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Review of  Focus on Vocabulary Learning

Reviewer: Oksana Bomba
Book Title: Focus on Vocabulary Learning
Book Author: Marlise Horst
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 31.121

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“Focus on Vocabulary Learning” by Marlise Horst offers an overview of key topics related to learning and teaching second language vocabulary. From the first pages of the book, the author highlights the importance of having sufficient vocabulary knowledge, stating that nowadays it is considered to be “the key to literacy and success at school” (p. 1). The book attempts to provide principled and research-informed guidelines that would facilitate vocabulary acquisition for English language learners. The book consists of five chapters and every chapter covers a different angle in the area of teaching and learning English language vocabulary. The author explores the most relevant concepts from the language learning theory, introduces research findings from the experts in the field, and considers how the new technologies can enhance vocabulary learning in the classroom. Using corpus tools is viewed as an effective method for identifying the most useful vocabulary corresponding to the learners’ needs, for critically analyzing instructional materials, and for providing learners with opportunities to infer the word meaning through exploring multiple corpus-based examples of the word in use.

To further explain and support the book claims, most of the chapters include the so-called Classroom Snapshots in the form of the teacher-learner transcribed interactions. These snapshots are prefaced with a set of critical questions that draw the reader’s attention to the key points under consideration and encourage self-reflecting. The author consistently elaborates on each of the provided Classroom Snapshots, further explaining and discussing the effective teaching strategies and key factors involved in vocabulary learning. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 also incorporate the Spotlight Studies in the form of concise summaries of the well-established research studies that carry relevant implications in the book’s discussion. The book also incorporates various Activities in the form of bite-sized assignments, self-tests, and questions, facilitating the reader’s understanding of the book material. The answers are conveniently located at the end of the book activities followed by additional author’s explanations and comments. The final part of the book includes the list of the sources suggested for further reading and an appendix with useful electronic websites to facilitate the teaching and learning of English vocabulary. This is followed by the glossary that defines and reiterates the key terms and concepts from the book chapters.

Chapter One introduces the idea of creating corpus-based frequency lists as a practical and efficient way of selecting and prioritizing which words to teach. At the same time, the author points out that the final decision in terms of vocabulary selection depends on the needs of the individual group of students and their proficiency level. Next, the chapter outlines the three dimensions of vocabulary development: the partial-precise dimension, vocabulary depth, and receptive-productive continuum. It also discusses the three main aspects of vocabulary knowledge: form, meaning, and use. The author stresses out that it is important to be aware of multiple factors involved in vocabulary knowledge which go way beyond word definition. To demonstrate this point, the chapter provides a comprehensive table visualizing all the components of vocabulary knowledge and including concise explanations for each of them. The author explains that learner knowledge of specific vocabulary evolves over time and repetitive practice is highly effective for successful vocabulary acquisition.

Chapter Two focuses on theoretical groundwork and research findings related to second language vocabulary teaching and learning, as well as considers the ways of effectively applying the theoretical insights in a real-world classroom. The chapter introduces multiple key concepts that contribute to the reader’s understanding of the process of vocabulary acquisition and retention. The author outlines the interdependence hypothesis, information processing, noticing, incidental vocabulary learning, and the sociocultural perspective. For instance, one of the multiple examples presents the classroom situation where the teacher implements the sociocultural approach through reading and thinking aloud on the possible meaning of unfamiliar words. This approach requires proper training on the teachers’ side to be able to show the learners how to use their existing linguistic repertoires and cognitive skills when analyzing the new vocabulary. It encourages the learners to build on their previous knowledge, brainstorm and share their personal association related to the new vocabulary, thus forming a classroom community of active autonomous learners.

Chapter Three considers the specifics of vocabulary acquisition for young learners in a primary school. It argues that the amount of exposure to English input, the level of L1 knowledge, and family socioeconomic background all play an important role in successful L2 vocabulary acquisition of young learners. The author explains that teaching the new vocabulary may be achieved through reading informational texts and focusing on the words that are necessary for understanding the text. The teacher may also ask the students questions that go beyond word use in the original reading and encourage them to produce their own examples with the new word. Ideally, in the process of study learners should be given multiple opportunities for spaced repetition of the newly learned vocabulary. The vocabulary retrieval activities may include but are not limited to playing games, drawing, reading stories, and solving puzzles. The learners can also be trained to figure out the word meaning using cognate clues, attending to morphological components, and paying attention to contextual cues.

