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Review of  Exploring Vocabulary

Reviewer: Filio Chasioti
Book Title: Exploring Vocabulary
Book Author: Dee Gardner
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 26.2695

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The book “Exploring vocabulary: Language in action” by Dee Gardner is addressed to starting postgraduate students and English language professionals. It consists of 7 chapters, a set of Appendices (A-G), and a Glossary. Each chapter is structured following a problem-solving approach, starting with a “survey of everyday professional problems,” succeeded by a “discussion of intervention”, and concluding with a reflection upon the previous intervention (p. xi). At the end of each chapter, the reader finds the Vocabulary Project section, which is an optional component that consists of a set of assignments designed by the author, and aimed at fulfilling a “real-world need”; it is intended to cause the reader to approach certain vocabulary issues in a direct, hands-on way. The Vocabulary Project starts in the Introduction section and finishes in Chapter 6 (“Building Vocabulary Knowledge”). The reader is asked to contemplate and address several vocabulary issues that pertain to certain contexts (for example, gather electronic texts and then analyze them with an intent to use them in a (hypothetical or actual) setting. Ultimately, as Dee writes, it will “culminate in a portfolio of actual vocabulary resources” (p. 7). Apart from the Vocabulary Project, each chapter also includes a number of Tasks in the form of questions and short activities; these require the reader to actively participate in the ongoing discussion of an issue, either by reflecting on a problem, by engaging with the terminology through short activities, or by using the Appendices online as well as their own resources. Comprehensive answers and author suggestions for each of the Tasks are provided in the Task Commentaries section (pp. 149-160).

In the Introduction the author explains the rationale of the book, describing its structure and presenting his basic philosophy about vocabulary and the way it could be approached in the language classroom. He proposes the Three Realities of Vocabulary: the Psychological, the Linguistic, and the Pedagogical (pp. 4-5) and stresses the need for an equal emphasis by pedagogists on all three aspects. Finally, the motivation for the Vocabulary Project is introduced by asking the reader to identify an instructional setting and the texts for their own Project.

Chapter 2 (“The Vocabulary of Vocabulary”) addresses the problem posed by the – at times manifold – terminology implemented in vocabulary studies and offers a comprehensive set of theoretical clarifications that refer to different levels of description, e.g., form (“spelling and pronunciation”), “meaning, and relationships between words and their neighbors” (p. 9). The author’s approach progresses from broader (e.g. the lexicon) to narrower terms (e.g. multi-word items), pinpointing the challenging aspects of each term. In the Vocabulary Project section, the reader is asked to select “a text or texts that ELLs (English Language Learners) will read” in the setting previously chosen by the reader/researcher and then scan those texts so that they can be easily used later on (p. 34).

Chapter 3 (“Core Vocabulary”) is divided into three parts. The first part addresses and is structured according to five challenges faced in “determining what belongs to the core” English vocabulary; the second part presents the author’s novel approach that “considers a stable and an unstable core” (p. 48), which vary not only in their “relative frequency”, but also in their “stability over time” (ibid.). His stable core includes function words and “many common content words” that are selected according to their stability, as well as certain “specific or specialized groups” of important words that impact communication. In the unstable core he positions those content words that are “normally less frequent than content words in the stable core” (p. 52).

In the third part he introduces and describes his “Common Core List of English vocabulary (CCL)”, as a “bridge from the GSL (General Service List) and AWL (Academic World List) approach to a more contemporary view of English core vocabulary” (p. 53). As described by the author, it is a “combination of the top shared words of COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) and the BNC (British National Corpus). The CCL is subdivided into a set of sublists “with numbers representing 1,000-word tiers in the two corpora” (ibid.). Each word in a sublist is additionally marked with its frequency in the GSL (whether it belongs to the 1,000 or the 2,000 tier), in the AWL, or in the Dolch-Fry list; if it does not appear in these lists, it is marked as a new entry. The CCL separates function from content words. In the Appendix section, the reader can find four sublists: Core A of function and Core A of content words, and Core B and C sublists, both of which contain content words. The words are presented alphabetically and all sublists are organized in declining order of frequency, progressing from the stable to the less stable core. The chapter continues with a comparison of the CCL with the GSL, AWL, and Dolch-Fry lists, whereupon the author makes a set of observations regarding the frequency of words contained in the lists, their stability and representativeness over time. His observations allow for certain novel extrapolations affecting ELT and SLA practices (e.g. the overall frequency of the majority of AWL words across both the COCA and the BNC). The author also mentions several new (i.e. contemporary) words that have surfaced following his analysis. The chapter concludes with a set of suggestions regarding vocabulary instruction. The Vocabulary Project section urges the reader to select, “download and learn to use three freeware programs from the internet”: the Range program with GSL/AWL lists, Range with BNC lists, and the KfNgram program (p. 62).

