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Involved In Knowing A Word

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4086 words Published: 3rd May 2017

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Word knowledge plays an important role in language teaching, it provides the basis for learners to grasp four language skills listening, speaking, reading and writing. Without a certain amount of words, learners cannot expect to understand fully the content of listening and reading and express their meaning clearly in the process of speaking and writing. Lexical competence is one of components of communicative competence (Meara 1996).however, knowing a word is complicated and it involves knowing its form, meaning and use (Nation,2001) .e.g. spelling, pronunciation, grammar, denotative and connotative meaning, word associations, frequency, collocation and register.

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For English Learners in China, due to limited exposure to the target language, they have got difficulties with collocations and collocation errors are often found in their writing and speaking. In order to achieve a high level of competence in English, it is better for students to know more collocations. Nowadays in China, collocation has become one of the most important issues in English language teaching and learning.

In this paper, firstly, the author attempts to explain and exemplify the question of ‘what is involved in knowing a word’, and some aspects of word knowledge are discussed. Secondly, collocation as one aspect of word knowledge is chosen to discuss in more detail, then some issues with respect to collocation are discussed, including the definition of collocation, the classification of collocations and the significant of collocation,. Finally, it deals with the classroom practice, as an English language teacher, some suggestions are given on the teaching of collocation in the classroom.

What is involved in knowing a word?

In the L1 acquisition, it is very common that learners may know how to speak one word in mother tongue but they do not know how to spell this word, while in L2 acquisition, learners may know the written form of word, but they do not know how to pronounce it clearly, or learners may know one meaning of a word, however, they do not know other meanings of this word in different contexts. Even learners may know both form and meaning of a word, but they do not know how to use this word appropriately in different contexts. Therefore, knowing a word is quite a complex cognitive process, and knowing a word involves understanding many aspects of word knowledge. Nation (2001:23) points out that ‘words are not isolated units of language’. Therefore, the question of ‘what is involved in ‘knowing a word’ has attracted considerable attention in the field of vocabulary acquisition. Researchers have identified different types of word knowledge. Richards (1976) and Nation (1990, 2001) list different aspects of word knowledge which learners needs to know about a word. I will use Nation’s classification of word knowledge as the basis for my discussion. More information, see the appendix 2.

In recent decades, Nation is one of the world’s leading authorities on vocabulary acquisition. Based on the earlier word framework (Nation, 1990), Nation (2001:27) points out that knowing a word involves knowing its form, meaning and use, and each category is broken down into receptive and productive knowledge. Each of these three categories can be found in the discussion brief below. More details please see appendix two.

Word form

Knowing one word form includes spoken form, written form and word parts (Nation, 2001). Spoke and written form are essential word knowledge which helps learners to move forward to literacy. The knowledge of phonics, word reorganization and spelling provides a basis for learners to decode word meaning and use the word appropriately in different context. Knowing the spoken form means being able to understand the spoken form in hearing this word, this is receptive knowledge, as well as being able to pronounce the word clearly and make other people understood in the conversation, this is productive knowledge. Knowing the written form means being able to recognize the written form when reading, this is receptive knowledge; in the meantime, knowing the written form means being able to spell correctly the written form in writing, this is productive knowledge (Schmitt, 2000).Schmitt points out that the more similar between the second language and first language in spelling and pronunciation, the easier learners to attain these knowledge in second language. For example, it is easier for Spanish to learn the spoken and written form of English than to learn Chinese and Japanese, due to different orthographic and pronunciation systems (ibid).

In terms of word parts, it involves knowing the prefix, suffix and stem that make up a word as well as knowing the word family (Nation 2001). It is possible to decode the meaning of unknown word when knowing the prefix, suffix or stem of this word. Take the word unbelievable, for an example. Prefix un means not, opposite, believe means trust something, -able means can be, worthy of, therefore the meaning of unbelievable is ‘Not to be believed’. In addition, Nation (2001) point out that knowing a word involves knowing the members of word family that will increase as proficiency develops. For example, knowing the word able, learners may know unable, disable, in the beginning, then they will know enable, ability, abilities, disabled disability.

Normally, the knowledge of phonics, word reorganization and spelling are learnt by explicit instruction, such as repeat exercises, drills and rote memorization. Although this explicit instruction helps learners to acquire this knowledge to some extent, however, too much depending on exercises and rote memorization leads to boredom and decrease motivation. The best way to develop the phonics, word reorganization and spelling skill is to provide more opportunities to engage in meaningful reading and writing in the particular context. In addition, Learners can be trained and encouraged to use learning strategies. Such as’ finding analogies, cover and recall, focusing on difficult parts and setting regular learning goals’ (Nation: 2001:46).

