Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Exploring the Increase of Receptive Vocabulary Knowledge in the Foreign Language: A Longitudinal Study

Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Exploring the Increase of Receptive Vocabulary Knowledge in the Foreign Language: A Longitudinal Study

Article excerpt


This paper tracks the increase in the overall word reception knowledge of 224 young pupils in their 4th, 5th and 6th grades of primary education and in their 1st year of secondary education (7th grade), who learn EFL in a formal context. The 2,000 word frequency band of The Vocabulary Levels Test (Schmitt, Schmitt and Clapham, 2001, version 2) is used to establish their word knowledge level. Results reveal that the development of these students' receptive English vocabulary size is incremental and constant, and that it falls within the 1,000 frequency level. Learners increase their receptive vocabulary knowledge in a significant way from one grade to the next. The rate of the gain remains constant across grades.

KEYWORDS: Receptive vocabulary size, longitudinal study, primary and secondary learners, English as a Foreign Language


Size of vocabulary knowledge, either receptive or productive, is generally acknowledged to be incremental (Schmitt, Schmitt & Clapham, 2001: 79). Schmitt (2000) highlights that vocabulary is incremental in a number of ways. First, as regards the incorporation of new words into the mental lexical store; second, concerning the different aspects of word knowledge gradually being acquired. The aspects are not acquired on a yes/no basis, but as Schmitt (2000: 120) says, "it may be better to consider the degree of receptive/productive control of the various word-knowledge aspects".

The vocabulary size of foreign language learners also depends on their L2 proficiency level and as students' experience with the target language increases, vocabulary size increases as well. Nevertheless, foreign language learners do not usually succeed in accumulating as large a lexical storage as native speakers do. In fact, the latter are constantly incorporating new words into their L1 lexicon, even well into adult life. Concerning this issue, there is no definitive longitudinal research evidence to conclude that foreign language learners continue storing new words into their L2 lexicon throughout their language acquisition process.

Knowing the vocabulary size, both receptive and productive, of learners provides us with an idea of what FL tasks learners are able to perform. To start with, having a large vocabulary size is essential to interacting in the foreign language. In this sense, researchers have addressed the issue of the number of words necessary to understand spoken discourse (Adolphs & Schmitt, 2004; Nation, 2001) and to read and comprehend texts in the native and foreign language (Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Laufer, 1997). Among the former researchers, Adolphs and Schmitt (2004) estimate that, at least, 2,000 word forms have to be mastered in order to understand around 90% and 94% of spoken discourse in different contexts. Among the latter, Laufer (1992, 1997), for example, states that a text coverage of 95% can be reached with a 5,000-word English vocabulary or 3,000 word families (see also Cobb & Horst, 2004; Hazenberg & Hulstijn, 1996; Nation, 1993, 2001). More recently, Nation (2006) contends that 8,000 to 9,000 word families are needed for understanding a written text and a vocabulary of 6,000 to 7,000 word families for comprehension of spoken text, if 98% coverage of a text is desired. Hirsh and Nation (1992) also point out that knowledge of 5,000 word families is necessary to enjoy reading. As we have seen, estimates based on word frequency criteria have been calculated and research claims that gaining command of the 2,000-3,000 most frequent words as soon as possible is vital for the language learner to communicate orally and in written form in the foreign language (Nation, 1993; Nation & Waring, 1997). The sooner the most frequent words are learned by students, the better their language performance will be. As Schmitt (2000: 137) claims: "The learning of these basic words cannot be left to chance, but should be taught as quickly as possible, because they open [. …

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