Explorations in Second Language Vocabulary Research

by David Hirsh (Author)
Edited Collection VI, 266 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 254


Reflecting current understanding of vocabulary as a multifaceted construct, this edited volume presents a collection of qualitative and quantitative studies which shed light on key theoretical concepts associated with learning and using vocabulary in second language contexts. Themes explored in the volume include the concept of partial vocabulary knowledge, the relationship between reading ability and vocabulary knowledge, the specialised vocabulary of high school science, morphological and orthographical components of word learning, the impact of word aspects on difficulty of learning, the nature of affix knowledge, and early speech development. The findings presented in the volume contribute to our growing and deepening appreciation of the contribution of vocabulary knowledge to learning and using language in second language contexts.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction (David Hirsh)
  • Partial Vocabulary Knowledge of Young English as Foreign Language Learners (Hua Flora Zhong)
  • How is Vocabulary Knowledge Related to Reading Ability in a Second Language Context? (Xuan Wang)
  • The Specialised Vocabulary of High School Science (Warren Matsuoka / David Hirsh)
  • Metalinguistic Knowledge of Morphology and Orthography in L2 Word Learning (Chen-Chun Lin)
  • Difficulty Level of Word Aspects: An Exploratory Study on Developmental Hierarchy of Vocabulary Acquisition (Hua Flora Zhong / David Hirsh)
  • Investigating Receptive and Productive Affix Knowledge in EFL Learners (Apisak Sukying)
  • Experts on Language Learning: The Shaping of Children’s Speech Development During the First Two Years of Life Through Universal and Language-specific Characteristics (Yuko Yamashita)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Series Index

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Research in the area of second language vocabulary is multifaceted. One line of research has been concerned with understanding the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and language use, including the effect of vocabulary knowledge on comprehension of texts (see, e.g., Laufer / Ravenhorst-Kalovski 2010). Other lines of research have focused on identifying suitable words for language teaching, identifying appropriate contexts for introducing new words into a language learning program, and identifying effective means of teaching and learning new words. The centrality of input, instruction and involvement in the teaching and learning of second language vocabulary has received particular attention (see, e.g., Laufer 2017).

The multiplicity of research avenues focusing on second language vocabulary are reflected in the current volume. In the first chapter, Hua Flora Zhong examines the partial vocabulary knowledge of young learners of English in an EFL context to provide a perspective of vocabulary learning as gradual and multidimensional. In Chapter 2, Xuan Wang investigates the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading ability in a second language context, showing a notable statistical correlation between vocabulary size and reading performance. In Chapter 3, Warren Matsuoka and David Hirsh present the findings of a corpus study of the specialised vocabulary of high school science, providing word lists capturing the specialized lexicons of the pure sciences.

In Chapter 4, Chen-Chun Lin investigates the metalinguistic knowledge of morphology and orthography in second language vocabulary learning, shedding light on the relative contribution of morphological and orthographical knowledge to word recognition. In Chapter 5, Hua Flora Zhong and David Hirsh report on an exploratory study into the difficulty level of word aspects, suggesting a developmental ← 1 | 2 → hierarchy of vocabulary acquisition. In Chapter 6, Apisak Sukying presents the findings of an investigation into receptive and productive affix knowledge in EFL learners, focusing on the acquisition process of morphologically complex words and the role of affix knowledge in vocabulary development. In the final chapter, Yuko Yamashita explores the different aspects of conversational style of parent–child interactions in two different language backgrounds, Japanese and English, to examine the speech development of children during the first two years of life.

Future avenues of research into second language vocabulary are likely to reflect an understanding of vocabulary knowledge as multidimensional, and the process of learning as a continuum involving partial and precise degrees of word knowledge. As the role of English continues to evolve in second and foreign language contexts, research into vocabulary will need to keep abreast of the vocabulary learning and teaching demands in and out of the language classroom.


Laufer, Batia 2017. The Three ‘I’s of Second Language Vocabulary Learning: Input, Instruction, Involvement. In Hinkel, Eli (ed.) Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning, Volume III. London: Routledge, 343–354.

Laufer, Batia / Ravenhorst-Kalovski, Gene 2010. Lexical Threshold Revisited: Lexical Text Coverage, Learners’ Vocabulary Size and Reading Comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language. 22, 15–30.

