My 5 favourite books about teaching vocabulary

Spanning the course of the last fifteen years, here is a list of five vocabulary teaching books I don’t think you should be without. Starting with my all-time favourite…

1. Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching by Keith Folse

Consider the following statements about second language vocabulary acquisition; which do you agree with?

  • In learning another language, vocabulary is not as important as grammar or other areas.
  • Using word lists to learn L2 vocabulary is unproductive.
  • Presenting new vocabulary in semantic sets facilitates learning.
  • The use of translations to learn new vocabulary should be discouraged.
  • Guessing words from context is an excellent strategy for learning L2 vocabulary.
  • The best vocabulary learners make use of one or two really specific vocabulary learning strategies.
  • The best dictionary for L2 learners is a monolingual dictionary.
  • Teachers, textbooks, and curricula cover L2 vocabulary adequately.
This book has seen some action, I can tell you!

This book has seen some action, I can tell you!

Regardless of what feelings you may have about each of these, you will no doubt have given each at least some thought during your time as a teacher. Personally, I regard my career as being split into two halves; before I read Vocabulary Myths by Keith S. Folse, and after. In this wonderful book Folse breaks down the teaching of second language vocabulary into the eight commonly held myths detailed above.

Chapter by chapter, he debunks each myth, through a straightforward and easy to follow presentation of what empirical research has shown on the topic, followed by a list of what teachers can do in their classrooms to facilitate true vocabulary acquisition. Each chapter is beautifully couched in descriptions of Folse’s own classroom experiences, making what he says immediately relatable to his audience.

Whatever point you’re at in your language teaching, I can’t recommend this title strongly enough.

2. Teaching Vocabulary: Strategies and Techniques by Paul Nation

Teaching Vocabulary: Strategies and Techniques is another title which delivers clear, research-based principles for vocabulary training in an engaging reader-friendly way. A quick look at the ten sections of this title should give you a reasonably clear idea of what to expect:

1. The Big Picture
2. Vocabulary and Listening
3. Vocabulary and Speaking
4. Vocabulary Learning and Intensive Reading
5. Vocabulary Learning Through Extensive Reading
6. Vocabulary and Writing
7. The Deliberate Teaching and Learning of Vocabulary
8. Specialized Vocabulary
9. Testing Vocabulary Knowledge
10. Planning the Vocabulary of a Language Course

In this book Nation thoroughly examines over 60 teaching techniques and suggests a unified approach, representing vocabulary instruction through listening, speaking, reading, and writing development.

3. Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon by Jean Aitchison

In a nutshell, Aitchison’s Words in the Mind deals with words, and how humans learn them, remember them, understand them, and find the ones they want. It discusses the structure and content of the human word-store or ‘mental lexicon’, with particular reference to the spoken language of native English speakers.

This title features a highly informative and accessible account of a central area of research, while incorporating newer research on the mental lexicon, which is not surprising given that Aitchison is a prominent researcher of the mental lexicon, language change, and the language of the media.

4. How to Teach Vocabulary by Jeremy Harmer & Scott Thornbury

OK, if that last title sounded a bit intense, relax a little and enjoy this beauty. I feel that this book is a truly excellent resource for all teachers, as it reflects my own beliefs as to the importance of teaching vocabulary by quoting the linguist, David Wilkins:

‘Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.’

I’m wondering if this book is out of print currently (let me know if I’m wrong); I only noticed used copies for sale out there on the big bad internet. That would be a bit of a shame as this remains a stone cold classic, one of the best resources I’ve come across for learning about teaching vocabulary. While the title contains quite a bit of technical information that might overwhelm newer teachers, the main strength of this book is that it is delivers strongly on the kind of basic information helpful to anyone teaching vocabulary.

5. Vocab Rehab: How do I teach vocabulary effectively with limited time? by Marilee Sprenger

With the first four titles on my list being among ‘the greats’ spanning the last fifteen or so years, I thought I’d take a bit of a risk and add a new book to my list of ‘classics’. In addition to being new (only released earlier this year), I also think Sprenger’s Vocab Rehab model is great, as it offers teachers easy-to-implement 10-minute instructional strategies that can help time-strapped teachers ensure that their students have a sound grasp of both general and content-specific words.

The book is short – disappointingly so, perhaps – but it is definitely to the point. It is full of great ideas for teaching vocabulary which you can use to successfully teach vocabulary even in just a few minutes.

