The Trouble with Teaching Vocabulary

When teachers let themselves think or write that they are “teaching” vocabulary, students do not get lost in a message; vocabulary comprehension checks hinder learning (Krashen 2011, 87).  Stephen Krashen explains simply, “Teaching vocabulary lists is not efficient.  The time is better spent reading” (2004, 19).  Multiple efficiency analyses show that instruction with limited accountability for vocabulary is more efficient that intensive vocabulary instruction (Mason 2004, Wang 2007, Mason 2013, Lee 2014).

Children only acquire a fraction of the full meaning of a word with each encounter.  Krashen proposes that “Full acquisition comes when the item is used again, in another story or activity” (2016).  Dormant words are spontaneously pulled from students’ schema in a compelling, meaningful context, creating deep and lasting schematic constructs to remember and recall vocabulary fluently.  Teachers should not pressure children to acquire vocabulary items in one sitting but rather give exposure in multiple, meaningful contexts.  Infrequently targeting words children are confused by is fine, but teaching and testing individual words at the expense of love for reading is not helpful.



Krashen, S. D. (2004). The power of reading: Insights from the research. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Krashen, S.D. (2011). Free voluntary reading. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Lee, M., Lee, S., & Krashen, S.  Vocabulary Acquisition through Read-Alouds and Discussion: A Case Study. International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 9(1), 2-5.

Mason, B. (2004). The effect of adding supplementary writing to an extensive reading program. The International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 1(1), 2-16.

Mason, B. (2013). Efficient use of literature in second language education: Free reading and listening to stories. In J. Bland and C. Lutge (Eds.), Children’s literature in second language education (pp. 25-32). London: Bloomsbury.

Wang, F-Y., & Lee, S-Y. (2007). Storytelling is the bridge. International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 3(2), 30-35.


Published by

Claire Walter

I am an ESL teacher and I promote differentiated, compassionate instruction and assessment for English Language Learners.

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