Friday, December 2, 2011

How to enhance your vocabulary: Incidental Vocabulary Acquisition

Lin states that “for most language learners, the vocabulary learning process is a painful experience with poor results; they put a lot of effort on it because they know that vocabulary plays an essential role in language comprehension” (2010).

I have been asked many times by international students how to enhance English vocabulary effectively for their better writing. In my previous posting, Western Style Writing vs. Eastern Style Writing, I talked about different writing styles based on cultural differences. Both the American writing style and English grammar are things that you can take as yours when you grasp the knowledge of them. Besides, you can use them on your own when needed as long as you keep those concepts. Thus, I advise that you spend some time in order to master English structure and English writing pattern.

Although you grasp enough grammatical rules, you will soon realize that you compose papers with the same vocabulary in the same structure over and over again. I think learning a second language means learning its vocabulary; It is not easy for international students to keep working in order to improve their vocabulary power after they gain a certain amount of words needed for their basic college life. “Vocabulary acquisition is considered by many to be the single most important aspect of foreign language learning" (Gass, S. 1999).

Reading is a great way to expand your vocabulary and ability to express you. Do not only read textbooks regarding your major. In addition, reading shows you the examples of good writing styles and usage of vocabulary.
“Vocabulary could be better acquired incidentally and effectively through various reading experiences. The effective way of increasing vocabulary is based on the linguistic context of words in sentence structures because words are rarely used in isolation in most cases” (Lin, 2010).

I would like to recommend that you read as much as possible for the purpose of pleasure or information rather than learning a particular language. In my personal observation on the process of how international people improved their writing skills, it was based on their vocabulary power through extensive reading.

“It is widely agreed that much second language vocabulary learning occurs incidentally while the learner is engaged in extensive reading” (Laufer, B. & Hulstijn, J. 2001). Except for the first few thousand most common words, vocabulary learning predominantly occurs through extensive reading, with the learner guessing at the meaning of unknown words because vocabulary is no longer a primary classroom focus, something to be taught and tested but rather, and something to be acquired incidentally by the student while reading.

I always encourage my daughter, Holly, a junior in high school to read as many good books as she can and say, “Focus on understanding the passage as a whole. Do not stop reading to look for the meaning of unknown words in the dictionary whenever you encounter them! Later on, you can look up the dictionary in order to confirm your guess of the meaning of the target words.”

The learning for the new words comes as a natural result of the process of reading. Thus, a conscious effort to memorize words without context is unnecessary. One day, I found that her writing was greatly advanced with academic vocabulary through a lot of reading of her own pleasure.

“Acquisition of new words in a second language depends on how many times learners encounter them in the language put and how well they process these words" (Laufer & Rozovski-Roitblat, 2011). This means, the more attention is paid to the unknown words in the meaningful context, the higher are the chances of retaining the new information. “A Dictionary use and a self-imposed task result in better vocabulary learning than reading only in their study” (Laufer, B. & Hulstijn, J., 2001).

Therefore, the follow-up action, such as looking for the meaning of new vocabulary through extensive reading is recommended, although you can guess of the meaning by context. When you combine multiple encounters with new words while reading and dictionary usage for the analysis and practice of the words, you will be able to retain the words effectively and use them appropriately in your own writing.

Regarding incidental vocabulary acquisition in a Second language, I did an introspective study and made a presentation at 2nd Asia TEFL Conference in Seoul, Korea, 2004. The following is an excerpt of the article that I wrote.

I hope it will be helpful for you to understand why extensive reading is important and incidental vocabulary acquisition with dictionary use is effective for enhancing your vocabulary.

The Introspective Study

A qualitative research method was used for this study, specifically using a questionnaire, and introspective study with 3 international students of English in a university.
The main research questions were: 1) What strategies do learners use and what knowledge sources and contextual cues do they appeal to when attempting to understand the unknown words they encounter while reading? 2) Are there some differences of inferencing strategies based on their L1 formal education background, personality, and L2 language proficiency?


Participants for the study were 3 high-advanced level students in a university ESL class.  One is Jay, 31year-old Korean male, and got TOEFL paper-based score 600. The other subject, Yoshi is a Japanese female, 20 years old, who got TOEFL paper-based score 590. The last one, Van is a Vietnamese female, 20 years old, and her TOEFL paper-based score is 530.
The Korean guy who graduated medical school (graduate level), however the Japanese girl and the Vietnamese girl graduated only high school in their country. With my long experience with them for almost one and a half year, Van is more likely outgoing, extrovert, lower-fear of risk-taking, and higher ambiguity tolerance. However, Yoshi and Jay are more likely reserved, introvert, higher-fear of risk-taking, and lower ambiguity tolerance.

