September 2003 — Volume 7, Number 2
Vocabulary Learning in a Second Language: Person, Task, Context and Strategies
Peter Yongqi Gu
National Institute of Education
Nanyang Technological University
This paper reviews empirical research on vocabulary learning strategies in a second/foreign language. A tetrahedral model of person, task, context, and strategies is first proposed to foreground the review. Next, empirical research along task, person, and contextual dimensions is reviewed. Specifically, the review focuses on task-dependent guessing strategies, dictionary strategies, note-taking strategies, rote rehearsal strategies, and encoding strategies. Instead of searching for the best strategies that produce the best results, the author argues that the choice, use, and effectiveness of vocabulary learning strategies depend on the task, the learner, and the learning context. The paper ends by calling for a diversification of effort in both top-down theory building that provides clearer guidance to future research and more bottom-up empirical research that goes beyond the presentation and retention of words.
Psychologists, linguists, and language teachers have been interested in vocabulary learning strategies for a long time (Levenston, 1979). Numerous studies have been conducted comparing the retention effects of different vocabulary presentation strategies. In fact, the vocabulary field has been especially productive in the last two decades. We have seen a number of classic volumes on theories (e.g., Carter, 1987; Carter & McCarthy, 1988; McCarthy, 1990; Nation, 1990), research (e.g., Arnaud & Bejoint, 1992; Gass, 1987; Meara, 1989; Nation & Carter, 1989), and practical tips (e.g., Gairns & Redman, 1986; McCarthy & O’Dell, 1994). Recent volumes, especially the CUP volumes, that shed significant light upon different aspects of vocabulary acquisition include Huckin, Haynes, and Coady (1993), Harley (1995), Hatch and Brown (1995), Coady and Huckin (1997), Schmitt and McCarthy (1997), Atkins (1998), Wesche and Paribakht (1999), Read (2000), Schmitt (2000), and Nation (2001). This article aims to provide a digest of recent research on vocabulary acquisition and to pinpoint areas that need further exploration. To this end, the article focuses on one area, i.e., vocabulary learning strategies, the purposeful analysis of the vocabulary learning task, the planning, deployment, monitoring, and evaluation of learning behaviors in order to acquire the vocabulary of a second language . It is argued that despite the impressive amount of recent research on vocabulary acquisition, a person-task-context-strategy perspective that is presented here is needed in order to anchor existing research in a larger framework and to point to areas for future efforts. [-1-]
Person, task, context, and learning strategies
When a person approaches a relatively challenging task, s/he adopts certain strategies to solve the problem. This problem-solving process is constrained by the learning context where the problem is being tackled. Language learning in general and vocabulary acquisition in particular are such problem-solving tasks at different levels of complexity. The strategies a learner uses and the effectiveness of these strategies very much depend on the learner him/herself (e.g., attitudes, motivation, prior knowledge), the learning task at hand (e.g., type, complexity, difficulty, and generality), and the learning environment (e.g., the learning culture, the richness of input and output opportunities).
Theorists and researchers have presented the same framework in slightly different ways. Williams and Burden’s (1997) social constructivist model outlines four aspects of the teaching-learning process, i.e., teachers, learners, tasks, contexts. Cohen (2001) focuses on learners and discusses the intersection of learning style preferences, learner strategies, and language tasks. Flavell’s (1979) conception of the three components of metacognitive knowledge, i.e., person, task, and strategy, also applies in the language learning field (Wenden, 1987). Brown, Bransford, Ferrara, and Campione (1983) include learning activities, characteristics of the learner, criterial tasks, and nature of the materials as the four aspects of their framework for exploring problems of learning. The person-task-context-strategy model outlined here can be viewed as a synthesis of this body of knowledge, specifically for the purpose of analyzing research work on language learning strategies.
Person. The learner brings to the language learning situation a wide spectrum of individual differences that will influence the learning rate and the ultimate learning result. The most widely reported learner factors include age, sex, language aptitude, intelligence, prior knowledge, motivation, self-concept/image, personality, and cognitive and learning style. These person-dependent factors are relatively stable, and determine to a large extent how a learner approaches a task.
Task. A learning task is the end product in the learner’s mind. It can be as broad as mastering a second language or as specific as remembering one meaning of a word. Broadly speaking, this conception of the learning task includes the materials being learned (such as the genre of a piece of reading) as well as the goal the learner is trying to achieve by using these materials (such as remembering, comprehending, or using language). It should be noted that this conception of “task” is in line with the traditional, broader understanding of task as in Flavell (1979), Wenden (1987), and Williams and Burden (1997), and is different from the more recent and narrower definition of “task” in “task-based” approaches to language teaching and learning (e.g., Nunan, 1989).
Different types of task materials, task purposes, and tasks at various difficulty levels demand different learner strategies. For example, learning words in a word list is different from learning the same words in a passage. Remembering a word meaning is different from learning to use the same word in real life situations. Likewise, guessing from context would mean different things for texts of different levels of new word density.
Context. Learning context refers to the learning environment. It is the socio-culturo-political environment where learning takes place. The learning context can include the teachers, the peers, the classroom climate or ethos, the family support, the social, cultural tradition of learning, the curriculum, and the availability of input and output opportunities. Learning context is different from language context which refers to the textual or discoursal place in which a particular word or structure can be found. Learning contexts constrain the ways learners approach learning tasks. A learning strategy that is valued in one learning context may well be deemed inappropriate in another context. [-2-]
Strategy. A learning strategy is a series of actions a learner takes to facilitate the completion of a learning task. A strategy starts when the learner analyzes the task, the situation, and what is available in his/her own repertoire. The learner then goes on to select, deploy, monitor, and evaluate the effectiveness of this action, and decides if s/he needs to revise the plan and action. Cohen (1998) distinguishes between language learning strategies and language use strategies, the former being strategies for learning tasks such as remembering, and the latter being strategies for language use, such as communicating in an L2.
Person, task, context, and strategy are interrelated and work together to form the chemistry of learning. An analysis of learning strategies will never be complete without knowing the person-task-context configuration of the particular learning situation. Some strategies are more person-dependent, some are more task-dependent, and others are more context-dependent.
The task of vocabulary learning
One way to see the overall task of vocabulary learning is through the distinction between knowing a word and using a word. In other words, the purpose of vocabulary learning should include both remembering words and the ability to use them automatically in a wide range of language contexts when the need arises (McCarthy, 1984). In fact, evidence suggests that the knowledge aspect (both breadth and depth) requires more conscious and explicit learning mechanisms whereas the skill aspect involves mostly implicit learning and memory (Ellis, 1994). Vocabulary learning strategies, therefore, should include strategies for “using” as well as “knowing” a word.