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Partial Vocabulary Knowledge of Young English as Foreign Language Learners

1.  Introduction

The nature of human learning in almost any domain is a gradual and accumulative process, which proceeds through a period of partial knowledge. The process of vocabulary learning is generally accepted as not an ‘all-or-nothing’ phenomenon (Laufer 1998: 256). This graduated nature of vocabulary development has been acknowledged in many theoretical frameworks describing vocabulary acquisition (Henriksen 1999; Nation 2001; Richards 1976). Richards (1976) proposed seven assumptions in relation to vocabulary competence describing the complex nature of what it involves in knowing a word, namely the probability of encounter, restriction of use, syntactic behaviour, forms and derivations, association, semantics, and multiple meanings associated with the word. Henriksen’s (1999) framework regarded vocabulary knowledge as a multidimensional construct consisting of partial-precise, depth (a network approach) and receptive-productive dimensions. Nation (2001) summarized a comprehensive list of vocabulary aspects in three categories of form, meaning and use, and proposed that each of the aspects of word knowledge can be observed in comprehension and use. Regardless of the theoretical framework of vocabulary knowledge, what is highlighted is the set of different components that vocabulary knowledge includes. Knowing a word involves knowing multiple components. There are degrees of knowing. In this view, vocabulary knowledge can be conceptualized as a continuum. The continuum has two poles: unknown and known words.

The interest of this chapter centres on the partial vocabulary knowledge which locates at any point between the two poles in the ← 3 | 4 → continuum of vocabulary knowledge. It focuses on the partial vocabulary knowledge process of mapping the form and meaning of a word. In this chapter, partial knowledge is defined as the intermediate stages between an unknown and a well-known word (Zareva 2014). The intermediate stages include recognition of existence (Dale 1965; Shore/Durso 1990) and rough characterisation or vagueness of word meaning (Bruton 2007; Dale 1965; Henriksen 1999; Haastrup//Henriksen 1998; Smith 1987; Wesche/Paribakht 1996).

2.  Vocabulary acquisition

Following the conceptualisation of vocabulary knowledge as a continuum, Palmberg (1987) applied two terms to vocabulary, namely ‘potential’ and ‘real’, which originated from Slovak researchers, Berman, Buchbinder and Beznedeznych (1968, cited in Palmberg 1987: 201), to refer to the two poles of the vocabulary knowledge continuum. Palmberg (1987) described the beginning of the vocabulary continuum as potential vocabulary which includes the words learners do not know but which have the possibility to be learnt when encountered. Moving along the continuum, learners then enter the area of real vocabulary which refers to the words that learners have learnt. Real vocabulary could be mastered at different levels, e.g., understood, used, or both.

Similarly, Henriksen’s (1999) partial-precise dimension of vocabulary knowledge is regarded as a continuum of growth in meaning-form connection. Building the connection between meaning and form is the process of vocabulary acquisition (Laufer/Girsai 2008; Schmitt 2008; Webb 2007). The process starts with vocabulary knowledge moving from recognition, to vague understanding of the meaning and later to the mastery of a precise comprehension. Recognition refers to acknowledging a word’s existence in a language, which is simply to notice the formal features of a word, but it does not indicate knowledge of its meaning (Henriksen 1999). This process transfers the word from the ‘potential’ vocabulary pool to the ‘real’ vocabulary pool. Shore and colleagues (Durso/Shore 1991; Lockett/Shore 2003; Shore/Durso 1990; ← 4 | 5 → Shore/Kempe 1999; Smith et al. 1999) coined the term “frontier” to refer to the form recognition status of a word. Frontier words are words with which the participants are familiar, yet are unable to define or use. The acquisition of vocabulary knowledge progresses with different levels of partial knowledge (Brown 1994; O’Connor 1940; Smith 1987; Whitmore/Shore/Smith 2004), and finally proceeds to precise understanding of the word meaning.

Brown (1994) described the progression of understanding vocabulary knowledge from the receptive perception and productive use point of view. Brown proposed that a new form of word would be manipulated starting from it being perceived, learnt via repetition, then proceeding to its written form being learnt and remembered, and finally moving towards its recognition when it is encountered on future occasions. The next stage in receptive use would be to build connection between this form and social inferences. Having gone through all these receptive use stages, the form would enter the stage of productive use that includes another range of operations, such as elaboration, modification and paraphrasing in the production of this new word for communication. O’Connor (1940) proposed a simpler four-stage process specifically for vocabulary acquisition: (a) associating new words with familiar words in terms of sounds or forms; (b) being able to use the word without knowing its precise meaning; (c) being able to distinguish the meaning from its antonyms; and (d) using the word accurately. This model was empirically tested among 1399 participants of native English speakers of college students and adults (Smith 1987), and the results offer moderate support for a five-stage model of vocabulary knowledge acquisition that can be applied to native English speakers.

