Ngo Xuan Minh 051 E1 Vocabulary Level And Vls Of First Year Ulis English MajorsDocument Transcript
VIETNAM NATIONAL UNIVERSITY, HANOI
University of Languages and international Studies
NGÔ XUÂN MINH
VOCABULARY LEVEL AND VOCABULARY
LEARNING STRATEGIES OF FIRST-YEAR ULIS
MAINSTREAM ENGLISH MAJORS
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
For the degree of Bachelor of Arts (TEFL)
Hanoi, May 2009
I hereby state that I: Ngô Xuân Minh, 051E1, being a candidate for the
degree of Bachelor of Arts (TEFL) accept the requirements of the
College relating to the retention and use of Bachelor’s Graduation
Paper deposited in the library.
In terms of these conditions, I agree that the origin of my paper
deposited in the library should be accessible for the purposes of study
and research, in accordance with the normal conditions established by
the librarian for the care, loan or reproduction of the paper.
This paper would not have been completed without the support of
many people, to all of whom I am profoundly indebted.
First and foremost, I would like to thank my supervisor Ms. Nguyen
Huyen Minh, M.A. for her constant support and insightful comments which
were decisive factors in the completion of the study.
In addition, sincere thanks are due to the teachers and students of
Division 1 for allowing me to administer the test and interview schedule
during their invaluable class time.
Last but not least, I am truly grateful to my family and friends for
their continual encouragement during the time I conducted the research.
This study has been conducted in order to bridge the research gap in
vocabulary and vocabulary learning strategies at English Department,
University of Languages and International Studies, VNU. It first aims at
finding out first-year ULIS mainstream English majors’ vocabulary level -
the guiding information for vocabulary learning and teaching. More than
that, it investigates the target population’s use of vocabulary learning
strategies, particularly the specific strategies they use and the problems in
their use of these strategies. For these objectives, 104 first-year ULIS
mainstream English majors were involved in taking the Vocabulary Level
Tests by Nation (1983) and ten of them were invited to face-to-face
interviews. The test scores reveal that over 80% of the target population has
mastered the 2,000-word level and hence the teaching of vocabulary to them
should move from direct instruction of lexical items to strategy training. The
demand for strategy training is even more pressing in light of the tendency
towards simpler and less effective vocabulary learning strategies and the
inadequate use of familiar and favored vocabulary learning strategies as
indicated by the interview data. To make strategy training more feasible, a
suggested syllabus with detailed descriptions of content, material,
methodology and assessment is also offered.
LISTS OF TABLES, FIGURES AND ABBREVIATIONS
List of tables
Table 2.1. Knowing a word (Nation, 1990)
Table 2.2. Nation’s Taxonomy of VLS
Table 2.3. Gu and Johnson’s Taxonomy of VLS
Table 2.4. Schmitt’s Taxonomy of VLS
Table 3.1. Interviewee Profile
Table 4.1. Students’ mastery of three levels
Table 4.2. Students’ use of discovery strategies
Table 4.3. Students’ use of consolidation strategies
Table 4.4. Students’ use of 4 sub-categories of consolidation
Table 4.5. Types of information obtained by students from
Table 5.1. A course in vocabulary learning strategies
List of figures
Chart 4.1. 2,000-word level score distribution
Chart 4.2. 3,000-word level score distribution
Chart 4.3. 5,000-word level score distribution
List of abbreviations
EVST: Eurocentres Vocabulary Size Test
VLS: Vocabulary Learning Strategies
ULIS: University of Languages and International Studies
L1: first language
L2: second language
CLT: Communicative language teaching
TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION
This chapter sheds light on the research problem and rationale for the
study as well as its scope and significance. More importantly, the aims and
objectives are highlighted with three research questions. Lastly, the chapter
concludes with an overview of the rest of the paper, serving as a compass to
orientate the readers throughout the research.
1.1. Statement of the problem and rationale for the study
“Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary
nothing can be conveyed” (David Wilkins as cited in Thornbury, 2002).
This view of the renowned linguist David Wilkins has been echoed by
many scholars, including the authors of the Cambridge English Course. In
their introduction to the course book, Swan and Walter (1984 as cited in
Thornbury, 2002) reaffirms that “vocabulary acquisition is the largest and
most important task facing the language learner.” Moreover, the importance
of vocabulary in reading and academic achievement has been supported by
various researches (Chall, 1958; Klare, 1974-1975 and Saville-Troike, 1984
as cited in Nation, 1990).
Besides the importance of vocabulary, there is also consensus among
researchers, teachers and learners of English that learning English
vocabulary is by no means an easy task. According to Allen (1983), “in
many ESL classes, even where teachers have devoted much time to
vocabulary teaching, the results have been disappointing. Sometimes – after
months or even years of English – many of the words most needed have
never been learned.” This failure can be attributed to many reasons, one of
which is possibly the inappropriate approach. The amount of time devoted to
teaching vocabulary, though great, may be not effective because “vocabulary
cannot be taught” (Wilga Rivers as cited in Thornbury, 2002). To be less
extreme, Nation (1983) points out that only the most frequent 2000 words of
English deserve individual attention and beyond that level, teaching should
be directed to strategies for learning. This view is strongly supported by
McCarthy (1990) who maintains that training vocabulary learning strategies
is a particularly productive area and that it encourages learner autonomy.
At the University of Languages and International Studies, vocabulary
learning and teaching, however, have yet to receive adequate attention.
Vocabulary is often integrated into other communicative skills and the task
of vocabulary acquisition is totally left to students. Also, the research
interest among the university staff and students has seemingly moved away
from this field. At English Department library where research papers in
English are deposited, no lecturer’s research on vocabulary can be found.
Besides, while up to 9 graduation papers in 1998 dealt with vocabulary, the
figure dropped to 4 in 1999 and only 1 in 2002 and 2003. From 2004 until
now, there has been no graduation paper on teaching and learning
Aware of this large gap as well as the importance of vocabulary and
the problems of vocabulary learning and teaching, the researcher has decided
to conduct a study on the Vocabulary Level and Vocabulary Learning
strategies of ULIS first-year mainstream English majors.
The first component of the research – Vocabulary Level is inspired by
Nation’s notion (1983) that English vocabulary can be divided into different
frequency levels, each of which requires distinct approaches in learning and
teaching. Hence, knowledge of learners’ vocabulary levels is essential for
the adoption of proper teaching and learning techniques.
Meanwhile, the second part is to find out how the target population is
currently studying vocabulary. Such an understanding combined with the
knowledge of their actual vocabulary levels will provide the solid
foundations for the researcher’s suggestions on how to enhance their
vocabulary knowledge and their autonomy in vocabulary learning.
Besides offering an insightful understanding of the current vocabulary
learning situation among the first-year ULIS mainstream English majors and
some suggestions towards vocabulary improvement, it is the researcher’s
ambition that this paper will be the groundwork for a component on
vocabulary learning strategies in Study Skills for both the paper and the
course share the goal of promoting learner autonomy among ULIS first-year
students of English Department.
1.2. Aims and objectives of the study
Initially, the study aims at identifying the vocabulary level of first year
ULIS mainstream English majors or to be more specific what vocabulary
frequency levels they have mastered based on the Vocabulary Levels Test by
Paul Nation. Then, strategies used by the target subjects will be detected by
means of face-to-face interviews with meticulously selected participants.
Not merely listing out the strategies, the research also delves into the
problems with the target students’ use of those strategies. All the data
collected from the survey into the first-year ULIS mainstream English
majors’ vocabulary level and use of strategies will be based on by the
researcher to offer some recommendations to enhance their vocabulary
learning practice and outcome.
In short, the aims and objectives of the study are to answer the three
following research questions:
1. What is the vocabulary level of first-year ULIS mainstream English
2. What are the strategies adopted by the first-year ULIS mainstream
English majors in their vocabulary learning?
3. What are the problems with the first-year ULIS mainstream English
majors’ use of vocabulary learning strategies?
1.3. Significance of the study
As one of the trail-blazing studies on the vocabulary levels and
vocabulary learning strategies of first-year ULIS mainstream English
majors, the study would be of great benefit for the target population, their
teachers, policy makers and other researchers interested in the topic.
To begin with, the research findings would help first-year ULIS
mainstream English majors improve their vocabulary learning practice,
develop autonomy in vocabulary learning and ultimately expand their lexical
knowledge. Especially, the recommendations are expected to offer
suggestions not only for short-term but also for life-long vocabulary
studying since “vocabulary learning never stops, even long after the
grammar system is firmly in place” (Thornbury, 2002, p.160).
As for the lecturers of Division 1, they could base themselves on the
results of the paper to make informed decisions on how best to facilitate
their students’ lexicon extension.
Regarding policy makers, the paper would reveal to them some
problems in the vocabulary learning practice of first-year ULIS mainstream
English majors as well as proposing necessary changes in the curriculum for
betterment of the learning and teaching quality.
Last but not least, regarding the researchers who share an interest in
the topic, this study could serve as a reliable source of related literature and a
basis for them to start their future works from.
1.4. Scope of the study
First of all, the identification of “vocabulary level” as stated in the
research title is, in fact, estimating the target subjects’ mastery of three
receptive vocabulary frequency levels, namely 2000-word, 3000-word and
5000-word levels. The estimates will be based on the Vocabulary Levels
Test by Paul Nation (1983) for the reasons elaborated on in the Methodology
Chapter. Hence, such issues as productive vocabulary level and vocabulary
depth or quality will not be touched upon in this paper.
Regarding VLS, the researcher’s goal is only to investigate the
strategies implemented by the target population and the problems in their
implementation of those. Thus, other matters like the connection between
VLS and test results, differences between good and bad vocabulary learners
are not within the scope of this study.
Finally, it should be noticed that only a limited number of members of
the population were involved in taking the test (5 classes out of 18) and the
interviews (10 interviewees out of over 469 first-year ULIS mainstream
English majors). Nonetheless, the participants were meticulously chosen
through a strict sampling procedure to ensure their representativeness of the
1.5. An overview of the rest of the paper
The rest of the paper is comprised of the five following chapters:
Chapter 2 (Literature Review) introduces the theoretical foundations
for the whole paper. Besides providing the definitions of key terms such as
vocabulary level and vocabulary learning strategies, it offers a critical
review of studies related to the research problem.
Chapter 3 (Methodology) elaborates on the participants, the
instruments, the three-phase procedure of collecting data and the procedure
of processing data from the test papers and interviews.
Chapter 4 (Results and Discussion) presents and analyses all the
collected data to help find out the answers to the three research questions.
Chapter 5 (Recommendations) presents the author’s suggestions on
the vocabulary learning of and teaching to first-year ULIS mainstream
English majors based on the research findings and the related literature
Chapter 6 (Conclusion) summarizes all the major points raised in the
paper, the limitations of the study and some suggestions for further
By stressing the importance of vocabulary, knowledge of vocabulary
levels and vocabulary learning strategies as well as disclosing the research
gap, the chapter has provided the rationale for the study. Besides, the
framework of the paper has been set in place with the three research
questions and the clearly defined scope.
CHAPTER 2: LITERATURE REVIEW
This chapter, as its name suggests, provides an overview of the
literature related to this study, laying the solid foundations for the
subsequent development of the paper. Not only are key terms like
vocabulary level, vocabulary learning strategies and first-year ULIS
mainstream English majors defined but critical background information
about the key terms is also presented to ensure a thorough understanding of
the research matters. Besides, this review will reveal the research gap, thus
rationalizing the need to carry out the study.
2.1. Vocabulary level
2.1.1. Vocabulary and word
As the current paper tackles vocabulary acquisition, it is first
necessary to arrive at a working definition of vocabulary. Etymologically,
vocabulary originates in the Middle French word vocabulaire, which in turn
can be traced back to the Latin word vocabulum (word or name). According
to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary Sixth Edition (2000), vocabulary
is (1) “all the words a person knows or uses” and (2) “all the words in a
particular language”. Since the paper focuses on the target students’
vocabulary level and VLS, vocabulary, if not clarified, should be understood
in the first sense (all the words a person knows or uses).
Another point to note from the etymology and the dictionary
definitions of vocabulary is the recurrence of words. Regarding this
connection, McCarthy (1995) asserts that “when we speak of the vocabulary
of a language, we are speaking primarily, but not exclusively, of the words
of that language”.