Another way to view vocabulary learning is to see it as a process of related sub-tasks. When learners first encounter a new word, they might guess its meaning and usage from available clues. Some learners might proceed to look it up in the dictionary. Others might take down notes along the margins, between the lines, or on separate vocabulary notebooks. Some learners will repeat the new word a number of times until they are comfortable with it. Others will go beyond simple rote repetition to commit the word to memory. Some would even try to use the word actively. Each of these task stages demands metacognitive judgment, choice, and deployment of cognitive strategies for vocabulary learning. And each strategy a learner uses will determine to a large extent how and how well a new word is learned.
Task-dependent Vocabulary Learning Strategies
To date, most of the empirical research on vocabulary learning strategies in a second language have focused on different sub-tasks of vocabulary learning. Fewer studies can be found on person-related vocabulary learning strategies. Likewise, learning context has been merely noted in passing in discussions.
Guessing and Vocabulary Learning
The premise under this line of research is the belief that the vast majority of words in L1 come from extensive and multiple exposures through use rather than direct instruction, and therefore, vocabulary learning in a second language should follow the same route (Coady, 1993). A number of questions have often been asked in the literature: Does guessing lead to incidental vocabulary learning in a second language? How many exposures are needed to learn a word incidentally? Is incidental vocabulary learning better than intentional learning? And, is guessing enough for vocabulary development in a second language? Each of these questions is dealt with below. [-3-]
Does guessing lead to vocabulary learning?
Ample evidence suggests that children learn a large proportion of their L1 vocabulary incidentally from reading and listening (Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987; Nagy & Herman, 1987; Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985). Nagy, Anderson, and Herman (1987, p. 262) estimated an average vocabulary growth of 1,000 words a year for the children in their study. A well-quoted study of adults by Saragi, Nation, and Meister (1978) showed an average of 76% mastery of the 90 tested “nadsat” words of Russian origin.
Fewer studies have been carried out in second or foreign language contexts. What we have does suggest a similar pattern. Pitt, White and Krashen (1989) replicated the Saragi et al. (1978) study by asking their adult ESL learners to read the first two chapters of A Clockwork Orange. The subjects were asked to read the novel for meaning only, and were given a multiple choice test of 30 nadsat words afterwards. An average of 2 words (7%) gain was observed.
A similar study was done by Ferris (1988) (cited in Krashen, 1989, p. 446), in which 30 adult ESL students read George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm. A multiple-choice test of 75 words was given to these subjects before and after they read the novel and to a control group of 21 international students who did not read the novel. The experimental group who read the novel made significantly better gains than the control group.
A study of EFL students was conducted by Day, Omura, and Hiramatsu (1991). They divided 181 high school and 397 university EFL students in Japan into an experimental group and a control group respectively, and asked the experimental groups to read silently a short story in class for roughly 30 minutes. A multiple-choice vocabulary test of 17 items was administered immediately following the reading. Both the high school and the university experimental groups significantly outperformed their control group counterparts. Day et al. (p. 545) concluded that “exposure to previously unknown or difficult words through sustained silent reading for entertainment by Japanese EFL students has a positive effect on their ability to recognize these words in a vocabulary test”.
To sum up, both L1 and ESL/EFL studies have provided evidence showing the possibility of incidental vocabulary learning through repeated exposure. However, EFL/ESL studies tended to produce results that reveal significantly lower gains in incidental vocabulary learning than L1 studies. And most EFL/ESL studies have been conducted on intermediate to advanced learners of English. Moreover, some EFL/ESL studies suggest that learners are often unable to guess the meaning of an unknown word from a text (Bensoussan & Laufer, 1984; Haynes, 1993; Kelly, 1990; Schatz & Baldwin, 1986). This suggests that 1) L2 learners in general, due to their inadequate grasp of target language skills, are less effective guessers and less effective incidental learners of English vocabulary; and if this is true for intermediate to advanced learners, 2) beginning L2 learners who do not have the basic language skills in the target language to make sense of new words and their contexts would have much more trouble learning vocabulary incidentally. [-4-]
How many exposures are needed to learn a word?
Very different research results have been obtained in this regard. Nation (1990) concluded that 5-16 exposures are needed in order to learn a word from context. Meara (1997) suggested a 0.01 hypothesis (1 uptake every 100 exposures) for L2 learners, arguing that these learners are normally unable to be exposed to large quantities of text. A more recent study (Horst, Cobb, & Meara, 1998), which featured low intermediate EFL learners reading a 109-page book over a ten-day period, obtained a 20% pick-up rate. They also observed that words which appeared over eight times in text were more likely to be learned than words that were repeated less. Results so far seem to vary considerably. However, researchers do seem to have come to the conclusion that the number of exposures needed for the mastery of a new word hinges on many other factors such as the salience of the word in context (Brown, 1993), the richness of contextual clues, the learner’s interest and the size and quality of his/her existing repertoire of vocabulary (Laufer & Hadar, 1997; Nation & Hwang, 1995).
Incidental vs. intentional vocabulary learning
In a comprehensive review of research on incidental vocabulary learning in mostly L1 contexts, Krashen (1989) concluded that incidental vocabulary learning, or “acquisition”, achieves better results than intentional vocabulary learning. A major flaw in this review lies in the assumption that “spelling and vocabulary are developed in second languages as they are in the first language” (p. 454). A prerequisite for effective incidental vocabulary learning through reading is, as mentioned earlier, reading ability, an ability beginning foreign language learners possess only to a very limited extent. This problem would be exacerbated when the L2 being learned is of a totally different orthography, e.g., Chinese EFL students learning English, where differences in writing system pose serious challenges to the development of reading ability and therefore to vocabulary learning through reading (Haynes, 1990). Moreover, where learners have little target language input and insufficient reading materials at their disposal, an exclusive incidental vocabulary learning program will stifle the language development of these learners.
In fact there is already evidence in recent studies of second language learners that a combined approach is superior to incidental vocabulary learning alone. Zimmerman (1994), for example, found that 3 hours a week of explicit vocabulary instruction plus some self-selected reading were more effective than reading alone. Paribakht and Wesche (1997) also found that reading plus explicit instruction led to superior gains over a period of three months.
In a series of longitudinal case studies, Parry (1991, 1993, 1997) went a step further and demonstrated how exactly a combination of incidental and intentional learning of vocabulary during reading 1) could be possible, and 2) helped the overall development of both L2 vocabulary and academic success in L2. Parry (1997), for example, studied the vocabulary learning strategies of two ESL learners at Hunter College of the City University of New York in reading their anthropology textbook. Both learners, Dimitri and Ae Young, guessed, looked up new words, and made glosses, and both, therefore, went through intentional as well as incidental learning.
