LINGUIST List 32.1680

Thu May 13 2021

Review: Applied Linguistics: Schmitt, Schmitt (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 07-Dec-2020
From: Jean Danic <>
Subject: Vocabulary in Language Teaching
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Norbert Schmitt
AUTHOR: Diane Schmitt
TITLE: Vocabulary in Language Teaching
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Jean Danic


This text is composed of nine chapters, each contributing to a deeper understanding of vocabulary, vocabulary instruction, and assessment. All nine sections include comprehensive information on the given topic, followed by three additional components: a summary, exercises for expansion, and further reading. The summary portion condenses the information and conclusions into an approximately half-page overview, and the exercises and reading recommendations provide the reader with additional ideas and resources.

The first chapter, “The Nature and Size of Vocabulary,” is meant to serve as a general explanation of what is meant by the term ‘vocabulary.’ It describes the challenge posed by attempting to fully define ‘vocabulary’ and the different options available to count ‘words’ in a language. The authors also present research findings aimed at determining the number of words or lexical items that an English language learner would need in order to be successful or proficient in learning English. This overview is meant to serve as background knowledge for the reader as he or she reads further about the nature and issues involved in vocabulary instruction.

The second chapter, “History of Vocabulary in Language Teaching,” briefly describes the history of Second Language (L2) and vocabulary instruction ranging from the Romans to the current era. Various methods and their popularity over time are detailed, providing context for the strategies upon which many instructors agree today. The authors use methods that have now fallen out of favor as examples that illustrate the need for more vocabulary-based instruction in second-language acquisition. The chapter then segues into a discussion of modern word lists, current research studies, and the evolution of testing methods. This overview situates modern vocabulary instruction as it stands by detailing what has led it to current practices.

Chapter 3 is titled, “What Does It Mean to ‘Know’ a Word?” and it strives to answer that question while acknowledging the herculean feat that would require. The authors describe knowledge of a word as a continuum and summarize attempts to express this continuum as a series of levels or stages of learning. They also pose the question of how receptive and productive knowledge are related and measured, and they explore the relationship between phonology, orthography, morphology, and social usage in word knowledge. They then apply this information to teaching with a wide variety of implication, including those related to slang and formulaic language.

The fourth chapter, “Corpus Insights: Frequency and Formulaic Language,” begins with an explanation of corpus linguistics in general, the usefulness of corpora, and the various existing collections. The chapter categorizes vocabulary words based on low, mid, and high-frequency, while also distinguishing between content and function words. The ‘Applications to Teaching’ portion of this chapter is vast and addresses the nature of vocabulary instruction as it pertains not to words, per se, but to formulaic language, idioms, and colloquialisms. The authors suggest that an educator may choose to select which material to teach based on frequency and usefulness to an L2 learner. These include idiomatic expressions and phrases that students learning English would not grasp if simply searching for meaning in the sum of their parts rather than the whole phrase (e.g. ‘over the hill’ does not mean that one is actually over a physical hill).

Chapter 5, “Categories of Vocabulary and Word Lists,” describes ways of categorizing vocabulary and how those methods can inform instructional strategies. The overview of word lists begs the question of how one groups words, be it by frequency, academic usage, word family, or even as packages of commonly used idiomatic phrases. Further, once categorized, educators must choose which lists or types or words to focus their instruction on, and the chapter argues for the prioritization of high-frequency vocabulary above technical or academic vocabulary. The authors also provide several examples of compiled word lists along with how to access them online.

In the sixth chapter, “Incidental Vocabulary Learning from Language Exposure,” the authors explore the question of how, and how much, L2 learners can absorb via exposure to the second language rather than explicit instruction. Exposure in the forms of child L1 acquisition, reading, listening, television/movies, and extramural exposure are all discussed in some depth. Special focus is given to the role of extensive reading in vocabulary acquisition. Helpful strategies for teachers, such as glossing and the use of subtitles or captions, are also promoted. The authors conclude that while all exposure appears to be useful, repetition and extensive exposure seem to be key in incidental learning, no matter the type of input.

The seventh chapter, “Intentional Vocabulary Learning,” contrasts with the previous one by moving from incidental to explicit language learning. This chapter demonstrates the efficacy of explicit vocabulary instruction while also addressing the many issues that plague it. These include L1 interference, word form, processing depth, study habits, formulaic language, and dictionary usage. In discussing each factor, the authors not only describe their pitfalls but also ways that teachers can address them to maximize instructional impact. The chapter concludes with the notion that both the incidental learning reviewed in the previous chapter and an explicit approach are necessary for vocabulary learning.