2.2 Word meaning:

Nation (2001) points out that knowing the meaning of a word includes connecting form and meaning, concept and referents, and word associations. Normally the word form and meaning are learned together. it means that when learners hear and see the word form, the meaning of this word will retrieved, in the meantime, when they want to express the meaning of word, the form of this word will retrieved as well. Daulton (1998) points out that the same form in the target language and first language makes learning the word meanings burden light. For example, English has some loan words from Japan; this helps Japanese learn some English words easier. In terms of concepts and referents, each word has got a core concept, while other meanings vary. It means a word has got a lot of meanings depending on the different contexts. Aitcheson (1987) also points out that there is a fuzzy boundary in the meanings of a word. One of the main reasons is that schema is different in the different contexts (Schmitt, 2000). In addition, Richards (1976:81) claims that ‘words do not exist in isolation’ .Knowing a word involves knowing word association. Word associations are the links that words are related to each other in people’s mind. One word is given to a learner; some other that are similar or opposite, and related words easily come to mind.

e.g. Accident-car, blood, hospital.

School- chair, table, classroom, students, teachers;

Home- kitchen, dish, food.

2.3 Word use

Nation (2001) points out that knowing how to use a word involves knowing the word grammatical functions, collocations and being aware of constraints on use due to many factors, such as register, frequency and different cultures. Grammatical function is one of the most important linguistic constraints in choosing a word to use, and grammatical function refers to word classes and what grammatical patterns one word can fit into (ibid).e.g. we can say ‘I know a lot, I eat a lot, I read a lot’, however we cannot say ‘I knowledge a lot, I eaten a lot, I reading a lot’.

Register and frequency are other particular types of word constrains on use. Register is considered as the stylistic constraints that ‘make each word more or less appropriate for certain language situations or language purposes’ (Schmitt, 2000:31).

In terms of word frequency, High frequency words (laugh) are heard and seen and used more frequently than low frequency words (guffaw, giggle, and chuckle). Generally speaking, low frequency words are used in the particular discipline, e.g. medicine, law, engineering, literature and so on). Therefore, High frequency words are more easily recognized and recalled than low frequency words. Therefore, knowing the use of a word should be aware of constrains on use of a word.

In this section, word form, word meaning and word use are discussed. Next I will select collocation as one type of word knowledge (collocation) to discuss in more detail.Firstly, I will explore the definition of collocation, the types of collocation, and then I suggest that the knowledge of collocations is essential for learners, lastly, some advice on teaching and learning collocations in the classroom are given.

The definition and clarification of collocation

Collocation is defined in different way by researchers. collocation refers to’ items whose meaning is not obvious from their parts ‘(Palm 1933 in Firth 1957, summarised in Nation, 2001:317).e.g., blonde hair, shrug his shoulders, fizzy drink, bite the dust. According to Schmitt(2000:76),collocation is described as ‘the tendency of two or more words to co-occur in discourse’. Here co-occurrence is the main characteristic of collocation. Similar to Schmitt, Lewis (2000:132) describes it in another way as ‘collocation is the way in which words co-occur in natural text in statistically significant ways’, in this definition, the way words naturally co-occur is emphasized. It implies that people cannot put two or more words together arbitrarily, because words co-occur naturally. In fact, it is very common that some learners in foreign and second language context tend to put two or more words together arbitrarily because of the first language interference. For example, do a decision instead of make a decision, big rain instead of heavy rain. Nation (2001:371) defines collocation as’any generally accepted grouping of words into phrases or clauses’. This definition reflects the two criteria of collocation which are ‘frequency occur together and have some degree of semantic unpredictability’ (ibid). The above definitions indicate that words co-occur naturally, it is not easy for learners to get the meaning of collocation form its components, and as a result, it may cause problems for learners to acquire the knowledge of collocations. The definition of collocation leads to the shift to explore the types of collocation.

Collocations are divided into two basic types: grammatical/syntactic collocations and Semantic/lexical collocations (Schmitt.2000). The former refers to one word combines with other words with the grammatical rule. E.g. get used to, be good at .the latter means multi words co-occur to contribute the meaning. E.g. make a mistake, catch a bus. Lewis (2000) lists different types of collocation, such as verb+noun, noun+noun, adjective + noun, verb+adjective, fixed phrase, part of proverb, binomial, trinomial and so on.

