher must adapt the lesson plan to each student’s needs. Many students who struggle with reading find independent study difficult. They learn when instruction is clear and focused. These students benefit from exercises that make visible the thinking processes. On the contrary, taking instruction outside of context makes difficult learning for ESLs, who might not understand all words unless they can place them within a context.

Principle 4: Introduce Words Systematically

Fourth principle refers to the structure of the teaching lesson. It is recommended that teachers explicitly introduce morphological analysis to students. Similarly to any other curriculum, teachers must develop a scope and a plan. The first taught morphemes should be the most common, and easily recognizable, the -er suffixes. This ensures that new information will connect to old information, enabling learning.

Table 1: Derived Words at Different Levels of Difficulty ( Keiffer, 2010)


Somewhat difficult

Very Challenging

Swimmer – Swim

Possession – Possess

Width – wide

Teacher – Teach

Activity – Active

Categorical – category

Growth – Grow

Courageous – Courage

Admission – admit

Discussion – Discuss

Decision – decide

Durability – durable

Further, the morphemes selected as examples must be representative of the class, and introduced if they form common words. Consider this example. Suffix -cide, in suicide, is rather rare. The word root lacks relevance to elementary school, as it stems from Latin. It is unlikely, that this example will be of any use to students who must tackle first more general words such as swimmer, teacher, or information, persuasion, discussion.

Teachers should organize lessons according to the difficulty level of each concept. For example, some words are easier to derive than others. Extracting the root from the word swimmer is easier than from activity, or durability. Words that change the sound of the root when derived are more difficult to analyze. Similarly, words that change spelling and sound are most difficult. An example of a morphological plan that considers an accessible scope and sequence for suffix instruction is presented in table 2.

Table 2: Scope and Sequence examples for suffix instruction (Kieffer, 2010)

Unit theme

Suffix targeted

Common words

Academic target words

Communication and cooperation



decision, discussion

celebration, imagination, invention

admission, possession

contribution, education, organization, solution






classify, personify,

driver, helper, teacher




archeologist, journalist, scientist, communicator, contributor, locator, surveyor

Single gender education






magical, musical

adventurous, courageous

ability, equality

communal, cultural

periodical, topical, periodical

dangerous, mysterious,

community, complexity, ethnicity, identity




careful, helpful, playful

darkness, happiness, playfulness, sadness

powerful, resourceful

awareness, resourcefulness

Antartic exploration


quickly, sadly, slowly

constantly, legally, nearly

Morphology and Incidental Learning

In addition to morphological principles, vocabulary intervention is successful when combined with knowledge that supports student’s incidental learning (Carlo, 2004). This is particularly true for ESLs, who cannot guess unknown words by deducing meaning from context. Most of the words in context are usually unknown to them. Additionally, they cannot use linguistics cues and grammar to determine meaning (Stoller & Grabe, 1995). Combining direct teaching of words with incidental learning is effective even for natives (Huckin, Haynes, and Coady 1995), and more so for non-native.

The intervention should focus on general-purpose academic words, from various subject areas. Words selected should have cognates, and be accessible morphologically. To promote memorization, instructor should present new words through interesting and engaging texts. When teaching ESLs, it is important that text is bilingual (1st and 2nd language) to promote comprehension and learning. Also important is that words appear frequently (Reder, 2002), and across various disciplines. Research shows that such interventions promote increase in vocabulary size (Beck et all 1987).

Effect of intervention on vocabulary improvement

Studies show that combining morphology with incidental learning successfully increases vocabulary in both native and nonnative students. Such interventions also result in enhancing reading comprehension, and as a result learning. Additionally, ESL students benefit in terms of satisfaction with school, and desire to continue studies. It is important to note that such interventions do not last in the curriculum, but are only employed as part of an overall study (Carlos, 2004).


Improvement of vocabulary is a key objective of ESL education. Word acquisition conditions age appropriate reading comprehension and learning. Studies show that knowledge of morphology is particularly relevant to vocabulary size. When morphology is combined with incidental learning benefits are also seen in reading comprehension.

Teachers need to be aware of how vocabulary is most effectively taught and learnt.

And use their knowledge to inform materials selection and practical classroom technique.


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Improving Vocabulary & Comprehension in English
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