Hence, apart from the above discussion of vocabulary, it is also
essential to elaborate on word. In Random House Webster’s Unabridged
Dictionary (Flexner, 2003), word is “a unit of language, consisting of one or
more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a
principle carrier of meaning”. However, identifying the “word” status is not
always straightforward in reality. For example, should look, looks, looked be
considered three words or just three different forms of the same word? Also,
English is abundant in phrases like odds and ends, bits and pieces, bits and
pieces, each often learnt and understood as one WORD.
From the researcher’s perspective, word in language teaching and
learning should be treated primarily as a carrier of meaning. To put it in a
different way, look, looks and looked should be considered three forms of a
word in use. The base form (look) alone is far from enough for learners
when they need to express the same meaning conveyed by “look” but in
2.1.2. Receptive and productive vocabulary
In Richards and Schmidt (2002), receptive vocabulary is defined as
“the total number of words a person understands, either in reading or
listening” and productive vocabulary as “the total number of words a person
produces in his speech or writing”. These two terms are synonymous with
recognition/ passive vocabulary and active vocabulary respectively.
Pearson, Hiebert and Kamil (2007) assert that receptive vocabulary is
generally larger than productive vocabulary, following the psycholinguistic
principle that comprehension normally precedes production. Richards and
Schmidt (2002) share the same view and adds a specific example: An
educated English native speaker may have a passive vocabulary of up to
100,000 words, but an active vocabulary of between 10,000 and 20,000
words (Richards and Schmidt, 2002, p.9).
2.1.3. Vocabulary level assessment
Vocabulary level is a term commonly used by Nation based on the
conception that English vocabulary can be divided into different levels based
on their frequency of appearance in texts, spoken and written. In his article
with Batia Laufer (1999), two “compelling reasons” are given to justify this
view of English vocabulary.
The first is the striking differences between the occurrence
frequencies of different words. For instance, the alone accounts for 7% of
the running words in written texts. The most frequent ten words constitute
about 25% of the running words in spoken and written use. The most
frequent 1000 words make up around 75% of the running words in formal
written texts and around 84% of informal spoken use. By sharp contrast, the
second most frequent 1000 words cover only 7.7 of written texts and even
less for spoken ones.
Second, English vocabulary is huge with approximately half a million
entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. Hence, it would be more cost-
effective in terms of time and effort to focus on a well-selected group of
vocabulary. In Laufer and Nation’s view, “in courses not focused on well-
defined areas of use, only the words in the most frequent 2000 words of
English (the high-frequency words) deserve individual attention”. Beyond
that level, students should be trained to expand their own vocabulary rather
than be taught directly because the time spent on teaching low-frequency
words is not rationalized by the limited opportunities to use the words. In
other words, different levels of vocabulary should be acquired in different
ways with high frequency ones via direct teaching and low frequency ones
via self-study assisted by VLS training.
In short, the above findings on vocabulary level suggest that it is
highly cost-effective to administer a diagnostic test on vocabulary level at
the beginning of a course. Based on the test results, teachers and students
will be able to make informed decisions about how vocabulary learning and
teaching should be carried out during the course.
Aware of this issue, quite a few researchers have worked on standard
vocabulary level tests, the three most prominent of which are the Vocabulary
Levels Test by Nation (1983), its productive versions by Nation and Laufer
(1999), and Eurocentres Vocabulary Size Test by Paul Meara and his
colleagues(1987, 1988 as cited in Meara, 1990).
Vocabulary Levels Test
As the forerunner of its type, Vocabulary Levels Test has been widely
used in New Zealand and many English-speaking countries as diagnostic
vocabulary testing of migrant and international students. The test consists of
five parts, representing five levels of vocabulary: 2000-word and 3000-word
levels for high-frequency words, 5,000-word level for high and low words,
10,000- word level for low-frequency words and University Word List as a
type of specialized vocabulary. Part of the test is as follows:
2. private ______complete
3. royal ______ first
4. slow ______ not public
(Adapted from Nation, 1983)
A level is comprised of three sub-sections as above, each containing 6
words and 3 definitions. Students are required to match three appropriate
words on the left with the definitions on the right. If one scores 12 or less out
of 18 for each level, help should be provided for learning vocabulary at that
level (Nation, 1983). The test is also accompanied by a table that provides
guidelines on teaching and learning approaches for each level of vocabulary.
Many strong points can be seen in the test. First, it is easy to make and
easy to mark (Nation, 1983). The whole test takes no more then 50 minutes
to administer and approximately 2 minutes to mark each paper. Another
advantage of the test is to assess a large number of words in a short time.
Although only 18 words are matched at each level, 36 words are actually
tested because the distractors are all words, not meanings.
However, Nation (1983) does admit that “partial knowledge of the
words was sufficient to allow correct guessing”. Hence, the test is not
suitable for learners whose first languages contain many lexical items of
similar forms to English ones. Furthermore, as only partial knowledge is
tested, it is impossible to conclude that if a person scores high on one level,
he/she can use vocabulary from that level effectively in communication.
Conscious of the above limitations, Nation and his colleague Laufer have
constructed another vocabulary level test, namely the Controlled Productive
Controlled Productive Ability Test
Similar to the Vocabulary Levels Test, the Controlled Productive
Ability Test consists of 5 sections corresponding to 5 levels: 1000 words,
2000 words, 5000 words, 10000 words and University Word List. Each level
is made up of 18 items. In each item, there is one sentence and one
unfinished word as follows:
I’m glad we had this opp__________ to talk.
Students are required to complete the word based on the sentential
context. The first letters of each word are provided to prevent test-takers
from filling in another word that is semantically appropriate but from a
different level. In Laufer and Nation (1999), the test has been administered
to verify its reliability, validity and practicality. Through a survey with four
groups of students of different levels of proficiency and various calculations
of its results, the test is concluded as “a valid measure of vocabulary
growth”. Besides, the test proves easy to administer and mark, economical
to duplicate and easy to interpret.
Nevertheless, the test is limited to measuring the ability of a test taker
in controlled productive context only, not free productive context. Hence, the
authors suggest that if a student scores high on the test and does not employ
the full richness of his vocabulary in writing and speaking, measures should
be taken to encourage him/her.
Eurocentres Vocabulary Size Test
Another renowned instrument for measuring vocabulary level is
Eurocentres Vocabulary Size Test (EVST) constructed by Meara and his
colleagues (Meara and Buxton, 1987; Meara and Jones, 1988). The test was
originally developed under the commission of Eurocentres, a system of
language schools in Europe which run intensive four-week courses.
Consequently, an instrument for quick and accurate placement of students
was required to replace the traditional and time-consuming Joint Entrance
Test (JET). The test is computer-based and also divided into a number of
blocks, each containing a sample of items from a level of vocabulary similar
to Nation’s Vocabulary Levels Test. Here is the instance of one block:
Adviser Dostage Discard
Morlorn Mertion Boyralty
Moisten Implore Vibrate
Weekend Stourge Bariner
Storage Gleanse Contord
Sarsage Indoors Profess
Ghastly Refusal Disdain (Meara, 1990)
The sample, in fact, includes two types of items: two thirds are
genuine words and one third is non-existent. Each time one word appears on
the screen, a test-taker presses a button to indicate whether he/she knows the
word or not. The proportion of real words he thinks he knows is called the
HIT RATE (HR) and the proportion of non-existent words he thinks he
knows is referred to as the FALSE ALARM RATE (FAR). The computer
calculates the true Hit Rate by adjusting the Hit Rate in consideration of the
False Alarm Rate. For instance, if Candidate A scores 60% for Hit Rate and
0% for False Alarm Rate, the Hit Rate will be 60%. If Candidate A scores
70% for Hit Rate and 10% for FAR, he may overstate his vocabulary
knowledge so his HR will be adjusted downwards. According to Meara
(1990), the mechanism for this scoring system is actually based on Signal
Detection Theory models by Zimmerman, Broder, Shaughnessy and
Underwood (1997 as cited in Meara, 1990).
In his article, Meara (1990) lists out many strong points of EVST.
First, it requires “no complex development of items”, is easy to score and
produce parallel versions, can test many candidates in a short time with no
apparent wash back effects. What is more, the test is completely automated
from the administration to scoring and placement of students. Hence, the
staff has been saved a considerable amount of time and effort.
Nonetheless, the EVST faces a number of criticisms from applied
linguists (Meara, 1990). To begin with, the test assesses only a superficial
level of word knowledge, more specifically the visual recognition of words.
Second, the extent to which the scores are affected by the nature of non-
words is still unknown and seems to vary from one mother-tongue group to
another. Finally, the overall score alone is a very misleading piece of data
because not all learners of English fit the expected pattern: the less frequent
the level is, the fewer words from that level a person knows. To support this
point, the example of a French student is cited: he encounters great difficulty
with simple words but scores high on the block with less frequent words due
to his previous traditional literary-based courses in English.
As far as the researcher is concerned, the EVST represents an
interesting attempt to integrate technology into English learning and
teaching. Regarding its weaknesses (superficial assessment, unreliable
interpretation of HR-FAR ration and misleading pattern), these can be partly
overcome if a short interview is also administered. This interview can be
considered an investigation into the quality of vocabulary to complement the
inquiry into the lexical breadth via the EVST.
2.2. Vocabulary learning
2.2.1. Aspects of knowing a word
In vocabulary learning, the first question commonly asked is “what is
a word?” The answer to this can be found in 2.1.1. Besides, another heavily
discussed question is “what does it mean to know a word?” The most
popular approach to address this matter is to enumerate all the aspects of a
word a learner should know. Richard (1976 as cited in Read, 2000, p.25)
produced the following list:
• Knowing a word means knowing the degree of probability of encountering
that word in speech or print. For many words we also know the sort of
words most likely to be found associated with the word.
• Knowing a word implies knowing the limitations on the use of the word
according to variations of function and situation.
• Knowing a word means knowing the syntactic behavior associated with
• Knowing a word entails the knowledge of the underlying form of a word
and the derivations that can be made from it.
• Knowing a word entails knowledge of the network of associations between
that word and other words in the language.
• Knowing a word means knowing the semantic value of a word.
• Knowing a word means knowing many of the different meanings
associated with a word.
(Richard, 1976 as cited in Read, 2000)
This set of assumptions has been cited by many authors as the
framework of vocabulary knowledge. Though it is not comprehensive (only
7 aspects mentioned), it pioneers in highlighting the complex nature of
vocabulary learning. Richards’ approach has been taken further by Nation
(1990, p.31), a leading vocabulary expert. He proposes an analytical table,
adding other components and the distinction between receptive and
productive knowledge. (For definitions of receptive and productive
vocabulary, please refer to 2.1.2.)
For researchers who attempt to assess vocabulary quality, this detailed
list poses an extremely burdensome task as observed by Meara (1996 as
cited in Read, 2000). He found it possible to “construct measures of each of
these types of knowledge of particular words in theory” but such measures
could be conducted in practice with only a very small number of items. This
limitation, in turn, reduces considerably the reliability and validity of any
research into vocabulary quality.
Table 2.1. Knowing a word (Nation, 1990) (R=receptive, P=productive)
Spoken form R What does the word sound like?
P How is the word pronounced?
Written form R What does the word look like?
P How is the word written and spelled?
Grammatical Patterns R In what patterns does the word occur?
P In what patterns must we use the word?
Collocations R What words or types of words can be expected before or
after the word?
P What words or types of words must be used with this
Frequency R How common is the word?
P How often should the word be used?
Appropriateness R Where would we expect to meet the word?
P Where can this word be used?
Concept R What does the word mean?
P What word should be used to express this meaning?
Associations R What other words does this word make us think of?
P What other words could we use instead of this one?
2.2.2. Incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition
More importantly, the multiple dimensions of “knowing a word” as
indicated in the above table suggest that knowledge of a lexical item is not
“an all-or-nothing proposition” (Takac, 2008, p.10). In reality, when a
learner claims to know a word, he/she is very likely to grasp only several
aspects, possibly its written form, meaning and pronunciation. If later on this
word keeps recurring in his/her learning process, he/she may gather more
knowledge about its collocations, associations and appropriateness, etc. This
process of accumulating word knowledge is, according to Takac (2008,
p.10) a feature of vocabulary learning. To be more exact, it is termed “the
incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition”. In learning vocabulary, this
incremental nature demands that efforts should be made to study lexical
items over and over again after the first encounter so that these cannot only
be recognized but also can be used appropriately.
2.2.3. Incidental and intentional vocabulary learning
Intentional vocabulary learning (also known as
deliberate/explicit/conscious vocabulary learning) and incidental
vocabulary learning (also called vocabulary learning in context) are two
contrasting approaches to vocabulary acquisition (Schmitt, 2000, p.120).