It should be noted that the very term “incidental learning” is open to different interpretations in the literature. In fact, the last few years have seen the blurring of distinction between the incidental and intentional dichotomy. Traditional studies of incidental vocabulary learning involve learners being told just to read for comprehension, recent twists to the incidental vocabulary learning concept have included more demanding tasks beyond reading such as looking up new words in dictionaries for comprehension (Laufer & Hill, 2000) and recalling and retelling what is read (Joe, 1998). Results tend to suggest that the more demanding a task is, the more vocabulary items will be learned through reading. In this regard, Laufer and Hulstijn’s (2001) review serves not just to underscore the important concept of “task-induced involvement” but also to direct another fruitful line of research. [-5-]
Thus far, research seems to indicate that incidental vocabulary learning through reading and listening is not only possible but also plausible strategies for vocabulary development. However, this strategy seems to be more effective for native speakers and intermediate to advanced L2 learners who already have at least a basic grasp of the language skills such as reading and listening. Even for these learners, the usefulness of incidental learning does not exclude the use of intentional learning strategies. Huckin and Coady (1999, pp.189-190) warned us that “guessing from context has serious limitations. It is still seen as an important part of vocabulary-building, especially among advanced learners, but it requires a great deal of prior training in basic vocabulary, word recognition, metacognition, and subject matter”. Lastly, the most recent tendency to see incidental learning as involving different levels of task involvement (Laufer & Hulstijn, 2001) also suggests a need to combine incidental and intentional learning as a vocabulary learning strategy. Similar views are shared by Nation (2001) and Schmitt (2000), two new books on vocabulary acquisition. After all, as Ellis (1994) rightly points out, different aspects of vocabulary demand different acquisition mechanisms, and hence, I would add, different strategies of learning.
Dictionary Use and Vocabulary Learning
The debate of whether dictionaries should be used in the foreign language classroom, and what dictionaries, if at all, should be used has always been a lively one amongst language teachers and lexicographers. Empirical research on dictionaries has largely focused on comparing the usefulness of dictionaries with that of guessing (Knight, 1994). And only a handful of these studies took vocabulary growth as their dependent variable (Knight, 1994; Luppescu & Day, 1993), most others investigated the usefulness of dictionaries in reading comprehension. Dictionary strategies, if at all encouraged, have normally been proposed in a prescriptive manner (Scholfield, 1982; Thompson, 1987).
How useful are dictionaries?
Like it or not, a dictionary is amongst the first things a foreign language student purchases (Baxter, 1980; Luppescu & Day, 1993), and learners carry their dictionaries around, not grammar books (Krashen, 1989). Empirical research on whether dictionaries are helpful and how best dictionaries can be used, however, is only beginning to catch up. Amongst all the questions that can be asked of dictionaries, one has received the most attention: Which is better, using a dictionary or simply guessing from context? Or to put it another way: Do dictionaries make a difference?
Dictionaries and vocabulary learning
Most studies on the effectiveness of dictionaries in vocabulary learning have been conducted in L1 settings, and most have compared dictionary definitions with contextual guessing. In general, results in these studies favored the contextual guessing approach (Crist, 1981; Crist & Petrone, 1977; Gipe, 1978). These results were, however, confounded by the fact that the contextual guessing groups read texts that included definitions or examples, and were therefore exposed to dictionary-like situations as well as natural texts (Knight, 1994). Stahl and Fairbanks’ (1986) meta-analysis of L1-based vocabulary studies did reveal that a combined approach is more effective than either dictionary only or contextual guessing only. [-6-]
Recent years have witnessed a surge of interest in dictionary research in L2 contexts (e.g., Hulstijn, 1993; Knight, 1994; Laufer & Hadar, 1997; Laufer & Hill, 2000; Laufer & Kimmel, 1997). Knight (1994), for example, discovered that while incidental vocabulary learning through contextual guessing did take place, those who used a dictionary as well as guessed through context not only learned more words immediately after reading but also remembered more after two weeks. She also found that low verbal ability participants benefited more from the dictionary than high verbal ability participants who, in turn, benefited more from contextual guessing. Another interesting thing Knight found was that high verbal ability students would look up a word even if they had successfully guessed its meaning, a finding in line with Hulstijn (1993).
The advantage of a dictionary was corroborated in a study of 293 Japanese EFL university students by Luppescu and Day (1993). Participants were randomly assigned to a treatment (dictionary) group (N=145) and a control (no dictionary) group (N=148) and were asked to read a short story in class. The treatment group used a bilingual English-Japanese dictionary of their own choice, and the control group were not allowed to use any dictionaries. Neither group were told of the multiple-choice vocabulary test that was administered immediately after reading. Results suggested a clear advantage for the dictionary group in vocabulary learning through reading, but the dictionary group took almost twice as long to read the passage as did the control group.
Further evidence of the usefulness of a dictionary for ESL/EFL students can be found in Summers (1988) who reported the results of three experiments done on the effectiveness of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English both in reading comprehension and in vocabulary learning. The first two experiments focused on reading comprehension and found that comprehension was significantly improved by the use of the dictionary. The third experiment asked participants to produce nine of the tested words in sentences. Results suggested that the mix of definition plus example in the dictionary entry was the most successful, and that the use of the dictionary in all conditions tested was more conducive to the successful production of new words in sentences.
What dictionaries: Bilingual or monolingual?
Until recently, the default stance taken by most experts and teachers is that a monolingual, rather than a bilingual dictionary should be encouraged (Hartmann, 1991). In fact, most of the published work on this topic is of the argumentative type.
Baxter (1980)described one common problem amongst EFL students: not being able to access a word in speech and lacking the ability to circumvent that word by providing a definition in the target language. He attributed this problem primarily to students’ use of bilingual dictionaries and strongly advocated the use of monolingual dictionaries that would encourage “conversational definition” (p. 335). In general, Baxter reiterated the basic concerns of most language teachers, that bilingual dictionaries 1) encourage translation; 2) foster one-to-one precise correspondence at word level between two languages; and 3) fail to describe adequately the syntactic behaviour of words.
