Dissertation: VOCABULARY LEARNING ACROSS LEVELS – 12,0000 words

Comparison of Vocabulary Learning Strategies Across Levels






























1.1. Rationale and purpose of the study


Human beings communicate with each other by means of language. By manipulating receptive skills in reading and listening, and productive skills in the speaking and writing of language, humans convey their messages and show responses, thereby ensuring their common existence with other individuals. In addition, in order to express messages effectively and efficiently, we rely on one of the crucial linguistic components – vocabulary. The author’s interest in vocabulary started from the experience of teaching low-level students in Korea. In an EFL (English as Foreign Language) environment, as in Korea generally, the input given to learners is very much limited to what is provided in the classroom. Without the learners’ autonomous and self-directed efforts, it is hard to extend their language learning beyond the classroom. As suggested in Krachen’s Input Hypothesis, a substantial amount of input in a variety of contexts is crucial for language learning (Brown, 2000, p. 278). In this vein, reading is regarded as an essential tool to obtain continuous input. Those EFL learners at the low level of proficiency, however, seemed to have difficulty in assessing and understanding reading materials efficiently, due to poor vocabulary knowledge. This, therefore, might deprive them of potential opportunities to gain the range of inputs that are important for language learning.


In spite of the recognized importance of vocabulary learning and teaching, proper approaches and systemic instruction for vocabulary learning strategies have not been provided in the Korean EFL context. Furthermore, the efforts to develop English language ability have focused too much on the primary skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing, while vocabulary instruction has been neglected in real classroom contexts in Asian countries (Fan, 2003). Learning to ‘use’ English is currently one of the hottest issues, and Korea struggles to come up with the best solution. Especially for lower achieving EFL learners, lack of lexical knowledge is the most serious obstacle (Kang, 2001). Little research has been conducted on comparative analyses through in-depth interviews with high-level and low-level students, explaining how they differ in terms of using vocabulary strategies in the Korean setting. On the assumption that vocabulary learning is a crucial process in L2 learning, and that vocabulary knowledge is a major influence toward EFL achievement, the present study aims to investigate students’ attitudes to vocabulary learning, and the patterns of vocabulary learning strategies employed by Korean adult students in the UK. In addition, reasons for the most preferred vocabulary learning strategies are to be ascertained. More importantly, the study also seeks to identify the relationship between learners’ achievement level and vocabulary learning strategy use (the employment of different strategies depending on the learners’ proficiency level). The vocabulary learning strategies of high-level learners in the current study may hopefully illuminate some potentially positive directions for the lower level learners. This is also imperative if researchers and practitioners are to appropriately gauge the relative influence and importance of vocabulary learning strategies in the learners’ language process.


1.2. Research Aims


In order to achieve this, the following aims need to be addressed:


  1. To identify Korean university learners’ beliefs and attitudes towards vocabulary learning.
  2. To conduct in-depth interviews with Korean students to gauge their preferred vocabulary learning strategies and patterns of strategy in use.
  3. To explore the relationship between language proficiency and vocabulary strategy use.
  4. To identify strategies that are related to success in learning L2 vocabulary.








2.1.     Vocabulary


2.1.1.     Importance of Vocabulary


The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives a definition of ‘vocabulary’ as, “a sum or stock of words employed by a language, group, individual, or work or in a field of knowledge” (Merriam-Webster.com). In learning a foreign or second language it is then obvious why teaching and learning vocabulary is essential in acquisition of a language, as without insight into the meaning of the words spoken, written, or heard, the language is incomprehensible for the learner.  In spite of the importance of vocabulary acquisition in SLA, researchers and teachers have typically undervalued the role of vocabulary in the field (between the 1940s and 1970s especially), usually prioritizing grammar or pronunciation as central to linguistic theory and more critical to language pedagogy (Zimmerman, 1997). Many researchers have stressed the importance of vocabulary in language learning. Lewis (1993) argues that acquiring vocabulary plays a central role in second language learning (2007, p.237, cited in Sokmen, A). Thus, the idea that “Without grammar very little can be conveyed; without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed” (Wilkins, 1972, p.11) demonstrates that vocabulary errors are more critical for communication than grammatical errors.  Brown (2001) also points out that words are the basic building blocks of language. As explained in the rationale section for this study, it is still a contentious issue how learners acquire vocabulary efficiently or how it can be taught to enhance their lexical competence as well as effective communication, which is the ultimate aim for language learning.


Vocabulary has not always been central to strategies of language teaching. As Barcroft (2009) points out for example, grammar has traditionally been the primary focus of attention, leading vocabulary to be neglected (p.201). Barcroft goes on to make a number of points arguing for the importance of vocabulary, including its use in being understood, and in forming idiomatic expressions (p.201). He also adds that, as students tend to place importance and emphasis on acquiring vocabulary then it can act as an aid to motivation in learning (p.201). Finally, he also argues that vocabulary cannot be separated from, and is indeed a vital part of, the learning of grammar (p.201). Much of what is defined as ‘grammar’, in other words, actually takes place at a lexical level. Bancroft’s research leads him to propose the formula ‘acquisition = vocabulary + other forms of competence’ as a potential alternative to ‘acquisition = grammar + other forms of competence’. Zimmerman agrees with the lack of priority for vocabulary learning, arguing that syntax and phonology have traditionally been seen as more serious and valuable objects of study (Zimmerman, 1997, p.5). She argues that despite shifts in language methodologies – from techniques such as grammar translation to more communicative approaches for example, vocabulary has been continually neglected. She proposes that it should be focused on more in classroom situations as it is such a vital aspect of language in use (p.17). Laufer (1997) makes a direct connection between vocabulary and reading drawing on studies to argue that reading knowledge is strongly linked to vocabulary knowledge (p.20). Overall then, this research shows that vocabulary is vitally important yet has been consistently neglected in the language classroom.



2.1.2.     Aspects of Vocabulary Knowledge


Second language learners or foreign language learners (L2) need to learn a sufficient numbers of words to be considered proficient language speakers. What then does it mean to actually ‘know’ a word?  Nation (1990) tried to answer this question using the concept of receptive and productive knowledge. Acquiring receptive knowledge means being able to recognize a word from the spoken form and the written form when it is used. It also involves being able to differentiate a word from other words in similar forms and judge if it was used appropriately or not. Productive knowledge of a word involves knowing how to use it accurately in speaking and writing including receptive knowledge. As pointed out in Nation (2001) “words are not isolated units of language, but fit into many interlocking systems and levels. Because of this, there are many things to know about any particular word and there are many degrees of knowing” (p.23). For example, one may recognise a word in its visual context, yet remain unsure of its meaning, or conversely, one may recognise a word and its meaning through speech and then not recognise it in visual/written form as the same word. Thornbury (2002) explained that knowing a word involves knowing its form and its meaning. According to the author, knowing a word means knowing the spoken form, the written form, the meaning, the frequency of the word, the grammatical behaviour, the word’s derivations, the collocations of the word, the register of the word, and the connotations of the word. All are stored within an individual in a highly sophisticated organization and interconnection in the mind as a network, which is called the ‘mental lexicon.’ (2002, p.16). Additionally, he stated “Vocabulary knowledge is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon” (p.22) here noting the importance of levels of depth of vocabulary knowledge. Considering definitions of word knowledge, Nassaji found that depth of vocabulary knowledge affects L2 learners’ strategy use and success. The findings are (a) learners who have stronger depth of vocabulary knowledge used certain strategies more often than learners who have weaker depth of vocabulary knowledge (b) the stronger students could use certain types of inferring strategies more effectively and (c) depth of vocabulary knowledge enables learners to contribute to inferential success through the learner’s degree of strategy use (2004, p. 387).


