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Whats Involved In Knowing A Word English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2006 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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What is involved in knowing a word? Is it significant for learners of a second language to manage a great amount of vocabulary? How can teachers help vocabulary learning?

In this essay, I am firstly going to analyse, what really a word is, and the aspects involved when knowing and using vocabulary. In the second section of this paper, I am going to discuss and analysed some authors and linguists’ point of view about lexicon and its importance in learning a foreign language.

Finally, I am going to focus on some useful learning strategies to be applied when teaching vocabulary to second language learners.

When thinking about teaching and learning of a second language, the first aspect which comes to our minds is the syntactic aspect, the rules by which we construct intelligible ideas.

To know how to use grammatical rules is, indeed, important to native and non natives speakers, it could make the difference between a good and a bad user of the language.

Nevertheless, as important as knowing about grammar is knowing about vocabulary.

During decades, lexis was kept aside and was not considered as an important aspect of language to be concerned about. “Linguists have had remarkable little to say about vocabulary and one can find very few studies which could be of any practical interest for language teachers” (Wilkins, 1972:109). Though, after ignoring it for a long time, Lexical knowledge is now been appreciated as one of the most important aspect in the learning process. (Gass and Selinker, 1994:270).

According to Nation (2001:26) meaning is just an aspect of knowing a word. Identifying its Form (whether it is spoken, written as well as word-parts) recognising its use (grammatical functions, collocations or constraints on use) are strands involved too.

As stated before, words embrace much more than a meaning and to be familiar with them, a learner must be aware of its formation and its meaningful parts. For that reason , I am going to focus this essay on Morphology, which is defined by R.L. Trask (1997:145) as “the branch of linguistics dealing with the study of word structure, conventionally divided into inflectional and derivational morphology”.

From now, the term “word-form” is also going to be used in this essay to refer to a word.

The first assumption a learner should make is that a word-form consists of meaningful pieces of language ( Ronald Carter et Michael McCarthy, 1988:18) called morphemes, which is commonly defined as the smallest grammatical and meaningful unit.(Aitchison, 1994:122) In the word-form useless two morphemes with different meanings ( use/less) are arranged to create another word-form with a new meaning. In this case, the morpheme use is a free morpheme, due to it can stand by itself, whereas the affix less is a bound morpheme, since despite having own meaning it is not freestanding.

The same phenomenon occurs in unhappy. No one may consider un as a word, but its meaning is well- known (opposite in this case), instead of happy that is a lexeme by itself.

In the English Language as in many others, the affix found in one word-form, may also occur in others.

That feature, Nation claims, is another aspect involved in knowing a word, (2001:46) and this semantic knowledge, may facilitate student’s acquisition of vocabulary, especially in the first stages of learning word-forms, thus learners may apply word-formation to decode the meaning of other words.

The same learner who realized that unhappy could be considered as opposite of happy, due to the affix un, will interpret the word uneducated correctly thanks to that learner already recognises one of the meanings of the specific bound morpheme un.

There is no doubt that being aware of word-formation contributes in the learning process of a non native speaker. Although, it should be mentioned, that morphemes not always behave as in the examples above. As not all words consists of two or more morphemes, some words may create misunderstandings in a learner. Whether the affix un enables to create an opposite meaning, a beginner student who is trying to formulate a sentence in English with the language he or she handles, may easily say ” I unwork on weekends” assuming that unwork is the opposite of work, which is actually erroneous.

Owing to that fact , in the last section of this paper I am going to concentrate in the ways teachers can help learners to achieve accuracy in learning vocabulary.

Another significant morphological feature in word-forms, is the grammatical factor. Bolinger and Sears mention that by the point of view of grammar, morphemes may be grouped into inflectional or derivational ones( 1981:71). The former group is related to those morphemes which affect the syntactic role of a word-form, without modifying its inner meaning. Aitchison illustrates Inflectional by saying that the only difference between the words Dish and Dishes is the suffix plural ending -es (1994:124). The author agrees with Bolinger and Sears in that when inflectional morphemes are attached to a word, it continues being the same, but with a different form(1981:66).

The latter group, derivational morphemes, are the bits of language that attached to an existing word make a new word. Aitchison exemplifies it using the word-form Learn. When the suffix -er is attached, a new word appears: learner. In this case, the observable change may be in word class or in Sense.(1994:124)

The diagram below illustrates the difference between both Derivation and Inflection.






