The importance of vocabulary

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Since the general move towards more integrative formats has been introduced, vocabulary, which is a component of language proficiency, has received comparatively little attention in language testing (Read, 1988). Read (1988) also added that the importance of vocabulary and the need for more systematic vocabulary development for second language learners have been highly recognized by those who are having difficulties in reading comprehension and other skills by a 'simple lack of word knowledge'. By and large, Goldsworthy (1996) found that children with learning disabilities tend to use short sentences with poor word pronunciations, and they have 'limited receptive and expressive overall vocabularies'. These children's vocabularies are often limited to what they experience in their current environment because they cannot or do not read (R. Foil., & R. Alber, 2002).

According to Beglar (2009), acquiring a large vocabulary is an endeavour that occurs progressively over a number of years for both native speakers and foreign language learners. The size of vocabularies of young children varies significantly according to age (L. Rowe et al 2008). Some 3-year-olds have over 1100 words in their vocabularies; others have fewer than 500 (Hart & Risley, 1995). In an analysis by Fenson, et al (1994) who conducted a study over 1800 infants and toddlers at 30 months of age, they found that children's vocabularies ranged from 300 words at the 10th percentile to 650 words at the 90th percentile. In addition, thousands of speech vocabulary items can be acquired by young children in a relatively short time (Steinberg, 2006). Nevertheless, several researchers have estimated the size of children's vocabularies at different ages. According to R. Jenkins, L. Stein, and Wysocki (1984), they stated that:

"Absolute size estimates vary considerably due to differences in what is counted as a single word (e.g., derivatives, compounds) and what is excluded from the word count (e.g., technical and archaic terms, slang, foreign derivatives), but estimates of the relative size of vocabularies for different ages are remarkably similar."

The aim of this study is to examine the vocabulary developments of young children in acquiring English as a second language. Specifically, this study was designed to determine the vocabulary size of children at the age of 5 and, thereby to examine the vocabulary development of children at the age of 5. For this purpose, we address ourselves to the following questions: What is the vocabulary size of children of 5- year old? and What are factors that affect children's vocabulary development?


  1. Definition of vocabulary:
  2.                Vocabulary can be defined as knowledge of word and word meanings. The definition of vocabulary is much more complex. Word has two forms which are oral (listening and speaking) and print (reading and writing). Word knowledge can be divided into two forms; receptive (see or hear) and productive (speak or write). According to Kamil and Heibert (in press);

    "Receptive vocabulary is typically larger than productive vocabulary, and may include many words to which we assign some meaning, even if we don't know their full definitions and connotations - or ever use them ourselves as we speak and write."

  3. Vocabulary Development and Reading Ability:
  4. Children's vocabulary development has a connection with reading ability. Vocabulary knowledge is bound with knowledge about the world and the ability to read well help children to grasp the meaning of the word within the written text. In early age context, children should be taught on how to read, so that it will help the process on enhancing the vocabulary development. In the daily lives of young children and caregivers, picture book reading appears to have the potential to offer rich opportunities for learning technical vocabulary, as picture books bring into the immediate context of the adult-child conversation many concepts and phenomena not encountered in everyday life (Beals and Tabors; 1995; Beals, 1997; Senechal, 1997; Torr and Clugston, 1999). For this reason, parents are expected to spend time with the children to aid the development of the vocabulary gradually. The basic principle of early childhood pedagogy is learning experiences must build upon children's familiar home experiences (Arthur, 1993; Purcell-Gates, 1996, 2001; Hendrick, 2001). The most influential theory of vocabulary learning was proposed by Baddeley, Gathercole, and Papagno (1998), who claimed that phonological short-term memory has a very important role in constructing representations of the phonological form of new words both in one's native language and in a foreign language. Subsequent studies by (Duyck, Szmalec, Kemps, & Vandierendonck, 2003; Gathercole, Service, Hitch, Adams, & Martin, 1999; Masoura & Gathercole, 1999; Palladino & Cornoldi, 2004) also supported the theory.

  5. Introducing New Vocabulary:
  6. Introducing new vocabulary to children is very crucial. It is important to make connection to children's prior knowledge. The link of new vocabulary words to prior knowledge influences their level of comprehension. Several steps are recommended when introducing new vocabulary to children. First, show children the word, pronounce it and make the children repeat it. Second, explain the meaning of the word and show a variety of example of the word used in context. Next is, make connections to children's prior knowledge by eliciting children responses about their experiences related to the word. After that, give the children chance to use the word in the different sentences and give the feedback. Lastly, do the physical actions or dramatic movement that symbolize the meaning, and asked students imitate that action. Children are advised to make a physical action to connect with the new word. By creating a memorable event, teacher can boost up the introduction of new words. Memorable events are possible to expand the preservation of concept (Martin, 1993) and the learning process can be fun and very effective to children.

