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Last updated 26 October 2012 15:28 by NZTecAdmin

General information

The concept of vocabulary, as used in the progressions, includes knowing and understanding the meanings of words in spoken and written English language. In addition, knowledge of vocabulary includes knowing how words work and how they can be used in relation to each other in specific contexts.

Kinds of vocabulary

Adult learners have several different and overlapping kinds of vocabulary. Stein (2000) identifies the following four:

  • Receptive vocabulary. The words an individual understands, either orally (heard) or in print (read).
  • Productive vocabulary. The words an individual can use orally (by speaking) or in print (by writing).
  • Oral vocabulary. The words an individual can use or recognise in speaking or listening.
  • Reading vocabulary. The words an individual recognises in a printed form.

All of these kinds of vocabulary are covered in the literacy learning progressions.

Knowing a word

Knowing a word involves a complex network of connections (including collocations and connotations), images and understandings. Adults use memory, knowledge of the world, knowledge of language and texts and a range of strategies to activate and connect elements within their own network of word knowledge when they listen, speak, read or write.

People learn new words in many different ways and learning new words takes time. It may take a learner many encounters with a word before they have a full understanding of the meanings and uses of the word. One reason for this is that about 70 percent of English words have more than one meaning.10 For example, the word bright has numerous shades of meaning. Learners will need to hear the word used with all these meanings in different contexts in order to fully understand the meanings and their possible applications. (The light is bright; The future looks bright; John is bright; Sarah has a bright personality.) Likewise, most adult English speakers talk of driving a car, but riding a horse: even though the actions involved are very similar, they know that different words apply to different forms of transport.

These different levels of knowledge about a word (that is, variations in how well a word is known) can become apparent in contexts where detailed knowledge may be needed because of the degree of precision and expertise required. A person may know a word well in everyday contexts, but in specialised contexts the same word may take on particular meanings. For example, many people might know and use the word hormones, but when listening to a talk or reading an article by a doctor, they may find they don’t have a deep enough understanding of the word to fully comprehend the talk or article.

Academic vocabulary

Many of the words used in an educational setting are different from those used for everyday interactions. These are the words that allow adults (both tutors and learners) to talk and think in an academic way. This academic vocabulary is particularly used for reading and writing, but also for listening and speaking.

Academic words are likely to be more than one syllable long and to be abstract rather than concrete. These words express abstract notions (for example, ideology, capacity and phenomenon), descriptions (for example, ethnic and compatible), processes (for example, decline and trend) and aspects of academic tasks (for example, define, demonstrate and contrast).

The basic vocabulary (consisting of approximately 2,000 word families11) that most learners have needs to be expanded to include useful words that will be encountered across a wide range of written and oral academic texts. This is best done through explicit instruction, as well as through extended reading, listening and engaging in extended discussions. It is also interesting to note that half of the high-frequency words we use and two-thirds of all academic and specialised words are derived from Latin, French and Greek. This indicates the importance of learning the meanings of Latin, French and Greek roots, prefixes and suffixes.

For further information about how learning vocabulary, including information about word families, refer to Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy and Numeracy: Background Information.


Useful sites for vocabulary lists and related assessment tools are:
www.vuw.ac.nz/lals/research/awl/ (Coxhead, 2000: an academic word list)

Listen with Understanding: Speak to Communicate: Vocabulary Progressions

Knowledge of oral vocabulary means understanding the words in spoken language, as well as recognising them. It also includes knowing how words work in relation to each other and within specific speaking contexts.

An important aspect of speakers’ and listeners’ vocabulary knowledge concerns the appropriateness of word use, including correct pronunciation. This involves being sensitive to register (see glossary), and having knowledge of the rules of politeness in relevant cultural contexts, of idioms and figurative language, and of culture and customs. This complexity is reflected in these progressions as they describe the steps toward expertise in vocabulary knowledge and use. It is also important to recognise that for many adult learners, their oral vocabulary may be far greater than their reading or writing vocabulary. For example, learners who are used to listening and speaking on the marae or in meetings will bring a rich understanding of language (including vocabulary) to their learning.

Read with Understanding: Vocabulary progression

A reader who encounters an unknown word for the first time has several options. One option is to skip the word. When encountering the occasional unknown word, a reader will often skip it if it does not affect the overall gist of the passage. The reader, however, does store away one or more aspects of the word (that is, they remember something about the word; perhaps a spelling pattern or the context in which the word occurred). The reader may also search for familiar word patterns, such as known prefixes or word roots. After each encounter with the word, the reader stores away more information until eventually the word is known. Multiple exposures to a word are essential if the word is to become part of an individual’s vocabulary. Nagy and Scott (2000) cite research showing that, after forty encounters with a word, learners were still extending their knowledge of the word.

Approximately 2,000 high-frequency words12 together with the academic words will provide almost all of the vocabulary needed for reading, although learners will sometimes need to learn some low-frequency specialised words for particular reasons.13

Studies of vocabulary have shown that understanding a basic 2,000 word vocabulary of high-frequency items (which includes very many word families) enables a person to understand approximately 80 percent of the words in an academic text.14 At this level, however, the learner will probably not be able to extend their word knowledge independently: learners typically need to understand 95 percent of the words before they can successfully guess the meanings of unknown words.15

Adult learners may have an oral vocabulary that is much larger and more sophisticated than their reading or writing vocabulary. This means they have heard and can use in speaking, many more words than they can decode. As their decoding skills improve, the difference between their oral and reading vocabularies may decrease. In addition to this, explicit teaching of new vocabulary may be needed to ensure they are able to understand the longer, less familiar words they will meet in more sophisticated or specialised texts.

Write to Communicate: Vocabulary progression

Just as speakers need a wide vocabulary they can apply in many different situations, so too writers need to be able to draw on a very wide vocabulary if they are to convey their thinking to others. The progression for vocabulary describes how this learning develops as writers extend their vocabulary through repeated encounters with words, and through opportunities to express themselves in increasingly complex tasks or purposes, with accuracy and clarity.

10 Lederer, 1991.

11 Nation, I. S. P., 1996.

12 Nation, I. S. P., 1996.

13 Coxhead and Nation, 2001.

14 Coxhead, 2000.

15 Nation, I. S. P., 2001.


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