Vocabulary: How to Learn and How to Teach it?

Vocabulary and Teaching Vocabulary

Thornbury (2002:13), by quoting David Wilkins, says that “Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.”  This shows that learning vocabulary is almost more important rather than learning grammar. By looking at the importance illustrated by Thornbury, it must be realized that teaching vocabulary must be interesting to students for it to reach the goal.

In a research, Griffiths stated that some students interviewed by him, certainly demonstrated a tendency to describe their teachers’ instruction rather than their own learning behavior (Griffiths, 2008:162). In traditional method, teacher taught vocabulary by dictating students. The teacher says a word and the students repeat and memorize the word; finally, students’ indolence was created by this traditional method. Sometimes we meet teacher who teaches his students by memorizing new words in a page of textbook. In line with this, Liang Xiaowen stated:

“Some teachers use outmoded method to revise vocabulary, such as, reciting the word list, copying and dictating new words, etc. after a long time, students must be dull and lost the interest in writing vocabulary” (Xiaowen, 2008).

Further, he said that “When students start to learn a certain vocabulary for the first time, they only have an instant memory”, therefore, in my opinion, teacher must involve daily and life object in the learning process, so that, the students always remember the word, the meaning and how to use the word.

Vocabulary teaching includes sound, morphology and the meaning. The first element is sound, namely the pronunciation, where student should read the phonetic symbol accurately. The second element is morphology. Teacher should drill students to have the ability and the habit of spelling and learning words according to the rule of pronouncing. The third element is that using words freely is based on understanding the meaning of word (Xiaowen, 2008).

In teaching vocabulary, the teacher can start by showing or drawing picture (Harmer, 2002:229). One of the methods Harmer proposed is “Snap”, where students have to checking-off the picture and the words (Harmer, 2002:239), but in this research, the researcher didn’t use the technique.

Vocabulary: Form and Meaning

The basic understanding of a word is that the form, or the shape, and the meaning (Thornbury, 2002:150. Every word has its form that sometimes is similar to other word. For example: the word sound as a noun and sound as a verb.

In this regard, we can see that the form is the same, the meaning is almost the same, but it they are different. The first sound means a voice produced by tools; meanwhile the second sound means to produce a voice. Whereas, if this word sound is asked to someone never learned English, we will find that the form of a word does not tell us anything about the meaning.

The meaning of a word is simply determined by a social convention. That is, every people in different country have different word to say something; this happens because of the difference of social convention. In other side, different words by different country may mean one thing like table (in English) and meja (in Indonesian) mean the same thing. In this side, we can think that the shared property of a word is its reference. People may say “knife” in thousand different word forms, but the meaning remains the same, referred to its reference: something made by steel, sharp, and used to cut or to slice.

How is Vocabulary learnt?

Everyone has his or her way to learn something, including learning vocabulary. However, as human being, there is a main set or blueprint set in human brain control that controls human way to learn things. For example as Thornbury (2002:18) mentions that acquiring vocabulary requires labeling and categorizing.

When a child learns words, he or she may refer to the characteristics of a thing represented by a word. He says that dog is four-legged as he looks at the movie or in the zoo. However, at his home, he finds that cat is also four-legged; here, he must not only label the reference but also categorizes the reference. By doing so, he comes to the conclusion that not all four-legged is dog; even a table in a living room is also four-legged.

Language learners need to extend the understanding of the reference of a word. For adult language learners, reading a text written in foreign language improves their vocabulary amount; however, for young learners, reference is needed. Here, picture as one of the media to the reference can be used as one alternative in teaching vocabulary.

Picture in Teaching Vocabulary

Picture is a valuable aid in teaching vocabulary. Besides it represents image of reality, picture also creates a fun atmosphere in the classroom and motivates students as well. Using picture is simple as we have thousand pictures to teach thousand things without bring the students to the zoo if we want to teach animals’ name. Using picture is also motivating the students because it can draw students’ attention in the classroom rather than speech.

However, there are limitations in this issue of using picture to teach vocabulary. One of the most important one is that picture can only represent concrete vocabulary but not abstract one like opinion or impact (Joklová, 2009).

In using picture to teach vocabulary, the teacher should be aware that the students may be drawn into the picture more than to the material they are learning. It is also important to provide big size and clear picture to avoid misunderstanding toward the picture. In sum, the teacher should gains full control to the students’ learning activity before they get the impression of the picture but they lose the material.


Griffiths, Carol. 2008. Lessons from Good Language Learners. Cambridge University Press

Harmer, Jeremy. 2008. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Pearson. Longman

Joklová, Kateřina. 2009. Using Pictures in Teaching Vocabulary. Masaryk University.

Thornbury, Scott. 2002. How to Teach Vocabulary. Pearson Education Limited.

Waldrip, Bruce. 2008. Effective Science teaching and Learning. University of Southern Queenland.

Xiaowen, Liang. 2008. A Study of English Vocabulary Teaching For Middle School Students. ESL Journal.

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