                   Huge amount of vocabulary also can be learned through direct and indirect way. Listening to the music is one of the examples of indirect vocabulary learning. While purposely looking up the meaning of the word in the dictionary is a direct learning. Learning new vocabulary from the context is crucial as the first language learners learn words through induction (Sternberg, 1987). A good way to improve the vocabulary is through reading as it expose the reader to the most frequent and useful words. Simply put, reading books is beneficial to the beginner and intermediate learner. However, it is very difficult for the beginner to start learn from the context because, if he/she does not understand sufficient number of words on the page, he/ she may fail to learn from the context. According to Liu Na and Nation (1985) 3000 words of vocabulary is needed to provide exposure at least 95% of the text before the induction from the text may begin.

  7. Vocabulary test:
  8. Vocabulary test is useful to determine the estimated vocabulary size of the learner. According to Hu and Nation (2000) the learner should know about 98 -99% of words in discourse in order to understand it well. Based on Nation (2006) and Schmitt (2008) learner need to know 5000-7000 word families to be able to converse in spoken English and 8000-9000 word families to read of authentic text for example newspaper and novel. A high score on a vocabulary size test does not necessarily indicate that the individual words are known very well. This is based on Laufer (2000) which stated that students know only a limited number of words. Students have limited knowledge of secondary meaning senses (Schmitt, 1998). Besides, students also have limited awareness of the different derivative forms of a word (Schmitt and Zimmerman 2002). Plus, students use L1 translations when understanding the meaning of L2 words (Jiang 2004).

  9. Journals of past studies:
  10. A large number of research has been done on children vocabulary developments. Szagun et al. (2006) has conducted a research on Development of vocabulary and grammar in young German-speaking children using a parent report instrument. The development of vocabulary and grammar was examined in 333 German-speaking children aged between 1; 6 and 2; 6. In their study, results have indicated that vocabulary increased faster than sentence complexity and inflectional morphology. Within inflectional paradigms, noun plural and gender marking were acquired faster than case marking and verb inflections while modals and copula were acquired most slowly. The results of their study also demonstrated that for German children, too, there was considerable variability in the growth of vocabulary and grammatical skills over age. In the study by L. Rowe et al. (2008) they videotaped 53 English-speaking parent-child dyads in their homes during their daily activities for 90-minutes every four months between child age 14 and 34 months. Results have indicated that child gesture use at 14 months was a significant predictor of vocabulary size at 42 months, above and beyond the effects of parent and child word use at 14 months. Meanwhile, at 14 months, parent gesture use was not directly related to vocabulary development, but child vocabulary was predicted by child gesture use at 14 months. In the study by Majerus et al. (2006), they pointed out that vocabulary development was more strongly associated with short term memory for order information in four and six year olds and with short term memory for item information in five years old children.


  1. Research design:
  2. This study is using a quantitative approach which employs a longitudinal survey design. In this design, the vocabulary development of 5 year old children is measured by asset of vocabulary test.

  3. Sample/Population/Subject:
  4. Two children aged 5- year old were selected from Tadika Kemas Taman Sri Serdang as the subjects of this study. The first subject is a Nigerian- born child while the second subject is a Malay- born child. The Nigerian- born child is a native speaker of Edo, which is also her mother tongue while the Malay- born child speaks Malay as her first language and also her mother tongue. However, the Nigerian- born child can speak Malay fluently and understand the language without any hassle.

  5. Instrument:
  6. Vocabulary checklist and vocabulary size test were used as the instruments in this study to elicit the children's vocabulary size and their vocabulary development. This vocabulary size test uses a recognition format which was adapted from the 'vocabulary checklist method' (also called the yes/no method). This instrument simply involves presenting learners with a list of words (or pictures) and asking them about each word that they "know" (Read, 1988). According to Melka Teichroew (1982:7), it is one of the oldest approaches to testing the vocabulary of native speakers. The most noteworthy advantage of using this test is the simplicity of the test as Anderson and Freebody (1983:235) has noted, "It strips away irrelevant task demands that may make it difficult for young readers and poor readers to show what they know". It does not require the kind of intelligence that influences performance in multiple choice or matching tests. In addition, a much larger number of words can be assessed by the checklist in a given period of time, as compared to other types of vocabulary test.

