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Vocabulary Myths

Hello colleagues, Some members will be familiar with Ken Folse and his important work on teaching vocabulary. Folse's book Vocabulary Myths (2004) has been super helpful to me over the years. Here are the myths featured in this book.

  • Myth 1: In learning another language, vocabulary is not as important as grammar or other areas.
  • Myth 2: Using word lists to learn second language vocabulary is unproductive.
  • Myth 3: Presenting new vocabulary in semantic sets facilitates learning.
  • Myth 4: The use of translations to learn new vocabulary should be discouraged.
  • Myth 5: Guessing words from context is an excellent strategy for learning second language vocabulary.
  • Myth 6: The best vocabulary learners make use of one or two really good specific vocabulary learning strategies.
  • Myth 7: The best dictionary for second language learners is a monolingual dictionary.
  • Myth 8: Teachers, textbooks, and curricula cover second language vocabulary adequately.

Is there anything surprising to you on this list? You are invited to comment on these myths. 

Reference: Folse, K. (2004). Vocabulary myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition


Andrea Echelberger's picture

I'm surprised by Myth #2; I always thought that word lists were ineffective in supporting vocabulary development since they tend to be decontextualized from content. I'm going to have to get the book and read about this !

I've read Pronunciation Myths and Listening Myths. It's a really excellent series. The chapters are well-backed by research, but very accessible and easy to read. I'm looking forward to reading another!

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Hello Andrea and all, Regarding the efficacy of word lists for vocabulary teaching and learning, Folse makes the point that there is no research showing that using word lists is ineffective.  He suggests that word lists can be one tool in a teacher's and learner's tool box. In the "What You Can Do" section of the chapter on word lists, Folse (pp. 44-45) offers the following guidance ...

1. "Don't hesitate to use vocabulary lists." 

  • He adds that word lists can be used for vocabulary flashcards. (I'm a big fan of using flashcards!)

2. "Don't rely only on word lists."

  • Word lists can be one of a variety of methods used.

3. Include learners likes and dislikes as well as their classroom expectations in instruction.

  • Word lists are concrete, so learners can see what they know and don't know.
  • Some cultures expect to memorize material as part of their learning.

I appreciate the point you made, Andrea, about lists of words being decontextualized. In my practice, I have made it a goal to draw words that we spend time on in class from the texts we are reading, listening to or viewing, so we study the words in context. At the same time, I'd like to suggest that we teachers can create contexts to make words meaningful. The learners themselves can also create contexts for the words. 

In fact, creating meaningful contexts is the purpose of the Vocabulary Workouts I developed for Sublist 1 of the Academic Word list (Coxhead, 2000, 2011).  If anyone is interested in receiving a copy of these Vocabulary Workouts, please contact me at, and I'll be glad to send you the workouts for the first 60 words on the list.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP


Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2): 213-238.

Coxhead, A. (2011). The Academic Word List ten years on: Research and teaching implications. TESOL Quarterly, 45(2):355 - 362.

Ellen Patron's picture

Good morning, colleagues.  

With regard to word lists, I seem to remembering someone advocating strategies for using word lists sparingly and not to use too many words that are closely related.  For example, if you are teaching colors for beginners, it is better to present just a few colors in a context, verbal or visual, than to present 10 colors at one time.  I taught emotions once but included similar ones - it was a less effective lesson.  Contrasting vocabulary worked much better the second time I taught them.  

I also want to give a shout-out to Susan for her Vocabulary Workouts.  I have used them extensively in two classes and am pleased with both their efficacy and ease of use/reasonable prep time. They can be tailored easily with examples from whatever texts you are using in class. 

Just a thought or two



Ellen Clore-Patron, Instructor

LIteracy Council of Northern Virginia and 

REEP (Arlington Education and Employment Program)




Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Hello Ellen, Thanks for emphasizing that introducing new vocabulary in semantic sets (e.g., colors, days of the week, body parts, etc.) is not an effective practice. Folse points out that semantic sets also include synonyms and antonyms. This point about semantic sets is counter-intuitive. But, according to the research cited in Folse, introducing vocabulary as semantic sets actually hinders learning!

Folse recognizes that this finding is a challenge for teachers because most instructional materials are organized in semantic sets. Here's what Folse says we teachers can do to try to avoid introducing vocabulary through semantic sets.

1. "Use thematic presentations of new words when possible" and integrate the target vocabulary into the themes. Folse acknowledges that planning thematic instruction is more time intensive for teachers!

2. If you teach semantic sets, focus first on the most common words and on the other words a bit later. Folse cites Paul Nation's (2000) research on the order to teach the color words: "red, black, blue, green, yellow, pink, orange. Red and black are 20 times more common than orange" (p. 56).

3. Using semantic sets to review is more effective than for introducing new vocabulary. So, using a Jeopardy game with colors, days of the week and body parts, for example, to review vocabulary can be effective.

Members, please weigh in with your thoughts on this vocabulary myth as well as the others. 

(It's good to hear you have found the Vocabulary Workouts to be effective, Ellen.)

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP