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Vocabulary-and-reader relationship

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Much of the difficulty experienced in learning a new word comes from the relationship between that word and the person trying to learn it. 

Based on research by a variety of experts, we now identify four types of vocabulary.

Sight words are part of our oral vocabulary, but we are unable to read them.

New words are not in our oral and reading vocabularies, but there is a concept reasonably available to explain the new words.

New concepts are not in our oral and reading vocabularies and there is no reasonably available concept for them.

New meanings are already in our reading vocabularies, but we need to learn their additional meanings.

It is not possible to offer examples as the same word could be in four different categories for four respective people.

Types of words

Before moving on, we should look at some of the characteristics of each type of word. First, generally, sight words are easier to teach or to learn than new words and new concepts, and new words are easier than new concepts. The last category _ new meanings _ can be easy or difficult in varying degrees.

Second, the system is very much relative, rather than absolute. It classifies words and concepts according to our prior knowledge of a word and concepts. For someone from Louisiana, the word "bog" is likely a sight word; for a Floridian, a new word; and an Arizonan, a new concept.

Finally, we must remember that while the same word may have a different relationship with each of us, it does not mean we exist in a Tower of Babel. Within a more or less homogeneous group, we will share enough common ground to use a word without much trouble. It is when we find ourselves living in a multicultural, multi-ethnic environment, such as Bangkok, that learning or using vocabulary will be more challenging.

Sight words

Most parents do not directly teach preschoolers to read many words, but the words that we do teach will probably be sight words _ words already in their oral vocabularies but which they do not recognise in print. McDonald's, taxi and Family Mart will be picked up quickly from the environment.

One example of a low-key instruction is a driving game in which children must spot each letter of the alphabet in sequence. A game, which we played for many years, is the alphabet game. See something beginning with "a", the next person must find something beginning with the last letter of the previous word, and none of the words can be repeated. The winner is the person who reaches a preset number of words. The game goes very fast at the beginning, but it gradually slows down.

Parents will also find themselves answering a large number of questions about specific words, or, as with many families I know, they may have a few words posted on the refrigerator.

Words such as cat, dog and bird will be learned easily as children follow along with the reading of their favourite bedtime stories.

Between being read and picking up environmental language, young children learn a fair number of sight words. However, most of us enter school with a very limited, if any, reading vocabulary.

Learning to read sight words is the major learning task for beginners. Experts estimate the oral vocabulary of children can range from 2,000 to 20,000 words. Even the lower number is quite impressive, though.


Dr Timothy Cornwall has been teaching EFL for 30 years and is part of the Shinawatra University faculty. He is the co-founder of Thailand Educators Network and can be reached through thaiednet.org , at speechwork.co.th , at

tim@speechwork.co.th or on 081-834-8982.

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