Dis- agree -ment

Hate -s

Until now, it is been explained the morphological aspect of knowing a word. It was also said that being familiar with this feature is useful when learning a foreign language, but the fact that vocabulary learning and teaching was a neglected theme for so many years, placed the task of vocabulary acquisition on learners’ hands (Hedge, 2000:110). I concur with McCarthy in saying that “Studying how words are formed offers one way of classifying vocabulary, for teaching and learning purposes…”(1990:5).

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As a non-native speaker, I truly believe that vocabulary development is essential to communicate in a foreign language, and I do not hesitate in declaring that Morphology is one of the most important tool learners may have command of when acquiring a new language, and English Teachers may contribute in achieving this task, by using vocabulary learning strategies in the classroom.

As a language is made up of an endless amount of words, it may be slightly demanding for teachers and learners to select the appropriate number and words to be acquired. Nonetheless, coping with learning strategies is a conscious process which enables people to control their own learning at their own speed and may be employed in any subject, not just in teaching a foreign language.

Learning strategies promote learner autonomy in the learning process, whereas, these techniques must be taught and trained. At this point, is when teachers emerge to become a facilitator in the learners acquisition of the proper knowledge.

Tricia Hedge classifies learners strategies into four groups: Cognitive, Metacognitive, Socio-affective and Communication strategies (2000:77-79).

The author gives some examples to be applied within each category.


Socio-affective strategies

Communication strategies

Metacognitive strategies

Cognitive strategies

*Initiate conversations.

* Collaborating on tasks.

*Listening to the radio in the target language.

*Watching TV in the target language.

*Use of body language.


*Use of cognates.


*Evaluation of the learning process.

*Analogy: to compare the meaning of a new Word in L1 and L2.

*Memorization: Visual or auditory

*Repetition: imitating a model.

*Inferencing: guessing meanings.

Focusing on acquiring vocabulary by learning word-formation, a teacher may wish to make use of affixes in first place. “Recognizing the composition of words is important; the learner can go a long way towards deciphering new words if he or she can see familiar morphemes within them” (Michael McCarthy, 1990:4).

Nation states (2001:275) that learners should attain some essential skills in order to acquire the appropriate knowledge; these are the Receptive and Productive skills.

The former refers to the ability of recognizing that some words are made up of meaningful bits of language, the ability of knowing the meaning those bits of language. Nation grades derivational affixes according from the easiest to the more difficult to learn. (Nation 2001: 268) and the ability of recognizing that a new word has been made.

e.g. use / useful

The latter skill refers to the ability of realising the shifts in pronunciation and spelling of the new word-form; the ability of identifying the changes in class of the new word-form.

To teach vocabulary throughout affixes may result in an attractive experience for learners, but first, it is imperative to create an appropriate environment to develop the activities. The purpose of the tasks must be clear enough(what it is going to be learnt and why) as well as the instructions for the class work. Equally important is the fact that learners may know that the new knowledge is pertinent and relevant for their learning process.

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As brainstorming learners may well start analyzing some authentic material from a magazine, where they underline all the suffixes or prefixes. In comparing with the whole class, learners will acknowledge and discuss the overlap among some words regarding, for example, the endings, and in which way they affect the word-forms. It is appropriate displaying tasks which enable learners to recognize those shifts clearly.

The PPP (Presentation, Practice, and Production) approach seems suitable when working with affixes. First, the teacher presents one affix, emphasizing its meaning and its use. Then, students identify that affix in the words by underlining them, for instance; and finally learners are encourage to apply the new knowledge, by matching words with the appropriate affix and using the new word in a new sentence.

Still, educators must be careful. Exposing the learners to too many morphemes at the same time, may cause confusion and rejection amongst students, therefore, it is important to consider frequency when choosing the proper morphemes to teach, that motivates learners since they will feel familiar with the content. (Nation 2001:268)

Another way to deal with affixes is using the dictionary as a tool. Learner could be asked to look up as many words containing the prefix -anti (maybe any other), before giving its meaning (against), so they will guess it and share their predictions with the rest of the class.

The following list contains suggestions about how to work with morphemes in the classroom:

– Matching columns. Column A containing the affix, and column B the root.

– Playing memory cards with roots and affixes.

– Giving extra points to the learners when they use affixes properly.

– Team contest, where the team with more correct words having affixes and roots, will obtain extra points.

– Using Hangman game with words including morphemes to strengthen spelling.

Reinforcement may be fulfilled by creating a chart for the classroom with roots, suffixes and prefixes with their meanings, that students will make use of when requiring.


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