The significance of learning collocations

4.1 The underlying rule of organization of lexicon

Sinclair (1991) advances two principles (the open-choice principle and the idiom principle) to explain the organization of the texts. The open-choice principle suggests that you can put any word in the slot to make texts as long as you follow the grammar rule. It is known as slot-and-filler model. However, this principle cannot explain the collocation constrains. The idiom principle highlights that there are some regularities when two or more words combine together, and Sinclair claims that there are some constrains on the choices words in discourse(ibid), in other words, the way words co-occur are not random. Hill (2000) also agrees with the idea that the lexicon is not arbitrary. E.g. commit. A relatively fixed set of words can co-occur with it. E.g. suicide, crime, murder, sin. But not promise, advice, plan.

4.2 The size of collocation

Groups of words or phrases are used very frequently to express meaning in the oral and written texts. Hill (2000) claims that two or more than two words collocations make up a huge percentage in the text. It is estimated that up to 70% of everything we use in oral and written texts are fixed expression. This widely used collocation implies that if non-native learners have got a huge amount of collocation, it will be helpful for them to achieve native-like fluency in the target language. Nation (2001) also points out that knowing the collocation knowledge of a word is one of the most important aspects of knowing a word.

4.3 Native-like fluency

Learning collocation helps learners to speak and write English in a more natural and accurate way (Dell and McCarthy, 2008).if learners store a huge number of collocations, this allows them to retrieve ready-made language, think more quickly and produce language efficiently (Hill 2000).in addition, they do not need to make sentences word by word to express themselves, and this assists them in using English not only naturally but accurately. According to my experience of teaching English in China, due to the first language interference, the direct translate are used to produce language, the inaccurate use of collocation is very common in the essay writing, and this is one of the main causes which lead to the emergence of Chinglish, e.g. eat medicine, make exercise, receive the telephone e, open/close the radio, look TV instead of take medicine, do exercise, answer the telephone, turn on/turn off radio, watch TV.

4.4 language acquisition

Learning collocation enhances language acquisition (Hill, 2000). Nation (2001) points out that collocation helps learners to store knowledge quickly. If learners have got a huge number of collocations in mind, it is easier for them to retrieve ready-made language from their mental lexicon and think more quickly because they can recognize big chunks of language when reading and listening, and this is very helpful for them to understand the meaning in the speed of speech and the long reading texts. In contrast, if learners decode the meaning of speech and texts word by word, maybe they know the meaning of each word, however, they do not know the meaning of collocation or chunks in the long discourse. It may be difficult for them to get the accurate meaning of the speech and texts. Based on my teaching experiences as a high school English teacher, I found that most of the students in my class have got difficulty understanding the meaning of the entire paragraph due to lack of collocation competence. Hill (2000) also agree with this explanation that one of the main reason for having difficulty in reading or listening is due to lack of collocation competence, rather than the load of new words.

E.g. as far as I know, the old sheep comes up with the idea that he will give up on his dream to look after little sheep, however, he cannot make this decision due to other people. This makes him keep crying all the time.

Even though students know the meaning of each word in the above paragraph, it is still very hard for them to understand the entire paragraph because they are not familiar with some collocations inside.

In the above two sections, the definition, types of collocation and the significance of collocation were discussed. In the next section, I would like to give some suggestions on teaching and learning collocations in the classroom.

5. Teaching collocations in the classroom

Here are some suggestions and activities for English language teachers that will help students to acquire the knowledge of collocations in the classroom.

5.1 Raising awareness of collocation in classroom

Woolard (2000) points out that raising learners’ awareness of the importance of collocations is a good way to help them notice them. Teachers should explain the rationale for collocation, the significance of learning collocation in language acquisition, and then make learners know that words are not used in isolation, knowing one word also means knowing which word is likely to co-occur with it, Teachers can emphasize in the classroom instruction that knowing collocations not only helps them to receive (reading and listening) and store language quickly but also produce language naturally and accurately. E.g. When teaching reading, it is an effective way to ask learners to identify collocations in the texts and let them make a list of collocations. When teaching speaking, teachers can ask learners to predict the collocations of the word. If teachers encourage learners to notice collocations in input and output teaching activities, this practice will help learners develop an ability to notice and use collocations. It also helps learners to develop learner autonomy, when they read newspaper, listen to radio, watch TV and talk to other people in English. They will notice the existence of collocations in spoken and written texts.