Chapter 4 (“Register-specific vocabulary”) focuses on the role of register in the process of selecting the vocabulary appropriate to specific learner needs. He presents a comprehensive account of major different types of register of written English, categorized according to the type of writing (i.e. Narrative and Expository). Within these broad categories, he positions the different types of text (or writing) that can be encountered (e.g. fiction, magazine articles, etc.). Also, each text type is followed by the type of information or the (sub)genres it contains (e.g. Roman fiction, World/Local issues, and so on).

The author then implements his claims on register practically, using a case study “involving books from four different reading registers in academic English: fiction, American history, mathematics, and life science” (p. 71) and using the Range program with his CCL “as the high frequency base lists in the program” (p. 72). The results reveal that register determines the part of the vocabulary that can be found within a register (i.e. Life Sciences), as well as across text types (i.e. Expository texts); the results also reveal the ways this vocabulary is used and the meanings it acquires (e.g. Fiction versus Mathematics). The Vocabulary Project section invites the reader to “run the electronic texts [they] have chosen ... using the output to create a vocabulary inventory for curricular decision making and vocabulary instruction” (p. 83). The author suggests different inventory forms of the output data (i.e. frequency or range data, alphabetical lists, or his own CCL).

The aim of the 5th chapter (“The tasks of vocabulary learning”) is to prepare the language professional to take their learners from “what they need to know to where they need to go” (p. 84). The author starts off by examining the various relationships between labels and concepts and then discusses the difficulties faced by learners in attempting to make the right connections between (known/unknown) written and their equivalent spoken forms. He also addresses the importance of literacy development from an academic perspective and stresses its significance with regard to academic success, subsequent economic opportunity, and potential societal well-being (p. 90). The author is also concerned with the debate aboutincidental vs. planned vocabulary acquisition, and suggests a combined approach of conscious attention and “formal vocabulary instruction (strategy training, awareness raising, etc.) on the one hand and “reading as the major source for vocabulary input in academic and other advanced language contexts” on the other (p. 93). The author also provides us with five context suggestions for “potential word learning” (pp. 96-97). The Vocabulary Project section concludes this chapter by encouraging the reader to “familiarize [themselves] with online resources that can be used ... to teach and learn the key words ... discovered through the inventory process” and browse the internet for relevant programs; the author makes his own suggestions (e.g. Quizlet, Word and Phrase, Compleat, Lexical Tutor, AntLab Tools) (p. 107).

Chapter 6 (“Building vocabulary knowledge”) provides a step-by-step path through the decisions that precede the design of a curriculum centered around vocabulary. This path starts, according to the author, from “what learners know”, leads to “where they need to go” (p. 108), and is determined by what teachers need to do and what “their learners can and should do for themselves” (p. 146). The chapter is structured according to two sections: the first section outlines the decisions that need to be made so as to determine the specific vocabulary and organize its presentation to ELLs, whereas the following section discusses how to actually teach the selected vocabulary and what strategies can be made familiar to learners. As for curriculum decisions, the author: discusses how to actually identify the vocabulary items that are important and need to be taught; the ways to group and present this vocabulary according to learner needs; the integration of all skills; how teachers can select reading material for mixed-level classes. He also provides a set of criteria according to which reading materials may be leveled.

The second section “highlights six key areas of direct vocabulary instruction (DVI), what they entail as well as ideas on how these may be implemented, recognizing, nonetheless, that direct approaches are “essential but insufficient ... to building vocabulary knowledge” (p. 118). Gardner refers to the conceptualization of the words, as well as to form and meaning practice through flashcards and concordancing programs. The ways in which teachers as well as learners may implement and benefit from certain learning and meaning discovery strategies are subsequently analyzed, as are a set of questions contributing to strategy training. Those strategies entail context-based strategies, dictionary definition training, morphological awareness-raising, and and benefits. In the Vocabulary Project section the reader is encouraged to “create some learning materials that meet immediate learner needs ...” (p. 147).

The book also includes an annotated bibliography for further reading. The list consists of important, oft-cited publications in the fields of psycholinguistics, lexical studies and teaching, as well as two books on vocabulary and computer technology. Each reference is followed by a brief description of the qualities and main contributions of each book.