Knowing a word is complicated: as a result, it is important to discuss the ‘learning burden’ of a word, which is the amount of effort that is required by the student to learn it. Dependent upon one’s language background, different words have different learning burdens for different learners, and “each of the aspects of what it means to know a word can contribute to its learning burden” (Nation, 2001, p.23). In regard to students learning English from their base language of Korean, the learning burden, or amount of effort required in learning words, is much higher. Whilst languages such as Italian, French, Spanish, and even Greek, have many words that have been adopted (in a similar form) by the English language, Korean words, and the language in general, are completely different from English. This makes the ‘learning burden’ greater for these students, as it takes them a longer amount of time to make connections and make meaning out of English words. In sum, it has been discovered that knowing a word is not a simple task, and that it requires various types of knowledge; consequently, L2 learners experience considerable difficulty. For this reason, the following section examines how to approach to ‘knowing a word’ with greater success.



2.2.     Vocabulary Learning Strategies


2.2.1.  Definition of Language Learning Strategies


Vocabulary learning strategies can be considered a subclass of general learning strategies in second language acquisition (Segler et al, 2002). Interest in learning strategies initiated in the 1970s with research to identify the characteristics of good language learners (Naiman et al., 1978; Rubin, 1975 cited in Hamzah et al, 2009, p.39). A number of definitions of learning strategies have been used by key figures in the field of L2 education. Rubin defines learning strategies as “any set of operations, steps, plans, or routines used by the learner to facilitate the obtaining, storage, retrieval and use of information”(1987, p.19) and “… strategies that contribute to development of the language system which the learner constructs and affects learning directly”(1987, p.23). Along these lines, O’Malley and Chamot describe learning strategies as “the special thoughts or behaviours that individuals use to help them comprehend, learn, or retain new information” (1990, p.1). One of the most frequently cited and applicable definitions of learning strategies to date is that of Rebecca Oxford. She gives a further precise and elaborate definition of language learning strategies as “specific actions taken by the learner to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective, and more transferable to new situations.” (1990, p. 8). When it comes to defining vocabulary learning strategies, Schmitt suggests a very broad definition. He says learning is “the process by which information is obtained, stored, retrieved and used… therefore vocabulary learning strategies could be any which affect this broadly defined process” (1997, p.203). In a similar vein, Catalan (2003) defines vocabulary learning strategies as “ knowledge about the mechanisms (processes, strategies) used in order to learn vocabulary as well as steps or actions taken by students (a) to find out meaning of unknown words, (b) to retain them in long-term memory, (c) to recall them at will, and (d) to use them in oral or written mode” (p. 56). To put it plainly, vocabulary learning strategies are used by learners to discover the meaning of new vocabulary items and memorize the meaning in their long-term memory. Simultaneously, they allow learners to retrieve the vocabulary for communication. Notably, this definition is not limited to only receptive vocabulary learning such as discovering meaning and storing meaning but it is also concerned with productive vocabulary learning such as speaking and writing. Furthermore, the ability to use appropriate vocabulary in production is largely dependent on learner’s knowledge about the vocabulary learning strategies. With the help of instruction, students can learn how to apply these strategies actively and appropriately when acquiring vocabulary.



2.2.2. Classification of Language Learning Strategies


A number of attempts have been made to classify language learning strategies. O’Malley and Chamot proposed three types of strategies: metacognitive, cognitive and social/ affective strategies (1990, pp.44-45). Of the more established systems, the one proposed by Oxford (1990) is considered the best to encapsulate and organize the wide range of vocabulary learning strategies. Oxford proposed two extensive categories – direct and indirect strategies. The former included memory, cognitive and compensation strategies and the latter included metacognitive, affective and social strategies (1990, p.17). The first, memory strategies, are those for storing and retrieving information. Cognitive strategies involve understanding and producing the language while compensation strategies are methods for overcoming limitations in language learning. In addition, metacognitive strategies are for planning and monitoring learning, affective strategies entail controlling emotions, motivation, and social strategies are for cooperating with others in language learning (p.17). Considering the lack of an existing inventory of individual strategies, Oxford’s (1990) ideas were developed into Schmitt’s (1997) comprehensive inventory of individual vocabulary learning strategies from Japanese EFL learners. He suggests two categories of L2 vocabulary learning strategies. The first major category is the discovery strategy, which learners use to understand the meaning of the newly encountered words. This refers to determination strategies and social strategies. While determination strategies enable learners to find out the meaning of words based on analysing parts of speech, guessing from context or using dictionaries, social strategies involve working with others such as teachers or classmates to come up with the meaning of new words. The second category is the consolidation strategy, which learners employ to retain the meaning of newly acquired words in their long-term memory. It constitutes social, memory, cognitive, and metacognitive strategies. Social strategies in this category allow learners to interact with others such as native speakers or teachers to internalize the meaning of newly learned word (1997, pp204-208). This taxonomy is “probably the most extensive …established scheme of language learning strategies” (Segler et al, 2002, p.411) and it will be referred to later as part of a comparative analysis framework.


Gu and Johnson (1996) also developed a considerable number of strategies based on Chinese students learning English. The strategies are divided into the following categories: beliefs about vocabulary learning, metacognitive regulation, guessing strategies, dictionary strategies, note-taking strategies, memory strategies (rehearsal and encoding), and activation strategies. Emphasizing appropriate language learning strategies lead to improved proficiency and self-confidence (Oxford, 1990, p.1). Oxford argues that teachers should try to help their students develop an awareness of learning strategies and enable them to use a wider range of appropriate strategies as facilitator, helper, guide and co-communicator (1990, p.10). Especially for low-level students, teachers need to make students aware of appropriate learning strategies and help them to use the strategies effectively. Therefore, learning strategies are important to aid learners in their pursuit to become more efficient in learning and the use of language. Furthermore, developing and using an effective learning strategy may also increase a learners ability to advance through self-study (2001, Oxford cited in Carter & Nunan, p.166).



2.2.     Studies of Vocabulary learning strategies


There are two main schools of approaches to learning vocabulary when it comes to vocabulary acquisition in learning a second language. These two methods include a ‘systematic approach’ that focuses upon teaching vocabulary as a whole and how words work together in listening, speaking, reading, and writing; and an ‘item’ approach that teaches words in individual groupings for memorization to later incorporate into the larger system of the language. Nation (1990) draws upon much research, classroom experience, and experimentation to conclude that the systematic approach results in better vocabulary/language learning and acquisition. According to Hulstijn, two of the most frequently used terms related to L1 and L2 vocabulary learning are incidental and intentional learning (Hulstijn, 2001). The author describes incidental and intentional vocabulary learning as follows:


Currently, in the applied domains of L1 and L2 pedagogy, incidental vocabulary learning refers to the learning of vocabulary as the by-product of any activity not explicitly geared to vocabulary learning, with intentional vocabulary learning referring to any activity aiming at committing lexical information to memory (Hulstijn, 2001, p.271).


While many now agree on the essential role of vocabulary in second language learning, there are still disagreements on how learners can acquire vocabulary most effectively.  Some researchers promote incidental learning through extensive reading and listening (Krachen, 1989; Nagy,1997). Others argue that incidental learning is not enough for substantial vocabulary growth (Hulstijn, 2001; Nation, 2001). Even though the debate continues, to beginners at least, most contemporary research on vocabulary acquisition supports intentional vocabulary learning (Carter, 2001; Hulstijn, 2001; Sokmen, 1997; Thornbury, 2002). With the vast amount of words in the English vocabulary, it is impossible to expect that any native speaker, let alone any foreign language learner, should be expected to learn the entirety of the English lexicon. Schmitt and McCarthy propose that “not all words are equally useful” and the “good news” for both students and teachers of English as a second language is that a small number of words of English occur frequently and if a learner knows these words then the learner will know a vast proportion of words in written or spoken text (1997, p.9). What Schmitt and McCarthy are getting to is that, whilst the basic building blocks or understanding of vocabulary is important in the early stages of learning a language, as the learner progresses, they will begin to understand unknown words contextually.