Through examining the thematic (analytical associates) and taxonomic (synonyms) representations of word meaning among university level native English speakers, Whitmore et al. (2004) suggest that both thematic and taxonomic knowledge are present as part of the word meaning during vocabulary acquisition. As the frequency of encountering the word increases in various contexts, the thematic information becomes more easily inferred. Findings from Whitmore et al.’s (2004) study enrich the knowledge of vocabulary acquisition in O’Connor’s (1940) proposal regarding meaning process that meaning ← 5 | 6 → comprehension could be reflected in learners’ thematic and taxonomic knowledge. Building on these studies of vocabulary acquisition, the stages of vocabulary knowledge may include: (a) connecting a new word to a similar form of known words, which is the stage of having a sense of what context the word may be used in; (b) recognition of form, which indicates that the form of a new word has been acquired, but the meaning comprehension may not have been acquired at this stage; (c) ability to distinguish new words from their antonyms, which signifies the start of meaning acquisition; (d) ability to distinguish a new word from its close words (thematic related words or others); and (e) ability to distinguish the fine shades of meaning of the new word from its synonyms. Different stages proposed reflect vocabulary acquisition as a process of building connection between form and meaning (Jiang 2002), and there seem to be distinct processes, one of which is recognition of form, and the other is clarification of meaning. The stage of form recognition or acquisition of word form builds connection between the form of the new word and a similar form of known words until these two similar forms can be clearly distinguished, while the clarification of meaning stage builds connection between the acquired form of the new word to its meaning through existing knowledge (e.g., synonyms, collocates or other related words). The definition of partial vocabulary knowledge could be refined as the process of building connection until form and meaning are solidly and precisely connected.

3.  Partial vocabulary knowledge

3.1  Partial word form

A series of studies into partial word form learning (Barcroft 2000, 2008; Barcroft/Rott 2010) suggested that after engaged in intentional vocabulary learning tasks, second language learners (a) produced a higher percentage of partial word forms than completed words; (b) were likely to recall three-quarters of a word for words with a lower number ← 6 | 7 → of syllables, though a large number of smaller fragments within target words could also be produced, including single-letter fragments; and (c) were in favour of the fragment at word-initial position. Barcroft and his associate’s studies revealed that, to a large extent, the majority of L2 word forms were learned incrementally, in which bits and pieces were picked up instead of a complete word entity.

The incomplete word form features of vocabulary learning may be related to word activation and how a new word is associated with existing knowledge for retention as suggested by studies in underlying form representation (Zareva 2012, 2014), crosslingual activation during L2 lexical processing (Bordag et al. 2015; Sunderman/Kroll 2006), and mapping elaboration of the connection between form and meaning of new target words (Deconick/Boers/Eyckmans 2014, 2017). These studies did not directly explore partial vocabulary knowledge, but have important implication for understanding the partial word knowledge process of associating novel words with existing knowledge.

In an attempt to explore the frontier words among some adult language learners and native speakers of English, Zareva (2012) found that while there is no consistent associative behaviour among language learners at different proficiency levels, the most common type of misinterpretation was to take one word as another with a similar form but different meanings. Similar findings of cross-lexical association were found in Deconinck, Boers and Eyckmans’ (2014, 2017) studies that second language (L2) learners tend to link the novel words to familiar words when they were asked to think aloud their thought patterns while evaluating the degree of congruency between form and meaning of a novel word. The process of linking novel words to known words with similar forms was also supported by Sunderman and Kroll’s (2006) study among university students who were at two different levels of proficiency of learning Spanish as a second language. Students in Sunderman and Kroll’s (2006) study were asked to judge whether the words in a word pair were translation equivalents. The distractor word pairs included a target word paired to a word with similar form, or a target word paired to a word with similar form to the target word’s translation, as well as the target word paired to its synonym. Results showed that regardless of proficiency, students experienced lexical interference, in ← 7 | 8 → particular when the grammatical class of the words within the pair was the same. The findings of interference shed light on how language learners may build connections between new words and existing knowledge. The association between novel word forms and known words could be either between L1 and L2 or within L2. The association of new words with existing vocabulary in any known language is also empirically supported in Deconinck et al.’s (2014, 2017) studies.

Biographical notes

David Hirsh (Author)

David Hirsh is Associate Professor in TESOL at the University of Sydney, where he teaches on the Master of Education (TESOL) degree program and supervises doctoral students in the area of TESOL. His research in the area of vocabulary studies has appeared in Reading in a Foreign Language and Revue Francaise de Linguistique Appliquee. He is co-editor of the University of Sydney Papers in TESOL.


Title: Explorations in Second Language Vocabulary Research