Vocabulary as Knowledge or Ability?

Vocabulary as Knowledge or Ability?

A graduate student of mine recounted her aha experience when she was preparing for her IELTS test. Knowing that she needed to know a lot of English vocabulary words to do well on her IELTS test, she bought several IELTS practice books.

She diligently spent time learning and memorizing new words from the books. But no matter how hard she tried, she could only remember the meanings of the words, but were unable to use them in speech or writing.

So she changed her study strategy. She started doing an independent study by reading and viewing different types of texts from different sources (e.g., abridged and original novels, YouTube videos, TED Talks).

After some time, she began to remember the words she saw in her reading and viewing more vividly; and to her great delight, she was able to use those words to express her thoughts in speaking and writing.

To make the long story short, she finally took the IELTS test and scored well on all four components of the test, i.e., speaking, listening, reading and writing.

The story above serves as a reminder to us of the difference between learning vocabulary as KNOWLEDGE (which has limited value beyond the classroom) and ABILITY (which enables us to use the language for communication).


In a typical classroom context, teaching vocabulary as knowledge continues to be the default pedagogical practice and is characterized by the following routines.

  • The target word is presented in isolation, or in a sentence (people mistakenly think that a sentence provides a sufficient context of word usage)
  • Some information about the part of speech the word belongs to (e.g., noun, adverb) may be included.
  • The focus of the teaching is mostly on its literal or dictionary meaning
  • Pragmatic meanings or contextual meanings of the word are rarely explained. Without good knowledge of the pragmatic meanings, our message may be understood but perceived as being disrespectful, rude, impolite etc.
  • How the word is used with other words (how they collocate) is rarely touched upon, although we now know that words almost always co-occur with other words that come before or after
  • Other important lexical features are also neglected, e.g., whether the word is of high or low frequency, largely used in speech or writing, formal or informal contexts, etc.

Learning vocabulary as knowledge is not without value. In many exam-driven language learning contexts, this knowledge helps students score well in the high-stake national examinations, which is often the main goal of language education.

But its value as a resource for communication is limited. In authentic communication contexts, words co-occur with other words, derive their literal and social meanings from the context. Moreover, the meaning of the words and their usage become clearer when we know the purpose, participants and socio-cultural settings of the communication in which it happens.

It is small wonder that learning vocabulary as knowledge in the way described above have been shown to have very limited value. Yes, students can use their vocabulary knowledge in speech or writing, but very often their speech or writing sounds stilted and unnatural.

Research suggests that until students have encountered the target words multiple times in multiple meaningful contexts, their ability to use the words for communication will be severely constrained.


In the professional literature, vocabulary experts make a distinction between vocabulary breadth and depth. Breadth refers to your vocabulary size, i.e., the number of words you know.

Depth means how well you know the word, i.e., the extent to which you can use the word for a wide range of communicative contexts. In other words, depth allows you to use the words you have learned easily and smoothly, and with greater accuracy and sophistication too.

In order to acquire vocabulary as ability, students will need to develop their vocabulary depth. Evidence suggests that depth can only be developed through constant exposure to rich language input, i.e., meaningful chunks of language found in spoken or written texts.

Language experts believe that language learning activities that engage students in daily extensive reading/viewing are perhaps some of the best ways to acquire vocabulary depth.

It is important to point out that developing vocabulary depth requires a different approach to language learning. Depth is best acquired via implicit rather than explicit learning processes.

When learning language implicitly (e.g., via extensive reading and viewing), students’ attention will be mostly directed to understanding the meanings communicated by the spoken or written texts (with perhaps a little attention to form).

Over time, their internal language learning mechanism will absorb and internalize the words and their contexts of use in their complex linguistic system. This process may take months or even years, during which time students attend to the different shades of meanings of the words, restructure their understanding of how the words are used in various contexts, and monitor their own use of these words in speech or writing.

What this system looks like continues to be a mystery to language scholars. But all seem to agree that this system is extremely COMPLEX and largely IMPLICIT. They also agree that competent language users tap on the vast store of their implicit knowledge to produce language fluently, accurately and appropriately.

More reading

Introducing Task-Based Language Teaching

Teach Them More Strategies?

For more information about how to leverage on the power of implicit language learning, click here.

13 Replies to “Vocabulary as Knowledge or Ability?”

  1. How about teaching the learners morphological awareness?? Would this be under knowledge or ability?

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