ERIC Identifier: ED250696
Publication Date: 1984-00-00
Author: Hodges, Richard E.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills Urbana IL.
Vocabulary. ERIC Digest.
When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means
just what I choose it to mean..."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master-that's all."
(Lewis Carroll, THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS 1872).
The nature and origins of words have long held a fascination for interested
scholars and lay public, not only to satisfy intellectual curiosities, but also
because word knowledge has particular importance in literate societies. For the
same reasons, scholarly interests have turned toward determining the nature of
vocabulary development -- that is, how and to what extent speakers and writers
of English become, like Humpty Dumpty, masters of our lexical stock.
The outcomes of these investigations are of more than passing interest to
educators; for word knowledge contributes significantly to achievement in the
subjects of the school curriculum, as well as in formal and informal speaking
and writing. In fact, a substantial body of research has been published in this
century concerning the educational implications of these vocabulary studies
(Dale and Razik 1963).
DEFINITION OF VOCABULARY
The vocabulary, or lexicon, of language encompasses the stock of words of
that language which is at the disposal of a speaker or writer. Contained within
this lexical storehouse is a core vocabulary of the words used to name common
and fundamental concepts and situations of a culture, as well as subsets of
words that result from one's personal, social, and occupational experiences.
Probably the most important influence on one's speech is the simple
circumstance of the language spoken in the country of one's birth. Each of us
grows up interacting with and interpreting the world around us, to a large
degree through the medium of language.
SOURCES OF ENGLISH VOCABULARY
Languages are as vibrant and dynamic as the cultures of which they are a
part, and the lexical stock of a language is a vivid example of this linguistic
principle. Words are, after all, no more than labels for concepts about the
world around us, and as new concepts emerge or old ones change, the lexical
stock changes accordingly. It is a linguistic paradox that change is a constant
when applied to vocabulary. Many words in common use 200 years ago are now
obsolete, just as many words in use today will be tomorrow's artifacts.
The English language is no exception, with a lexicon that reflects its many
sources of origin and the effects of change over time. Besides the core stock of
words rooted in Anglo-Saxon beginnings, English contains additional thousands of
words borrowed from language communities with whom we have come in contact. Both
of these sources have provided yet more words -- those that have been derived
from earlier word forms by addition of prefixes and suffixes or those that have
been shifted to new grammatical functions.
Still more words have emerged by the process of compounding, in which
existing words are joined to form new combining parts of words, or simply by
creating new words out of "whole cloth." The ingredients of our lexical stock
are indeed rich and varied (Bolton 1982, Francis 1965, Laird 1981, Pyles 1971,
We do not learn most of our words by looking them up in a dictionary. Rather,
we learn them in the context of our experiences with listening, speaking,
reading, and writing. Many studies have been undertaken to determine the nature
and extent of children's vocabulary development (Petty, Herold, and Stoll 1968).
These studies demonstrate the truly prodigious linguistic accomplishments that
children attain by the time they reach school age. While estimates vary, by age
six most children have active vocabularies numbering in the several thousands of
words (de Villiers 1978).
There is, however, an important difference between knowing words and
understanding their broad range of uses and referents, for vocabulary
development is first and foremost a matter of concept development. For this
reason considerable attention has been turned in recent years to children's
semantic development; that is, to the development of word meaning (Anglin 1970,
de Villiers 1978, Foss and Hakes 1978). These studies illustrate that how words
are used, not their length or frequency of use, indicates children's lexical
maturity and, commonly, their intellectual maturity as well (Straw 1981).
Vocabulary development is, of course, a lifetime undertaking in which schools
play a critical role in enriching and extending the young child's basic lexical
repertoire, particularly through the medium of written language. Yet, "it is not
the enlargement of vocabulary itself that is of value but the enlargement of the
mind to new ideas" (Petty, Herold, and Stoll 1968). For this reason, vocabulary
instruction properly belongs in all subjects of the curriculum in which students
meet both new ideas and the words by which they are represented in the language.
The opportunities for vocabulary instruction are especially pronounced,
however, in language arts and reading where words themselves can be an
appropriate focus of study. Bearing in mind the dictum that knowledge of word
meaning is the ultimate objective of study, teachers can provide numerous
opportunities for students to explore the origins and forms of words as a means
of extending and enriching their word knowledge (Dale and O'Rourke 1971, Hodges
1982, Johnson and Pearson 1984).
