Vocabulary: What does it mean to know a word?

Hello colleagues, At a recent training event on teaching vocabulary, we discussed what it means to know a word. How would you respond to this seemingly simple question?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs


Hi Susan:

Whenever I think of this question now, I can't help but think to how Paul Nation breaks it down in two ways:

  • form, meaning, and use
  • receptive vs. productive

Re: form, this is things like how the word sounds / is pronounced, how it's written and spelled.

Re: meaning, it's more than just the "dictionary" definitions. It's also things like what other words/phrases are associated with the word (think: semantic maps). How might the word be visualized? 

Re: use, this gets at things like register, appropriateness of use, frequency (e.g., is it used more often in spoken language or written language). 

I'd love to hear more about the training event you mentioned! What were some participant takeaways?


Hi Xavier, Thanks for jumping into the conversation. You have articulated many of the main points that I shared with the participants in the training. Vocabulary guru Paul Nation is cited often as is Keith Folse who wrote the book Vocabulary Myths. In addition to the points you make, Folse also talks about both the depth of one's vocabulary knowledge, i.e., the number of words we know, as well as the depth of one's understanding of words, i.e., the different meanings of the vocabulary we know and how precisely we can use those words. In addition, we know that vocabulary includes not only single words, but also phrases and idioms.

In this LINCS training, we emphasize the importance of prioritizing the vocabulary we teach to focus on the words that have the most currency, e.g., the words on the Academic Word List. We also discuss how to ensure we support learners to become independent learners of vocabulary. After all, we only have learners in our classrooms for a fairly short time. They need to continue learning on their own.

I'd love to hear your ideas --as well as other members' suggestions -- for ways to support the independent learning of vocabulary.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

Thank you, Susan, for sharing more about that LINCS training.

Ah - vocabulary breadth vs. depth! As teachers, we can sometimes have the tendency to want to overshare what we know about a word / idiom / phrase - for instance, a word's historical origins. But, depending on the lexical item and on the lesson objectives, sharing something like the history of a word calls for students to dive far deeper than they need to. The Minnesota Literacy Council's free online course Volunteer in the Adult ESL Classroom has some great activities to get teachers / class assistants thinking about providing just enough information when a student asks about vocabulary. That segment of their course also provides some guiding questions to scaffold teachers' thinking about how much to explain. 

Re: supporting the independent learning of vocabulary, let me share just a few examples of what some teachers have done where I work. 

  • One teacher (multilevel family literacy class - from SPL 0-7 on BEST Plus) creates vocabulary sets in Quizlet that she uses in class to help students review previously-introduced vocabulary and to scaffold students' use of Quizlet outside of class. 
  • Another teacher (low beginning class - SPL 0-1 on BEST Plus) regularly gets students into the computer lab to get familiar with various language learning websites. One site she and many students like using is http://www.learningchocolate.com/
  • A few teachers of workplace ESL / job readiness (intermediate/advanced) work with students to try using an online learners dictionary (e.g., http://learnersdictionary.com) to look up the meaning of unknown words. This might be in comparison with or instead of a translation tool. 

Have other teachers found certain digital tools to work better than others with students?


Hello Xavier, Thanks for these ideas on ways to support English learners to become independent. I'm a huge fan of flashcards and have used the sites you mention. I also like having learners create their own paper flashcards. While digital flashcards are great, there is something about manipulating the paper flashcards that many students value.

You mention that sometimes we teachers tend to over explain vocabulary. I agree that this can be a problem. MaryAnn Cunningham Florez wrote about this in her wonderful article "Beginning ESOL Learners' Advice to Their Teachers." Learners want to use the vocabulary they are learning during class-- not just listen to the teacher explain it! We need to avoid getting into a vocabulary rut!

There's a lot of additional good advice from learners in this article. Members, let us know what stands out to you.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

Hi, Susan!

The timing of this conversation couldn't be better.  I am leading two communities of practice (CoPs) for ESL teachers and focusing on reading skills.  Of course, vocabulary is one of the components of reading.  The Cunningham Florez article will be a possible text for the CoP for beginning level teachers to discuss, particularly the sections that apply to vocabulary.

On another note, Kate Kinsella is my favorite current vocabulary guru, especially as she has been promoting rigor and academic vocabulary in student activities.  Although she speaks to teachers of middle school level teachers, she has many templates and resources related to supporting vocabulary learning and teaching for any higher level ELL:


YouTube videos:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOr3a7CfHfI  (This is the first of several short videos that break down a longer presentation.)

Hi Dave, Thanks so much for sharing these resources from Kate Kinsella. She's also one of my favorite "go to" people on academic vocabulary. In fact, I adapted some of her ideas when creating the Vocaublary Workouts I mentioned above.  If anyone would like to receive these workouts, I'm happy to share. Email me at susanfinn_miller@iu13.org.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acuisition CoP

Hi Susan and All,

Thank you for all the mentioned resources. I am a big Paul Nation fan, as well as a Keith Folse and Kate Kinsella fan. The resources shared here are really terrific, and I will use them in the trainings I do and in my own teaching.