Stage One- Questionnaire

Ten questionnaires (Appendix A) for the general information of subjects were distributed to 3 students. There is a big gap among subjects in age, and in the highest educational level completed in their first language.
The students were asked to briefly answer their beliefs about the relationship of reading and vocabulary acquisition, reading styles, dictionary using styles, and guessing strategies. Many of the questionnaires were completed in great detail and were very helpful for their general idea about reading and vocabulary acquisition.

Stage Two- Tasks

The subjects were given a 600word text and a list of 20 target words on a separate sheet (Appendix B). Next to each word, there was a line number, which showed where the word appeared in the text. They were asked to read the text carefully, find unknown vocabularies, and to write an L1 translation of the word, and its explanation in English. Since the text remained available for consultation, learners could see the word in text context. Upon completions of the task, the translation sheets were collected.

Stage Three- Think-Aloud

The subjects were asked questions pertaining to the difficulty and interest levels of both the text and exercise. They were also asked which target word they remembered working with, what they had done with each target word, and how different guessing was from using dictionary. Finally, they were asked if they thought they had learned any of the words or learned more about words they already knew and if so, how.


For each student, I obtained two data sheets (survey, tasks) and one think-aloud protocols. Data analysis involved independently to exact and formulate the following information: a) identification of the words learners reported as unknown while reading the text; b) identification of the lexical processing strategies; c) development of a descriptive system for classifying the types of knowledge and information learners used when they attempted to infer word meanings, and classification of each case.


From the survey questionnaire, there are several differences based on their learning styles and preference even though the learners believe the strong relationship of reading and vocabulary acquisition.

For example, Van has higher tolerance of ambiguity, however, Yoshi and Jay has lower tolerance of ambiguity. Van and Jay use usually monolingual dictionary, however, Yoshi use bilingual dictionary. Jay likes reading books his own interest, however, Yoshi and Van basically read English books on instructor’s recommendation. There are similar steps from their answers in dealing with unknown vocabulary. At first, they try to read the unknown words several times. And then underline the words that they don’t understand and try to guess the meaning from the context. In the end, they want to confirm if their inferencing is right by using dictionary.

I now continue with a detailed look at three students and how they dealt with unknown vocabulary through reading.. While they were doing tasks, the students who have stronger verbal ability made use of a context wider than a paragraph, and the student who has weaker verbal ability student made use only of the immediate sentence, latching desperately onto the words her knew. It shows that the stronger the student, the wider the range of strategies used.

For example, Jay and Yoshi tended to keep the meaning of the passage in mind, read in broad phrases, skip inessential words, and guess from context the meaning of unknown words. By contrast, Van tended to lose the meaning of sentences as soon as she decoded them, read word by word or in short phrases, and couldn’t differentiated between crucial terms and unnecessary words. Among them, Jay who has the highest formal educational background also more tended to identify the grammatical category of words, and use his knowledge of the world.

Ironically, the weakest student, Van seemed to be more satisfied with vagueness. Although she found only 3 unknown vocabularies in the text, she had such a hard time to figure out the meaning of 20 target words that I gave and was not able to explain those words in English successfully. She exhibited severe mismatch between self-perceived and real lexical understanding.
However, she could understand the main idea of whole reading text even though she didn’t try to figure out each unknown vocabularies.

Her overestimation of her own verbal ability seemed to be due to a lack of the engagement noted as necessary, a lack of desire to grapple with the meaning of the text, and her personal characteristics.
Therefore, this result demonstrates that learners might not assess their lexical understanding very accurately. However, it can also predict they exhibit better self-evaluation when learners improve their lexical knowledge. For example, Jay and Yoshi comparatively didn’t have any difference in the number of unknown vocabularies in self-assessment and the number of unknown vocabularies in target word-lists.

After translation and explaining of target words in English, Jay and Yoshi succeeded in figuring out the meaning of unknown vocabulary and finally reducing the number of them from 3 to 1 words. Van, also, reduced the number of unknown words in target word lists from 16 to 12. It shows that reading under a certain explicit task would be more effective to acquire new vocabulary than reading only.

In other words, it proves that higher involvement in a word induced by the task will result in better retention when meanings of words had to be inferred they were retained better than words with given meanings. However, higher language proficiency level students are better at guessing words from context than lower-level proficiency students. Van confessed it was so difficult to infer the unknown vocabulary from context and even asked me to teach how to do.