In a later Schmitt text, he points out that there is no correct or prescriptive way to teach vocabulary, as the method depends upon the type of student(s), the words that are targeted, the school system, and the curriculum, among many other factors (2000, p.142). However, the text does outline some key elements for vocabulary learning/teaching strategies, such as deciding how many and which word groups from the target language to teach/learn, having a “proper mix of explicit teaching and activities from which incidental learning can occur,” reading for comprehension of learned vocabulary, among other strategies and tips for teaching and learning vocabulary successfully in a second language classroom (ibid, p.142-162). O’Malley and Chamot go into detail regarding many different approaches/methods for vocabulary teaching, such as the ‘method of loci,’ and the ‘keyword method.’  The keyword method involves finding a “meaningful interaction” between words from the native language and linking them to the meaning of the second language. Whilst this is a useful approach for certain learners of second languages, this is not ideal for Korean learners of English, who would struggle to make connections with their native language. The method of loci, however, is a visual mnemonic device that calls for learners to “remember an ordered sequence of items…by imagining a fixed path through a familiar area…and imagining that the items to be remembered (e.g., vocabulary words) are interacting with well-known fixed objects along the path” (1990, pp.49-50). The conclusion is that strategies such as this “capitalize on the inherent meaningfulness of information” and are therefore more useful than visually represented information due to the limited capacity of short-term memory (ibid, p.50). This being stated, there are many foreign language teachers, students, and researchers who disagree with the claim that visual lists of vocabulary for acquisition are ineffective, such as Oxford, who maintains that “these strategies make learning easier and more effective over the long term” (1990, p.241).


According to Huckin and Coady’s study, “except for the first few thousand most common words, vocabulary learning predominantly occurs through extensive reading, with the learner guessing at the meaning of unknown words,” or rather, “incidental learning” (1999, p.182).  This ‘incidental learning,’ however, cannot occur if students are not given the opportunity to read and discover the language through media they may technically be unprepared to handle, at least vocabulary wise. In another study of vocabulary learning strategies, Gu and Johnson (1996) investigated the relationship between strategy use and learning outcomes measured in terms of vocabulary size and general language proficiency among Chinese university learners. They found memory strategy such as visual repetition to be the strongest negative predictor of learning outcome while contextual guessing, dictionary use, note-taking and metacognitive strategies correlated positively with both vocabulary size and general proficiency.


In 1997, Schmitt conducted a survey of 600 Japanese junior high, high school, college and adult students in order to assess which vocabulary learning strategies the learners actually use and their perceived helpfulness of those strategies. It was found that the most frequently used strategies were as following: “using a bilingual dictionary,” “guessing from context”, and “asking classmates for meaning” were the most frequent discovery strategies and “verbal repetition,” “written repetition,” and “studying the spelling of the word” were the most used consolidation strategies. On the other hand, the least frequently used strategies were “use physical action,” “check for L1 cognate,” “use semantic maps,” and “teachers check flashcards for accuracy.” The finding of the study showed that learners seemed to employ the strategies with the highest degree of perceived helpfulness more frequently than the strategies that they perceived as being less helpful. There was also some evidence that more advanced or mature learners tended to employ more cognitively complex strategies than less advanced or younger learners (1997, pp. 218-225). Fan (2003) found through her study of Cantonese learners of English that the students in her study made only infrequent use of memorization, and that L2 learners may “benefit if they are introduced to vocabulary learning strategies used by proficient vocabulary learners and encouraged to develop effective strategies of their own” rather than leaving lower-scoring students to essentially follow a system that may not work in practice (Barcroft, 2009, p.76).


Although researchers have analysed a wide variety of learning strategies used by language learners, a “great majority of learners seem to favour some form of mechanical strategy such as repetition over deeper, more complex ones, such as contextual guessing or metacognitive strategies (Kudo, 1999; Lawson & Hogben, 1996; Gu & Johnson, 1996 cited in Segler et al, 2002, p. 410).  However, this is a negative aspect, in that Craik & Lockhart (1972) found that analysis of a stimulus to a greater degree of semantic involvement “leads to better long-term memory retention” (Segler et al, 2002, p. 410). Whilst there has been much research on acceptable vocabulary learning strategies and no consensus has been made, for the purposes of this study, the multifaceted approach of Schmitt will remain a point of reference.


2.3.     Studies of the Vocabulary Learning of Korean Students


For Korean students in an EFL environment, vocabulary is a crucial element to cope with in the process of learning English. Therefore, it is necessary to investigate how Korean students are coping with learning English vocabulary. Park (2001) looked into vocabulary learning strategies that Korean EFL learners use through conducting surveys. The surveys were completed by four different students age groups (elementary school, middle school, high school, and university students), and his study demonstrated several significant concerns related to Korean students’ vocabulary learning. That is, Korean students showed a strong dependence on using bilingual dictionaries, and guessing the meaning of unknown words from the context even though these two might contradict one another. This showed similarity with Japanese students’ (Schmitt, 1997). Their perspectives on the effective strategies rarely corresponded with their use of strategies. Interestingly, it was revealed that Korean students made use of cognitively demanding strategies as they become more mature. This also showed similarity with Japanese students’ (Schmitt, 1997). Moreover, they showed a favourable attitude toward interacting with native speakers and employing authentic materials. Kwon’s study (2004) of high school students revealed that students’ perception of strategies and their actual use were not congruous. The strategy ‘Guess meaning from context’ was mostly frequently used by students and ‘ask classmates or friends for meaning’ was the second most frequently applied one, while they perceived that ‘guess meaning from the context’ was the most useful and ‘use bilingual dictionary’ was the second most useful. When a teacher taught a vocabulary lesson in different languages (Korean or English), there appeared no significantly different test scores, but there was a difference when different task types were used (Kwon, 2004). Lee and Kim (2005) noted that Korean learners tended to perceive the meaning of English words with Korean equivalents as paired-translational equivalence, so they memorized words through mainly rote memory, and this perception was observed in the classroom activities for vocabulary learning. In addition, they strongly suggested that vocabulary instruction needs to be alleviated through collocation teaching. Kent (2001) examined Korean university students’ dictionary use and their perception about dictionary use by conducting a survey. Most of the subjects indicated they own only bilingual dictionaries, and only a small number of the subjects responded that they have either English-English or English-English-Korean dictionaries. This finding might suggest that Korean students feel a great need for Korean when they come across a new English word.  Additionally, they show much favour towards electronic dictionaries’ sound functions and their preferred dictionaries contain a large number of words with illustrations/pictures.


Through the review of past literature, it was uncovered how Korean students deal with vocabulary learning to improve their English and revealed the kinds of vocabulary learning strategies that Korean students’ use. To conclude, vocabulary learning and acquisition is a learner-oriented process and an crucial component to any second language learning situation, and in the case of Korean EFL students where the native language is extremely different from the target language, it is essential that students are prepared and armed with useful learning techniques and strategies for vocabulary acquisition from the lower-levels of EFL in order to succeed in higher-level courses.


2.4.     Conclusion and Research Questions


In light of the research in this section, a number of conclusions can be made. Vocabulary is a vital aspect of language teaching but has often been neglected as more importance is given to other aspects such as grammar (Barcroft, 2009). A study of vocabulary requires a consideration of what it means to ‘know’ a word. A distinction has been made for example between receptive (recognizing language) and productive (putting language into use) knowledge (Nation, 1990). The importance of relevant pragmatic and contextual knowledge and ‘depth’, as well as breadth of vocabulary knowledge has been emphasized (Nassaji, 2002), suggesting the importance of learning vocabulary as part of a network of ‘mental lexicon’ (Thornbury, 2002). Learning vocabulary requires a certain ‘learning burden’ (Nation, 2001) and this burden is greater for Korean students than for native speakers of European languages.


The focus was then on definitions and types of learning strategies. These are ways of defining modes employed by students to learn (Oxford, 1990) and have been defined according to various categories. Oxford (1990) for example, distinguishes between direct strategies, which includes ‘memory’ – storing and retrieving information’, cognitive’ – understanding and processing, and ‘compensation’ – overcoming limitations; and indirect strategies including ‘metacognitive’ – planning and monitoring learning, and ‘affective’ – emotional and social interaction. These categories have been drawn upon by Schmitt (1997) in the definition of vocabulary learning strategies, distinguishing further between processes of discovery and consolidation. An awareness of such strategies has been proposed as effective in encouraging learning (Oxford, 1990).