What’s your number 6?

When I wrote this post I asked you to tell me which vocab teaching book you’d like to add to the list. I’m happy to say the response was fantastic. Here are the other great books, according to you!

Miguel Mendoza suggests…

These are the ones I generally refer to when in doubt (+ one or two from your list). And thanks to your post looking forward to reading/checking out: Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching.

1. Vocabulary by Michael McCarthy
2. Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition: A Rationale for Pedagogy (Cambridge Applied Linguistics) by James Coady and Thomas Huckin
3. Vocabulary in Language Teaching by Jack. C. Richards.
4. Assessing Vocabulary by John Read
5. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language by Paul Nation

Jersus Colmenares suggests…

I certainly have been influenced/inspired by most of the books you and Miguel listed (specially the monumental Nation book, now available in a second edition, and which I haven’t read!). In fact, by reading them is how I developed a special interest in pedagogical applications of corpora for teaching vocabulary, grammar and the connection between the two. Other sources that have shaped my understanding of the term “vocabulary” are:

Vocabulary: Description, acquisition and pedagogy (Schmitt & McCarthy, 1997)

Researching Vocabulary: A vocabulary research manual (Schmitt, 2010)

Formulaic Sequences: Acquisition, processing and use (Schmitt [Ed.] 2004)

And of course…

Formulaic Language and the Lexicon (Wray, 2005)

Formulaic Language: Pushing the boundaries (Wray, 2008)

While these are highly-research oriented (I am a doc student), I feel that these resources are important approximations to interfaces between science-born insights and classroom possibilities. I strongly encourage teacher trainers to find creative ways to include some of the interesting chapters from these books in their programs, which I believe can help narrow the “research-teaching gap” (Ellis, 2009).

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17 Responses to My 5 favourite books about teaching vocabulary

  1. These are the ones I generally refer to when in doubt (+ one or two from your list). And thanks to your post looking forward to reading/checking out: Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching

    1. Vocabulary. Michael McCarthy
    2. Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. James Coady and Thomas Huckin
    3. Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Jack. C. Richards.
    4. Assessing Vocabulary- John Read
    5. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Paul Nation

  2. Gordz O'Doberman says:

    A couple that really got me thinking about vocab (and unsurprisingly turn up as refs in Vocab Myths) are the collections of papers Coady & Huckin “Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition” (Cambridge), Schmitt & McCarhy “Vocabulary” (Cambridge) as well as Nation’s “Learning Vocabulary in Another Language (Cambridge) and Carter & McCarthy’s … Whoa, enough already!
    btw, the other “… Myths” in the same series are just as good!

    • Adam says:

      I’m well versed with ‘Writing Myths’ and ‘I am totally agree’ with you on that. I seem to have missed a few belters by limiting myself to five, but adding all these suggestions form the comments will be a good way of working round that.

      Thanks, Mr. D!

  3. Gordz O'Doberman says:

    And the daddy of them all, Michael Lewis’s The Lexical Approach (and its sequels)

    • Adam says:

      I was actually thinking of giving that a post all of its own. Language teaching wasn’t – or rather, lamentably, should never have been – the same after that game changer.

      What has gone so wrong?

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  5. I certainly have been influenced/inspired by most of the books you and Miguel listed (specially the monumental Nation book, now available in a second edition, and which I haven’t read!). In fact, by reading them is how I developed a special interest in pedagogical applications of corpora for teaching vocabulary, grammar and the connection between the two. Other sources that have shaped my understanding of the term “vocabulary” are:

    Vocabulary: Description, acquisition and pedagogy (Schmitt & McCarthy, 1997)

    Researching Vocabulary: A vocabulary research manual (Schmitt, 2010)

    Formulaic Sequences: Acquisition, processing and use (Schmitt [Ed.] 2004)

    And of course

    Formulaic Language and the Lexicon (Wray, 2005)

    Formulaic Language: Pushing the boundaries (Wray, 2008)

    While these are highly-research oriented (I am a doc student), I feel that these resources are important approximations to interfaces between science-born insights and classroom possibilities. I strongly encourage teacher trainers to find creative ways to include some of the interesting chapters from these books in their programs, which I believe can help narrow the “research-teaching gap” (Ellis, 2009).

    I appreciate this post, Adam!

  6. mohamad says:

    Thank you.

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