Language sets us apart from other animals. Words allow expression of meaning that elevate and expand our mind in ways that no other animal has at their disposal (that we know of, anyway). Human language is our key semiotic or meaning-making tool.

So what is the effect of vocabulary knowledge on a person’s potential to think and mean?

Words are a person’s cultural and knowledge treasure chest of meaning. Who we are and who will become to a great extent is shaped by the language and words we use and are involved with, and know, understand and can use. So what does that mean for adults learning another, or new, language?

When a bilingual comprehends vocabulary and makes vocabulary choices in one of his or her languages, he or she not only does this within that specific language and context but is also influenced and informed to some degree by the other.

Word knowledge matters. Read this piece of writing by a young person attempting to convey what he knows about how New Zealand was formed as a land mass.

Million year a go one of the gods must formed NZ because gods are in the future god live in the future million year a go NZ was under water 5 million year. Then it got build up and the volcanoes were under water and it got turned into NZ.

In the following two weeks he explored the science of New Zealand’s geological birth with his peers and teachers. This involved getting outdoors, observing, measuring, talking, viewing, gathering information from video clips and exploring the language of the commentary in dialogue with others, focusing on scientific and technical vocabulary related to their thinking and learning, and talking with experts. He then wrote again:

So NZ was formed by seafloor spreading and Zealandia and Gondawana were joined into each other. It broke off.  It came out of the water by Maui God of Sea and Stewart Island is a little island and that is Maui’s anchor.  And then it made new landforms and they called it NZ.  The tectonic plates made volcanic activities.  The South is Maui’s waka and the North Maui’s Te Ika o Maui.

The words he learnt in context, used mostly inside expressive structures of meaning, gifted him new knowledge, concept capability and word control.

This young writer of English has been able to plunge the depths of meaning in new ways because he is growing knowledge and control of word specificity.

So what’s important to think about here? What vocabulary knowledge principles arise? Whether a first or mother language, or another or new language, consider these:

  • Words are best learned in rich and meaningful contexts, resulting in higher levels of uptake – short and long-term.
  • Attention to words should pay attention to the words that ‘surround them’ – collocate with them and co-occur with them in text and context.
  • When word meanings are already known in another language, tap this source and resource – for efficiency’s sake, as well as to deepen noticing of the new word/s.
  • Pay attention to optimising learning conditions – that vocabulary is noticed, engaged with, retrieved numbers of times over, in meaningful contexts and largely comprehensible text, that learners are involved and participating, and the texts where they occur are relevant and meaningful.
  • Provide multi-moded input for vocabulary potential uptake and knowledge – visual (actual, gestural, static images, moving images); spoken (conversational and other oral sources), and written (print in abundance – reading, reading, reading – scaffolded and independent).
  • Develop a person’s word awareness, a hunger to expand and build on existing word knowledge – ‘hunt out’, enquire, be fascinated by words.
  • Realise that word meanings and explanations, and words used effectively in utterances and sentences, are the ‘powerhouses’ of word knowledge….and support and provide opportunities for this.

Of course, there’s much more to know about the what, why and how of vocabulary matters. See van Hees & Nation, 2017, to continue this article’s ‘story’ in depth.


van Hees, J. (2007). Expanding oral language in the classroom. Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER.

van Hees, J. & Nation, P. (2017). What every primary teacher should know about vocabulary. Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here