This book is recommended for postgraduate students who are interested in vocabulary/lexical studies and pedagogical matters, such as curriculum and material design. Those who research the field of corpus linguistics might discover stimulating ideas for potential studies on lexical frequencies, comparative examinations within and across corpora and frequency lists, as well as ways to actually implement these in real-life settings. The language professional may benefit as much from the theoretical clarifications on certain challenging issues as from ideas for material design generated through the tasks and the Vocabulary Project section. Some previous knowledge is, however, necessary, particularly on topics such as the corpora discussed (size, language variety) the frequency lists implemented (date of publication, data upon which it is based, information it includes), and some terminology (e.g. lexical density). One needs to be at least moderately familiar with (or, at least, able to use) online programs and resources (such as scanners) in order to be able to fully benefit from all the suggestions in this book.

Nation (2006), Nation and Warring (2004), and Schmitt (2008), among others, have also treated the demanding task of matching vocabulary frequency counts with learner needs, as well as the implications of those findings for language teaching. Being concerned with issues related to vocabulary teaching (i.e. what vocabulary to teach, how many words, how to select them, and how to present them), this book belongs to the strand of research that seeks to examine how this task may best be accomplished. To this end, Gardner contributes his CCL as well as multiple suggestions for practical applications (e.g. through his Vocabulary Project) and references to previous research.

Gardner clearly articulates his goals. In the Introduction section, he notes that his is an “interactive book, designed to build knowledge through examples and experiences” and also “through references to important current research on the topics addressed” (p. 1); he remains consistent throughout. From matching exercises on vocabulary terminology (in Chapter 2), to an active exploration of collocates in the COCA, the reader encounters several tasks that urge them to reflect on problems and be actively involved in answering questions. Also, the Vocabulary Project component offers ample opportunity for direct involvement, as it effectively brings together the theoretical information ineach chapter and the reader’s/language professional’s experiences in the classroom.

The author “synthesize[s] and paraphrase[s]” theory in order for it to be easily implemented by pedagogists (p. 2). An example can be found in Chapter 6, where the reader encounters a synthesis of postulations on Direct Vocabulary Instruction (DVI) from different sources, integrated into one succinct section that is easy to peruse and also convenient to selectively implement. Gardner does not overload the reader “with heavy statistics or unnecessary jargon” (p. 2). None of his chapters is “riddled with” tables, cumbersome analyses, or redundant terminology: he includes what is needed for his argumentation (in the form of concise tables and appendices) providing, however, references to different sources. His goal to make the language professional aware of their learners’ needs is accomplished through clearly introducing a real-life/practical problem at the beginning of each chapter (e.g. ‘How do we determine what words our learners need to know?’).

The Common Core List (CCL) is a valuable contribution as the reader has the chance to observe how frequencies in existing lists (GSL, AWL, Dolch-Fry) have changed (or, respectively, remained stable) through the years. In including the most shared words of the COCA and BNC, this list constitutes a contemporary re-examination of English vocabulary with regard to frequency and vocabulary “coreness”. However, the researcher and/or pedagogist could potentially benefit from information on idiomatic and set expressions (and how these behave with regard to frequency) in the CCL, as well as gain valuable insights from the inclusion of “the underlying meaning of ... word[s], variations of meaning and collocation and the relative frequency of these meanings and uses”, register restrictions, and so on (Nation and Warring, 2004, pp. 18-19). Information such as this could enhance certain aspects of the otherwise fastidious and in-depth analyses that led to the CCL, particularly since the CCL uses pedagogically-inspired/oriented frequency lists, and pedagogical implications are a central axis in this book.

By implementing frequency lists that include a range of registers (academic, children’s books, etc.) and span a considerable length of time (e.g. the Dolch list was compiled in 1936), the author brings into focus the need for updating frequency data while, simultaneously, highlighting the stability of certain words through time. From a pedagogical perspective, the potential implementations of frequency list data such as that of the CCL are limitless, and the ample online resources included in various parts of this book greatly contribute to this end (e.g. Quizlet, Compleat Lexical Tutor). From a theoretical perspective, the CCL becomes a paradigm for frequency lists that go beyond the counts of one (or two) corpora and show the multiple insights that may be gained through knowledgeable combinations. Also, the stable Core proposed partially redirects our attention from strict frequency count analyses to a broader discussion of how to establish/discern what is core and what is not, and what implications this has for English language teaching.


Nation, I.S.P. 2006. How large a vocabulary is needed for reading and listening? Canadian Modern Language Review 63(1). 59-82.

Nation, Paul and Waring, Robert. 2004. Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists. In Norbert Schmitt and Michael McCarthy (eds.), “Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy”. 6-19. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schmitt, Norbert. 2008. “Vocabulary in language teaching”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Filio Chasioti holds a BA in English Language and Literature from the School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece and an M.Phil. in Applied Linguistics from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. Her research interests include corpus and computational linguistics, vocabulary acquisition and teaching, and interdisciplinary approaches to second/foreign language instruction.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780415585446
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ISBN-13: 9780415585453
Pages: 212
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