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Wayne Trotman reads a book looking at how teachers can improve their students’ vocabulary learning.

How Vocabulary is Learned
By Stuart Webb and Paul Nation
Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers
978-0-19-440355-9

You might be asking if there’s a need for yet another book dealing with vocabulary learning. However, as the authors point out, there is still a lack of clarity over the best way to learn lexis, despite a recent surge of research in this area. Around 30 per cent of the research into vocabulary in the last 100 years has been carried out since 2001.

The aim of this book is to introduce the reader to major issues involved in teaching and learning words and phrases, and where possible to provide recent research evidence. No particular approach is stressed, but there’s an emphasis on a balance of practical tasks and suitable programme design. Each chapter includes a number of activities along with questions for further discussion and suggestions for further reading. As such, this title would be a tremendous resource on initial training courses.

The first chapter looks at the value of different words for learning, and deals with which items to focus on. It points out how and why learning high-frequency words can contribute more to a learner’s progress than low-frequency words. It points out that identifying the frequency levels of words is crucial, although it is not difficult to locate such data these days thanks to online word lists. Chapter two – ‘The Learning Burden’ – illustrates how there is much to learn about individual words. It points out how, through encountering the same item again and again, its form, meaning and use will become apparent to the learner.

Chapter three looks at the number of words learned in both the learner’s first language (L1) and the second (L2), and considers the differences between incidental acquisition and deliberate learning.

Chapter four focuses on how to create the complex conditions that contribute to vocabulary learning through various activities that current course books already tend to include. The key points here are noticing, repetition, attention and retrieval.

Chapter five further analyses vocabulary-learning activities, locating the principles behind them. The emphasis here is on activities covering the four skills, including tasks on extensive listening, classification, information transfer and guessing from context. Chapter six looks at the effect of learning in various contexts, and how the proficiency or ages of students affects vocabulary acquisition and retention. It also provides helpful advice for teaching classes with differing sizes and those at different levels.

Chapter seven outlines the need for autonomy among learners, and how they can be taught strategies to enable them to become effective and efficient vocabulary learners when away from the classroom.

Chapter eight looks at creating a principled and balanced programme for vocabulary learning, while chapter nine looks at resources. It highlights research that supports their use, and provides guidelines on how such resources might be selected. A close look at the bibliography reveals how much the authors have worked at the cutting edge of research into teaching and learning vocabulary. This factor is apparent throughout the book. They revisit questions previously asked but till now were never properly answered. Perhaps most importantly, they pose and address new ones for us all to consider.

Wayne Trotman is a teacher educator at Izmir Katip Çelebi University, Izmir, Turkey.