Chapter 8, “Vocabulary in the Curriculum,” addresses the four key skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, both as separate entities and as inseparable pieces of the same puzzle. The authors provide research backed methods for integrating vocabulary into each of the four component skills and the curriculum in general. They close with the argument that effective vocabulary instruction provides opportunities for intentional and explicit learning, integration into all four of the dominant skills, and an abundance of repetition and opportunities for students to use new words.

The final chapter, “Assessing Vocabulary Knowledge,” makes the necessary transition from teaching to testing. This chapter encourages the reader to ask and answer several questions before assessing student vocabulary knowledge: why do you want to test, what words do you want to test, what aspects of these words do you want to test, and how will you elicit students’ knowledge of these words. Each question is posed to the reader, and then the factors involved in formulating an answer are described in detail. No direct answers are provided, but the authors share information that will guide educators to their own conclusions.


In the preface to this text, the authors state that their purpose in writing it is to provide language teachers or others with the background knowledge, research, and theory necessary for them to make informed choices about their methods in the classroom. They have largely succeeded in this and have given enough of an overview to prove helpful to a vocabulary instructor, be they novice or someone more experienced. Readers of this text can not only use the information provided, but they can also find myriad opportunities for further research should they desire to learn more.

The authors utilize many helpful features to guide the reader, including boldfaced words and their definitions throughout the entirety of the text. This aids the reader both in general comprehension and in identifying words for further study. While this is mostly consistent, there are times in which, oddly, words that are more common appear in boldface with descriptions, and terms that may prove unknown to less experienced linguists or educators are used with little ado (e.g. ‘MI statistic). There is also a helpful index included to aid anyone searching for some topic in particular.

The summaries included at the end of each chapter are useful in providing the gestalt and for quick reference. They are extremely general compared to the specificity employed throughout the chapter, but this may be useful to those simply wanting to cement their knowledge at the end of each chapter or to those reading the summary first to determine a chapter’s potential usefulness.

The additional exercises are another feature included to guide readers in drawing conclusions from their reading. Many are socratic in nature,without strictly correct answers, but others are not and include an answer key for reference. These exercises occasionally seem trivial or unnecessary, but they are for the most part helpful and thought-provoking. These could easily be used not only by educators looking to inform their pedagogy, but might also be assigned as homework in teacher education classes.

The further reading sections included at the end of each chapter are especially useful. Not only are the links and texts provided, but their content and application are provided as well. An educator looking for more on a particular topic that the chapter did not delve into very deeply can usually find more information supplied by the authors in these sections. If you include the further reading suggested to the bulk of the text, an ocean of information has been provided by the authors.

The chapters build from theory to practice as the text proceeds, particularly in Chapters 8 and 9. Beginning with Chapter 5, an educator’s interest will be piqued as the text starts to offer quite applicable information and resources to language teachers, including lists available online of idioms, academic vocabulary, etc. Those who may not have the time or desire to read the entire text and wade through the detailed background and research may skip directly to the latter half of the book to inform their classroom choices. These readers may occasionally need to consult prior chapters or the index for further explanation, but each chapter is self-contained enough that it can be read on its own if needed.

One small shortcoming of the text is that it is so well-referenced that the copious references can interrupt the flow of the text and disturb readability. Footnotes may have better served the reader to avoid constant lengthy sources listed in parentheses. There are portions in which the cited works become distracting, but this may be unavoidable in a text that draws so heavily from previous works, including much of the authors’ own.

Overall, this comprehensive text describes vocabulary instruction well and accomplishes the goal of guiding language teachers to make well-informed choices in instruction and assessment. Areas which are described in less detail are supplemented by the further reading sections, so educators have a plethora of resources to consult in addition to the text alone, no matter the experience level of the reader. It is a strength that this book is well-designed for those who want to read it as a whole, but it can be read in pieces as well, though readers may find themselves referring back to previous chapters for underlying research, theories, etc. Any person who teaches vocabulary or simply wants to learn more about it will find this text to be a useful guide.


Jean Danic holds degrees in English Education and Linguistics from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. While pursuing her Master's degree, she focused her thesis on White teacher perceptions of African American Vernacular English in the Metro Detroit area. She currently teaches in the English for Academic Purposes Department at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida. Her interests include all aspects of educational linguistics, and she is constantly using her linguistics research and knowledge to refine her teaching pedagogy.

Page Updated: 13-May-2021