I'm preparing a lecture on L2 vocabulary teaching/learning for the postgraduate course on TESOL methodology I'm teaching this semester. Vocabulary is something I've always been interested in, particularly the difference between contextualized and decontextualized vocabulary learning. I'm pretty sure that the majority of L2 instructors (and quite possibly researchers as well) generally believe that vocabulary is best learned in context. Now here’s the kicker: context might be relatively irrelevant when it comes to vocabulary acquisition! To illustrate this, here is a short section I've taken from a book chapter that Amanda Baker, Bill Acton and I have co-authored and is included in Tamara Jones’ (2016) new book on pronunciation instruction:
…current theory on optimal instruction and acquisition of vocabulary proposes that it is generally best learned in context, using a more task-based approach (Nunan, 2004.) This theory, however, has recently faced an interesting twist. File and Adams's (2010) work, for example, demonstrates that in some situations less contextualized vocabulary instruction may lead to an equal or even higher rate of retention than does more integrated instruction. Additionally, research examining and comparing the effectiveness of top-down (i.e., learning words in context) and bottom-up (i.e., learning words in isolation) approaches to academic vocabulary instruction to Chinese learners of English revealed that students in the bottom-up group slightly outperformed their peers in the top-down group in terms of "vocabulary size and controlled productive vocabulary knowledge" (Moskovsky, Jiang, Libert, & Fagan, 2014, p. 271). Such research partially vindicates more traditional, form-based practice that places emphasis on the use of word lists, grammar, synonyms and antonyms, and attention to derivational (prefixes and suffixes) forms and word-family association. Research suggests, in fact, that intermediate-level learners may benefit even more from paradigmatic, form-focused vocabulary work (Elgort & Warren, 2014). From a practical, teaching perspective, of course, being flexible enough to work with both word usage in context and a word’s structural and semantic properties is ideal (Burri, Baker, & Acton, 2016, p.19).
Burri, M., Baker, A., & Acton, W. (2016). Anchoring academic vocabulary with a “hard hitting” haptic pronunciation teaching technique. In T. Jones (Ed.), Pronunciation in the classroom: The overlooked essential (pp.17-26). Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.
Elgort, I., & Warren, P. (2014). L2 vocabulary learning from reading: Explicit and tacit lexical knowledge and the role of learner and item variables. Language Learning, 64, 365–414.
File, K., & Adams, R. (2010). Should vocabulary be isolated or integrated? TESOL Quarterly, 44, 222–249.
Jones, T. (Ed.). (2016). Pronunciation in the classroom: The overlooked essential. Alexandria, VI: TESOL Press.
Moskovsky, C., Jiang, G., Libert, A., & Fagan, S. (2014). Bottom-up or top-down: English as a foreign language vocabulary instruction for Chinese university students. TESOL Quarterly, 49, 256–277.
Nunan, D. (2004). Task-based language teaching. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
I am a Lecturer in TESOL at the University of Wollongong in Australia. I blog about L2 learning, L2 teaching, L2 teacher education, and research.