The first one focuses directly on lexical items, thus giving the greatest
chance for their acquisition. Nevertheless, it is “time-consuming and
laborious” to develop an adequately sized lexicon for communication. In the
second approach, vocabulary can be learnt when one is communicating in
the language, which means a double benefit for the time spent. Nonetheless,
it is much slower than intentional learning, which means one has to read
extensively to come across a certain word. What is more, there are certain
prerequisites to be met before one can learn vocabulary incidentally
especially from reading authentic texts. The “vocabulary size threshold” for
this purpose is between 3,000 to 5,000 word families in Nation and Waring
(1997) or from 7,000 to 10,000 words in Fox (1987, p.309).
Recently, due to the misinterpretation of the communicative approach,
“learning vocabulary in context is often seen as opposed to intentional
learning” (Nation, 2001, p.232). This viewpoint is quite inappropriate since
intentional and incidental vocabulary learning are actually complementary
activities. Each seems more suited for particular types or aspects of
vocabulary. For instance, Nation (1999) maintains that only the most
frequent words should be deliberately learnt and taught while the less
frequent ones should be reserved for students’ incidental learning. Schmitt
(2000, p.122-3) adds that reliable intuition of collocation is derived from
numerous exposures through incidental learning while meaning is
“amenable to conscious learning”.
Based on the stance of Nation (1999) and Schmitt (2000), it can be
noticed that the role of students in vocabulary acquisition is monumental.
They have to take responsibility for studying thousands of less infrequent
words and many aspects of word knowledge that cannot be effectively
taught (,say, intuition of collocation). This also means students are required
to develop a high level of learner autonomy in vocabulary acquisition which
will be discussed in the next part.
2.2.4. Learner autonomy in vocabulary acquisition
What is learner autonomy?
Since the advent of CLT, there has been a shift from a teacher-
directed class to a learner-directed one based on a principle called “learner
autonomy”. In Richards and Schmidt (2002, p.297), this term is defined as
“the principle that learners should be encouraged to assume a maximum
amount of responsibility for what they learn and how they learn it.”
Nevertheless, how much responsibility and independence an autonomous
learner should take is a source of dispute among scholars.
Nunan (1997, p.193 as cited in Palfreyman, n.d.) states that “the fully
autonomous learner operates independently of classroom, teacher or
textbook”. In contrast, Palfreyman (n.d.) asserts “learner autonomy does not
mean avoiding any reliance on sources of help around you” but “means
being aware of these sources and what they have to offer in different
situations”. For example, if students rely on their teachers for explanation of
new words, it is teacher dependence. However, if a student asks his/her
teacher to validate his/her own distinction of several synonyms after he/she
already looks up the dictionary and other sources of reference, it is a sign of
learner autonomy. In this case, the student has drawn his/her teacher into
his/her “own learning agenda, effectively using the teacher as a source of
In short, learner autonomy can be considered a principle aimed at
boosting learners’ responsibility for and independence in their own learning.
As a principle, it can be interpreted into a variety of practices such as ‘study
skills’ program for international students at the U.K universities or “strategy
training’ in North America (Palfrey, n.d.). Diverse as they may be, they all
share the ultimate purpose of improving learners’ academic self-reliance.
Why is learner autonomy required in language learning?
As an old saying goes, you can bring a horse to water but you cannot
make him drink. This proverb highlights the importance of learners during
the language learning process. Learning will not occur even if the teacher
has provided all the necessary circumstances but the learner is unwilling to
participate in the process. In Scharle and Szabo’s words (2000, p.4),
“success in learning very much depends on learners having a responsible
attitude” – a building block of learner autonomy.
Moreover, language learning is lifelong learning: formal lessons alone
will not enable them to communicate effectively in complex life and work
situations. Hence, there is a need for learners to study on their own and the
best way to prepare them for that is to “help them become more
autonomous” (Scharle and Szabo, 2000, p.4).
What are the contributing factors to learner autonomy?
To help learners develop their autonomy, it is essential to find out the
building blocks of learner autonomy. According to Scharle and Szabo (2000,
pp.7-9), there are seven factors contributing to learner autonomy, namely
motivation and self-confidence, monitoring and evaluation, learning
strategies, cooperation and group cohesion, (teacher’s) sharing information
with the learner, (teacher’s) consistent control, and involving learner in
delegating tasks and decisions. Besides these factors, the authors also offer a
three-stage process to boost learner autonomy, starting with “raising
awareness” to “raising attitudes” and concluding with “transferring roles”.
Among these, it is noted that the last stage is the most demanding with class
management changing hands from the teacher to the learner.
Likewise, Nation (2001) suggests three factors of autonomy: attitude,
awareness and capability. Attitude is defined by Nation as the learner
wanting “to take control and responsibility for learning”, thus resembling
motivation in Scharle and Szabo (2000, p.7). Meanwhile, awareness in
Nation’s terms is quite similar to monitoring and evaluation since both refer
to metacognition. Finally, capability refers to “the need for the learner to
possess the skills and knowledge to be autonomous” (Nation, 2001, p.395).
So it can be perceived that the most critical difference between the two
viewpoints lie in the absence of the teacher role in Nation (2001). Instead of
positioning the teacher directly in the factors of autonomy, he suggests that it
is the teacher’s role to boost students’ awareness, motivation and capability
through training students in learning principles and strategies.
Learner autonomy and vocabulary learning
Learner autonomy is currently a principle favored in practically all
areas of English language teaching and learning and one of the areas that
have the greatest potential for adopting learner autonomy is vocabulary
(McCarthy,1990, p.129). In Atkinson (1972 as cited in McCarthy, 1990,
p.130), learners controlling how they learn words score 50% better in
retention tests than when studying random word lists set for them.
Furthermore, it has been affirmed that the way vocabulary is acquired is
unique to each person (Thornbury, 2002, p.144). Also, the class time for
vocabulary is extremely limited compared with the immense number of
vocabulary items that learners need to acquire. All these points demonstrate
that studying vocabulary on their own is a must for all learners, the best
preparation the teacher can provide is to “help them become more
autonomous” (Scharle and Szabo, 2000, p.4).
To achieve this goal, Nation (2001, p. 395-403) puts forward eight
principles based on his three factors of autonomy as depicted above. Still, he
advises learners to reflect on and modify the principles based on their
personal experience. This suggestion is quite rational because learners
aiming at autonomy should never copy slavishly, even principles for learner
2.3. Vocabulary learning strategies
2.3.1. Language learning strategies
Recent time has seen an increasing interest in the field of language
learning strategies but still, there is no consensus over the definition of the
term “language learning strategies”. As pioneers of the field, Wenden and
Rubin (1987 as cited in Griffiths, 2004) discuss “the elusive nature of the
term” while Ellis (1994 as cited in Griffiths, 2004) describes the concept as
“fuzzy”. In her earlier work, Rubin (1975 as cited in Griffiths, 2004) defined
the term as “the techniques or devices which a learner may use to acquire
Later, Wendent (1987 as cited in Segler, 2001) remarks that language
learning strategies have to take into consideration different aspects of the
language learning process. In this flow, she points out the three areas
referred to by language learning strategies: (a) the actual behavior of learners
(b) strategic knowledge (c) knowledge about aspects. In Rubin’s words
(1987 as cited in Segler, 2001), these areas include “what learners do to
learn and do to regulate their learning”. According to Griffiths (2004),
language learning strategies can be applied to a wide range of learning tasks
from discrete ones such as vocabulary and pronunciation to oral
communication and reading comprehension. Interestingly enough, it has
been ascertained that most strategy use is for vocabulary (together with
pronunciation) but not grammar. This does explain the vast literature related
to vocabulary learning strategies available.
2.3.2. Taxonomy of vocabulary learning strategies
There are quite a few strategies adopted by second and foreign
language learners to acquire the target language vocabulary. To help
students navigate through this maze of strategies, second and foreign
language researchers have made various attempts to classify vocabulary
learning strategies employed by foreign and second language learners.
Following are the three most prominent taxonomies by Nation (2001), Gu
and Johnson (1996 as cited in Gazhal, 2007), and Schmitt (1997).
In Learning vocabulary in another language, Nation (2001)
introduces another taxonomy of 11 vocabulary learning strategies. These are
grouped into planning, sources and processes.
Planning strategies involve deciding on what words and aspects of
words to focus on, what strategies to use and how often to give attention to
certain words. Meanwhile, sources strategies concern ways to find out
information about words. This information may embrace all aspects of word
knowledge (see 2.2.1) and can be found in the word itself (word part
analysis), the context (guessing from context), sources of reference
(dictionaries) or L1 (via analogy). The final set of strategies (processes)
includes ways to remember words and make them available for use. The
particular strategies in this set are divided into three sub-categories related to
three conditions of vocabulary learning, namely noticing, retrieving and
generating. The whole taxonomy is illustrated in Table 2.3.
GENERAL CLASS OF STRATEGIES TYPES OF STRATEGIES
Planning: choosing what to focus on and * Choosing words
when to focus on it * Choosing the aspects of word knowledge
* Choosing the strategies
* Planning repetition
Sources: finding information about words * Analyze the word
* Using context
* Consulting a reference source in L1 or L2
* Using parallels in L1 and L2
Processes: establishing knowledge * Noticing
Table 2.2. Nation’s Taxonomy of VLS
The strongest point of Nation’s taxonomy is probably its simplicity:
only classes and types of strategies are mentioned and plain terms are used.
This is in sharp contrast with Schmitt’s taxonomy in which up to 58
strategies are named and with Gu and Johnson’s taxonomy in which
psychological terms such as metacognitve, cognitive, activation, self-
initiation, etc are widely used. However, the other two have their own
advantages over Nation’s categorization which can be seen in the subsequent
Gu and Johnson’s Taxonomy
Gu and Johnson (1996 as cited in Ghazal, 2007) divide second
language (L2) vocabulary learning strategies into metacognitive, cognitive,
memory and activation strategies.
Metacognitive strategies are composed of selective attention (what
words are important to learn and are essential for adequate comprehension of
a passage) and self-initiation strategies (a variety of means to clarify the
meaning of vocabulary items).
Cognitive strategies in Gu and Johnson’s taxonomy include guessing
strategies, skillful use of dictionaries and note-taking strategies. Learners
using guessing strategies draw upon their background knowledge and use
linguistic clues like grammatical structures of a sentence to guess the
meaning of a word.
Memory strategies are comprised of rehearsal and encoding
categories. Word lists and repetition are examples of rehearsal strategies.
Encoding strategies entail such strategies as association; imagery; visual,
auditory, semantic, and contextual encoding as well as word-structure (i.e.,
analyzing a word in terms of prefixes, stems, and suffixes).
Activation strategies involve the strategies through which the learners
actually utilize new words in different contexts such as setting example
All these strategies can be found in Table 2.2.
Meta-cognitive * Selective attention: identifying essential words for comprehension
* Self-initiation: using a variety of means to clarify the meaning of words
Cognitive * Guessing: activating background knowledge, using linguistic items
* Use of dictionaries
Memory * Rehearsal: word lists, repetition, etc.
* Encoding: association, imagery, etc.
Activation * Using new words in different context: setting examples
Table 2.3. Gu and Johnson’s Taxonomy of VLS
(Adapted from Gazhal, 2007)
Though more complicated in terminology than Nation’s (2001), Gu
and Johnson’s categories can reflect the level of mental processing a strategy
user puts in learning a word. According to the depth (levels) of processing
hypothesis, “the more one manipulates, thinks about, and uses mental
information, the more likely it is that one will retain that information”
(Schmitt, 2000, p.121). For example, if one follows rehearsal strategies,
he/she is more likely to forget words than one who implements activation
strategies. This is to say that this taxonomy seems more useful than Nation’s
in evaluating learners’ use of strategies. It is still not as comprehensive as
It should be noted that Gu and Johnson (1996 as cited in Ghazal,
2007) and Nation (2001) are quite successful in providing a taxonomy of
VLS but only on the category level. Meanwhile, Schmitt (1997) have
succeeded in composing a comprehensive taxonomy of 58 “individual
strategies”. His list was drawn up from a number of sources, including
reference books, students and teachers. Though it surely cannot embrace all
existing VLS, it is by far the most exhaustive of its type.
In this taxonomy, the strategies are organized in two ways. First, they
are divided into 2 major classes: (1) strategies for the discovery of a new
word’s meaning and (2) strategies for consolidating a word once it has been
encountered. Second, the strategies are further separated into 5 sub-
categories, including Determination strategies (DET), Social strategies
(SOC), Memory strategies (MEM), Cognitive strategies (COG),
Metacognitive strategies (MET).