In terms of specific vocabulary learning strategies, there is a split between systematic – where vocabulary is learnt as part of a systemic structure; and item – where they are learnt individually or in groups. Research suggests that the systematic method is more effective (Nation, 1990). Hulstjin (2001) makes a distinction between incidental – learning vocabulary as a by-product of other activities; and intentional – active vocabulary learning. While some have argued that incidental processes are more important (Krachen, 1989), others argue that it is not enough (Hulstjin, 2001) and most research supports the necessity of intentional learning (Carter, 2001) especially in earlier stages of learning. Different methods were discussed, including keyword, which is difficult for Korean students as there may not always be equivalences in their native language; loci as a form of visual mnemonics; and extensive reading (Huckin and Coady, 1999).


Schmitt’s study of Japanese students (1997) suggested that they employed the strategies that were perceived as the most helpful. Studies on Korean students suggest a similar finding, however there is actually a disjunction between their perceptions of what is helpful and which strategies are most effective (Park, 2001). This leads to a series of research questions to be addressed, explored and developed in this study:



  1. What are the Korean learners’ beliefs and attitude towards vocabulary learning?
  2. What vocabulary learning strategies do the individual Korean students prefer to use to find out the meaning of unknown words and to consolidate the meaning of the words they have encountered?
  3. What is the relationship between learners’ language proficiency and their strategy use?
  1. Why do learners favour certain strategies over others?










This chapter outlines the method of data collection employed to address the specific research questions.


3.1. Participants


The total number of participants consisted of seven Korean students of whom four were female and three male; their ages ranged from 21 to 28 years.  At the time of the interview being conducted, the subjects were based in the UK and the majority were learning English either to enter higher education or gain a degree from a UK institution. All of them were highly motivated individuals studying on a full-time intensive English course, focusing for the most part on academic English, in a private language institute in Portsmouth. They attended this institution for six hours a day for a total of 30 hours a week. The subjects were divided into two groups – an upper and lower group representing their respective abilities in the English language. These groups were determined according to the Common European Framework Of Reference (CEFR), which includes all four skills – speaking, reading, listening and writing. The upper group is between C1 and C2 (above IELTS 7.0) on CEFR while the lower group is around B1 (about IELTS 5.0) on CEFR. All subjects interviewed had previously undertaken more than six years of formal English education as a mandatory subject in Korea since middle school for the entrance examinations to high school and university. Four of the participants hold an undergraduate university degree in Korea; one participant has a graduate university degree from Korea: and three hold a Korean high school diploma.


For the purpose of this study the Korean students were selected for three main reasons. Firstly, they were likely to have established their individual learning techniques following a significant period of time learning English. During this time they would have developed their own vocabulary learning strategies, possessing different attitudes towards and adopting different strategies to vocabulary learning. The second reason for selecting this particular group is that some of the participants identified problems in their individual learning methods and were willing to seek out better methods. The third reason is accessibility. All of the participants are studying in the same institute in Portsmouth and it allows the researcher to access the participants easily. The following table provides a brief profile of the total interviewees involved in the interview.


ParticipantAge/gender  Total years  studying English Years in the UKLevel of English









28 / F






























3.2. Method of Data Collection


There are several ways to elicit data on vocabulary learning strategies including questionnaires, interviews and writing reports. In this instance a semi-structured interview was employed with the seven Korean students to glean more detailed information relating to their individuality and gain valuable thoughts on vocabulary learning, which could not be identified through other survey methods. According to Seidman, “interviewing provides access to the context of people’s behavior and thereby provides a way for researchers to understand the meaning of that behavior” (2006, p. 10).

There have been many survey-based studies on vocabulary learning strategies. Ultimately, however, the results of these surveys rely heavily on individual interpretation based on a more general overview of the evidence collated to identify the reason why learners prefer particular strategies over others. In contrast, this study endeavoured to provide a more detailed analysis of individual’s strategies towards learning and their actual strategies to highlight strategy preferences. In addition, the researcher will explore the relationship between learners’ language proficiency and their strategy use.


3.3. Interviews


In-depth interviews were carried out on the 19th and 26th of June 2010. Before commencing the interview, the subjects were asked to respond honestly and the researcher informed them that all data collected would be used only for academic purposes, and that their responses would not affect them in any adverse manner. The interview consisted of three parts. The first part of the interview was intended to elicit basic personal information from each of the participants relating to student demographic characteristics and their past language learning experiences such as age, years of English study, time in the UK and their English proficiency. The next part of the interview involved the informants’ personal beliefs and attitudes towards vocabulary learning such as the amount of time spent on vocabulary study each week and their motivation for studying. The final section of the interview included 37 open-ended questions modified from Schmitt’s vocabulary learning strategies found by Japanese EFL learners (1997). In spite of several taxonomies for identifying learners’ vocabulary learning strategies being available, Schmitt’s taxonomy was chosen for the purpose of this paper. This is partly as it dealt specifically with Japanese learners, who have learning styles and strategy uses similar to those of most Korean learners. In addition, there have been many studies of vocabulary learning strategies based on Schmitt’s taxonomies (Nation, 2001) so it allows the researcher to make comparisons with other studies.


Whilst there were guided questions for the interview (See Appendix 2), the interviews were also personalized and the subjects were expected to contribute any information which was relevant to their vocabulary learning strategies or techniques they employed in acquiring a second language. The interview was conducted in Korean to minimize any possible misunderstanding arising from the students’ comprehension of English and all interviews were fully transcribed. Interview transcripts were compiled, with all notes made by the researcher. All information was summarized in the form of a profile of the individual’s approach to vocabulary learning strategies (Appendix 1). The English and Korean versions of the interview questions are also included in Appendix 1. To enhance the accuracy of information, the researcher sent a Korean version of the interview questions to all participants by email a week before conducting the interview, asking them to read and think about the questions in advance. In addition, the interviewees were asked to bring their course textbooks and notebooks where it was deemed appropriate. During the interview the researcher recorded and took notes pertaining to the main points made by interviewees for post-interview analysis. The duration of the interviews was between twenty and thirty minutes.

























In the previous chapter, the researcher described how the data for the present study was collected and analyzed. This chapter will present the results and analysis of the study according to the statements taken from transcripts of the interviews. It is divided into two parts. The first part attempts to sketch out each participant’s personal information and their attitude to learning language. In addition, this part focuses on the patterns of use of vocabulary learning strategies reported by each participant. It involves what the participants reported they do to learn vocabulary in and outside of the classroom. The researcher will point out the main features from each participant’s response, and all the vocabulary learning strategies reported by every interviewees will be attached in the Appendix. The second part intends to compare the differences of strategy use between two different levels of groups by illustrating the essential characteristics of the participants’ use of vocabulary learning strategies.



 4.1. Results and Analysis of the Individual Participants


4.1.1. Eun-Jae


Attitude towards language learning


Eun-Jae, a 28 year old female student, used to be a teacher in an elementary school in Korea and is going to start her Masters course majoring in Applied linguistics in TESOL at the university of Birmingham this year. Although her length of stay in the UK is short, she has a very high language proficiency. Regarding her attitude towards learning vocabulary, she had not encountered much difficulty in learning English and she believes that “vocabulary is important to express what I think effectively and precisely. Furthermore, broad vocabulary is also helpful to improve my writing and speaking, particularly.”


Preferred vocabulary learning strategies


In the interviews, in order to discover meanings of unknown words, Eun-Jae reported that she undertook different actions depending on the situation. During self-study, she usually tried to guess the meaning from the context, by looking at surrounding words or analysing affixes and roots of a word, rather than refer to a dictionary immediately. She emphasized that consulting dictionaries was usually the last option she took. When she consulted dictionaries, she always looked up a word with example sentences in a monolingual dictionary. However, she rarely used a bilingual dictionary except in the case of needing an accurate translation from an English word into a Korean word. On the other hand, when encountering unknown words in speaking, she tended to ask a native teacher or friend directly. For example, she asked a teacher or native friend for a correct usage of the word or synonyms to understand better the meaning of a new word.