The students were all, including the weakest, very familiar with the topic of article that was general common sense of maleness and femaleness. However, if the article were scientific issue, Jay who indicated a strong background in medicine, this knowledge would allow him to move through inferring unknown words quickly, confidently, and successfully.

Moreover, between Yoshi and Jay, there was difference of using world knowledge for guessing unknown words because of formal educational background and age gap even though they have similar verbal ability. For example, Jay who has more experience of world could apply his own knowledge to infer unknown words beyond sentence. However, Yoshi tended to more likely rely on sentence-grammatical rules to figure out the meaning of target words.

The weaker the student is, the more likely he or she is to go on the “look” of the word, and let this decide what the meaning of the unknown word is, even when such a meaning flies against the sense of the context.
For example, Van used a smaller context and had no command of grammatical and syntactic strategies. She use appropriately as well as lack inferencing strategies compare to Yoshi and Jay. On the other hand, the stronger students made use of context, world knowledge, syntax, grammar, punctuation and the roots of words in inferring meanings.

However, they found several mistakes in their guessing the unknown words from context after looking up those words in the dictionary. Even though all they agreed that word meaning is best taught through the presentation of a word in context rather than though definition–based instruction, they pointed out every context was not an appropriate or effective instructional means for vocabulary development.

Therefore, it would be precarious to believe that naturally occurring contexts are sufficient, or even generally helpful, in providing clues to promote initial acquisition of a word’s meaning. Besides, they suggested if there were glossing of specific words in the end of the text, it would be generally effective because it enable them to involve in those words interactively.


Incidental acquisition is the primary means by which second language learners develop their vocabulary beyond the first few thousand most-common words. Explicit teaching can be a very good first introduction to a word; after this, the context encountered when reading can lead to new knowledge of its collocations, additional meanings, and other higher-level knowledge. In addition, repeated exposure from reading will help to consolidate the meanings first learned. So a well-considered vocabulary-learning program will eventually include both methods, such as intentional learning and incidental learning with each lending its own strengths.

The findings of this study add to our understanding of incidental vocabulary learning through reading and have a number of implications for vocabulary instruction. They demonstrate both the potential and limitations of the usefulness of reading programs as a vehicle for vocabulary expansion. Regarding students of different ability levels, that presents the most interesting pedagogical implications. Low verbal ability subjects are at a disadvantage when they are simply told to guess from context. They are more dependent than high verbal ability subjects on vocabulary knowledge, as seen in correlation between number of words guessing from context and vocabulary scores based on consulting with dictionary.

Therefore, the common practice of encouraging all students to guess word meaning from context must be re-examined. Unless low verbal ability students are somehow able to improve their ability to derive meaning from context, dictionary use should be encouraged. On the other hand, it appears that many high verbal ability students refer to the dictionary when they have already correctly guessed the meaning, a finding confirming that vocabulary. Teachers should be aware of these tendencies and be prepared to offer different strategy assistance to different types of learners.


Al-Homoud, F., & Schmitt, N. (2009). Extensive reading in a challenging environment: a comparison of extensive and intensive reading approaches in Saudi Arabia. Language Teaching Research, 13(4), 383-401. doi:10.1177/1362168809341508

Arden-Close, C. (1993). NNS readers’ strategies for inferring the meaning of unknown words. Reading in a Foreign Language, 9, 867-893.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & McCaslin, E. S. (1983). Vocabulary development: All contexts are not created equal. Elementary School Journal, 83, 177-181.

Grass, S. (1990). Discussion: Incidental vocabulary learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21, 319-333.

Huckin, T., & Coady, J. (1999). Incidental vocabulary acquisition in a second language. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21, 181-193.

Knight, S. (1994). Dictionary use while reading: The effects on comprehension and vocabulary acquisition for students of different verbal abilities. Modern Language Journal, 78, 285-299.

Laufer, b. & Hulstijn, J. (2001). Incidental vocabulary acquisition in a second Language: The construct of task-induced involvement. Applied Linguisitics 22(1). 1-26.

Laufer, b. & Yano, Y. (2001). Understanding unfamiliar words in a text: Do L2 learners understand how much they don’t understand? Reading in a Foreign Languages, 13, 549-566.

Lin, L. (2010). A video-based CALL program for proficient and less-proficient L2 learners' comprehension ability, incidental vocabulary acquisition. Educational Media International, 47(3), 199-216. doi:10.1080/09523987.2010.518812




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