Determination strategies refer to the strategies an individual can use
to find out the meaning of one word without another person’s help. The
reverse of this sub-category is Social strategies (asking for help from other
people such as teachers or classmates).
Memory strategies involve relating words to previously learnt
knowledge through imagery or grouping. They bear a great resemblance to
cognitive strategies but there is a significant between them. While memory
strategies focus on “elaborative mental processing” that enables long-term
retention (Schmitt, 2000, p.135), cognitive strategies mainly feature
“mechanical means” to study vocabulary. This distinction between memory
and cognitive strategies is in sharp contrast to that of Gu and Johnson (1996
as cited in Ghazal, 2007). In Gu and Johnson’s, rehearsal (repetition)
strategies and guessing belong to memory category and cognitive category
whereas the reverse is true for Schmitt’s.
Finally, metacognitive strategies are defined as strategies used by
learners to control and evaluate their own learning. Testing oneself is an
instance of metacognitive strategies which provides “input to the
effectiveness of one’s choice of learning strategies, providing positive
reinforcement if progress is being made or a signal to switch strategies if it is
not” (Schmitt, 1997).
For its comprehensive treatment of individual VLS, Schmitt’s
taxonomy is an effective research instrument for investigations into VLS
followed by a particular group of learners. This remark has been confirmed
in reality by Schmitt’s research on Japanese learners of English (1993). It is
due to the taxonomy’s proven research value that it has been chosen as the
basis for data analysis procedure of the study on first-year ULIS mainstream
English majors’ vocabulary learning strategies.
Table 2.4. presents 58 strategies in Schmitt’s Taxonomy (1997).
STRATEGY GROUP STRATEGY
Strategies for the Discovery of a New Word’s Meaning
DET Analyse part of speech
DET Analyse suffixes and roots
DET Check for L1 cognate
DET Analyze any available pictures or gestures
DET Guess from textual context
DET Bilingual dictionary
DET Monolingual dictionary
DET Word lists
DET Flash cards
SOC Ask teacher for an L1 translation
SOC Ask teacher for paraphrase or synonym of new word
SOC Ask teacher for a sentence including the new word
SOC Ask classmates for meaning
SOC Discover new meaning through group work activity
Strategies for Consolidating a Word Once It has been Encountered
SOC Study and practice meaning in a group
SOC Teacher checks students’ flash cards or word lists for accuracy
SOC Interact with native speakers
MEM Study word with a pictorial representation of its meaning
MEM Image word’s meaning
MEM Connect word to a personal experience
MEM Associate the word with its coordinates
MEM Connect the word to its synonyms and antonyms
MEM Use Semantic maps
MEM Use ‘scales’ for gradable adjectives
MEM Peg Method
MEM Loci Method
MEM Group words together to study them
MEM Group words together spatially on a page
MEM Use new word in sentences
MEM Group words together within a storyline
MEM Study the spelling of a word
MEM Study the pronunciation of a word
MEM Say new word aloud when studying
MEM Image word form
MEM Underline initial letter of the word
MEM Use Keyword Method
MEM Affixes and Roots
MEM Parts of speech
MEM Paraphrase the word’s meaning
MEM Use cognates in study
MEM Learn the words of an idiom together
MEM Use physical action when learning a word
MEM Use semantic feature grids
COG Verbal repetition
COG Written repetition
COG Word lists
COG Flash cards
COG Take notes in class
COG Use the vocabulary section in your textbook
COG Listen to tape of word lists
COG Put English labels on physical objects
COG Keep a vocabulary notebook
MET Use English-language media
MET /Testing oneself with word tests
MET Use spaced word practice
MET Skip or pass new word
MET Continue to study word over time
Table 2.4. Schmitt’s Taxonomy of VLS
2.3.3. Researches on vocabulary learning strategies
Benefits of vocabulary learning strategies
First and foremost, researches on vocabulary learning strategies have
asserted the benefits of teaching, learning and using strategies in vocabulary
acquisition. Oxford (1986 as cited in Griffiths, 2004) points out that
language learning strategies, vocabulary learning strategies included, help to
“improve language performance, encourage language autonomy”.
The role of learning strategies is emphasized by Nation (1990) when it
comes to the acquisition of low-frequency words. He argues that low-
frequency words will not generally be encountered often enough to deserve
individual explicit teaching. Instead, it is more cost effective in both time
and effort for teachers to guide their students with the use of such learning
strategies as guessing from context, using mnemonic techniques, and using
word parts (Nation, 1990, chapter 9).
Effective vocabulary learning strategies
Another issue that attracts a lot of research attention is to identify the
effective vocabulary learning strategies. However, Politzer and McGroarty
(1995 as cited in Schmitt, 1997) warn that no strategy should be considered
inherently good or bad but is dependent on the context in which they are
used. The context here is comprised of many variables, including proficiency
level, task, text, language modality, background knowledge, context of
learning, target language, learner characteristics and culture, among which
Schmitt (1997) highlights culture and language proficiency.
Regarding the cultural element, O’Malley and Chamot (in Schmitt,
1997) conducted an experiment in which Hispanic and Asian learners were
separated into strategy trained and control (non-trained) groups. After the
training completed, the Hispanic strategy trainees made a significant
improvement in their vocabulary scores in comparison with their untrained
Hispanic counterparts. Meanwhile, the reverse was true for the two Asian
groups of students.
Even more important is the role of language proficiency. Nation (1982
as cited in Nation and Waring, 1997) proves that using word lists and word
cards is, contrary to popular belief, highly effective especially taking time
contrainsts into consideration. It is particularly suited for learners aiming at
the threshold vocabulary of about 2,000 - 3,000 word families or in other
words, beginning learners. Cohen and Aphek (1981 as cited in Schmitt,
1997) do come up with a similar finding: word lists are better for beginning
students but more advanced students benefit more from contextualised
Even though strategy effectiveness is contingent on external factors,
remarkable attempts have been made to “assign the vocabulary strategies to
at least broad characterizations of greater or lesser utility” (Schmitt, 1993).
For this purpose, Craik’s Levels of Processing Model (1972, 1975 as cited in
Schmitt, 1993) has been employed, indicating that the quality of learning is
in direct proportion with “the mental manipulation of the new information.”
In simple terms, if superficially processed even over a considerable period
of time, new information will be easily forgotten. On the contrary, deeper
processing (analysis, synthesis, association with known information, etc)
will result in better retention.
“Good” vs. “Bad” vocabulary learners
More empirically, some researches are based on comparing
vocabulary learning strategies adopted by “good” and “bad” learners.
Nation (2002) conducts a case study on 10 adult learners taking an
intensive ESL course in New Zealand. Each participant is first tested on their
retention of vocabulary learnt from the program and then interviewed on the
strategies they use in learning. These strategies are divided by Nation into
selection of words, aspects of word knowledge, learning and memorizing
words, revision of words, self-evaluation and monitoring. 9 out of 10
subjects get low scores in the test despite their hard work during the ESL
course. By comparing the strategies these 9 low achievers adopt with those
utilized by the high achiever, Nation has drawn some conclusions.
As for the selection of words and aspects of word knowledge, the
effective learner emphasizes the importance of depth of knowledge and
chooses to study words that he finds useful and interesting rather than words
that the teacher expects him to learn. Regarding learning and memorizing,
the high achieving student uses a wide range of strategies: rereading, flash
cards and especially using new words whenever possible. He also keeps the
habit of regularly reviewing vocabulary notebook, reinforcing his
understanding of words already learnt and his ability to use them.
Concerning self-evaluation and monitoring, the effective learner is able to
reflect on as well as questioning his own learning behavior to make
Similar to Nation’s research, Liu (2006) surveys 111 subjects –
Chinese students at Inner Mongolia University of Science and Technology.
In terms of vocabulary learning strategy beliefs, the study reveals that more
successful learners (MSL) have less faith in rote vocabulary memorization
than less successful learners (LSL). Besides, MSL strongly believe that EFL
vocabulary should be studied carefully as well as put to use as much as
possible. A more significant difference is seen between MSL and LSL in the
actual employment of vocabulary learning strategies. MSL adopt more
“activation strategies, structural memorization strategies, contextual
guessing strategies and deliberate learning strategies.” These learners also
enrich their English vocabulary with extracurricular materials. In other
words, they have developed consciousness, interest and activeness in
2.4. First-year ULIS mainstream English majors
The target population of the current research is 469 HULIS first-year
mainstream English majors, divided into 18 classes with 16 classes
specialized in TESOL and 2 classes in English translation and interpretation.
According to their course outline (Division 1, 2008), these students
should have achieved the level of proficiency equivalent to ALTE level 2
(A2) of the Council of Common Europe by the end of their first year at
university. More specifically, students are assumedly “able to cope
linguistically in a range of everyday situations which require a largely
predictable use of language” (ALTE, n.d.). It can be inferred from this
description that students should possess a fair level of vocabulary for daily
In terms of time spent on learning English, the target students have six
credit hours in class that they are required to attend. Besides the compulsory
amount of class time, students are required to spend time completing their
assignments, among which the most influential to vocabulary development
is probably the reading portfolio. This portfolio is a collection of “inspring
reading passages” with the goal of improving students’ reading skills and
enriching their vocabulary (Division 1, 2008). In addition to their own
reading, each student is also provided with “a sheet of noteworthy
vocabulary items found in the assigned theme” prepared and distributed by
their peers on a weekly basis. This is to say that members of the target
population have considerable exposure to English vocabulary – a good
condition for learning to take place.
Finally, little is known about the target students’ use of vocabulary
learning strategies. Except for guessing words in context, no other
vocabulary learning strategy is indicated in the course outline.
2.5. Literature gaps
Undoubtedly, the reviewed literature has made immense contribution
to the teaching and learning of vocabulary in the world. However, in
Vietnam, vocabulary learning is still a rather unexplored research area.
Hard as the research may have tried, he has not been able to retrieve any
significant domestic research on vocabulary, particularly independent
vocabulary acquisition through strategy use.
At the ULIS English Department, vocabulary is regarded one of the
top goals for first-year students to aim at as indicated in the Course Outline
(Division 1, 2008). Nevertheless, there has been no research conducted to
find out these students’ level of vocabulary and determine the appropriate
teaching methodology. Similarly, little has been attempted to discover how
the target students study vocabulary on their own so that effective assistance
can be offered in their monumental task of acquiring a large vocabulary of
both general and specialized items beyond the high-frequency threshold.
To address this major gap, the researcher has carried out a study on
first-year ULIS mainstream English majors, the methodology of which will
be elaborated in the coming chapter.
The chapter has provided the theoretical background for the whole
paper through providing definitions of key terms and significant background
information on vocabulary, vocabulary learning and vocabulary learning
strategies. Particularly important is the review of the Vocabulary Levels
Test, and Schmitt’s Taxonomy of VLS which will be utilized in the
subsequent chapters. Finally, the chapter discloses the gap that the
researcher is attempting to bridge via this study.
CHAPTER 3: METHODOLOGY
The following chapter depicts in detail the methodology of this
research paper. It includes the size and characteristics of the sample,
justification for and description of the two data collection instruments.
Furthermore, an elaborate report on the procedures of data collection data
analysis is also incorporated.
As mentioned in the previous chapter, the target population of this research
paper is 469 HULIS first-year mainstream English majors from 18 classes
(Khoa, 2008, private communication). 104 members of this group were
selected to take the adapted Vocabulary Levels Test, based on the results of
which 10 students were then invited to interviews on their vocabulary
3.1.1. Test takers
Although the number of students selected account for only around
23% of the target population, they were meticulously chosen based on two
principles to ensure the representativeness and the resultant validity of the
The first principle underlying the sampling procedure was “stratified
random sampling” which helps to “avoid distortions due to the chance
under- or over-representation of particular ethnic groups in the final sample”
(De Vau, 2002). In 18 mainstream classes for HULIS first-year English
majors, there are 16 teacher-training classes with 433 students and 2 classes
for 37 translation and interpretation majors. Thus, the ratio of teacher
trainees to translator and interpreter ones is 433/37, approximately 12/1.
Though there is no proven record of the differences in language proficiency
and language learning strategies between the two groups of students, the
researcher has applied this sampling method to ensure the highest possible
representativeness of the test results.