By contrast, Thompson (1987) argued against monolingual dictionaries and supported the development of “a new generation of learners’ bilingual dictionaries” (p. 286). He pointed out that monolingual dictionaries tend to be circular in their definitions, e.g., laugh, amuse, amusement and humour are normally used in each other’s definitions. Even if defining vocabulary is restricted, monolingual dictionaries still “employ a special register which is not necessarily the most useful or rewarding for learners to be exposed to” (p. 284), and are therefore of little value to foreign language learners below the advanced level. Thompson did admit that objections to traditional bilingual dictionaries are valid, and he advocated the compilation of new bilingual dictionaries that, in addition to providing clearer understanding in the learners’ L1, “avoid reinforcing the belief in a one-to-one relationship at word level” (p. 285), and provide full semantic, grammatical, and stylistic information, examples, and usage notes that are not available in traditional bilingual dictionaries. [-7-]
Since a combination of good features of both types of dictionaries is not impossible, there has been considerable interest in the last twenty years in the “new bilingualised compromise dictionaries”, hybrid dictionaries that essentially provide translations in addition to the good features of monolingual dictionaries (Hartmann, 1991, p. 79). Evaluation of the effectiveness of such dictionaries emerged mainly in the 1990s. Laufer and Hadar (1997), for example, compared monolingual, bilingual, and bilingualised dictionaries among 123 EFL learners in Israel. They found that irrespective of the learners’ proficiency level, the bilingualised version was either significantly better than, or as good as, the other two types in both comprehension and production tasks.
Recent developments in computers have triggered a whole line of interest in electronic dictionaries, online dictionaries or vocabulary glosses integrated into language learning software or web pages (e.g., Hulstijn, 1993; Knight, 1994; Koren, 1999; Laufer & Hill, 2000; Lomicka, 1998; Roby, 1999). In general, the same questions that have been asked of traditional dictionaries are being asked of their e-versions. Not surprisingly, very similar answers are obtained, for example, electronic dictionaries that contain not much more than L1 equivalents are not quite helpful to the language learner (Koren, 1997). Two new developments warrant special mentioning: 1) computers offer researchers a powerful and convenient tool in terms of logs or trackers of learner behavior in dictionary use; and 2) online vocabulary glosses offer the learner a quick access to the information s/he needs which in turn might encourage more dictionary use. However, clicking on a hyperlink is a look-up strategy totally different from flipping through a bulky dictionary, locating the relevant entry, and finding the contextually meaningful information. While the ease and speed might encourage more dictionary use and reading, the convenience might not always be a good thing for vocabulary learning. By the same token, the online logs we obtain about learners’ dictionary behaviors might not contain exactly the same behaviors the same learners would demonstrate when they use paper dictionaries. Clearly we need to see more work along this exciting line of research before we can arrive at any comfortable conclusions about online dictionaries and glosses.
“Perhaps we have become more skeptical about a single most appropriate dictionary format, perhaps we are more wary about dogmatic statements on which dictionary is good for you, and realize that more research is needed on what real dictionary users do in real situations of dictionary look-up” (Hartmann, 1991, p. 79). Indeed, the field is beginning to take up this challenge. In addition to the experimental comparison of different types of dictionaries, more studies are emerging that aim to discover what exactly learners do and how their dictionary strategies influence their learning results.
Learners’ dictionaries are certainly compiled with the language learner in mind. And almost every such dictionary is accompanied by at least one workbook (most notably Underhill, 1980; Whitcut, 1979) aiming for the training of dictionary strategies to maximize the effect of dictionary use in language learning. With only a handful of exceptions, little has been done empirically to find out what dictionary strategies are used by learners and whether and how these strategies influence their learning outcomes. [-8-]
In an analysis of the steps learners need to look up a word for comprehension, Scholfield (1982) suggested seven steps for the language learner, and analysed each step in great detail (pp. 186-193). He argued that making use of a dictionary should not be seen as a straightforward technical and passive activity, it is rather a complex process of hypothesis testing that involves the active participation of the learner. Similar views and strategies are also presented in Nation (2001, pp.285-287). What Scholfield and Nation described is a synthesized and idealized dictionary strategy a learner should use when looking up a word during reading. We do not know, however, whether L2 dictionary users do make use of these steps. Nor do we know if using these steps would help the learner in his/her vocabulary learning through reading.
Another important aspect that needs more attention is how learners should make full use of the dictionary as a tool for active production of the target language. As Summers (1988) noted, “the student and non-native teacher have a powerful tool at their disposal . . . with which to gain further understanding of the range of use of new language, leading eventually to accurate production, mainly in writing” (p. 123). If learner autonomy is to be the aim, learners have to be able to make use of this useful tool when the teacher is not available. In this regard, one recent and timely addition is a study of 211 ESL learners by Harvey and Yuill (1997), which mapped out 1) the reasons for dictionary use for a writing task, 2) how exactly learners used the dictionary, and 3) how successful they were in achieving their purposes.
Two studies not often referred to in the literature also tried to focus on the processes of dictionary use by ESL students. Ard (1982) studied how ESL students in a high-intermediate level writing class used bilingual dictionaries. Retrospective accounts of how these learners used their dictionaries in and out of class were obtained, together with a sample of protocol data of two students writing a composition in class. Ard found that some of the students’ writing errors were induced by the use of the bilingual dictionary and that this was related to the differences between L1 and L2.
Neubach and Cohen (1988) studied how six EFL students (2 high, 2 intermediate, and 2 low-level) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem used the dictionary while reading. Verbal report protocols and interview data were obtained from these students. They listed a number of interesting strategies these students used, and concluded that generally “advanced students do not need the dictionary so much, while weak ones cannot use it to their advantage” (p. 14). Specifically, high-proficiency students went into their dictionaries with correct expectations at both the sentence and the word levels, while the intermediate learners did not always determine the part of speech of the word being looked up, had frequently wrong expectations of the word as well as problems with other words in the definition when a monolingual dictionary was used. And the low proficiency students were frustrated for not being able to get the right definition from the dictionary and refrained from using it.
More studies are needed to determine how ESL/EFL students use dictionaries and how their dictionary strategies influence their learning results. Indeed, it is alarming to see how much time and effort we have spent in areas such as contextual guessing or mnemonics and yet how little energy is dedicated to an area such as dictionary strategies that can be just as illuminating.
Note-taking and Vocabulary Learning
After getting information about a new word, learners may take notes, in the form of vocabulary notebooks, vocabulary cards, or simply notes along the margins or between the lines. However, learners differ in what they do in note-taking, when they take notes, and how they take notes (McCarthy, 1990). These differences, among other things, may well distinguish the good from the poor learners. Teachers instinctively know how important note-taking is, and a lot has been said on how note-taking should take place (Allen, 1983; Gairns & Redman, 1986; Schmitt & Schmitt, 1995), very few studies have touched upon vocabulary note-taking and how it affects vocabulary learning. [-9-]
In a study not specifically designed for the study of note-taking strategies, Ahmed (1989) collected think-aloud, observation, and interview data from 300 Sudanese EFL learners. Apart from finding that “note-taking” was a strategy these Sudanese learners used very commonly, and that this “macro-strategy” did not distinguish the good from the poor learners, little was reported as to how the “micro-strategies” of note-taking did affect the learning result of these learners. This was partly due to the fact that 1) Ahmed’s study examined the overall pattern of vocabulary learning strategies rather than note-taking, and 2) Ahmed was interested mostly in a quantitative clustering of binary percentage ratio data that ruled out a detailed description of how exactly note-taking took place and how it affected the learning result. Another study that looked at note-taking is Cohen and Aphek (1979) who focused on Hebrew learners in a summer program in Israel. Some learners would leave their notes in the order in which they appeared. Others would copy over their notes after class, putting words into groups. However, this study did not relate these note-taking strategies to learning result. Research is sorely needed to determine how different types of note-taking strategies can influence vocabulary acquisition.