To memorize the meaning of target words, she intended to interact with native speakers as much as she could as she strongly believed that using new words in a real situation was the most effective way to remember them as well as improving her English. In terms of using words, she reported that she tried to use the learnt words in the writing homework from her teacher and also intentionally made use of those words with her native host family. In regards to studying the spelling of the target words, Eun-Jae emphasized that she always tried to remember the words with correct pronunciation. She mentioned, “I always try to pronounce the sound of a word because I can’t use it if I don’t know how to pronounce it, but I don’t write them many times” In addition, she repeated a new word aloud in a sentence as “it is beneficial for me to retrieve it later as well as help me to pronounce correctly. I feel it influences on my listening skill in a positive way as well.” When it comes to written records, she took a lot of notes in the margin of the text book. “I always try to write down as much as I can from my teacher. I learn a lot of useful words and expressions from what a teacher says during the class.” She did not re-organize the notes afterwards in her vocabulary notebook, but used them to review every day after class. In addition, she also kept a vocabulary notebook, which was unique compared to others. She wrote down interesting and impressive expressions, or partially known words rather than unknown words. The following example was made by Eun-Jae in the interview. “Before my host lady came into my room she asked “Are you decent?” I knew the word ‘decent’ but I’ve never known it can be used in this situation with the same meaning as ‘Are you dressed?’ I wrote down this word with the sentence in my notebook.” As for increasing exposure to the target language, she stated that “I watch BBC news everyday and read magazines that I am interested in, but above all, I try to interact with native speakers as many as I can so that I intentionally tend to make use of the words that I have newly learned.”  She also self-monitored through their response, “I can judge if it is used appropriately or not.” In regard to reviewing words, she made full use of her free time. For example, she reviewed the newly learnt words every day after class, revised them on the bus and tried to use them with her close friends during her lunch break. Lastly, in terms of the frequency of words, she tried to learn words that are useful and dealt with many times in context.


Summary and Conclusions


Eun-Jae agrees that vocabulary learning is important, confirming what was proposed in the Literature Review (Zimmerman, 1997). She uses a variety of methods, preferring, when reading, to guess words from context, suggesting the importance of lexical inference (Nassaji, 2004) and a ‘deep’ knowledge of lexis in context (Nation, 2001). Using a dictionary, and especially a bilingual one is avoided as a method, suggesting that the ‘keyword’ method (Schmitt, 1990) is not preferred. In terms of speaking, she prefers to ask directly. Generally, ‘productive’ knowledge is prioritized over ‘receptive’ knowledge (Nation, 1990) as Eun-Jae focuses on putting language into use as a way to consolidate her learning (Schmitt, 1997). The social aspect of learning (O’Malley and Chanot, 1990), through interaction with native speakers, is important for her. She also uses note-taking a lot, partly as a compensation strategy (Oxford, 1990), for repetition and review, and also as part of metacognitive processes of strategy planning. She prefers immersion in English, through TV and newspapers, as well as conversation, and focuses on the most common words used in speech (Schmitt and McCarthy, 1997). She combines direct with indirect techniques (Oxford, 1990) but shows a preference for systematic over item learning (Nation, 1990). She also shows that a combination of incidental and intentional learning is most effective for her (Hulstjin, 2001), and confirms Schmitt’s (1997) findings that guessing from context is the most common strategy. Her avoidance of reliance on dictionaries suggests a difference from Park’s (2001) findings.



4.1.2. So-Young


Attitude towards language learning


So-Young, a 28 year old female student, is preparing for an IELTS exam. She has a Korean undergraduate degree in business and would like to major in business for her Masters degree in the UK. Based on the conversation with her during the interviews, she was extroverted and has strong motivation to improve speaking skills although she had high language proficiency. With regard to vocabulary learning, she was very keen to learn new words whenever she encounters. She considered “vocabulary is one of the most crucial parts in language learning as it is impossible to express what I think accurately without a wide range of vocabulary.”


Preferred vocabulary learning strategies


So-Young stated that when she encountered unknown words, she usually first tried to guess the meaning of them from their context by looking at the surrounding words in a written text or paying attention to intonation in a conversation. When the context did not provide helpful information, she used reference materials such as consulting an electronic dictionary or online dictionary. She checked L1 meaning first and then always referred to her monolingual dictionary for example sentences. Sometimes, if the teacher was around, she would ask the teacher to clarify the meaning, pronunciation or right usage of a word. For memorizing the meaning of words, So-Young was aware of the importance of the productive knowledge of vocabulary leaning. “Only knowing a meaning of a word is not important to me. More important thing is to know how to use them in the right situation.”  She indicated that she intentionally used the newly learned words with her classmates or other native speakers outside of the classroom. She also mentioned that connecting the words to her personal experience was the most effective way to consolidate and memorize the words that she learned. The following example was made by So-Young. “When I first came to the UK, I was very frustrated to open a bank account because I was not familiar with the banking terms. Later, I tried to remember the words which were used in the bank and rehearsed (described) them to myself again. I would never forget those words.” Furthermore, she emphasized that pronouncing and repeating the words vocally worked very well to retrieve them later although she revealed she didn’t really focus on writing the spelling. When it comes to ‘multi-word’ such as idioms or collocations, she used to spend a considerable time memorizing them for the test, but she reported that “Nowadays, I use my instinct to guess the meaning of them in context and I learn a lot from people’s talking.”


With regard to note-taking, she recorded everything in her notebook that the teacher said or wrote on the board. She pointed out that her notes from class played a significant role in increasing her vocabulary size and reviewed them on regular basis. She also had a very unique way of consolidating and reviewing words. She commented as follow: “Most of the time, I type new words and example sentences in the web pad of my laptop, so I review them whenever I turn the computer on. It works very well.” In order to facilitate and maximize exposure to English, she used several media such as TV, magazines, movies and books. She pointed out that watching movies or soap opera were one of the most effective ways to learn daily English and their culture. She also stated that “I also use YouTube and FaceBook every day and read all the reviews and replies from different countries. I feel it is a good way to catch up with current trendy words, although they do not always use proper English.”


Summary and Conclusions


So-Young’s responses were largely similar to those from Eun-Jae. She also views vocabulary learning as crucial, as proposed in the Literature Review, and places an emphasis on what Nation (2001) has defined as the ‘productive’ aspect of language – putting it into use as much as possible. So-Young’s emphasis on this is more focused even than Eun-Jae’s. She also adopts similar strategies, guessing words from context in written texts, but also expands this to emphasise the importance of guessing words from context in spoken conversation. Lexical inference, it is suggested, is important in both spoken and written conversations. Interestingly, So-Young also points out that she has changed her vocabulary learning strategies as her language competence develops. While previously she would learn set idiomatic phrases – adopting an ‘item learning’ method (Nation, 1990), she has now changed to more reliance on context and factors such as intonation. This suggests that such methods may be more appropriate for more advanced learners. It also suggests a shift from primarily intentional learning to methods that are primarily incidental (Hulstjin, 2001), including not only conversations, but also immersion in media. She still adopts intentional techniques however, largely through note-taking and reviews. The methodology she adopts, mainly communicationally focused, can be seen as an effect of her desire to effectively communicate within a business context. This contrasts slightly with Eun-Jae’s more reflective approach, which can be read as a reflection of her interest in teaching and linguistics.


4.1.3. Kyung-Hee


Attitude towards language learning


Kyung Hee is a 21-year old female student who would like to apply to a university in the UK. She reported that English was her favourite subject throughout high school and had private speaking lessons with an American tutor in Korea for about a year. She believed that having fluent English could be very helpful for her future career and vocabulary is essential in learning language in terms of expressing oneself and getting to know the culture. She also commented that “I try to learn new words to improve my writing, especially as I want to use more sophisticated words in my writing.”


