An Approach to Basic-Vocabulary Development for English-Language Learners

By Tran, Anh | Reading Improvement, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

An Approach to Basic-Vocabulary Development for English-Language Learners


Tran, Anh, Reading Improvement


According to research findings in English-language teaching, vocabulary acquisition is not given enough attention. As a result, second-language learners are caught in a difficult situation in reading comprehension. This paper proposes helping English-language learners develop basic vocabulary so that that they can read effectively. The approach to building basic vocabulary involves identification of the most basic vocabulary, the appropriateness of simplified materials, the benefits of extensive reading, the strengths of explicit instruction in vocabulary and the importance of using word notebooks and dictionaries. Vocabulary according this approach is to be acquired in the context of extensive reading modified for English-language learners. Suggested strategies derived from research findings follow.

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Updating L2 reading development, Grabe (2001) found two dilemmas: lack of vocabulary and lack of extensive reading. English-language learners (ELLs), as a result, face a learning paradox: On one hand they need vocabulary to be able to read effectively; on the other hand, the best way for them to acquire vocabulary is through reading. This paper contends that part of this problem could be solved by combining developing basic vocabulary with extensive reading. This approach to vocabulary development is addressed in the following order: identification of the most basic vocabulary, the appropriateness of simplified reading materials, the benefits of extensive reading, the strengths of explicit vocabulary instruction, the importance of using dictionaries and word notebooks, and the strategies for vocabulary development.

Identification of the Most Basle Vocabulary

Researchers have identified vocabulary that occurs very frequently and recommended that English-language teachers give it priority in their classroom practices. Coady (1997) believed a group of 2,000 to 3,000 high-frequency words should be studied until they become sight words. This is also the range of the colloquial language for listening and speaking (Nation, 2005). Specifically there is a Dolch word list which contains 220 sight words (Jesness, 2004). The General Service List of English Words (GSL) contains 2,000 high-frequency words and covers 87% of a general text. It also provides information about the relative frequency of the meanings of each entry (Schmitt, 2000). Out of these words are 270 function words which carry grammatical meaning and account for about 44% of words in a general text (Macaro, 2003). Other basic words that ELLs need to know later on can be found in the Academic Word List by Cox-head (2000) and the University Word List by Xue and Nation (1984). The former consists of 570 words and accounts for about 10% of words in academic texts; and the latter, 800 words, about 8%.

The Appropriateness of Simplified Materials

The basic vocabulary is used with high frequency in simplified reading materials. According to various research findings, syntactic simplification is one of many factors that can enhance foreign and second language reading comprehension (Carrell, 2001), and specifically acquisition of short-term vocabulary (Leow, 1993). Simplified texts also save learners from struggling unnecessarily with difficult vocabulary (Nation & Deweerdt, 2001). According to Coady (1997), the graded readers are useful to ELLs because they provide learners with repeated exposure to vocabulary and syntactic structures. These kinds of reading materials are written within a specific vocabulary range, and there are usually several ranges or stages. The Oxford Bookworm series, for example, has six stages--400, 700, 1,000, 1,400, 1,800, and 2,500 words. A stage-2 book has 700 words which includes 400 words from stage 1 plus 300 new words (Nation, 1999). An appropriate text, Eskey (2005) suggested, needs to be slightly difficult for the learners' reading ability. In other words, it should meet Krashen's i + 1 (input + 1) standard for comprehensibility. …

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