Rote Rehearsal and Vocabulary Learning
One of the first problems a foreign language learner encounters is how to commit a massive amount of foreign words to memory. And the first and easiest strategy people pick up and use naturally is, simply, repeating new words until they can be recognized. It is therefore not surprising to see most of the earlier research focusing on various aspects of vocabulary rehearsal.
This section on vocabulary rehearsal strategies is deliberately short, not because rehearsal is unimportant, or empirical studies are specifically limited in number, but because 1) most studies done on various aspects of vocabulary rehearsal were carried out before the 1970s; 2) later studies have focused on some “deeper” strategies (see the subsequent section on encoding strategies); 3) empirical research in this aspect has produced relatively conclusive results, and 4) a review of these studies can be found in Nation (1982). Four of the most interesting issues on word list learning will be introduced: 1) the number of repetitions needed to remember a word list; 2) the optimum number of words to be studied at one time; 3) the timing for repetition; and 4) repeating aloud vs. repeating silently.
Number of repetitions needed to remember a word list
Encouraging findings on this issue can be found in the literature. Crothers and Suppes (1967) discovered that almost all of their participants remembered all 108 Russian-English word pairs after 7 repetitions, and about 80% of 216 word pairs were learned by most participants after 6 repetitions. Similarly, Lado, Baldwin and Lobo (1967) presented their intermediate level college students of Spanish with a list of 100 words, and found that only one exposure sufficed for an average of 95% recognition and 65% recall. In general, results on this issue show that, if remembering word pairs is the aim, a surprising amount can be learned within a relatively short time (Thorndike, 1908; Webb, 1962), and not many repetitions are needed before the L2-L1 word pairs can be remembered. [-10-]
The optimum number of words to be studied at one time
How many words should a list contain? Investigators have tried various list sizes and concluded generally that this issue depends on the difficulty level of the words on the list. Crothers and Suppes (1967), for example, examined list sizes ranging from 18 to 300 and discovered that when words were difficult, small list sizes were better, and that when words were easy, large sizes were more efficient. It was thus suggested that if a word list does not contain a lot of difficult words, lists of 100 or more words can be studied at one time.
The timing for repetition
Not surprisingly, a considerable amount of earlier work on foreign language vocabulary learning followed the psychological paradigm in memory research. And almost all studies focusing on the pacing of repetition and recall of word lists arrived at the same conclusion: that forgetting mostly occurs immediately after initial encounter, and that the rate of forgetting slows down afterwards. Anderson and Jordan (1928) examined the number of words that could be recalled immediately after initial learning, 1 week, 3 weeks, and 8 weeks thereafter and discovered a learning rate of 66%, 48%, 39%, and 37% respectively. Similar results can be found in Seibert (1927, 1930). It was therefore suggested that students should start repeating newly learned words immediately after the first encounter. Spaced recall and repetition should follow afterwards at longer intervals.
Repeating aloud vs. repeating silently
Empirical results on this issue are also relatively unanimous, that repeating words aloud helps retention far better than silent repetition. Seibert (1927), for example, studied three conditions: studying aloud, studying aloud with written recall, and studying silently, and found that the first condition always produced better results than the other two. He then studied the time for relearning after 2, 10, and 42 days, and found again that learning aloud was much more efficient than the other two conditions. More recent studies  (Gary & Gary, 1982; Gershman, 1970; Hill, 1994; Kelly, 1992) produced similar findings indicating, to use Kelly’s words (p. 142), that “the ear does assist the eye in the long-term retention of lexis”. [-11-]
Empirical research on vocabulary rehearsal has produced relatively convincing results that serve to underscore one important message: it is necessary and legitimate to employ various repetition strategies at the initial stages of vocabulary learning. As Carter (1987, p. 153) puts it: “quantities of initial vocabulary can be learned both efficiently and quickly and by methods such as rote learning which are not always considered to be respectable. It may be dangerous to underestimate such a capacity.”
It is worth noting that recent literature shows that individual differences play an important part in determining a person’s memorization capacities (Miyake & Shah, 1999). This will mean, among other things, that vocabulary retention is very much a function of an individual’s skillfulness in memory strategies. It also means that the ability to memorize and the preference for memorization are dependant upon the cultural background of the learner. With this in mind, let us turn to deeper strategies for vocabulary learning.
Encoding and Vocabulary Learning
Since the 1970s, attention to vocabulary acquisition strategies has shifted from various aspects of word list repetition to deeper processing strategies. The following section will focus on four of these areas: memory, form, meaning, and use.
Mnemonics: Focusing on memory
This is an area that has received by far the most attention, so much so that I would even argue that it has turned into a classic case of overkill. Mnemonics as aids to memory has fascinated philosophers, psychologists, teachers, and learners ever since antiquity (Wittrock, 1988). Mnemonic devices in foreign language vocabulary learning in modern times were boosted by a whole robust line of research inspired by Atkinson (1972, 1975) and Atkinson and Raugh (1975). The presupposition underlying this research tradition is very simple: 1) mnemonic devices work miraculously in boosting memory; 2) vocabulary learning is essentially a memory issue; and therefore 3) mnemonics should work for foreign language vocabulary learning as well.
One of the most studied mnemonics is the keyword method, in which the foreign word is remembered by being linked to a keyword, a sound-alike native word (the acoustic link), through an interactive image that involves both the foreign word and the native word (the imagery link) (Atkinson, 1975). A verbal version of the keyword method differs from the imagery version only at the last stage, where, instead of an interactive image, a sentence is made up in the learner’s L1 that involves the keyword and the L1 equivalent “doing something together”. It is hoped that the stimulus of the foreign word would trigger the activation of the sound-alike keyword, which would in turn activate the interactive image or sentence, resulting in the retrieval of the real meaning.