Preferred vocabulary learning strategies


When discovering the meanings of unknown words, Kyung-Hee said that she usually tried to guess the meaning from the context first and sometimes referred to the vocabulary list at the end of the textbook. She emphasized that she always consulted bilingual dictionaries to confirm the result of guessing in the context and then referred to a monolingual dictionary for an example usage of a new word. She admitted that she preferred to know things for sure than to assume. In addition, she revealed that she tended to ask many questions to her teacher in class for the meaning and the appropriate usage of new words. According to her interview, she had more preference to learn vocabulary through interacting with native speakers, especially outside class than practice in a group inside class. This was not a surprising result as she was highly motivated to improve her English and it was very easy to access native speakers (compared to the Korean context) so she might want to make full use of the situation she was faced with. Moreover, although she was well aware of the benefits of group work, she considered group activity was inappropriate for vocabulary learning.


In order to facilitate the memorising of words, she connected the new word with a visual image. She reported that by using the pictures it was easy to create mental images of a word’s meaning, so it was more helpful to retrieve it than mere repetition. “For example, courgette, pumpkin and squash are translated in only one word in Korean so I was very confused when I first came to the UK. However, it has become clear after I looked at the pictures in my dictionary.” For studying the spelling of the target words, she reported that oral repetition was her major strategy as she regarded pronouncing a word correctly as being helpful for spelling as well as crucial to maintain effective communication. She indicated that, after the oral repetition was over, she also tested herself to confirm that the target words were well stored in her memory. She covered the English words and tried to retrieve the meaning and spelling. She repeated this process until she could recall the target words as well as the Korean equivalents. As for the written records, Kyung-Hee revealed that she usually took notes in the classroom when the teacher introduced new words and also kept a vocabulary notebook, which was very unique. Apart from vocabulary introduced in class, the notebook was composed of new vocabulary, Korean equivalents and some grammar information with a lot of pictures drawn next to the words. She commented “Especially, if it is a noun, a picture (visual image) is very helpful for me to retrieve a word later.” In order to increase input and exposure to the target language, she read many authentic articles from magazines and newspapers as well as watching the same film several times. She tried to imagine the situation or context of the film and associate the words or sentences with her personal experience. For example, “I love Hugh Grant (actor) and he was in the movie ‘Notting Hill’ which is one of my favourite movies. I memorized many of sentences or words from him.”


Summary and Conclusions


Some slight differences can be seen between Kyung-Hee’s responses and the previous two interviewees. She acknowledges the importance of vocabulary, but her aims are less clearly defined than in So Young and Eun-Jae’s cases. She also favours guessing words from context but is less confident in this as a single method than the others. She will always confirm her guesses with dictionaries or textbooks. This could reflect a student less advanced in English, or one still predominantly learning in a school environment rather than social situations, where receptive knowledge is valued as much as productive (Nation, 1990), and vocabulary functions as ‘item’ as well as systematic (Nation, 1990). This is compensated for however with her active seeking out of discussions with native speakers, revealing the limitations of classroom study and group study in particular, and the necessity of social methodologies (O’Malley and Chanot, 1990). Her use of pictures is interesting as it suggests a different cognitive approach, recalling the visuality of Schmitt’s loci (1990). This note-taking is different from the others discussed so far, suggesting an intentional learning process and a redefinition of Schmitt’s keyword strategy into a form of ‘key imaging’. It reflects an item based form of learning with the words extracted from context, but develops this idiosyncratically with the personalized connection to pictures. Similar to the others, she immerses herself in the target language culture, and this allows for a personal relation to the language, for example using her favourite film stars as ways of accessing words and phrases.


 4.1.4. Ji-Yae


Attitude towards language learning


Ji-Yae is a 23 year old female student. She studied in Germany for two years and had high English proficiency. She really enjoyed learning the language and would like to major in business in the UK. She stated that the major strategies of her learning language are ‘repetition’ and ‘exposure’. She was fully aware of the importance of productive knowledge in vocabulary learning and tried to interact with her native friends as much as possible. In the interview, she mentioned that “the more you know the vocabulary, the better you can express your thought accurately.”


Preferred vocabulary learning strategies


When encountering unknown words, Ji-Yae reported that inferencing was the most useful and frequently used strategy in vocabulary learning. She analysed parts of speech, affixes or any available pictures to facilitate her guessing. She indicated that sometimes it was not enough to apply only one strategy so she employed various strategies at once in order to discover the meaning of an unknown word.  She also commented that she confirmed the result of guessing by consulting the reference materials, especially a print dictionary. Ji-Yae preferred to study vocabulary on her own, but she emphasized that she always tried to make use of newly acquired words to interact with native speakers as she believed it was the most effective way to recall the words once she used them in real situation. For memorizing the word meanings, Ji-Yae indicated that she did not have special strategies except a lot of oral repetition and she intended to talk to herself concerning the words or sentences she newly learned to store in her memory. In addition, when studying spelling of the word, she emphasized that she broke the word into sound segments and then wrote the word slowly according to the sound as “this is very useful to remember the sound and spelling.” As for Ji-Yae’s written records, like the other students above, she took a lot of notes from the class and attached them in the text book for a review instead of keeping a vocabulary notebook. The notes were composed of grammatical information, useful idioms and vocabulary introduced in class and they were well organized with extra papers. She reported that she rehearsed the notes loudly for a review after class and her notes were primary resources to increase her vocabulary size. She mentioned that she watched English movies, but usually for entertainment, not to facilitate her learning. One of Ji-Yae’s unique strategies of increasing vocabulary size was that she set a situation and tried to do a role-play on her own. She gave the following example, “I imagine myself at the airport and think what kind of words could be used. If I find a word that I am not sure I ask my teacher or host family later.”


Summary and Conclusions


Ji-Yae shows a combination of strategies, mainly similar to those employed by other students. She shows a great deal of self-organised learning, supporting Fan’s (2003) argument that the greater independence and autonomy one has in learning, the more effectively vocabulary will be learnt. She also supports Krachen’s (1989) argument for the importance of incidental learning in, for example, her watching of movies, not specifically to learn vocabulary, although this is supported, as Carter (2001) has proposed, with a great deal of intentional vocabulary learning.


These first four students formed the higher-level category of English learners. It can be seen already that, despite small personal differences, they share similar strategies in learning vocabulary – focusing particularly on inferencing, vocabulary depth, systematic learning and combining incidental with intentional methods. They avoid too much reliance on electronic or bilingual dictionaries, preferring to situate English words within specific contexts. The next three interviewees make up the category of lower-level learners. They responded less to the interviews so their summaries are in less detail.





4.1.5. Do-Hyung


Attitude towards language learning


Do-Hyung, who is 28 years old, studied economics at a Korean university. He would like to apply for a Masters course majoring in Human Resources and Management in the UK. He had studied English for 6 years, but he evaluated his English proficiency as poor. Although he didn’t like to study English, he believed the ability to communicate in English could be an advantage for his future career. His primary resource for learning English was the course itself and sometimes he watched English movies with English subtitles. He considered vocabulary as the most important factor to improve his English, although it had been a neglected aspect of his past language learning experience. In addition, Do-Hyung blamed his problem of understanding English on his meagre vocabulary.


Preferred vocabulary learning strategies


Do-Hyung reported that, although he tries to guess meanings of words, he mainly relies on an electronic dictionary. He also uses a bilingual dictionary, as he does not always understand the definitions in a monolingual one. He also reports studying wordlists in his textbook. Rather than asking others for help with words – either peers, native speakers or teachers, he stated a preference for using the electronic dictionary instead, as he was worried about not being understood by others, leading to embarrassment. He is reliant on textbooks as he finds understanding native films and media too difficult. He expresses a difficulty in knowing which words are high and which words are low frequency, exposing a difficulty in metacognitive strategy. He also admits that he finds it difficult to put language into use, even when he has memorized individual lexical items.