Besides stratified random sampling, the principle of systematic
random sampling was also employed in the selection of test takers to give “a
good spread across the population” (De Vau, 2002). To ensure one
translation and interpretation class was included in the sample as the
observation of the stratified random sampling principle and an affordable
size of participants, the researcher decided to choose E2 as the first in line
and an interval of 3 between classes. In other words, the chosen groups of
test takers included E2, E6, E10, E14 and E18.
A total of 117 test papers were returned among which 101 were from
teacher trainees and 16 were from translator and interpreter trainees. Then
96 and 8 students were chosen from the two groups respectively based on
the calculated ration of 12 to 1 as detailed above. The selection of 104
participants also observed the principle of interval sampling and the formula
I = N/n
I: interval, N: the population size, n: the sample size.
Among the test takers, the researcher invited 10 students based on
their test scores to participate in face-to-face interviews. Admittedly, 10 was
quite small a number in comparison with over 104 test takers (approximately
0.1%) and 469 members of the target population (0.02%), which was hardly
avoidable due to the researcher’s inability to conduct more interviews within
the limited time budget available for the data collection process.
Nevertheless, to make the data provided by the interviewees as typical of the
population as possible, careful selection was made once again based on
stratified random sampling.
According to the test results (Chapter 4), 19.2 % of the test takers
(Group W) did not master the 2,000-word level, 23.5% (Group X) mastered
only the 2,000-word level, 52.5% (Group Y) mastered two first levels (2,000
and 3,000 words) but not the third level and 4.8% (Group Z) grasped all the
three vocabulary level. Hence, out of 10 interviewees, there are 2 from
Group W, 2 from Group X, 5 from Group Y and 1 from Group Z.
Following is some brief information about 10 interviewees, including
their code names (from A to J), their score groups (as divided above) and
their detailed scores for the three vocabulary levels.
Participant Group 2,000 words 3,000 words 5,000 words
A Y 18 16 14
B Y 16 15 9
C Y 17 15 5
D X 15 13 1
E W 11 8 0
F X 16 12 3
G Z 18 18 16
H Y 17 17 11
I W 12 9 6
J Y 16 16 5
Table 3.1. Interviewee profile
3.2. Data collection instruments
There were two data collection instruments employed in this study,
namely Nation’s Vocabulary Levels Test and an interview schedule,
representing the quantitative and qualitative methods respectively. These
two methods were both used because according to Mackey & Gass (2005,
p.164) they serve as “complementary means of investigating the complex
phenomena at work in second language acquisition”.
3.2.1. Justification for two data collection instruments
Regarding the first instrument, a ready-made test was chosen because
it was the most feasible way to find out the answer to the first research
question on the vocabulary level of first-year ULIS mainstream English
majors. Among the popular vocabulary tests as reviewed in Chapter 2,
Nation’s Vocabulary Levels Test was selected for its practicality, reliability
and validity. First, the test is practical to administer since it takes a
maximum of 10 minutes for each level (even less in reality) and only 2
minutes to mark the whole paper (Nation, 1983). Furthermore, it was
designed to allow “low chances of guessing”, “test a large number of words”
(36 words each level) with items representative of their levels. The words
are also not related in any way to avoid test takers’ confusion. Besides, the
author of the test conducted various trials to verify its reliability. Lastly, the
test samples were checked against the General Service List, the
Computational Analysis of Present-Day American English and the
Thorndike and Lorge list to ensure its validity (Nation, 1983).
As for the second instrument, the interview schedule was designed as
the framework for semi-structured interviews. This type of interview was
chosen since according to Nguyen (2007, p.52), it has the three following
strengths. To begin with, a semi-structured interview gives the interviewer a
degree of power and control over the course of the interview thus he/she is
less likely to digress from the main issues than in an unstructured interview.
What is more, it still allows the interviewer far greater flexibility than a
structured interview or a questionnaire. Finally, this form of interview “gives
one privileged access to other people’s lives”. In the words of Dowsett
(1986, p.53 as cited in Nguyen, 2007, p.53), the semi-structure interview is
“quite extraordinary” with “incredibly rich” interactions and “extraordinary
evidence about life that you don’t get in structured interviews or
questionnaire methodology – no matter how open-ended and qualitative you
think your questionnaires are attempting to be”.
Particularly in this research paper, a semi-structured interview is the
most rational means of eliciting the population’s commonly used vocabulary
learning strategies since most members of the population have no formal
training in VLS (no VLS component is seen in official high school or
university English courses). Hence, it is inappropriate to use a questionnaire
and ask them to tick on lists of unfamiliar terms to indicate the vocabulary
learning strategies they often adopt. Instead, during a semi-structured
interview, the interviewee has the chance to elaborate on his/her own way of
studying vocabulary, based on which the researcher will interpret into VLS
terms and patterns.
3.2.1. Vocabulary Levels Test (adapted version)
The first data collection instrument of the research is a test adapted
from Nation’s Vocabulary Level Test (1983). This instrument is aimed at
finding out the answer to the first research question: Which levels of
vocabulary have first-year HULIS English majors mastered?
On the test paper, the identity of the researcher and the research title
was first introduced. Then the respondent was requested to provide personal
information, which was followed by a statement of confidentiality and an
explanation for how his/her contact information would be used (for returning
the test scores only). To further motivate the respondents, the source of the
test was clearly acknowledged (by Paul Nation, a world leading expert on
vocabulary) together with a guarantee of its reliability and validity.
Preceding the test questions was a detailed instruction on how to answer the
test questions in order to make sure that all the respondents would write
down the answers in the right way.
In the main section of the test, only three parts out of five as in the
original test were included for the following reason. As stated in the last
chapter, HULIS first-year English majors in general and the test-takers in
particular are expected to master ALTE – Level 2 (Division 1, 2008) which
entails mostly communication in daily situations. Meanwhile, University
Level and 10,000-word level consist of words from academic texts and low-
frequency words respectively. Hence, there is little likelihood that HULIS
first-year English majors are capable of mastering these two levels of
vocabulary. To validate this deduction, the complete version of the test was
piloted with 2 members of the target population, which returned the
expected results with a negligible number of correct answers on the two last
levels. This led the researcher to scale down the test, a necessary step to save
time and effort and stay more focused on the critical levels of vocabulary.
A more detailed description of the test can be found in the Literature Review
As for marking, each correct answer was awarded one mark. Since the
focus of the test is on vocabulary size, grammatical mistakes like
plural/singular and verb conjugation were ignored. To arrive at a rough
figure of vocabulary size at each level, the total score for that level was
divided by 18 and multiplied by 1000 (each level represents 1000 words).
For example, if one scored 9 out of 18, he/she probably knew about 500
words at that level. However, in this research, the goal is not to calculate
figures but to examine the mastery of vocabulary levels and find out which
approach should be adopted to help the target population enhance their
vocabulary. Though there is no unanimous agreement on which figure
should be taken as an indicator of mastery, the researcher has decided to
follow Nation (1983) who suggested at least 15 correct answers out of 18
3.2.2. Interview schedule
As mentioned above, the interview schedule was designed to
accompany the semi-structured interview which elicited data about the
subjects’ behavior. Hence, it includes only two major open-ended and broad
questions serving as a reminder to keep the interview on track while still
giving the interviewer and interviewee plenty of freedom to further discuss
important issues and patterns should they arise. To further supplement to
two major questions, a number of follow-up questions are included with
detailed instructions about the instances in which they should be used.
To be more specific, the schedule is comprised of two parts. The two
major questions are to answer the second research question (What are the
strategies adopted by first-year ULIS mainstream English majors in their
vocabulary learning?) and the follow-up questions are to address the third
research question (What are the problems with the first-year ULIS
mainstream English majors’ use of vocabulary learning strategies?).
As the interviewees are not familiar with vocabulary learning
terminology, they are not asked to the names of VLS they follow. Instead,
they are asked to describe the way in which they often learn new words or
revise already learnt words. Afterwards, the researcher will interpret these
depictions into names of VLS as in Schmitt’s Taxonomy (1997).
Regarding the follow-up questions, they are offered where elaboration
is needed to detect problems and solutions. For example, keeping a notebook
is more than a single strategy. What one writes down in his/her vocabulary
notebook reflects his/her view of word aspects that should be studied,
whether he/she uses semantic mapping or new words in sentences
appropriately. Clearly, an insight into such a complex practice requires more
than interviewee’s initial description. It also demands lots of eliciting efforts
from the interviewer via follow-up questions.
Last but not least, wording of the interview schedule was taken into
serious account due to the complex nature of the topic. For example, in the
Vietnamese version that was utilized for the real interviews, the researcher
used the word “cách học từ” instead of “chiến lược học từ” (a more accurate
translation of “vocabulary learning strategies”). This was to “avoid
ambiguous or loaded words” as advised in Nguyen (2007, p.33), helping the
interviewees better understand what information they were expected to
3.3. Procedures of data collection
The data collection process was carried out in 3 phases, namely
preparation of data collection instruments, administration of tests and
administration of interviews.
3.3.1. Phase 1
The very first task in this phase was to select and adapt an appropriate
test to measure vocabulary level. After numerous considerations, Nation’s
Vocabulary Levels Test (1983) was chosen for the aforementioned reasons.
However, it was not until the researcher piloted it with two respondents and
consulted the Course Outline of first-year students that he decided to
administer only the three first levels (2,000 words, 3,000 words and 5,000
words). An introduction was added to the adapted test with the key
information about the study, a request for personal information together with
a promise of anonymity. Due attention was paid to the layout of the test and
the booklet format was chosen as the advice of Nguyen (2007, p.58).
As for the interview schedule, it was composed based on Schmitt’s
taxonomy (Schmitt, 1997) or his categorization of VLS into discovering a
new word’s meaning and consolidating an encountered word. Like the
adapted test, the first draft of the interview schedule was also piloted with 2
respondents who enthusiastically made comments and helped improve it
3.3.2. Phase 2
Before actually administering the test, the researcher communicated
with the Head of Division 1 via e-mail to obtain authoritative information
about the number of classes, students as well as class size and arrangement
(whether students are grouped into classes at random or according to their
English proficiency). From these data, a sample of 5 classes with over 100
students was selected.
The next step was to choose suitable administration dates and contact
teachers of the chosen classes for permission. Plenty of heed was paid to
gaining the support of these “authority figures” because according to Nguyen
(2007, p. 39), “participants are quick to pick up their superiors’ attitudes
toward the survey”. Also, the researcher sought the teachers’ permission to
administer the instrument during class time since as a test; it requires an
appropriate sitting arrangement and silence if the test scores are to reflect the
students’ levels. To boost the students’ enthusiasm, the researcher tried to
evoke their curiosity about their own vocabulary levels, asserted the
reliability and validity of the test and promised to return their results in one
After the provision of key instructions, the timing was started. During
the time allowance, the researcher occasionally moved around the class,
encouraging the students to raise questions about anything unclear but
carefully not distracting them. Besides, students were asked to maintain
academic integrity so that the test scores would not be a distorted reflection
of their actual levels.
3.3.3. Phase 3
In this final phase, the most daunting task was to select the
interviewees. To ensure that 10 students would be as representative of the
population of 469 students as possible, numerous calculations had been
Again, the teachers were contacted for permission to invite one to
three students of their classes out for interviews on VLS during class time.
Afterwards, the 10 selected participants were contacted individually for their
consent. To make them more enthusiastic, the researcher promised to give
them some tips on VLS after the interviews.
Furthermore, the interviews were scheduled for different dates in case
the interview schedule had to be changed to suit the real situation. Thanks to
this precaution, the data collection went smoothly despite some major
changes after the first two interviews.
During each interview, the researcher attempted to encourage the
interviewee but still remain as neutral as possible. A lot of follow-up
questions were fielded to gather not only strategy names but also the
problems the interviewee encountered when using the strategy. For example,
when an interviewee said she used flash cards, she was then asked how she
made and learnt from those flashcards.
Throughout the interview, efforts were made to draw the interviewee
back to the right track when he/she showed sign of digression. Besides,
clarification skills were frequently applied to avoid future misinterpretations.
Copious notes were also taken to enable easier and faster data processing in
the subsequent stage.
3.4. Methods and procedures of data analysis
To begin with, the data collected were categorized under the three
research questions. To be specific, the test scores answered the first research
question while the interview data addressed the other two.
Regarding the first question, the test scores were recorded separately
for each level since the study was to find out students’ mastery of vocabulary
levels rather than to arrive at an estimation of students’ vocabulary size. For
every level, the frequency of each score from 0 to 18 was counted and
illustrated in a bar chart. In this way, the score distribution would manifest
itself clearly, making it easier to comment further on students’ mastery of
With reference to the second question, data processing was far more
complex. As the answers of the interviewees were descriptions of their
learning behavior, substantial efforts were required to interpret them into the
strategies in Schmitt’s taxonomy (1997). Afterwards, the frequency of the
strategies in use was calculated and charted to reveal significant trends.