Comprehensive reviews exist on the effectiveness of mnemonic techniques in foreign language vocabulary learning (e.g., Cohen, 1987; Hulstijn, 1997; Meara, 1980; Nation, 1982; Paivio & Desrochers, 1981; Pressley, Levin, & Miller, 1982). The majority of empirical studies involve one type of mnemonic devices, most probably the keyword method, and the typical task involved in these experiments would be the recall of a list of word-associates between L2 target words and their L1 equivalents within a period of 2 to 4 weeks. With the exception of a handful of studies in classroom contexts (Fuentes, 1976; Levin, 1979; Willerman & Melvin, 1979), two and a half decades of rigorous experimentation points to a single conclusion that the keyword method is superior to almost all other methods tested (e.g., rote repetition, semantic methods, or placing words in a sentence). These findings are so unanimous that another review here would appear redundant. Instead, I would like to point out that this is not entirely an empirical issue. Despite the obvious robustness of experimental results, mnemonic approaches to vocabulary development in an L2 suffer from the following limitations: [-12-]
- Mnemonic devices mainly aim for the retention of paired-associates. However, the vocabulary of an L2 is far more than a collection of L1-L2 word pairs (Richards, 1976), and the retention of a word is the beginning rather than the end of the long process of vocabulary acquisition (Meara, 1996).
- The mnemonic approach to vocabulary development emphasises on a fixed one-to-one relationship between form and meaning. However, a key notion in the applied linguist’s conception of vocabulary is multiple meanings and multiple dimensions of meanings (referential, syntactic, pragmatic, emotional, etc.).
- Mnemonic techniques tend to focus on the referential meaning of a word, often at the expense of its grammatical information. As a result, mnemonic devices may not necessarily be cost-effective in the long run if word use in natural contexts rather than meaning retention is the final aim (Paivio & Desrochers, 1981).
- Not all words are equally suitable for mnemonic mediation (e.g., abstract words, Ellis, 1997). A few mnemonics that arise naturally during the learning process are certainly beneficial; too much emphasis on this method would be tantamount to overkill.
- Mnemonic devices are “much less effective in productive vocabulary learning than in learning to comprehend the L2 because imagery association in the keyword technique allows retrieval of a keyword which is merely an approximation to the L2 form”. More importantly, these techniques do not include in-built tricks to help spelling and pronunciation (Ellis, 1997, p.137).
- Delayed recall after 2 weeks under experimental conditions is normally referred to as “long term retention”, while the same period of time is but an instant in the natural vocabulary development process. Moreover, the complete entailments of a word may never be developed in the long run if the learner does not actively seek to expose him or herself to authentic speech and texts.
- Mnemonic devices might be more applicable at different stages of learning. They might benefit absolute beginners who need to remember a large number of fairly arbitrary paired-associates or advanced learners whose target language system has already been established.
- Learners of a foreign language should be explicitly warned that mnemonic devices are only meant to complement rather than replace other approaches to vocabulary learning (Cohen, 1987). As Carter (1987, p. 188) rightly contends, too great a focus on learning vocabulary as discrete items  may well lead to neglect of the skill aspect of vocabulary in natural discourse.
Word-formation: Focusing on form
Most initialwork in this area came from lexicographers. Understandably, their “pedagogical implications” were prescriptive in nature, and focused mainly on why etymological information is important to the learner and what should be taken into consideration. For example, Kelly (1991, pp. 80-81) maintained that knowledge of Graeco-Latin roots can assist in vocabulary development in that it helps students predict or guess what a word means, explain why a word is spelt the way it is, and remember the word by knowing how its current meaning evolved from its metaphorical origins. Ilson (1983, pp. 77-80) identified 4 types of etymological information that can help the learner: 1) etyma and cognates; 2) morphological analyses of lexical units in terms of their constituent structure; 3) morphological analyses of lexical units in terms of processes of word formation; and 4) analyses of lexical units in terms of the cognitive procedures (e.g., metaphor) of their formation and development. Nation (1990, pp. 168-174) focused on the skill aspect and outlined three skills a learner needs in order to make use of affixation: breaking a new word into parts so that the affixes and roots are revealed; knowing the meanings of the parts; and being able to connect the meaning of the parts with the meaning of the word. He went on to provide examples of how each skill can be developed. [-13-]
Research on vocabulary errors and the mental lexicon of EFL learners, though not directly related to the process of vocabulary acquisition, does provide considerable insight into how the formal aspect of words is learned. Meara (1980, 1984) suggested that the formal properties of words might be more salient than their semantic properties at the beginning stages of learning. Laufer’s (1988, 1990, 1991) explication of “synforms” (similar lexical forms) and intralexical factors (Laufer, 1997) has also indicated that the learner’s mental lexicon is unstable and that the formal aspect creates a major source of confusion in vocabulary learning (see also Gu & Leung, 2002, for examples). Future research can address whether the apparent dominance of formal errors among beginning to intermediate learners of EFL is related to their intentional choice of vocabulary learning strategies.
Semantic networks: Focusing on meaning
Recent developments in lexical semantics tell us a lot about vocabulary learning. Componential analysis and the paradigmatic versus syntagmatic conceptions of the mental lexicon, for example, have prompted the development of the semantic field, semantic network or map, or semantic grid strategies in which new words are presented and organised in terms of maps or grids of interrelated lexical meanings (Channell, 1981, 1988; Crow, 1986; Crow & Quigley, 1985; Stieglitz, 1983). These semantically based strategies, though intuitively appealing, tend to be, once again, prescriptive in nature, though, this time, the prescription came from linguists, not psychologists.
Not many studies have looked at whether and how learners use semantically based strategies and how their use of these strategies affects both their learning of vocabulary and the target language in general. While some empirical evidence did suggest their effectiveness (e.g., Crow & Quigley, 1985), other researchers warned us against the danger of presenting closely related new words at the same time (Higa, 1963; Nation, 1994; Tinkham, 1993; Waring, 1997). Specifically, Nation (1990, p.191) maintained that when a group of related items require the same response from the learner, such as the tasks involved in Crow and Quigley (1985), learning would be helped. On the other hand, if a different response is required for each item in a group of closely related items, the differences between the items will interfere with each other, thus making the learning task more difficult. “The network of associations between words in a native speaker’s brain may be set as a goal for second language learners, but this does not mean that directly teaching these associations is the best way to achieve this goal” (Nation, 1990, p.190). How much these associations in L1 and L2 correspond to each other, and how they can be employed to develop the L2 lexicon, need much more empirical exploration. [-14-]
Vocabulary in use: Focusing on language context
The previous sections focused on various strategies of vocabulary encoding that tend to treat vocabulary as a collection of discrete items. While these strategies constitute a considerable part of the vocabulary learning process, a vocabulary development agenda that includes mainly these strategies might well lead to a dangerously simplistic conception of vocabulary amongst undiscerning beginners. It is thus not hard to understand why some learners produce sentences such as: “Mrs. Morrow stimulated (stir up) the soup” or “Me and my parents correlate (be related with each other), because without them I wouldn’t be here” (Miller & Gildea, 1987).
