Jan 27, 2012

Teaching vocabulary out of context: conclusions

This follows on my earlier post Teaching vocabulary out of context: is it worth the time?

About a month ago I blogged about my mini action research on decontextualised vocabulary learning. The post  generated some discussion with some people arguing that there was nothing decontexualised about it - you can read the original post and the comments here. The main finding was that on the post-test there was no difference between the items which were learnt out of context and the items presented in class in context. So is decontextualised vocabulary teaching a justified strategy?

Obvious benefits

Even though the decontextualised “Go home and look up” activity produced mixed results and there was a lot of reteaching involved, I still consider it to be successful. Besides enriching their vocabulary it gives learners a sense of autonomy as well as responsibility for their learning, not to mention practice with using dictionaries, an often overlooked skill in ELT. I will definitely keep giving my students such tasks it in the future.

The fact there was no significant difference between the explicitly taught and independently learnt items on the test attests to the fact that an initial encounter (whether contextualised or decontextualised) is not as important as subsequent elaboration on aspects of a word meaning, repeated encounters with the item, rehearsal and recycling. The research seems to corroborate it (see for example Hulstijn 2001).

Ifs, buts and qualifications

Decontextualised vocabulary learning was frowned upon in the communicative teaching tradition.However, recent years have seen its resurgence due to the emerging evidence that this type of learning is legitimate for studying the basic vocabulary quickly (see Laufer 2009). Note that Laufer uses the word “basic”. In other words, in order to get to some threshold level, learners need to quickly acquire a large number of words, and decontextualised learning is a perfectly justified strategy. But when it comes to post-intermediate learners, I would only use decontextualised learning of discrete items if learners:

1)      are trained to look up words in a monolingual dictionary, carefully studying the provided examples and patterns of use;
2)      have a subsequent opportunity to contextualise with the teacher providing guidance and corrective feedback;
3)      are given ample opportunities for recall and recycling (as with any vocabulary learning)

Another issue which has been recently raised in the literature on vocabulary acquisition is the question of effectiveness vs. efficiency of a vocabulary task, i.e. how effective a vocabulary task is in terms of the time spent on it. Coming from this perspective, independent decontextualised learning for post-intermediate learners does not seem to be time efficient because a lot of time has to be spent on remedying learners’ problems and re-teaching mislearnt items


  • Hulstijn, J. H. (2001). Intentional and incidental second language vocabulary learning: A reappraisal of elaboration, rehearsal and automaticity. In Robinson, P. (ed.), Cognition and second language instruction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 258−286.
  • Laufer, B (2009). Research timeline: Second language vocabulary acquisition from language input and from form-focused activities. In Language Teaching, 42(3), 341-354.


  1. I definitely support 'go home and look up'. In fact, I'd ask them to bring in the new lexis for the next lesson and even build up a wiki word bank of words from reading homework and recycle it.

    Phil Wade

  2. Hi Phil
    Thanks for stopping by.
    There is no doubt that self-study is an important part of any course; after all teachers should make themselves redundant eventually :) Perhaps I didn't make it clear when I said "mixed results" above but I mentioned in the other post I refer to that there was a lot of re-teaching involved. I am afraid as much I encourage my Ss to notice chunks, record collocations and pay attention to patterns they often forget that my "no single words" rule, go home, look up a word in the bilingual dictionary and leave it there, i.e. they get the meaning of the word but not how it is used. So it seems I won't be made redundant any time soon.

  3. Students need both ways, even if the results seem the same. Like everything else, we must deal with it in as many ways possible.
    Interesting take on the same subject (among other things) can be found on macapella (Fiona's blog) http://macappella.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/the-m-word/

  4. Thank you for your comment Naomi. I've read Fiona's response to Jeremy Harmer's myth of multi-tasking (because this is what he is going to talk about at the ETAI conference on 13 February) but since you say it's relevant to what I ramble about I should probably give it a second look.

  5. Sorry, Naomi. Have just been alerted by one of the conference conveners that it's on 12 Feb - my mistake

  6. Decontextualized learning of vocabulary is very important, not only contextualized learning. In addition to Laufer (2009), Nation (2011) also believes in decontextualized learning in addition to contextualized learning. He mentions that word cards are very effective, and that teachers should teach their students strategies how to use them effectively. He also mentions the importance of using the L1 (mother tongue) (Nation, 2003). Explicit teaching through word cards is also very beneficial for struggling learners. Schneider & Evers (2009) discuss teaching through the Multisensory approach. They also suggest decontextualized learning through word cards. All the researchers mentioned above stress the importance of repetition, as it takes about 10 encounters with a word to remember it. Thus, the word cards are a useful learning strategy the child can use at home as well as in the classroom. In addition, Prince (1996) conducted a research where he compared learning words through context, or learning words from word pairs with the translation into the mother tongue. He found that the learners who learned words through the word pairs learned them better. This is not to say context should be ignored. According to Nation (2001, 2011)context is necessary for learning contextual aspects of the word, like collocations and frequency intuitions. It also improves grammatical knowledge, reading skill and world knowledge. Yet, teachers should use explicit decontextualized learning and teaching as well, especially for the basic vocabulary, as Laufer (2009) mentions. Basic vocabulary refers to the high frequency words, which make up the 2000 most frequent words of the language (Nation, 2001). There are different lists for these words that can be found online, such as the BNC or the GSL. These lists have also been mentioned by Penny Ur in her fabulous lectures on vocabulary. Nation (2004) mentions that it's better to use the GSL for learners learning English as a foreign language. However, the teacher must make changes to the list to make it relevant to the students' lives. Also, due to its age (from the 1950's), words like "computer" aren't on it. In sum, as Naomi Epstein rightfully said, we must use both decontextualized and contextualized methods for the teaching and learning of vocabulary. As I just finished writing a very large paper on the topic of vocabulary, if anyone would like any further references, you can e-mail me at talronen81@hotmail.com