Comments were then made on the characteristic of commonly used
Finally, the data from the follow-up question were analyzed to show
the pitfalls in the interviewees’ use of strategies. It is the researcher’s
awareness that such an analysis is highly subjective and prone to
misinterpretation. Thus, quite a few quotations were used to provide more
credentials for the comments.
Throughout this chapter, the methodology of the paper, which is a
combination of the qualitative and quantitative methods, has been
rationalized. First, the selection of the sample for both surveys (test-based
and interview-based) following stratified random sampling and interval
sampling methods was substantiated. Succeeding the Participants section
was an intricate justification for and description of the two data collection
instruments. The chapter was concluded by a full account of the methods and
procedures of data collection and analysis.
CHAPTER 4: RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
In this chapter, all collected data from the test papers and interviews
will be analyzed and discussed to provide the answers to the three research
questions. Furthermore, the findings of this study will be thoroughly
discussed and related to the relevant literature so that not only the detected
patterns themselves but also the causes behind will be brought to light.
4.1. Research question 1: What is the vocabulary level of first-year ULIS
mainstream English majors?
As stated in the previous chapter, the first research question was
answered by the marks 104 ULIS first-year mainstream English majors
scored on the Vocabulary Levels Test adapted from the original version by
Nation (1983). In the adapted version, there are only 3 levels, namely 2,000-
word level, 3,000-word level and 5,000-word level, each of which is
comprised of 18 items. Since each item is awarded one mark, the highest
possible score for each level is 18. If a test taker scored at least 15 for a
level, he can be considered to master that level of vocabulary (Nation, 1983).
Following is the detailed score distribution of 104 test takers for each
vocabulary level. Besides the participants’ charted scores, extra information
such as mean and range will be provided where appropriate to clarify the
sample’s vocabulary level.
The score distribution is illustrated in the chart below. The horizontal
axis carries the score range (0-18) and the vertical axis represents the
frequency of each score (the number of students who obtain the score). More
detailed information about the score frequency can be seen in the data table
right below the chart.
SCORE DISTRIBUTION 2000
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 3 4 11 17 21 20 26
Chart 4.1. 2,000-word level score distribution
SCORE DISTRIBUTION 3000
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
0 0 0 0 1 1 3 1 4 0 4 5 11 7 9 18 18 13 9
Chart 4.2. 3,000-word level score distribution
Regarding the 3,000-word level, the score distribution seemed more
even across the marking scale from under 9 points (9.6%), between 9 and 14
points (34.6%) to 15 points and above. Though the range (14 points) was
really remarkable, the mean was still as high as 13.95 points due to the fact
that over half of the sample (58 students or 55.8%) have obtained the
mastery scores for the 3,000-word level.
SCORE DISTRIBUTION 5000
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
5 3 4 10 9 8 20 6 6 4 7 7 7 1 2 1 4 0 0
Chart 4.3. 5,000-word level score distribution
With reference to the 5,000-word level, the tendency seemed in sharp
contrast the two previous levels: the distribution was skewed towards the left
of the marking scale (behind the mastery threshold). The range of the test
scores for this level was 16 points (from 0 to 16) and the mean was as low as
6.87 points. The number of test takers demonstrating mastery of this level
was merely 5 people, accounting for 4.8% of the sample.
An overview of the students’ mastery of three levels of English
vocabulary can be seen in the subsequent table.
Level 15-18 pts (Mastery) 9-14 pts 0-8 pts Mean Range
(83.3-100%) (50-77.8%) (0-44.4%)
2,000 84 (80.8%) 20 (19.2%) 0 15.97 9
3,000 58 (55.8%) 36 (34.6%) 10 (9.6%) 13.95 14
5,000 5 (4.8%) 28 (26.9%) 71 (68.3%) 6.87 16
Table 4.1. Students’ mastery of three levels
In short, the test scores revealed that the discrepancy in vocabulary
among ULIS first-year mainstream English majors is highly significant with
roughly 4.8% mastering all the three levels and up to 19.2% not mastering
the 2,000-word level. As for the mastery of the 2,000-word level and the
3,000-word level, the overall tendency was the mastery of the higher level
(3,000 words) entailed that of the lower level (2,000 words). However, there
were four cases that did not observe this common trend, constituting 3.8 %
of the sampled students 1 . Thus, only 52 % of the test takers grasped both the
2,000-word and the 3,000-word levels.
The fact that a large number of students have mastered the threshold
of 2,000 words and the wide discrepancy in vocabulary levels are the two
most critical points that can be obtained from the test scores. From these
findings, some implications will be drawn out and elaborated in the next
4.2. Research question 2: What are the strategies adopted by first-year
ULIS mainstream English majors in their vocabulary learning?
To answer this question, 10 interviewees were asked to describe in
detail the way they discovered the meaning of a new word (Question 1 –
Interview schedule) and the way they consolidated a word once it had been
encountered (Question 2 – Interview Schedule). The elaborate descriptions
of their own learning behavior were then interpreted by the researcher into
Schmitt’s taxonomy of vocabulary learning strategies (1997).
Strategies for discovering a new word’s meaning
Regarding the first class of strategies, dictionary look-up is the most
commonly used (reported by 10 out of 10 interviewees). It was closely
followed by guessing from context (6 out of 10). Meanwhile, only 1 student
The abnormality of these cases could be attributed to many reasons, including the performance of the test
takers since their scores were actually very close to the 2,000-level mastery threshold. (Three of them got
14 points and the other one got 13 points).
claimed to use asking teacher and the same was true for asking peers. The
above figures are summarized in the following table:
TYPE STRATEGY FREQUENCY OF USE
DET Dictionary look-up 10
DET Guessing from context 6
SOC Asking teacher 1
SOC Asking peers 1
Table 4.2. Students’ use of discovery strategies
As can be seen, most interviewees preferred determination strategies
(DET) or self-reliance strategies rather than recourse to another person’s
expertise (social strategies). Of the two determination strategies, dictionary
look-up, a less demanding strategy, was clearly more popular than
guessing from context.
Strategies for consolidating word knowledge
With reference to consolidating a word once it has been encountered,
a total of 18 strategies were used as detailed in the table below. These
strategies are divided into three types: Social (SOC), Memory (MEM),
Cognitive (COG), and Metacognitive (MET). Explanations on these types of
strategies can be found in the Literature Review Chapter.
TYPE STRATEGY FREQUENCY
MEM Use new word in sentences 10
COG Keep a vocabulary notebook 8
COG Written repetition 6
COG Visual repetition 2 4
MEM Pictorial representation 4
MEM Connect word to synonym/antonym 4
COG Verbal repetition 3
MET Use English-language media 3
MET Skip new word 3
MEM Say aloud new word when studying 3
MEM Group words together (topic) 3
COG Flash cards 3
SOC Study and practice in group 2
MET Spaced word practice 2
MEM Paraphrase word meaning 2
MEM Relate to personal experience 1
Table 4.3. Students’ use of consolidation strategies
Besides 58 strategies in Schmitt’s Taxonomy (1997), one strategy
(visual repetition) was added from 4 interviewees’ responses. Interviewee A,
for example, says: “Unlike my classmates, I do not write down the new word
again and again. Instead, I look closely at the word in the dictionary for
many times and try to remember it.” This modification to the taxonomy is, in
fact, in accordance with Schmitt’s comment that there are “numerous VLS”
and his list is far from exhaustive (Schmitt, 2000, p.133). As this strategy
involves mechanical repetition, it is labeled as cognitive (COG).
From the table, it can discerned that there are 3 strategies most
favored by the interviewed students, namely using new word in sentences,
An extra strategy added by the researcher. Further explanations are provided in the first paragraph
following the table.
keep a vocabulary notebook and written repetition. The number of students
adopting these strategies was far greater than the other enlisted ones. For
instance, written repetition was adopted by 6 of the students, doubling the
number of those using English-language media, and tripling the number of
those spacing their vocabulary revision (practice).
Besides viewing individual strategies, it is necessary to see how
commonly the four groups of strategies (SOC, MEM, COG and MET) were
used by the interviewees. To arrive at a figure representing this feature, the
number of people using strategies of the same type will be aggregated. The
subsequent table demonstrates the result of such calculations:
TYPE NUMBER OF STRATEGIES TOTAL AVERAGE
AVAILABLE USE FREQUENCY
SOC 3 2 0.67
MEM 28 27 0.96
COG 9 24 2.2
MET 5 8 1.6
Table 4.4. Students’ use of 4 sub-categories of consolidation strategies
The table reveals that memory (mnemonic) strategies were the most
popular in terms of the total use (27), closely followed by cognitive
strategies (24). Nonetheless, if taking the average use for each strategy of a
group into consideration, it was cognitive strategies that topped the list.
Also, among the top three strategies, two out of three (keep a vocabulary
notebook, written repetition) belong to the cognitive category which
involves “using mechanical means to study” (Schmitt, 2000, p.136). In other
words, cognitive strategies, though limited in quantity (only 9 compared
with 28 memory strategies), are the most favored by the interviewed
students in their consolidation of word knowledge.
The interview data reveals that in both discovering the meaning of a
new word and consolidating an already encountered word, there is still a
remarkable tendency towards strategies that require low level of mental
processing among the interviewees. This finding is quite similar to Schmitt’s
(1997) in his survey with over 100 Japanese learners of English who were
found to favor dictionary look-up (especially bilingual dictionaries), written
and spoken repetition, and focused-on-form strategies.
However, first-year ULIS mainstream English majors still differed
from Schmitt’s Japanese subjects in significant ways. First, all the ten
students asserted their frequent use of monolingual dictionaries rather than
bilingual ones. Moreover, up to 6 out of 10 interviewed learners claimed to
use the guessing strategy and all of them reported on using new word in
sentences. These demonstrate that the interviewees of this study, as English
majors, have pursued deeply processing strategies to a certain extent.
Nevertheless, there still existed quite a few problems in their manipulation
of VLS which would be elaborated on in the next part.
4.3. Research question 3: What are the problems with the first-year
ULIS mainstream English majors’ use of vocabulary learning strategies?
This question was answered based on the interviewer’s comparison
between the interviewees’ use of vocabulary learning strategies and the
suggested approach in the related literature. Broadly speaking, two major
pitfalls could be observed, namely a tendency towards low-level processing
VLS and students’ inappropriate use of their preferred VLS.
Tendency towards low-level processing VLS
The first flaw is, as mentioned above, a tendency towards the
strategies requiring low level of mental processing. For example, 6 out of 10
students adopted written repetition, as a major means of consolidating
vocabulary together with 4 using visual repetition and 3 following verbal
repetition. This low level of processing is responsible, to some extent, for
the low rate of retention and slow access to vocabulary. Among 6 students
practicing written repetition, 4 complained about these problems.
Additionally, 2 out of 4 students and all the three students following visual
repetition and verbal repetition encountered the same difficulties. Here are
the complaints from C (using visual repetition) and D (using written
Interviewee C: For many words, I found them so familiar when encountering
them in the text but I couldn’t remember their meaning.
Interviewee D: I write down words a lot of times …but I easily forget words I
have just learnt.
As a result of the focus on low-level strategies, the students did not
make good use of many highly beneficial strategies such as using affixes and
roots (0), connecting word to a personal experience (1), keyword method
(0), and spaced practice (0) to name just a few.
This pitfall is somehow understandable because the mentioned
strategies take a lot of time and effort for one to successfully implement
them. For instance, Nation (1990) estimates that 20 times of practice are
required to enable adequate use of keyword method. Likewise, the
distribution of practice (spaced practice) into many sessions over a long time
demands great discipline and diligence from learners. Besides, these
strategies require formal training, which has never been available to the
But Schmitt (2000, p.135) affirms that the time expended would be
well spent if used on important words. Take the word part strategy (using
affixes and roots) as an example. To become an effective user, one needs to
first master affixes and roots and then practice extensively in recognizing
these components in words. Also, he/she must get used to restating
dictionary definitions into special explanations with the meanings of affixes
and roots included (Nation, 2003). This task may sound daunting but
according to Nation (2001, p.280), once the strategy is well used, it can help
learners learn “thousands of English words”. This benefit is by no means
overstated because about 60% of English words are derived from Latin -
Greek roots and affixes (Nation, 2001).
