The vocabulary of a person is defined either as the set of all words that are understood by that person or the set of all words likely to be used by that person when constructing new sentences. (This definition is wrong).
- "Without grammar very little can be conveyed; without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed." (Wilkins 1972:111)
- "When students travel, they don't carry grammar books, they carry dictionaries." (Krashen in Lewis 1993: iii)
- "The more one considers the matter, the more reasonable it seems to suppose that lexis is where we need to start from, the syntax needs to be put to the service of words and not the other way round." (Widdowson in Lewis 1993:115)
Types of vocabulary
A person's reading vocabulary is all the words he or she can recognize when reading. This is the largest type of vocabulary because:
- The meaning of words may be guessed from the context.
- The meaning of new words may be inferred from existing knowledge of parts of the word.
- Reading is a receptive skill which does not require the creation of new sentences.
- The reader has the time to pause and consider the meaning of a new word before continuing reading.
A person's listening vocabulary is all the words he or she can recognize when listening to speech. This vocabulary is aided in size by context and tone of voice.
When listening in a foreign language students vocabulary seems more limited then their reading vocabulary because:
- They have little time to consider the meaning of rapidly-spoken words.
- They may be confused by an unfamiliar accent.
A person's writing vocabulary is all the words he or she can employ in writing. Contrary to the previous two vocabulary types, the writing vocabulary is stimulated by its user.
A person's speaking vocabulary is all the words he or she can use in speech. Due to the spontaneous nature of the speaking vocabulary, words are often misused. This misuse – though slight and unintentional – may be compensated by facial expressions, tone of voice, or hand gestures.
It is often claimed that the English language has the largest vocabulary of any language, but this claim is very difficult to demonstrate - partly because defining a word is not as easy as it might appear. (See main article Number of words in English).
When teaching students new words it is good practice to teach them as part of a phrase rather than as isolated items. There are several online resources providing vocabulary learning exercises, including the BBC's English learning web page.
Both teachers and students need to record vocabulary; generally speaking the teacher will do so on the board in order to present it to students, who will then record a copy for themselves. In addition to the word or phrase, more lexical information may be recorded from the following list depending on the specifics of the lexical item to be recorded:
- Stress pattern
- Part of speech
- Variety of English
- Example sentence
- Translation (generally frowned upon in the TEFL industry)