Chapter Four addresses the characteristics and peculiarities of vocabulary acquisition for middle- and high school learners. Specifically, the author notes that, when compared to young learners, adolescents are more advanced in terms of memory capacity, cognitive skills, metalinguistic awareness, and world knowledge. At the same time, this age category of learners also needs to know a much larger amount of words. The author relates to existing research findings favoring “using interesting, age-appropriate expository texts as a starting point for designing deep vocabulary instruction for adolescents” (p. 119). This way, the learners can address both the word meaning and its use in context, while the teacher can better explain the new word by referring to the text. The author also advocates encouraging learners to become autonomous learners who take control of their learning process. Thus, teachers can guide and train their students to make informed guesses based on the provided concordance examples from a corpus, create and practice using word cards, or hypothesize the possible word meaning based on its morphemes. For instance, writing the word on the card and adding its definition draws learners’ attention to both spelling and meaning, forming strong form-meaning associations that promote deeper learning. Overall, the author highlights the importance of providing adolescent learners with multiple opportunities for retrieval and spaced repetition which are contributing to long-term retention. The chapter concludes by stating that adolescent learners should be encouraged to take control of their own learning and develop learning strategies that facilitate acquiring new vocabulary on their own.

Chapter Five provides responses to the list of statements posited in the first book’s activity. It reiterates the key ideas about vocabulary knowledge covered throughout the book. The reader is encouraged to first review their initial answers to Activity 1.1 included at the beginning of the book and reflect on how their understanding has evolved while reading the new material. The author explains her position on each of the activity statements, focusing on effective vocabulary teaching strategies, the amount of vocabulary the learners from different age categories need to know, and the key factors involved in different stages of vocabulary teaching and learning. The existing research findings show that it is crucial for learners to acquire the high-frequency list of vocabulary early on and provide learners multiple opportunities for retrieval and repetition. This can be achieved through reading stories that help to expose learners to high-frequency vocabulary and develop fluency. The author stresses out that knowledge of a word presupposes not just knowing its definition but understanding its synonyms, collocations, morphological variants and proper use in the sentence. Teachers, in their turn, should be aware of helpful strategies that facilitate vocabulary acquisition such as drawing learners’ attention to cognates, training the students to analyze the morphological parts of the unfamiliar word, or inferring the word meaning from the given context. The author concludes her book by stressing the importance of having a sufficient repository of vocabulary knowledge since it may greatly determine students' success in all areas of their life. Therefore, it requires responsible work and informed awareness both from teachers and students.


This book skillfully establishes the link between the theoretical claims about vocabulary acquisition, the relevant empirical studies, and real-world classroom scenarios. The author provides a strong justification for the given recommendations and offers a set of practical solutions addressing potential vocabulary learning and teaching challenges. It was especially enjoyable for me to explore whether my understanding aligns with the claims from Activity 1.1. The author did an excellent job involving the reader in critical self-reflection and guiding me through the material rather than simply prescribing what is right and wrong.

The book is infused with interesting summaries of empirical studies, informative visuals, and analyses of the specific examples from the classroom setting. The author encourages the reader to adapt and apply the provided recommendations in their own classroom, based on their learners’ needs. One recommendation that can make the reading even more enjoyable is numbering the lines for the Classroom Snapshot transcripts and referring to the specific line numbers in the follow-up analysis of the excerpts. Overall, after reading the book it becomes clear that learning new vocabulary is an important but challenging part of language learning. “Focus on Vocabulary Learning” is a great resource both for educators and students who are willing to enhance their expertise in various aspects of vocabulary acquisition.
Oksana Bomba is a doctorate student in Linguistics and Applied Language Studies (LALS) at the University of South Florida. Her research interests include second language acquisition, corpus linguistics, sociolinguistics, and language teaching. She has taught English, Russian, and Introduction to Linguistics in multiple contexts and to language learners from various age groups and cultural backgrounds.