Inappropriate use of preferred VLS
As for the strategies used by many interviewees, they were not
implemented in the appropriate way, especially in using dictionaries, using
new words in sentences and keeping a vocabulary notebook.
Regarding dictionary use, the types of information obtained from the
dictionary of the ten interviewees are shown in the table below:
INTERVIEWEE TYPES OF INFORMATION OBTAINED
A - meaning, pronunciation
- examples and idioms (sometimes when they are “eye-
B - meaning, pronunciation
- word family
- dependent preposition
C - pronunciation, meaning
- “interesting” structures
D - pronunciation, meaning
E - meaning, pronunciation
- word family
- register (formal or informal)
F - meaning, pronunciation
G - pronunciation, meaning
- synonym, antonym
- idiom, phrasal
H - meaning
- synonym, antonym
I - meaning, pronunciation
- word family
J - meaning, pronunciation
- collocation 3
Table 4.5. Types of information obtained by students from
As can be seen from the table, only several aspects of a word were
studied by the interviewees. Their foremost concern seemed to be the
meaning (10 out of 10), followed by pronunciation. Only one student (H)
was not used to writing down the phonetic transcription, which resulted in
her mispronunciation of very familiar words like comfortable and chocolate
(detected in a quick check by the researcher). Apart from these two aspects,
the students also paid attention to example (4), word family (3), idiom and
phrasal verb (2), synonym and antonym (1), preposition (1), structure (1),
and register (1). The results can be regarded as a reflection of the
interviewees’ views of dictionaries.
Apparently, they consider dictionaries a quick look-up tool rather than
“a rich resource for vocabulary acquisition” (Thornbury, 2002, p.151).
Hence, they do not make full use of all the information offered in a
dictionary like its connotation, register, grammatical information (countable
or non-countable noun, transitive or intransitive) and collocation.
Regarding collocation- a critical aspect of vocabulary in use, a quick
check was conducted by the interviewer in which he asked each interviewee
whether they knew the term or not. For this question, there were 9 “No”
The interviewee did not know the term “collocation”
answers out of 10. Only 1 student (G) said: “I’ve just bought the Oxford
Collocation Dictionary but I haven’t used it”. This proves that even
Interview G, who had the highest score in the test, did not have an adequate
understanding of collocations and her dictionary. In fact, Oxford Advanced
Learner’s Dictionary, which Interview G uses, does provide word
collocations. They are printed in bold and often occur in example sentences
that typify the real use of collocations in native speakers’ English.
With reference to the examples in a dictionary, only four out of ten
students stated they did take notice of this aspect, which is a serious
oversight because the examples listed in a dictionary are normally chosen
carefully to reflect the typical context in which the word is used by native
speakers. In short, the interviewees’ lack of attention to the above mentioned
features demonstrated their failure to study the usage of a word via the
dictionary. This failure, in turn, led to the problems with the use of another
strategy mentioned right below.
The second strategy that was equally popular among the
interviewees and also inappropriately used was using new word in
sentences. This strategy has a number of manifestations from examples to
illustrate the meaning of a new word to sentences in writing or speaking
tasks. However, due to the limitations of an interview, the strategy of using
new word in sentences was examined on the example sentence level only.
For instance, when asked to construct a sentence with a new word she
recently learnt (dolphin), Interviewee D said: “Dolphin is very friendly with
human.” In this six-word sentence, 3 grammar mistakes can be easily
detected, which was probably due to her omission of grammar information
of the words “dolphin”, “friendly” and “human”. Or else, she should have
said the sentence as follows: “Dolphins are very friendly to/towards humans
(human beings).” Similarly, another student (I) set the subsequent example:
“Last Sunday I had a wonderful holiday”. The problem with this example is
that there is no clue to reveal the meaning of “wonderful”. There are
numerous adjectives even contrasting ones can fit in with “holiday” (say,
“great” and “terrible”). Thus, using new word in such sentences do little to
help reinforce the student’s recall of word meaning. From these two simple
cases, it is very likely that students will encounter far more problems when
using new words in complex written and spoken discourse like a
paragraph/essay or conversation/ presentation.
Finally, many problems could also be detected in the way eight
interviewees organized their vocabulary notebooks. Thornbury (2002,
p.156) stresses that learners “have to depend to a large extent on their own
vocabulary records” because these materials are the basis for their repeated
practice – a must for vocabulary learning.
Generally speaking, the interviewees’ vocabulary notebooks are
simply mechanical records of words and its meanings. Only 2 students (H
and I) maintained that they regularly provided examples for new words. This
lack of examples in vocabulary notebooks is completely plausible because
the vocabulary information students record in their notebooks is heavily
influenced by the way they retrieve information from the dictionary (only 4
students paid attention to dictionary examples as mentioned above).
Only 1 student reported that she used different colors to mark the head
word, meaning and examples. This habit is beneficial, allowing faster
retrieval of word knowledge and more attention paid to important points.
These advantages explain why modern dictionaries also take a similar color
Merely one student drew pictures in the vocabulary notebook. More
interestingly, she said: “when I learnt the word building, I drew a brick and
when I learnt the word beautiful, I drew a flower”. In this way, she could
probably illustrate even abstract nouns by relating them to something with
the same quality. However, no student applied a tree diagram or a bubble
network, which is strongly advised by McCarthy and O’Dell (2002,p.8).
Although “there is no one correct way to organize a vocabulary
notebook” (McCarthy & O’Dell), the lack of information in a vocabulary
notebook and the mechanical way in which the insufficient information was
recorded should be dealt with, possibly with “some classroom training” as
suggested by Thornbury (2002, p.157).
Clearly, this point on “classroom training” is applicable not only for
organizing vocabulary notebook but also for all the other strategies,
including dictionary use and using new words in sentences. As far as the
researcher is concerned, the more familiar a strategy is, the more training
should be devoted to it. The first reason is that as a strategy is familiar, how
it is adopted is often taken for granted: teachers suppose students should
know it and students suppose they know and do it the right way. However,
the data analyzed above suggest the reverse is true. Second, students tend to
adopt familiar strategies. Hence, it is highly cost effective to train students in
what they will often use.
Through thorough analysis of the collected data, the research has
discovered that a majority of the target population (over 80%) have
mastered the 2,000-word level but there is still a considerable discrepancy
among its members. Also, it has been found out that the researched students
utilize a total of 22 VLS and in their implementation of these strategies,
there were two major problems, namely the tendency towards VLS requiring
low level of processing and the improper use of their preferred strategies.
These findings will pave the way for the recommendations put forward in the
CHAPTER 5: RECOMMENDATIONS
Based on the research findings, this chapter suggests the
establishment of a course component in vocabulary learning strategies. It
will first rationalize the need for such a component and then explain how the
course will fit in the existing curriculum. To make the foundation of such a
course module feasible, a detailed description of objectives, content,
material, methodology and assessment is provided.
5.1. Justification for a course component in vocabulary learning
It has been discovered in the previous chapter that over 80% of the
participants have mastered the 2,000-word level. Hence, the explicit
teaching of lexical items to the target population is quite unnecessary.
Instead, time should be spent on training them in VLS (Nation, 1999).
This need for such training is even more compelling when regarding
the fact that the learners were not autonomous and effective enough in their
control of vocabulary learning strategies, which resulted in low retention of
and fluency with using vocabulary (Chapter 4).
For the above two reasons, it is the researcher’s view that a course in
VLS should be established as soon as possible.
5.2. Position of the course in the curriculum
This course should be incorporated as a module of Study skills, a
newly established course for first-year student. This integration is reasonable
since this course also provides students with strategies or skills to learn
vocabulary rather than teaching individual words.
5.3. Course objectives
By the end of this course, students should be able to:
• Demonstrate an understanding of the goals and principles of vocabulary
• Develop an autonomous attitude and awareness of vocabulary learning.
• Be able to implement the strategies introduced in the course in their own
5.4. Course content
The course consists of five lessons, each lasting 2 credit hours (90
minutes) as detailed in the following table:
WEEK LESSON CONTENT READING
1 Introduction to - How many words are Nation (1990): Chapter 1
English vocabulary there in English? &2
learning - How many words does a Nation (2001): Chapter 1
learner need to know? Schmitt (2000): Chapter 1
- How many words have I
- Should vocabulary be
2 Fundamentals of - Aspects of knowing a McCarthy (1990): Chapter
English vocabulary word 9
learning - Learner autonomy in Nation (1990): Chapter 3
vocabulary learning Nation (2001): Chapters
- Principles of vocabulary 2,9&11
learning Schmitt (2000): Chapter 3
- Incidental and Thornbury (2002):
intentional vocabulary Chapters 2&9
- Good learner vs. Bad
3 Incidental - Vocabulary and Reading Nation (1990): Chapters
vocabulary - Vocabulary and 6,7,8&9
acquisition Listening Nation (2001): Chapters
- Vocabulary and Writing 4&5
- Vocabulary and Schmitt (2000): Chapter 8
4 Intentional - Vocabulary learning McCarthy (1990): Chapter
vocabulary strategies 9
acquisition - Guessing from context Nation (1990): Chapter 10
- Dictionary use Nation (2001): Chapters
- Word part strategy 7&8
Schmitt (2000): Chapter 7
5 Intentional - Keyword Method Nation (1990): Chapter 10
vocabulary - Flash card Nation (2001): Chapter 8
acquisition (Cont.) - Vocabulary notebook McCarthy (1990): Chapter
- More effective rote 9
learning Thornbury (2002):
Table 5.1. A course in vocabulary learning strategies
The very first lesson is to orientate students in their vocabulary
learning since the participants in this research were found to learn
vocabulary without a clear goal and direction. Specifically, it helps them to
identify their current level through the introduction of the Vocabulary Levels
Test (in How many words have I already known) and their goals in
vocabulary acquisition (How many words does a learner need to know?).
Most importantly, a considerable amount of time in the first lesson should be
devoted to a discussion of the final part (Should vocabulary be taught?) so
as to change students’ attitude and raise their awareness of their own
responsibility in vocabulary acquisition. This is the initial but significant
step towards an autonomous vocabulary learner.
In the second lesson, students are first introduced to the aspects of
knowing a word. Hopefully, the lesson will help to raise students’ aware of
the learning burden and the need to study more than a word’s meaning and
pronunciation. Particular attention in this part should be paid to collocation –
a must-know aspect of word meaning but still rather novel to the target
students as found out in this study. Their inadequate knowledge of word
collocations is very likely to badly affect their language performance since
“fluent and appropriate language use requires collocational knowledge”
(Nation, 2001, p.323). A detailed treatment of collocation can be found in
Chapter 9 (Nation, 2001, pp.317-43). What is more, learner autonomy in
vocabulary is again brought up to heighten students’ attitude and awareness
of their responsibility in vocabulary learning. More significantly, a further
step is taken in this lesson: students are provided with eight principles for
autonomous vocabulary acquisition by Nation (2001, pp.395-404). These
eight principles are meant to provide learners with the skills and knowledge
or boost their capability for autonomy – an essential factor besides attitude
and awareness. To supplement the principles, incidental and intentional
vocabulary acquisition and good learner vs. bad learner are also
incorporated into the lesson. Incidental and intentional vocabulary
acquisition is expected to open the learners’ eyes to various vocabulary
learning opportunities beyond the traditional deliberate vocabulary learning
they practiced during high school for testing purposes. Good learner vs. Bad
learner is where research findings and famous examples are given and
analyzed with reference to the eight principles.
The third lesson can be viewed as the extended continuation of
incidental vocabulary acquisition in the previous lesson. It delivers practical
ideas on how new words can be learnt and already known words are
recycled during students’ practice of the four skills. This lesson is of
tremendous importance since studying vocabulary incidentally is a life-long
practice and has “a double benefit for time expended” (Schmitt, 2000, p.120)
because one can study vocabulary and practice communication at the same
time. It should be noted that in this lesson, a considerable period of time
should be allowed for discussing how to study vocabulary in reading
because it offers the best exposure to the vocabulary of a language (Schmitt,
2000, p.150). The discussion is supposed to inspire students to develop their
own reading – vocabulary scheme: students of low level can start with
graded readers; more proficient learners can practice narrow reading and
then extensive reading of authentic material. A more detailed guide on this
matter can be found in the first part of the current chapter.