Teachers can also use students' personal experiences and prior knowledge to
develop vocabulary in the classroom. Through informal activities such as
semantic association students brainstorm a list of words associated with a
familiar word, pooling their knowledge of pertinent vocabulary as they discuss
the less familiar words on the list.
Semantic mapping goes a step further, grouping the words on the list into
categories and arranging them on the visual "map" so that relationships among
the words become clearer. In semantic feature analysis words are grouped
according to certain features, usually with the aid of a chart that graphically
depicts similarities and differences among features of different words.
Finally, analogies are a useful way of encouraging thoughtful discussion
about relationships among meanings of words (Johnson and Pearson 1984).
The linguist W. N. Francis once commented that "many people...go through life
with a vocabulary adequate only to their daily needs...but never indulging in
curiosity and speculation about words. Others are wordlovers -- collectors and
connoisseurs..But even those who aspire no further than to the writing of good
clear expository prose must become at least amateur connoisseurs of words. Only
this way -- not by formal exercises or courses in vocabulary building -- will
they learn to make the best possible use of the vast and remarkable lexicon of
English" (Francis 1965).
The success or failure of schooling to foster word knowledge is in large part
dependent upon teacher attitude toward vocabulary. Thus, in the final analysis,
teachers who are "wordlovers" themselves provide students both with a potent
example of the value and pleasure that can be derived from exploring the
richness and diversity of English lexicon, and with classroom contexts for such
exploration by drawing on students' shared experiences.
Students may thus learn that language learning is a lifelong venture, one in
which written language plays a particularly important role. Every contact with
written language affords an opportunity to learn more not only about the writing
system we use -- its structure and how words are spelled -- but also about the
meanings and uses of words themselves.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Anglin, Jeremy M. THE GROWTH OF WORD MEANING. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970.
Bolton, W. R. A LIVING LANGUAGE: THE HISTORY AND STRUCTURE OF ENGLISH. New
York: Random House, 1982.
Dale, Edgar, and Taher Razik. BIBLIOGRAPHY OF VOCABULARY STUDIES. 2d rev. ed.
Columbus, OH: Bureau of Educational Research and Service, The Ohio State
Dale, Edgar, and Joseph O'Rourke. TECHNIQUES OF TEACHING VOCABULARY. Palo
Alto, CA: Field Educational Publications, 1971.
de Villiers, Jill G., and Peter A. LANGUAGE ACQUISITION. Cambirdge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1978.
Foss, Donald J., and David T. Hakes. PSYCHOLINGUISTICS: AN INTRODUCTION TO
THE STUDY OF LANGUAGE. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978.
Francis, W. Nelson. THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: AN INTRODUCTION: BACKGROUND FOR
WRITING. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1965.
Hodges, Richard E. IMPROVING SPELLING AND VOCABULARY IN THE SECONDARY SCHOOL.
Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and National
Council of Teachers of English, 1982.
Johnson, Dale D., and P. David Pearson. TEACHING READING VOCABULARY. 2d ed.
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.
Laird, Charlton. THE WORD: A LOOK AT THE VOCABULARY OF ENGLISH. New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1981.
O'Rourke, Joseph Patrick. TOWARD A SCIENCE OF VOCABULARY DEVELOPMENT. The
Hague: Mouton, 1974.
Petty, Walter T., Curtis P. Herold, and Earline Stoll. THE STATE OF KNOWLEDGE
ABOUT THE TEACHING OF VOCABULARY. Champaign, IL: National Council of Teachers of
Pyles, Thomas P. THE ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. 2d ed.
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Shipley, Joseph T. IN PRAISE OF ENGLISH: THE GROWTH IN THE USE OF LANGUAGE.
New York: Times Books, 1977.
Straw, Stanley B. "Assessment and Evaluation in Written Composition: A
Commonsense Perspective." In RESEARCH IN THE LANGUAGE ARTS: LANGUAGE AND
SCHOOLING, edited by Victor Froese and Stanley B. Straw. Baltimore: University
Park Press, 1981.
Thompson, David S. LANGUAGE. New York: Time-Life Books, 1975.