  7. Procedure and Data Collection:
  8. The medium of instruction during the observation is English and Malay so that it will be easier for both children to understand all the instructions given during the observation. The observation was done once a week in two weeks time. In the first week, two sessions were conducted, which were the vocabulary size test and the teaching of vocabulary. In the vocabulary test session, children were presented with a short auditory list of various pictures to be tested in order to identify their vocabulary size. They were asked to tell us what the picture is in English. Next, after completing the vocabulary test, the children were taught about the vocabulary that they have been asked before so that they know the correct answer. On the second week, they were tested again on all the items that they have learned in the other week to identify whether they remember what have been taught before and whether they have mastered all the vocabulary that have been taught. This is called a test- retest approach in examining the stability of scores over time. The recorded observation was analyzed afterwards in order to obtain the data.


  1. Vocabulary size of 5- year old children:
  2. Gained by both subjects for week 1 and 2 respectively. All the subjects are coded as their name is considered as confidential to be published. Both subjects are coded into subject A and subject B. Subject A is the Nigerian- born child while subject B is the Malay- born child. Fifty items were tested to both subjects in order to obtain their vocabulary size. The children will be graded '1' if they can answer correctly and '0' if they answer incorrectly or they simply do not know what the item is. In the first week, subject A, who scored correctly 30 out of fifty items performed significantly better compared to subject B, who only scored 16 correct items out of fifty. In addition, in the second week, subject A also performed better than subject A by scoring 40 correct items out of fifty. However, subject B who only scored 35 correct items have improved dramatically as compared to her performance in the first week. Clearly, the findings indicate that the amount of exposure to new vocabularies has a positive effect on children performance. It appears that children are able to acquire and memorize new vocabularies if they are given an appropriate strategy in learning vocabularies.

  3. Vocabulary development of 5- year old children:
  4. The vocabulary development of 5-year old children in two weeks time. The two children were coded into subject A and subject B. In the first week, subject A scored 30 out of 50 items correctly and subject B scored 16 out of 50 items correctly. Subject A seems to know more than 50% of the vocabulary. For the retest item, Subject A scored 40 out of 50 items correctly and subject B scored 35 out of 50 items correctly. The number of vocabulary acquisition increased rapidly in two weeks. From the graph, we can conclude that subject A has a slower vocabulary development compared to the subject B. It appears that subject A know 80% of all vocabularies that are tested, however, there is only 25% increment compared to subject B who has a bigger increment, which is 54%. The data from both subjects suggest that children who have small size of vocabulary can have a rapid development if they are taught with the correct method. This finding also implies that children who have a great number of vocabularies do not necessarily improve well over time unless they are conscious and put a great emphasis in learning.


The results of the present study may be summarized by pointing out; firstly, that the subjects regarded other children can improve their size of vocabulary well if they are given appropriate method. This was largely attributed to the children's efforts and motivation itself. Thus, the findings support the view that young children can acquire thousands of speech vocabulary items in a relatively short time. There are several factors that can affect the learning process of second language as well as the development of the vocabulary. They are psychological variables and social situation.

  1. Psychological variables:
    • Motivation:

    4 - 5 years old children need a motivation to learn a second language. The children at this age might realize which language that positively or negatively regards by other. Besides, the children also may prefer to do other activity instead of learning English. To boost up the motivation at school, teacher has to create a fun and interesting learning situation for the children. Imitation or dramatic movement during the learning session to create a memorable event can help the children to remember better. MacIntyre et al., (1998) said that;

    "There are many variables involve in second-language learning, such as intergroup attitudes and climate, social situation, personality and self confidence, desire to communicate with a particular person and etc."

    • Attitude:

    Attitude towards language learning may also affect the learning process. If the children have the negative attitude towards the target language or the teacher or perhaps member of the class, it may affect the determination and persistence to be involved in the classroom and its activities (Gardner and Lambert, 1972; Oller et al., 1977, 1978; Chihara and Oller, 1978; Gardner, 1985). Negative attitude may distract the focus and memory function on the target language. Children at the age of 4 have developed attitudes towards language. They might want to use foreign language with their peer and use mother tongue at home.

  2. Social situation:
  3. There are three fundamental situations that cover under social situation which are natural, classroom and community context. Natural situation is similar situation as the first language is learned. Family, workplace and shop are part of natural situation. The classroom situation involves the social situation of the school classroom. Community context allow students to have access to a natural situation outside of the class. Each situation has its own advantage and disadvantage.

    This study has taken a step in the direction of defining the vocabulary development of children in one particular age, which are children of 5- year old. It is possible of course that other particular children with a different age or other different characteristics such as gender, ethnicity and mother tongue may produce entirely different result. In addition, it is important to emphasize that the instruments used in this study limit our interpretations.

    The approach outlined in this study should be replicated on larger and different populations. It would also be interesting to measure children vocabulary development over several periods of time.


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