The two last lessons both focus on “Intentional vocabulary
acquisition” are of great practical value to students, many of whom have not
mastered the most frequent levels of vocabulary, thus in need of an effective
set of learning strategies to quickly remedy the situation. In these lessons,
students are first introduced to a wide range of vocabulary learning strategies
are available and the theory of “depth of processing”. It is expected that after
being informed about the diversity of VLS and the benefits of deeply
processing vocabulary, students will be more willing to embrace a wide
range of appropriate VLS instead of several ones that involve superficial
processing as at present. Afterwards, students are instructed thoroughly how
to implement 7 vocabulary learning strategies. Guessing from context, use of
dictionary, vocabulary notebook are chosen because they are commonly
utilized but in an improper manner. In the meantime, word part strategy,
keyword method and flash card are brought in since though unfamiliar to the
target students, extensive researches (Nation, 2001) prove that they are
highly beneficial strategies. Finally, rote learning is also embraced because
it is a common practice among the target subjects according to the research
finding and a strategy that helps “many learners reach high level of
proficiency” (Schmitt, 1997). Nation (2001) also agrees that rote learning
should not be disapproved of but rather students should be taught how to
make better use of the strategy. This is actually in line with the view that no
strategy is “inherently good or bad” but is contingent upon the context in
which they are used (Politzer and McGroaty, 1995 as cited in Schmitt,
5.5. Course material
There has recently been a renewed interest in vocabulary learning so
extensive resources are available as the course material. Some of the most
creditworthy have been provided in the table above, including Teaching and
learning vocabulary (Nation, 1990), Learning vocabulary in another
language (Nation, 2001), Vocabulary in language teaching (Schmitt, 2000),
Vocabulary (McCarthy, 1990) and How to teach vocabulary (Thornbury,
As first-year students are not used to reading multiple books on the
same subject, it is advised that a compilation of the appropriate parts of the
suggested books above should be prepared. Moreover, as the target readers
of the textbook are only working towards PET proficiency (Division 1,
2008), efforts should be made to simplify the original book extracts. Ideally,
the research findings suggest that the textbook should mainly consist of
words from the 2,000 to 3,000 word level.
5.6. Course methodology
The ultimate goal of the course is to change learners’ attitude,
heighten their awareness and develop their capability so as for them to
become autonomous and effective learners of vocabulary. Therefore, most of
the class time should be reserved for discussions and practice. The
discussions are supposed to be enlightening and motivating rather than
imposing because no strategy is “inherently good or bad” but is contingent
upon the context in which they are used (Politzer and McGroaty, 1995 as
cited in Schmitt, 1997). Practice should be attached great importance to as
well because learners are expected to be able to use the strategies, not just to
5.7. Course assessment
Students can be assessed in various ways, two of which are suggested
as follows by the researcher. If possible, both should be used as they are
complementary forms of assessment.
Continuous assessment: Students are required to hand in their
vocabulary notebooks or collections of flash cards and will be assessed on
the way they organize these learning aids. These vocabulary records should
span over about 10 weeks so that students can incorporate good strategies in
taking and using vocabulary records into their learning habits. Also, this
ensures more precise assessment of students’ works.
Test: Students are required to take a test comprised of two parts. The
first includes a set of multiple choice, matching or yes/no questions on
vocabulary learning goals and principles. The second part requires students
to demonstrate such strategies as key word method, word part strategy, etc
with a number of words.
The chapter can be regarded as a sketch syllabus of a course in
vocabulary learning strategies with a detailed program, suggested material,
methodology and forms of assessment. Through this chapter, it is the
researcher’s expectations that such a course in vocabulary learning
strategies will soon be introduced at the English Department to provide the
needed assistance for the target students in their monumental task of
CHAPTER 6: CONCLUSION
As the conclusion of the whole research, this chapter will first review
significant research findings that have been elaborated on in Chapter 4.
Afterwards, it will pinpoint some limitations of the study, based on which
suggestions for further studies will be offered.
6.1. Major findings of the study
Firstly, the study has found out that there is a remarkable discrepancy
in the first-year ULIS mainstream English majors’ vocabulary level. About
19.2% of the test-takers have yet to master the 2,000-word level. Only 4.8%
have grasped all the three levels. 52.8% have shown mastery of the first two
(2,000-word and 3,000-word) while about 18% have gripped the first. As the
population consists of so many levels, the direct teaching of certain lexical
items is hardly effective.
Second, the research has discovered that the interviewed students used
a total of 22 VLS for discovering new words and consolidating already
encountered words. The students’ use of strategies was both similar to and
different from that of Japanese subjects in Schmitt’s survey (1997). Both had
a tendency towards using strategies that required little mental processing
(cognitive strategies) but still first-year ULIS mainstream English majors
demonstrated greater effort in processing vocabulary. They utilized
monolingual dictionaries rather than bilingual ones. More of them followed
the guessing strategy and put new words in practice than Schmitt’s subjects.
Third, two pitfalls were detected in the interviewees’ use of VLS. The
first, as mentioned above, is the omission of effective VLS such as the word
part strategy, keyword method, etc. This has been due to the demanding
nature of the strategies and the target students’ lack of formal training in
VLS. The second problem was the improper use of familiar and favored
strategies such as looking up dictionaries, using new words in sentences and
keeping a vocabulary notebook. Again, the problem was found to result from
students’ lack of training in VLS.
From these findings, the researcher has devoted a chapter to suggest
the establishment of a course in VLS, which is also one of the greatest
contributions of this study.
6.2. Limitations of the study
A number of limitations can be discerned in the study due to the time
constraints and the researcher’s limited ability and experience.
Initially, only 104 members of the population were involved in taking
the Vocabulary Levels Test and 10 were invited to interviews on their use of
VLS. However, this limited sample size has been compensated for by the
thorough selection of participants based on stratified random sampling and
What is more, the interpretation of the interviewees’ descriptions of
their learning behavior was unavoidably flawed for two reasons. First,
Schmitt’s taxonomy, though the most comprehensive available, cannot
embrace all the existing VLS as the author himself admits (Schmitt, 1997).
Second, misinterpretation of the interviewees’ ideas was highly probable
especially when the interviewees were confused and could not make
themselves clear. Aware of these potential problems, the researcher adopted
an open attitude and made necessary changes to the taxonomy (add one new
VLS) as well as constantly comparing the notes and the recordings to
minimize the chances of misinterpretation.
Finally, only the use of the three most common VLS has been
thoroughly investigated, leaving 19 others barely touched upon. Had there
been more time available, an inquiry into those VLS would have disclosed
more problems in students’ use of VLS.
6.3. Suggestions for further studies
As vocabulary learning and teaching are a relatively unexplored
research area in Vietnam, there is still a lot of room for further studies on
As this paper investigates students’ use of VLS in general, it has yet to
treat significant strategies like guessing from context, using dictionaries,
organizing vocabulary notebooks exhaustively enough. Therefore,
researches into each strategy are a promising direction.
Moreover, the teaching and learning of vocabulary at ULIS at present
is mainly attached to reading skill. Hence, it is tempting to find out how
vocabulary knowledge could be best expanded through various reading
activities and assignments (particularly reading portfolios).
Lastly, little is known about ULIS students’ use of vocabulary in
productive activities (speaking and writing). Consequently, studies about
students’ productive use of vocabulary are in great demand.
The three research findings have once again been highlighted in this
chapter, raising the need for the establishment of a course in VLS. Also, the
limitations of the study have been acknowledged, including the limited
sample size, the flawed interpretation of the interviewees’ description and
the limited coverage of strategy analysis. Finally, the chapter has been
concluded with suggested directions for further studies including the
separate treatment of significant VLS, the lexical acquisition in reading and
the productive use of vocabulary.
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Division 1. (2008). Course outline. Unpublished course book. Hanoi:
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on CD-ROM. New York: Random House.
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311). Boston: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.
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Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
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productive ability. Language testing Vol. 16 (1):pp.33-45. Retrieved
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learning. Prospect Vol. 17(1):pp.15-35. Retrieved January 16, 2009
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Nguyen, T.L., Vu, T.P.T & Nguyen, T.T.T. Study Skills. Unpublished
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Studies, Vietnam National University.
BẢN CÂU HỎI PHỎNG VẤN
Cảm ơn bạn đã tham gia cuộc phỏng vấn về cách bạn học từ vựng.
Cuộc phỏng vấn của chúng ta gồm có 2 phần chính và sẽ kéo dài khoảng
10 phút. Trước hết chúng ta sẽ tìm hiểu cách bạn thường dùng để học từ
mới. Sau đó chúng ta sẽ đi sâu vào cách bạn củng cố từ đã học.
PHẦN 1: CHIẾN LƯỢC HỌC TỪ MỚI
1. Bạn hãy miêu tả cách bạn thường dùng để học một từ mới.
* Các câu hỏi nối tiếp
- Nếu sinh viên trả lời phỏng vấn dùng chiến lược “Đoán từ dựa vào ngữ
Bạn hãy miêu tả chi tiết các bước bạn thực hiện để đoán từ dựa vào ngữ
- Nếu sinh viên trả lời phỏng vấn dùng chiến lược “Tra từ điển”
Bạn thường dùng từ điển nào? Đơn ngữ hay song ngữ?
Từ điển cung cấp rất nhiều thông tin về từ, ví dụ như nghĩa, cách phát âm,
thành ngữ, v.v. Vậy bạn cho biết khi tra từ điển, bạn thường chú ý đến
những thông tin nào về từ.
- Nếu sinh viên trả lời phỏng vấn dùng chiến lược “hỏi thầy/cô hoặc bạn
Bạn thường hỏi những thông tin nào về từ?
PHẦN 2: CHIẾN LƯỢC CỦNG CỐ TỪ ĐÃ HỌC
2. Bạn hãy miêu tả cách bạn thường dùng để ôn lại từ đã học.
* Các câu hỏi nối tiếp
- Sau khi sinh viên trả lời phỏng vấn miêu tả cách học của mình:
Bạn hãy cho ví dụ về cách học đó với một từ mà bạn mới học gần đây.
- Nếu sinh viên trả lời phỏng vấn tự nhận là có sử dụng sổ ghi từ / thẻ ghi
Bạn hãy miêu tả quyển sổ từ vựng. thẻ ghi từ vựng của mình.
Dựa theo miêu tả của bạn, tôi sẽ thử vẽ một trang trong sổ/ một thẻ từ.
Sau đó bạn làm ơn giúp tôi kiểm tra xem tôi vẽ thế đã đúng chưa.
- Nếu sinh viên trả lời phỏng vấn tự nhận là ôn từ qua các phương tiện
tiếng Anh (English-language media):
Bạn dùng những phương tiện nào? Hãy cho tôi biết một số kênh truyền
hình/bộ phim/sách/báo/tạp chí mà bạn thường xem để học ôn từ?
- Nếu sinh viên trả lời phỏng vấn tự nhận là thường xuyên ôn lại từ:
Bạn hãy cho biết tần suất cụ thể (mỗi tuần mấy lần)? Vào lúc nào?
Bạn có ôn một từ thành nhiều lần không? Nếu có, khoảng cách giữa các
lần ôn từ của bạn là bao lâu?
Thank you for participating in this interview, which will be
centered on your vocabulary learning strategies. The interview consists of
two parts and will last about 10 minutes. We will first find out the
strategies commonly employed by you in learning new words. Then, we
will go further into the way you revise vocabulary.
PART 1: STRATEGIES FOR LEARNING NEW VOCABULARY
1. Please describe the way in which you usually learn a new word.
* Follow-up question
- If the interviewee uses “guessing from context”
Please describe in detail the steps you take to guess a word from its
- If the interviewee uses “dictionary look-up”
There are various types of information about one word (say, its spelling,
pronunciation, meaning, idiom, etc.). So when you look up a word in the
dictionary, what types of information do you often pay much attention to?
- If the interviewee uses “asking teachers/peers”
What types of information about one word do you often ask teachers/
PART 2: STRATEGIES FOR REVISING VOCABULARY
2. Please describe the way in which you usually revise an already
* Follow-up questions
- After the interviewee describes his/her strategies
Please give an example for the strategy you have just described with one
recently learnt word.
- If the interviewee claims to “keep a notebook/ a collection of flash
Please describe how you organize and use your notebook (how you make
and use flash cards). I’ll draw a page of your notebook (or a flash card)
while you describe then you’ll check if it fits your description or not.
- If the interviewee claims to consolidate word knowledge via “English-
What types of media do you often use to consolidate your vocabulary?
Please tell me the TV channels/movies/newspapers/magazines/books you
watch/read to consolidate your vocabulary.
- If the interviewee claims to “revise words regularly”
Please tell me how often do you revise your vocabulary each week?
On what occasions do you often revise your vocabulary?
Do you revise a word for more than once? How are your revision
sessions distributed (spaced)?