Summary and Conclusions


Do-Hyung’s approach is very different to that of the others, mainly as his English is at a lower level and he is less confident in using it in social situations. Because of this he is reluctant to ask for help or engage socially, but instead relies almost entirely on using an automatic dictionary. Interestingly, he highlights vocabulary as a vital area of his language learning which he needs to improve.


4.1.6. Yun-Jong


Attitude towards language learning


Yun-Jong is a 26 year old male student of English, who majored in international trade at a Korean university and would like to work in a trading company. He is trying to improve his English for this reason. He studies English every day and finds vocabulary to be the most important aspect of learning, leaving him to feel frustrated at his lack of knowledge and how this affects his ability to read and understand.


Preferred vocabulary learning strategies


He states that he has no special strategy for learning vocabulary, focusing on repetition – making word lists and then rewriting them and trying to memorise them. He relies on an electronic dictionary and a bilingual dictionary for checking words, as well as lists in textbooks. He rarely asks for advice because of problems in communication. He works on his own to learn vocabulary, seeing no point in group work, although he does try to practice new words with classmates. Some strategies such as reviewing and self-testing, he shows awareness of but is not motivated to do himself. He is tested formally as part of his classes but he does not see this as useful stating that “I don’t think I remember all of the words after the tests”. He, as in previous interviews, expresses a difficulty in distinguishing between high and low frequency words. He does not do extensive reading outside of class but tries to watch English films with subtitles. He also watches these repeatedly in order to try and memorise phrases.


Summary and Conclusions


Yun-Jong’s responses are very similar to those of Do-Hyung. Again a lack of confidence in communication leads to a focus almost entirely on the formal structures of textbook word lists and bilingual or electronic dictionaries. A lack of depth in vocabulary, as well as a lack of breadth means that he does not use lexical inferencing. His answers do however suggest a potential motivation for students to engage with vocabulary in a more ‘incidental’ way through his use of English-language films with subtitles. Otherwise, his responses are mainly passive – listening and copying words, without much active consolidation.


4.1.7. Jin-Chul.


Attitude towards language learning


Jin-Chul is a 26 year old male student, planning to go to graduate school in Korea but needing to improve his TOEFL score so studying English to improve his speaking.  He has been in the UK for two months although he has been studying English for six years altogether. He acknowledges a lack of vocabulary knowledge and states that this is the main focus of his studies.


Preferred vocabulary learning strategies


He uses mainly rote learning, learning independently and an electronic dictionary to find meanings of words. Most of the other strategies suggested were not reported as preferred. He does not use guessing for example, and does not generally ask teachers for meanings of words. He does not interact with native speakers although he does try and practice new words with non-native speaker classmates. He does not speak words aloud as he learns them and also rejects the ‘keyword’ method, which he learnt in school as he finds English too different from Korean for it to be an appropriate method. He also does not use a vocabulary notebook.


Summary and Conclusions


Along with the other lower-level students, Jin-Chul adopts similar strategies of using electronic and bilingual dictionaries. He is aware of the importance of vocabulary, expressing a desire to improve it. Most of the strategies suggested in the interview are not reported, as with the other lower-level students, suggesting both limitations in communication and a lack of awareness of metacognitive strategies.


As with the higher-level group, in spite of the limitations in response, clear patterns can be detected within the vocabulary learning strategies of the lower-level group. A preference emerges for electronic or bilingual dictionaries, avoidance of social interaction techniques, a focus on itemic learning rather than systematic or depth strategies such as inferencing, and a lack of incidental learning.



4.2. Comparison of Vocabulary Learning Strategies Across Levels


4.2.1. Comparison


As has been already discussed, the interviews were based on Schmitt’s (1997) taxonomy, which was divided into two major classes: (1) Discovery –  Strategies for the discovery of a new word’s meaning; and (2) Consolidation – Strategies for consolidating a word once it has been encountered (Schmitt, 1997, p.207). Discovery strategies are the strategies that learners use to determine the meaning of new words when encountering them for the first time, and they involve determination strategies and social strategies (Schmitt, 1997, p. 206). The categories can then be further sub-divided as follows: Discovery-Determination Strategy; Discovery-Social Strategy; Consolidation-Social Strategy; Consolidation-Memory Strategy; Consolidation- Cognitive Strategy; and Consolidation- Metacognitive Strategy. Schmitt (1997) defines Determination strategies as being used “when faced with discovering a new word’s meaning without recourse to another persons’ expertise” (p.207). These categories can now be used to categorise the interview results of this study.


In terms of Discovery-Determination, the most preferred strategy of the high-level interviewees was ‘guess words from context’. Learners reported being accustomed to using this strategy to discover the meaning of vocabulary items without using a dictionary. They revealed that they usually tried to guess from the context first, and if context was not helpful, then they referred to various reference materials. On the other hand the low-level learners all preferred using electronic dictionaries or bilingual dictionaries as Discovery-Determination strategies. This result is similar to that of Kent’s (2001) finding that Korean students heavily depend on bilingual dictionaries, suggesting that Korean learners feel a great need for L1 meaning when they encounter a new word. However, the study presented here suggests a difference between the reliance on bilingual dictionaries for low-level learners and the preference for lexical inference for high-level learners. This supports McCarthy’s (1990) study, which demonstrated that guessing and inferring the meaning of a word is one of the most commonly used strategies by learners, and an important encouragement of autonomy in learning (pp.124-129). Laufer and Harder’s (1997) study found that a combination of monolingual information containing a definition and examples with translation of the new word in the learner’s mother tongue produces the best results. These studies, combined with the finding of differences between low-level and high-level learners in this study, suggest that the lower-level learners should try and incorporate a more diverse range of reading strategies in order to develop their vocabulary Discovery-Determination skills and vocabulary knowledge as a whole.


Social strategies, according to Schmitt’s (1997) taxonomy, are used to understand a word by asking someone who knows.  In terms of Discovery-Social strategies there was again a split between high-level and low-level learners. Low-level learners were reluctant to use this strategy at all as they lacked confidence in engaging socially in English. On the other hand, although more common, Discovery-Social strategies were also not so common among the high-level learners, as they preferred to use methods of self-study, and saw social strategies as relating more to matters of consolidation. This may be down to cultural factors, with Korean students preferring individual study as they are accustomed to this throughout their studies. It also suggests the current lack of and importance of incorporating Discovery-Social methodologies into low-level vocabulary learning.


Consolidation strategies are the strategies that learners use to make effort to retain the meaning of new vocabulary items in their long-term memory. Consolidation-Social strategies are similar to the social strategies in the category of discovery strategies. They enable learners to co-operate with others such as native speakers, teachers or group members to internalize the meaning of newly learned words. This strategy was particularly valued and commonly used with the higher-level group, where the importance of putting language into practice in social situations, outside of the classroom, was consistently emphasized. The strategies were not adopted at all by the lower-level learners for similar reasons to above, although they aspired to be able to consolidate language socially, they felt they were unable yet to do this.