5.2 Increasing language input and providing output opportunities

Using the authentic reading texts is an effective way to teach collocations. In the classroom, Lewis (2000) also suggests that teachers should choose the right kind of texts which includes different types of collocations. These texts can be used in the intensive reading practice. However, this is not enough to acquire the knowledge of collocations. Krashen(1985 )points out that enough comprehensible input is a source of language acquisition. Collocations are used in different types of texts, such as newspaper, magazine, and story books. It is good for learners to do extensive reading to encounter collocations in these authentic texts and remember them in the notebooks. In addition, extensive reading provides learners with context to make the understanding of the meaning of collocation easier and deeper, therefore. Extensive reading not only helps them to know how native speakers use the collocations in the natural way, but also moves learning collocations from short to long-term memory.

However, Swain (1995) claims that despite the fact that learners are given a rich source of comprehensible input in the French immersion programmes in Canada. It is still hard for learners to produce the native-like language proficiency. Teaching collocations also needs to provide opportunities to learners to practice how to use collocations. These activities can be some communicative activities in terms of writing and speaking. Hill, Lewis and Lewis (2000) suggest that teachers can ask learners to find the collocations in the reading texts, and then use these collocations to reconstruct the content. Some collocation errors can be found. Teachers need to write down these errors in the blackboard and make learners to analyse them. The same activities can be done by listening to tapes or stories and then ask learners to speak out the collocations. Some exercises are used to help learners acquire collocations (Dell and McCarthy, 2008). Such as Fill in blanks, Match games True/False.

5.3 Using resources: Collocation Dictionaries and corpora and concordances

It is a good way to get learners use collocation dictionaries to know more about collocations. e.g. Oxford Collocations Dictionary for students of English. In addition, with the development of internet, the innovative corpora and concordances are becoming the effective way for learners to check collocations online. They provide great texts to check collocations and grow dramatically with the update texts. Corpus has brought great insights into linguistics, especially into the study of collocations.

A corpus collects the written or spoken texts and stores them in the computer. It is very helpful and efficient way to use the corpus to check how the people use collocations in written or spoken texts .Sinclair (1991:32) defines ‘a concordance is a collection of the occurrences of a word-form, each in its own textual environment’. Compared to collocation dictionary, concordance allows us view more collocation lists in the corpus. However, I think it is necessary for teachers to provide learners with some training to help them use it well, this also encourage learner autonomy.

6. Conclusion

In this paper, I have explained and exemplified the question ‘what is involved knowing a word’. Word form, word meaning and word use were discussed briefly. Such as spelling, pronunciation, word parts, word meanings, word associations, grammatical functions, register, collocations, frequency and so on. In these many aspects of word knowledge, collocation as one type of word knowledge was chosen to explore. First, the definition and classification of collocation were discussed, and then the reason for choosing collocations was explained. Next, this author proceeded to explore how to teach collocations in the classroom. Lastly, this paper offers some suggestions on how to help learners acquire the knowledge of collocations in the classroom.

Appendix 1:

The meaning of knowing a word(Richards,1976),


The native speaker of a language continues to expand his vocabulary in adulthood, whereas there is comparatively little development of syntax in adult life.


Knowing a word means knowing the degree of probability of encountering that word in speech or print. For many words we also “know” the sort of words most likely to be found associated with the word


Knowing a word implies knowing the limitations imposed on the use of the word according to variations of function and situation.


Knowing a word means knowing the syntactic behavior associated with that word.


Knowing a word entails knowledge of the underlying form of a word and the derivations that can be made from it.


Knowing a word entails knowledge of the network of associations between that word and other words in language.


Knowing a word means knowing the semantic value of a word.


Knowing a word means knowing many of the different meanings associated with the word.

Appendix 2:

What is involved in knowing a word? (Nation, 2001)





What does the word sound like?

How is the word pronounced?




What does the word look like?

How is the word written and spelled?

word parts



What parts are recognizable in this word?

What word parts are needed to express the meaning?


Form and meaning



What meaning does this word form signal?

What word form can be used to express this meaning?

Concept and referents



What is included in the concept?

What items can the concept refer to?




What other words does this make us think of?

What other words could we use instead of this one?


grammatical functions



In what patterns does the word occur?

In what patterns must we use this word?




What words or types of words occur with this one?

What words or types of words must we use with this one?

constraints on use (register, frequency )



Where, when, and how often would we expect to meet this word?

Where, when, and how often can we use this word?


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