Theorists and researchers of different traditions have long been fascinated by lexical phrases, lexicalised chunks, (Lewis, 1993; Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992; Willis, 1990), multiword units, and collocations (Arnaud & Savignon, 1997; Bahns & Eldaw, 1993; Cowie, 1988; Sansome, 2000). The availability of computer-generated corpora has made it simpler to find not only patterns of multiword units from authentic contexts, but also their respective frequency of use. Pedagogical suggestions are either in favor of an inductive (e.g., Lewis, 1997; McKay, 1980) or an explicit and deductive type (Sansome, 2000). So far as learning strategies are concerned, Arnaud and Savignon (1997, p.168) note two kinds of strategies associated with complex lexical units: awareness strategies and retention strategies.
It was concluded earlier that incidental learning alone is not enough in developing a functional vocabulary in a second or foreign language. Similarly, the intentional and direct learning of vocabulary does not, and should not, rule out contextual learning. In fact, learning new words from context might well be only the first step learners employ, and they should carry on, with metacognitive choice of words and treatment, to encode the new word together with the context where it appears (e.g., remembering the word together with the surrounding sentence). Some may even try to create a sentence using the new word and thus put it back into context (Sanaoui, 1995). Most empirical studies on contextual learning have compared incidental vocabulary learning from context with other forms of vocabulary presentation. Future research can examine how the other forms of contextual encoding (i.e., remembering new words with context, and using a new word in context) relate to other strategies and to learning results.
Person-dependent Vocabulary Learning Strategies
From guessing at the first encounter, to possible dictionary use and note taking, to rehearsal, encoding, and contextual activation, vocabulary learning in real life situations is a dynamic process involving metacognitive choices and cognitive implementation of a whole spectrum of strategies. Whether and how a learner evaluates the task requirement and whether and how a cognitive strategy is deployed are often dependent more on the learner than on the task. This learner-oriented process view of vocabulary acquisition that looks at naturally occurring vocabulary learning strategies as they relate to individual differences as well as the vocabulary learning task is beginning to form a new trend.
Good learners, poor learners, and their vocabulary strategies
The Ahmed (1989) study referred to earlier was amongst the first to elicit vocabulary strategies learners spontaneously employ. The good learners were found to be more aware of what they could learn about new words, paid more attention to collocation and spelling, and were more conscious of contextual learning. By contrast, the underachieving learners refused to use the dictionary and almost always ignored unknown words. They were generally characterized by their apparent passiveness in learning. They also took each word as a discrete item unrelated to previously learned words. [-15-]
Another study that explored students’ ability level and their guessing strategies is Schouten-van Parreren (1989). It was found that, compared to their strong counterparts, weak pupils tended to focus on the problem word and ignore the context; their knowledge of the world was more restricted; they had difficulty integrating knowledge from different sources; they lacked mother tongue vocabulary knowledge, and they had difficulty generalizing from words they had already learned to slightly different new words.
Gu and Johnson (1996) studied 850 university EFL students in China, and tried to establish how different vocabulary strategies were related to language learning outcomes. Both Pearson’s correlation and multiple regression analyses revealed that self-initiation, selective attention, and deliberate activation of newly learned words consistently predicted both vocabulary size and general proficiency. Other predictors of success included contextual learning, dictionary, and note-taking strategies. Interestingly, a more recent study (Kojic-Sabo & Lightbown, 1999) of 47 ESL and 43 EFL students produced strikingly similar results, suggesting that “time and learner independence were the two measures most closely related to success in vocabulary learning and higher overall English proficiency” (p.176).
Individual differences and vocabulary learning strategies
The very notion of strategies being learner-initiated actions connotes the inherent relationship between strategies and individual difference factors such as motivation, self-efficacy, gender, learning background, and learning styles. However, only a handful of studies can be found along this line of research.
A number of case studies demonstrate the style differences in vocabulary learning. In Parry (1997), Dimitri employed a “holistic” approach, paying attention to overall understanding, while Ae Young used an “analytic” approach, spending considerably more time on guessing, analyzing, and intentional learning of each new word. Parry concluded that flexibility in strategy use is needed because “both approaches are necessary but . . . neither is appropriate at all times” (p. 18). Similarly, Gu (2003)’s “freehand” learner employed more “holistic” strategies, while the “fine brush” learner demonstrated more of an analytical approach in learning EFL vocabulary in China. In three small-scale exploratory studies involving ESL or FSL (French as a second language) students in Canada, Sanaoui (1995) asked her participants to keep a written record of what they did each day for a period of six, four, and three weeks respectively. Two approaches to vocabulary learning were identified: The first group approached vocabulary learning in a structured way, setting criteria for the selection of words, engaging in self-initiated learning activities, keeping a systematic note of vocabulary items being learned, and regularly reviewing their records. The other group, by contrast, did little independent learning, kept minimal records of new words being learned, and relied heavily on classroom instruction. Moreover, they did not know what words to focus on, often depending on what the teacher wrote on the board. Sanaoui suggested that the two approaches to vocabulary learning should be two ends of a continuum, and that most learners might fall somewhere in between the two ends. Sanaoui also noted in brief another study in which she found that “learners who had a structured learning approach were more successful in retaining vocabulary taught in their classes than learners who had an unstructured learning approach”, and that “a structured approach was found to be more effective than an unstructured approach for both beginning and advanced learners” (p. 26).
Sex differences in vocabulary learning have also received some attention. Boyle (1987) found that, despite a female superiority in general proficiency, male students outperformed their female counterparts in listening vocabulary. Oxford, Lavine, Hollaway, Felkins, and Saleh (1996), on the other hand, discovered that females were significantly more willing than males to try out new vocabulary learning strategies, a finding that has been corroborated in a few other studies (Gu, 2002; Young & Oxford, 1997). [-16-]
Despite an obvious lack of effort on learner-dependent vocabulary learning strategies, patterns are already emerging. Good learners seem to be those who initiate their own learning, selectively attend to words of their own choice, studiously try to remember these words, and seek opportunities to use them.
Learning Context and Vocabulary Learning Strategies
Compared to task- and person-dependent strategies, learning context has received only cursory attention. Most studies would either ignore the educational and cultural traditions, the availability of input and output opportunities, and the classroom environment, or try to confine the contextual dimension by focusing on one homogeneous group of learners. Many studies, however, do discuss their results by singling out the context factor. Oxford’s (1996) volume, though not specifically on vocabulary learning, underscores the importance strategy researchers are beginning to place on learning context. Throughout this review, I have repeatedly highlighted learning context when the focus is on task or person. This shows the interrelatedness of the person-task-context-strategy model.
