What is vocabulary?

elt vocabulary Aug 13, 2021

by Dr Jeremy Koay


Vocabulary learning is fundamentally about knowing words. However, the idea of knowing a word is not always well understood. Some say that knowing a word means knowing what a word means. Others say that it means knowing the written form (e.g., spelling). These are only two of many aspects of knowing a word (Nation, 1990).

Some teachers and parents promote the idea that it is beneficial to have a wide range of vocabulary. While this is important, it requires a lot of effort to learn all the words in a dictionary. But is that even necessary? Due to time constraints, particularly in test preparation courses, it is crucial to strategically decide what words to teach or learn.


Nation (1990) proposed a comprehensive list of what it means to know a word. This is a simplified version of the list:
Do I know the meaning of the word?
Does the word have a similar meaning to a word in my language?

Can I pronounce/spell the word?
Can I recognise the word when I hear/read it?

Do I know its grammatical function (e.g., noun, verb)?
Do I know words (i.e., collocates) that usually appear with the word?


In the processes of deciding what words to teach or learn, it is important to reflect on learners’ needs. What are the topics (e.g., environment, health, music, politics, sports, technology) that learners need to know? Does the frequency of selected words reflect their usefulness?

Corpus Linguistics (the study of language based on large collections of ‘real world’ text) helps us to understand that some words tend to occur together. They are sometimes called formulaic language (Siyanova-Chanturia, 2015). Some examples include provide information, major issue and public interest. Rather than exclusively focusing on single words, learners can identify and learn formulaic language that they find useful in a text they read.


Nation, I.S.P. (1990). Teaching and learning vocabulary. New York: Newbury House.

Siyanova-Chanturia, A. (2015). On the ‘holistic’ nature of formulaic language. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistics Theory, 11(2), 285-301.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based independent researcher and an education consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/Maxx-Studio