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Review: Vocabulary in Language Teaching by Joe Barcroft

This short booklet of 36 pages published in 2017 is a beginner’s introduction to vocabulary, vocabulary learning and teaching. It is one of Joe Barcroft’s language teaching modules at Washington University in St Louis, USA. Joe is a leading researcher in the field of vocabulary acquisition as well as being a Professor of Spanish and Second Language Acquisition.

As well as providing concise analyses of the issues for language teachers, the booklet includes questions for reflection and short quizzes to check understanding. For many readers these will seem superfluous, I think.

Barcroft begins by defining what vocabulary is, reminding is that apart from isolated words, it includes lexical phrases and formulaic language such as “What can I do for you?”. It's worth repeating his reminder that nearly 50% of what we say is in the form of chunks which don't require us to syntactically code sentences. He gives a simple lesson in grammar by providing handy definitions of different types of morphemes. He summarises the importance of three aspects of knowing vocabulary: the meaning, form and mapping dimensions (the latter meaning how learners map forms to meaning). He explains that we acquire new vocabulary both incidentally and purposefully, e.g. from word lists or by the teacher presenting new words with pictures. He makes it clear that vocabulary is best acquired in a variety of ways, but principally by presenting it repeatedly in meaningful input.

Among other things he talks about how research suggests that some common activities may actually inhibit acquisition, notably learning words in semantic sets, writing sentences with new words in the early stages of learning and copying out words. He also questions the validity of forced output in the form of choral repetition in the early sages of learning words (although he points out that more research is need about this).

He invites teachers and course writers to think about whether the tasks they set target a balance of meaning, form and mapping based activities. Perhaps we favour some exercises at the expense of others. In any case we should plan for vocabulary as thoroughly as we do for syntax.

On page 22 he lists his 10 principles for teaching vocabulary which I shall not write out here, but among them are the importance of presenting new words frequently and repeatedly (and in a spaced manner); the importance of promoting both purposeful and incidental vocabulary acquisition (incidental alone is just too inefficient); and presenting new words in an “enhanced manner”, e.g. with different voices, using bold or colour print - the sort of thing we might more commonly do when teaching grammar.

Readers should find this booklet very useful as a clear introduction to the field which, to some extent, confirms common-sense views about teaching vocabulary. The book is published by Routledge and is available as a paperback for about $15 or £9 (overpriced given its length). It might be worth purchasing more cheaply as an e-book at about £4.50.




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