Memory Strategies include a broad range of surveyed categories. Considering that vocabulary learning might be deeply related to learners’ independent effort and individual engagement, the researcher asked the learners to describe their own specific mnemonic procedures, if they have any relating to the questions, that they used for retaining lexical items. Thornbury (2002) noted that to learn a second language vocabulary, learners need to remember words as “vocabulary knowledge is largely a question of accumulating individual items”(p.23). Therefore, as a way of activating long-term memory, the author listed inferred methods or a concept related to the meaning of a word. In the list, he demonstrated the importance of repetition, practicing to recall, motivation, applying mnemonics, attention, imagining, and an affective factor. Thornbury emphasized the effectiveness of use, stating “putting words to use, preferably in some interesting way, is the best way to ensuring they are added to long term memory it is principle popularly known as ‘use it or lose it’” (p. 24). In this study, rote learning was the most common strategy used by the participants, and the lower-level students in particular. Most of the interviewees revealed that they spent a considerable amount of time copying out the words for accurate spelling and pronounced the sound of the word several times. In addition, four of the students tried to use a new word in a meaningful sentence to consolidate vocabulary items in their long-term memory. Several lower-level students showed their lack of interest in collocations and other lexical items in the same word family, demonstrating a general lack of awareness regarding how depth of word knowledge could help them to use the items communicatively. Two higher-level participants had an interesting relation to memory strategies, using associations with personal experience to commit words to memory. Other proposed methods, such as ‘use semantic map’, ‘group words together to study them’, ‘use the key-word method’ and ‘underline the initial letter of the word’ were not commonly used strategies among the interviewees, either in the lower or higher level. When it comes to the key-word technique, three students reported that they were instructed on the use of the technique, but they don’t rely on the strategy as it takes time to find a similar word in Korean. It can be concluded that the participants tend to avoid the use of unfamiliar vocabulary learning strategies and prefer to use practical immersion and known techniques. It can also be concluded that Memory-Consolidation is a key area of difference where higher-level strategies and techniques show autonomous developments, which could be incorporated into lower-level teaching.


The definition of cognitive strategies was originally adopted from Oxford as strategies that the learner uses for “manipulation or transformation of the target language” (1990, p. 43). A total of nine cognitive strategies were dealt with in the interview. Most of the lower-level interviewees revealed that they are more accustomed to repetition or rote learning techniques such as verbal repetition and written repetition. Learners also pointed out that practicing pronunciation was very important for long-term retention as it helps to remember the sound of a word. Learners also used repetition in order to enhance speaking and writing skills. Higher-level learners in particular demonstrated that they try to take a lot of notes in class by using the margins of the textbook, as they can learn a lot of useful words and expressions from their teacher. Surprisingly, in spite of the advantage of keeping a written record of what they have learned, only a few learners possess a vocabulary notebook.  This is another are which could be developed in terms of lower-level teaching.


Metacognitive strategies support learners in their ability to control or manage their learning through testing themselves or organizing their study time (Schmitt, 1997). Higher-level learners reported that they made use of a wider range of sources to maximize exposure to English. For instance, watching movies or news (with or without subtitles), reading magazines that they are interested in, or trying to interact with native speakers as much as they can. Higher-level learners also reported that they review words at regular intervals. This confirms Schmitt’s (2000) finding that vocabulary can be learned by making an effort explicitly to acquire or by being exposed to words in context incidentally. He argues that the most frequent 2000 words need to be learnt explicitly, while less frequently used words can be learned through an incidental learning. This is confirmed through the research here where lower-level learners, with a smaller vocabulary, prefer explicit intentional strategies, and higher-level learners, expanding and consolidating vocabulary breadth and depth, prefer incidental methods.



4.2.2. Summary


It can be concluded from the research that learners in both the low-level and high-level categories see vocabulary as vital for learning, confirming the initial proposals in the literature review (Zimmerman, 1997; Barcroft, 2009). The groups do, however, vary, in their choice of preferred strategies. Both groups emphasise the importance of productive as well as purely receptive knowledge (Nation, 1990), but the higher-level learners are better equipped to be able to develop productive knowledge, lower-level learners being held back by learning-burdens (Nation, 2001) of lack of confidence and poor communication. Depth of vocabulary (Nassaji, 2002), and the development of a mental lexicon (Thornbury, 2002) are greatly emphasized in the higher-level learners through their preferred strategies of lexical inferencing. Low-level learners on the other hand, lack strategies for learning vocabulary depth, or inferencing. Their focus is generally itemic (Nation, 1990), translating individual words out of context through bilingual or electronic dictionaries. This contrasts with the higher-level learners systematic approaches (Nation, 1990) always placing vocabulary into larger contexts. Both groups use intentional methods (Hulstjin, 2001) but the higher-level group combine this with far more incidental methodology, something lacking from the lower-level learners. This supports both Carter’s (2001) argument for the importance of intentional learning and Krachen’s (1989) point that incidental learning is also important. It also, however, develops these points by introducing a division between high-level and low-level strategies. Supporting Fan’s (2003) point that learners who take more control will learn vocabulary better, the higher-level learners prefer more autonomous and self-directed strategies.


























5.1. Summary of findings


The research questions posed at the end of part two can now, in the wake of research, be answered. The Korean learners of both high and low-level showed great enthusiasm for vocabulary learning, recognizing its vital importance in communication and the development of language in use. The strategies employed, however, varied, and differences can be detected between the two categories of learners (high-level and low-level). Lexical inferencing, systematic learning, social interaction and a combination of incidental and intentional vocabulary learning strategies can be seen as key preferred methods across the group of higher-level learners, suggesting a focus on vocabulary depth, productive knowledge and learning autonomy. Lower-level learners, on the other hand, preferred itemic translations, relying on dictionaries, less social interaction and a lack of incidental or inferencing strategies. It can be concluded from the study that there is a direct relation between learners’ language proficiency and their vocabulary learning strategies. The main factor determining the decision over strategies, according to this study, was language proficiency, rather than other social factors or academic decisions.


It was initially proposed that there is a disjunction between students’ perception of the most effective techniques and the actual effectiveness of these techniques. This seems mostly to be the case with lower-level learners who favour mechanical strategies based on an understanding of meaning as paired-translational equivalence (i.e. electronic or bilingual dictionary use). However, the study has suggested that as depth of knowledge and contextualization of vocabulary is important, then this should be introduced at a lower-level to improve confidence and aid moving to a higher-level of ability. Also, more awareness of metacognitive strategies could be incorporated into lower-level teaching, supporting Catalan’s (2003) point that this is vital to development of vocabulary knowledge. Incidental learning cannot occur, as Huckin and Coady have proposed (1999) unless students have the opportunity to engage with media with which they may feel not yet technically prepared.


5.2. Pedagogical Implications


The implications for this study are important. While much work has been done, as discussed, on variations in vocabulary learning strategy, there has not been much work on differences in strategy between levels. It has been argued here that lack of lexical knowledge is the most serious obstacle for lower-level learners to ‘use’ English effectively and that vocabulary learning strategies of higher-level learners can suggest positive directions for pedagogical developments in lower-level teaching. On one hand, as Sanaoui (1995) has argued, helping learners manage control over processes of learning strategy is important. On the other hand, however, as Lin (2008) argues, vocabulary, especially at lower-level, should not be left to learners alone. A balance must be struck where lower-level learners should be encouraged to develop autonomous strategies of their own, while also being introduced to strategies of higher-learners. This can be done through the mix of explicit and incidental activities suggested by Schmitt (2000), This study proposes that while some methods such as ‘keyword’ may not be the most appropriate, exercises such as extended reading that help to develop lexical inferencing skills and depth of vocabulary knowledge are vital, and should be introduced at an earlier stage. Input in a variety of contexts is important not only at a high-level but also in aiding lower-level learners to develop their vocabulary skills in a systematic context. Teaching should therefore emphasise greater awareness of strategy use and greater contextualization of language socially and through extended reading in order to effectively develop vocabulary knowledge and improve language use and communication. Other techniques such as the use of English-language films as aid to understanding vocabulary in context could also be incorporated into classroom methodology.




5.2. Future Study


The most productive direction for further study would be to develop the conclusions here into the hypothesis for a larger study, incorporating a larger sample, and allowing the possibility of making more generalized findings, while maintaining the depth that such detailed interviews allow (Seidman, 2006). There have been limitations to this study. Gender has not been considered as a variable for example, and the fact that all of the higher-level students were female and all of the lower-level students were male may have skewed the data by the introduction of two separate variables. This could be changed either by taking gender as a constant or analyzing it as a further variable. Nationality was a constant factor but again there are variations in ambition and reasons for learning between the students, which could either be explored more fully or made more constant in a larger study. Another limitation was that by using the same interview format for the higher and lower level learners, a lot more information came from the higher-level learners, as they could communicate more fluently and effectively. Another possibility helping to distinguish the categories would be to create a different interview format for each category.

















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