  7. Hi Tal
    Thank you for your thorough and detailed comment and numerous references.
    I've experimented with word cards with adult learners - but have mixed feelings about them. It's quite easy to use word cards to record individual words like "table", "walk" and "high" but how do you record chunks such as "It goes without saying", "I'd better get going" and "He's a bad loser"? At last year's IATEFL conference in Brighton there was a panel discussion with vocabulary gurus including Norbert Schmitt and Paul Nation, who joined us via Skype, and I asked this question. They were very evasive about which is unfortunate because these are the same researchers who strongly believe that more attention should be paid to phrasal lexicon.
    I personally believe that vocabulary should be taught in chunks and collocations should be provided at the initial encounter with a new word. Perhaps, basic vocabulary can be learnt/taught out of context but I didn't realise that "basic" refers to the first 2000 words. Is it Nation's definition in his book Learning Vocabulary in Another Language (2001)? If you look at the K2 list you will find quite a lot of "difficult" words such as attend, implement, tidy . I wonder how one can teach them without context.

  8. I also believe that there are certain phrases and collocations that should be learned together. However, writing a phrase on a word card is still decontextualized, in my opinion, as the phrase or collocation isn't taken from a text or sentence. The fact that it appears on a word card doesn't show the student how and when it's used. However, the word cards are important as ONE aspect of word learning, as they are a stratgey to focus on the individual word or phrase in order to remember it. You can also write a phrase or idiom on the card, it doesn't have to be only one word. Also, if you want to present the word with the collocations, you can write "responsible for" on the card instead of only the word "responsible". I also think this is important. This is especially useful for struggling learners. I would write the word or phrase, especially for words that the translation is different from Hebrew to English. That's a place where students make the most mistakes, and I think those places should be brought to their attention directly. For example, in Hebrew you say אחריאי ל, so if a child were to translate it, he would write responsible to, and not "for". For this reason I agree with what you're saying, especially with the words or expressions that can't be translated word for word.

    Yes, Nation in his book from 2001 relates to 4 different groups of words. The first one is defined as high frequency words, which are the top 2,000 words. He states that they make up about 80% of academic text. You're right, many of these words are very difficult. We have to remember, as Nation mentions in his article from 2004, that these lists are not for L2. Therefore, we must make modifications to them. They are a criteria in choosing which words to teach, but not the only one. Penny Ur gave a wonderful example of this in one of her lectures. The word eraser and the word purple are not in the HFW. I looked them up - purple is in the K3 list and eraser in the K5. Yet, they are important to teach because they are relevant to the students' lives. Teachers need to choose vocabulary according to the lits, but mostly according to the relevance these words have for their students. I think teachers also need to choose methods of teaching that are most appropriate for their students. For example, I work with struggling learners who have low vocabulary and language skills. Therefore, context strategy instruction is a waste of time as opposssed to focusing more on learning through word cards.

  9. You're absolutely right: writing collocations or expressions on a card is still decontextualised. I should perhaps clarify and qualify what I said earlier. Writing a collocation as opposed to an individual word on a card does not provide context, but it provides CO-text, i.e. surrounding text, words that come before and/or after - things you need to know in order to use the word. So I would say:
    YES to teaching collocations out of context
    NO to teaching single words out of context

    I also agree with you that we should balance the considerations of frequency and usefulness when introducing new vocabulary. And to help struggling learners you can introduce new words with the old words they go with, i.e. tie new words with the words they already know by providing collocations. Incidentally, Nation in his 2001 book claims, citing Ellis, that word knowledge IS collocational knowledge. So, for example, when you teach "clear" you should present it alongside the word "sky". By the way, I do not consider "responsible+for" a collocation. I have just posted "What's your favourite chunk?" where I explain why.
    Thanks for this lively and engaging discussion.

  10. I always introduce vocabulary out of context. And then I have the kids try to put it into context by filling the words into sentences. After working on the list a few times, we then read the passage from which the words were taken. That's when all the vocabulary is contextualized in the reading passage.

    Here's a recent story:
    In my last class of grade 8 bet pupils, one of the weakest pupils actively particpated when we worked on the reading text. She usually just sits there like we're learning Chinese. After class I complimented her on her participation and comprehension. Her response: "Well, I worked really hard on the words you gave. I even worked on them with my father. That's why I understood the story!"
    Well ... DUH.
    My response: "That's great. I hope you'll continue learning words now that you realize how important learning vocabulary
    is." (In case any of you are wondering, we conversed in Hebrew.)


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