Future research should focus on different aspects of learning context as they relate to learners, tasks, and vocabulary learning strategies. Personal styles of learning, for example, have been shown to be very much related to cultural differences (Nelson, 1995). In addition, classroom learning environments should demand different vocabulary learning strategies from informal learning contexts. Likewise, the availability and richness of input/output opportunities should also determine the strategies learners decide to use.
Summary and Conclusion
Thanks to the pioneers in rote rehearsal, incidental vocabulary learning and mnemonic strategies, the field has come to many valuable conclusions. However, in order to avoid asking repeatedly very similar research questions on various approaches to vocabulary presentation and retention, this following section will attempt to turn our attention to avenues for further research.
- Vocabulary acquisition research in the linguistics tradition has largely concentrated on vocabulary (target: what is to be learned; or product: what is learned) rather than acquisition (how is vocabulary learned, the learning/acquisition process) (Crow, 1986; Meara, 1980).
- In the psychology tradition on vocabulary learning, memory strategies have occupied the lion’s share of attention at the expense of other vocabulary learning strategies, probably because vocabulary learning has largely been construed as a memory problem.
- List learning and short-term recall tasks have been the norm in the literature on intentional vocabulary learning. Applied linguists today well know that the learning of single words is different from the learning of multiword units, not to mention the entire functioning lexicon in a second/foreign language.
- Much of the emphasis on incidental vocabulary learning has centered on how useful incidental learning is and how much can be learned incidentally, often overlooking the fact that a lot can be learned intentionally during reading with the help of a range of strategies (e.g., guessing, dictionary use, note-taking, activation, as well as intentional repetition). [-17-]
- The majority of empirical research has centered on the initial learning (mostly basic recognition) rather than long-term development of vocabulary. Real-life learning of the vocabulary of a foreign language, however, is far from this simple. As Nation (1982) and Meara (1996) rightly observe, vocabulary learning is an on-going process. Being able to remember one meaning of a list of words within a week or two is easy, developing a functional lexicon that contains morphological, semantic, syntactic, pragmatic, and emotional connections needs a gradual process that takes much more time and effort.
- Contrary to the language learning strategy tradition, vocabulary acquisition research has thus far adopted a primarily top-down approach. Most studies are experimental comparisons between some favored strategies and various combinations of control techniques. And most involve artificial memory and recall tasks without asking if these tasks are ecologically valid and how big a role these tasks play in authentic second/foreign language classrooms. If helping the learner in the classroom rather than testing a hypothesis in the lab is to be the final aim, more ecologically valid designs should be in order in the field of vocabulary acquisition.
- Strategies good for meaning retention may not be good for overall proficiency. This is because, among other reasons, proficiency in a second/foreign language involves the automatic activation of individual words and the automatic contextual processing of these words during comprehension and production. As Ellis (1994) rightly stresses, when we consider the semantic aspect of vocabulary acquisition, the depth of processing principle will stand out. On the other hand, if the learning task centres on the acquisition of automaticity of vocabulary use, strategies that focus on the frequency, recency, and regularity of practice will be most helpful. In this connection, more studies such as Segalowitz, Watson, and Segalowitz (1995) that take into account the attainment of lexical automaticity should produce valuable insights.
- Existing research on vocabulary learning strategies does point to a direction that good learners pay more attention to collocations (e.g., Ahmed, 1989), but the field would definitely benefit from a clearer focus on how exactly learners learn multiword units and how these strategies are related to learning outcomes (Schmitt, 2000).
- Research efforts have largely been directed towards discovering the “best” strategy for vocabulary retention. In reality, however, learners tend to utilize a variety of strategies in combination. Recent research (e.g., Ahmed, 1989; Gu & Johnson, 1996; Parry, 1997; Sanaoui, 1995) indicates that these approaches to, or styles of vocabulary acquisition, which may relate more to the learner than to the task, may be more potent predictors of success than individual vocabulary learning strategies.
- Conceptions of learning have been found to differ from culture to culture (e.g., Watkins & Biggs, 1996). Even the same strategy may be executed in different ways in different educational traditions. More research clearly needs to be done along the learning context dimension.
In conclusion, a lot of work has been done along a more nomothetic line, in terms of finding overall patterns of strategy use. However, the choice, use, and effectiveness of vocabulary learning strategies very much depend on the task (e.g., breadth vs. depth), the learner (e.g., cognitive and cultural styles of learning, motivation), and the context (e.g., L1, L2, or FL contexts). Future research, therefore, needs a more idiographic touch that takes all the previous aspects into account. Enough attention on what vocabulary is (the task of vocabulary acquisition) would prevent us from focusing exclusively on word list retention strategies. We can then look at, for example, strategies for multiword units, strategies for vocabulary as skill, strategies for students at different levels of proficiency, and strategies for different stages in the acquisition of a given word. Likewise, the context perspective is much needed if we are to stop the quixotic search of the strategy grail. Strategies that work in one educational, cultural, and linguistic context might not work in another. [-18-]
The field needs a diversification of labor. While theory building is certainly in order so that future empirical research receives clearer guidance (Laufer & Hulstijn, 2001; Meara, 1998), more bottom-up empirical effort on different aspects of vocabulary learning at different stages of acquisition for different learners in various cultural and educational contexts will help us answer so many other research questions beyond the presentation and retention of words. After all, a full-fledged, interrelated, functional, and dynamic L2 vocabulary is developed, gradually, and grows by itself, if the learner makes use of strategies that aim for the use, rather than retention, of words. Therefore, what we need is a developmental model which moves us beyond strategies for the initial handling of vocabulary and gives more emphasis to the really hard work of vocabulary acquisition.
 An extensive body of research exists on language learning strategies in general which is beyond the scope of this article. Interested readers can refer to such authors as Chamot, Cohen, O’Malley, Oxford, Rubin, and Wenden, to name but a few.
 Note that most of these recent studies employed reading passages rather than word lists. The fact that both traditions produced similar results provides enough evidence to warn learners of the danger of using visual learning only.
 Mnemonics is often, though not always associated with list learning. For example, even in the Cohen and Aphec studies (Cohen & Aphek, 1980, 1981) where learners were asked to identify their own new words from context, only one out of the eleven types of associations reported by the participants (associating with the place in the text where the word appeared) had anything to do with the original context.
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About the Author
Peter Yongqi Gu is an Assistant Professor at the English Language & Literature Academic Group (ELL) and Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice (CRPP) of National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research interests include vocabulary acquisition, language learning strategies, computer assisted language learning, and language planning.
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