Words usually have several meanings. To study the uses of an appropriate word we have to study words in context. Researchers (Kruse 1979; Nation 1980; Gairns and Redman 1986; Oxford and Crookall 1988) agree that to learn words in context and not in isolation is an effective vocabulary learning strategy. A word used in different contexts may have different meanings; thus, simply learning the definitions of a word without examples of where and when the word occurs will not help learners to fully understand its meaning. Learning an isolated list of words without reference to the context is merely a memorization exercise which makes it difficult for learners to use the words in spoken and written language. Looking at the context in which the word appears seems to be the best way of learning vocabulary. Good readers also take advantage of their background knowledge in processing the context and in creating expectations about the kind of vocabulary that will occur in the reading.
According to researcher Yu Shu Ying there are four assumptions underlie this discussion of a context-based approach to acquiring vocabulary.
- Drawing inferences from what we observe is fundamental to thinking, and the same principle can be used in the reading process. Schema theory suggests that the knowledge we have is organized into interrelated patterns. These patterns are constructed from our previous experiences and guide us as to what we might expect to encounter in a new context (Nunan 1991). Making use of what we know in order to understand the unknown is a common practice in our daily lives. For instance, if we are in a building and observe that someone is entering holding a wet umbrella, we will infer that it is raining outside.
- Vocabulary is connected with grammar, so familiarity with grammatical patterns helps the reader guess the meaning of words. For example, a word can be classified as a grammatical item or as a vocabulary item. Beautiful is a vocabulary item, and in functional grammar it is also an epithet in the nominal group the beautiful girl and reflects the speaker’s opinion of the person described. The connection between vocabulary and grammar can be seen by the interdependence of grammatical and lexical cohesion. In a typical text, grammatical and lexical cohesion support each other.
- The subject matter of a passage is interrelated and the text is often redundantly structured. To help readers, writers often give definitions or extensive clues within the text when a new word appears. So readers may have more than one chance to understand the passage.
- By nature, reading is a process of hypothesis formation and verification; it is a communicative act between a writer and a reader (possibly a large number of readers). Consequently, the reader’s understanding is unlikely to be 100 percent accurate. As Wallace (1982:33) puts it, «The mother-tongue speaker learns to be content with approximate meaning... He is satisfied with a meaning which makes sense of the context». He compares this view of reading to the work of secret agents: «In the secret service there is a principle called the ‘need-to-know’ principle.... In other words, agents are not told more than they need to know in case they get caught and betray their comrades. Perhaps in vocabulary learning the ‘need-to-know’ principle could also be applied. Students should not be told more about the meanings of words than they need to know to understand the context so that they don’t get confused» (Wallace 1982:33)
There are a number of different context clues that can help a reader infer the meaning of a new word.
Morphology. The students can derive word meanings by examining internal, morphological features, like prefixes, suffixes, and root words.
Reference words. Identifying the referents of pronouns may provide a clue to the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Example: Malnutrition gave him the shallowest of chests and thinnest of limbs. It stunted his growth. In this sentence, the effect of malnutrition is obvious. Students should be able to guess what malnutrition could have done to growth.
Cohesion Sometimes words in the same sentence or in adjacent sentences give an indication of the meaning of an unfamiliar word, because these words regularly co-occur with the unfamiliar word, producing what has been termed «collocational cohesion» (Halliday and Hasan 1976:287).
Synonyms and antonyms. Often the reader can find the meaning of new items in the same sentence. Example: We had never seen such a large cave: it was simply enormous. Obviously, the unknown word is a synonym for large.
Hyponyms. Very often the reader can see that the relationship between an unfamiliar word and a familiar word is that of a general concept accompanied by a specific example (a hyponym). Example: The museum contained almost every type of vehicle: cars, buses, trains, and even old carriages and coaches.
Vehicle is being used as a hyponym; it encompasses all of the other items which are listed. Also, all of the listed items are of the same category.
Definitions. Sometimes the writer defines the meaning of the word right in the text. Example: Many animals live only by killing other animals and eating them. They are called predatory animals.
Alternatives. The writer may give an alternative of an unfamiliar word to make the meaning known.
Restatement. Often the writer gives enough explanation for the meaning to be clear. Example: X ray therapy, that is, treatment by use of X ray, often stops the growth of a tumor. The phrase that is signals a clarification of a previously used word.
Example. Many times an author helps the reader get the meaning of a word by providing examples that illustrate the use of the word. Example: All the furniture had been completely removed so that not a single table or chair was to be seen. The learner should be able to guess the meaning of furniture from the two examples which are mentioned.
Summary. A summary clue sums up a situation or an idea with a word or a phrase.
Comparison and contrast. Writers can show similarity or difference.
Example: The ancient mammoth, like other elephants, is huge.
This sentence indicates similarity and clearly states that the ancient mammoth is a type of elephant.
Punctuation. Readers can also use clues of punctuation and type style to infer meaning, such as quotation marks (showing the word has a special meaning), dashes (showing apposition), parentheses or brackets (enclosing a definition), and italics (showing the word will be defined).
- Kruse, A. F. 1979. Vocabulary in context. ELT Journal, 33, 3, pp. 207–213.
- Nation, I. S. P. 1979. The curse of the comprehension question: Some alternatives. RELC Journal Supplement Guidelines, 2, pp. 85–103.
- Gairns, R., and S. Redman. 1986. Working with words: A guide to teaching and learning vocabulary. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
- Oxford, R., and D. Crookall. 1988. Learning strategies. In You can take it with you: Helping students maintain foreign language skills beyond the classroom, ed. J. B. Gleason. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Honeyfield, J. 1977. Word frequency and the importance of context in vocabulary learning. RELC Journal, 2, pp. 35–40.
- Strategies for receptive vocabulary learning. RELC Journal Supplement Guidelines, 3, pp. 18–23.
- Nunan, D. 1991. Language teaching methodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Robinson, H. A. 1983. Teaching reading, writing, and study strategies: The content areas. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Wallace, M. 1982. Teaching vocabulary. London: Heinemann Educational Books.