University of Oxford

The different aspects of "knowing a word" and the implications of this for vocabulary learning and teaching


1         Introduction  

2         What is “knowing a word” 

3         The different aspects of “knowing a word”

4         The implications of this for vocabulary learning and teaching

5         Examples of classroom activities used the aspects of “knowing a word”

6        Conclusion                                                                                               



1.     Introduction

Vocabulary is one of the most important aspects that language learners need to acquire. Words are the building blocks of a language since they put labels on objects, events, ideas. Without them people would not be able to recognise the intended meaning. Therefore, many researchers such as Carter (1998), McCarthy (1991) and Nation (2001) have been interested in vocabulary learning and teaching. In addition, numerous studies have been conducted on the aspects of knowing a word. This essay will analyse the different aspects of knowing a word and discuss the implications of this for vocabulary learning and teaching. I will also provide three examples of classroom activities that focus on these aspects of knowledge. I think that teachers have to work hard in order to teach their students all aspects of knowing a word and their implications effectively. This can be done through utilising classroom activities.

2.     What does it mean to “know a word”?

Miller’s (1999) definition is, “Knowing a word involves knowing its meaning and therefore, in my view, knowing a word involves knowing its contexts of use”. (Nation, 2001: 23-24) also defines “knowing a word” as knowing its form, meaning and use. He believes that each of these has three separate aspects. The form of a word has three aspects which are the spoken form, the written form and the word parts. The aspects of knowing the meaning are concept and referents, form and meaning, and associations. Finally, use can be divided into knowledge of correct collocations, which are words that occur together, grammatical function and constraints on use. I will analyse these aspects in section (3).

As mentioned before, I can define knowing a word as being able to say, understand, read, write, and use a word correctly at a fairly normal speed.

3.      Aspects of knowing a word

Many researchers such as Nation (2001) Carter, (1998) and McCarthy (1991) discuss the aspects of knowing a word. Nation (2001: 23-58) mentions three main kinds of word knowledge which are form,meaning and use. He points out the nine aspects which are involved in knowing a word which I outline as follows:

1.     Form

a.       Spoken form: Learners have to recognise the word when it is heard and, at the other end of the receptive – productive scale, which will be discussed in section 4, they have to produce the spoken form in order to express a meaning. This includes being able to pronounce the sound of the word and the being able to stress the appropriate number of syllables. This aspect is very important to help people communicate.

b.      Written form: Learners have to spell the word correctly. The ability to spell is most strongly influenced by the way learners represent the phonological structure of the language. English has a lot of silent letters that can affect spelling in comparison with other languages such as Arabic and Spanish. For example He thought he was a night instead of He thought he was a knight.

c.       Word parts: It is important to know the parts of a word, that is, affixes, and stems or roots that make up a word. In other words, knowing this aspect means that the learner must realise the specific affixes and roots that a word is made up of. Those already known from the mother tongue or from other language words may help them, but additional knowledge must be given. Some affixes and stems change their parts such as in-moral = immoral. Also, letters sometimes have to be omitted when adding suffixes, for example create and creation.

Moreover, knowing the word parts involves knowing the member of its word family. What are considered members of the word family will increase as proficiency develops. Many researchers support the idea that students learn faster if they are taught a whole word family, including the verb, noun adjective and adverb. For example to debate, the debate, debatable, debated.

2.     Meaning

a.       Form and meaning: Learners have to make a connection between the form and meaning. They must have the ability to retrieve the meaning, when seeing or hearing the word form or, when retrieving the word form and wishing to express the meaning. McCarthy (1999: 110) believes that words are stored mentally regarding phonological or graphological form as much as regards to meaning. He recommends this hypothesis to be considered seriously while teaching.  

b.      Concept and referents: Many words have a lot of different meanings, when looking them up in a dictionary. Some of them have related meanings and others do not. He defined those which have the same written and spoken forms and unrelated meaning as homonyms. For example:

He has grown another foot – does he have three feet or is he one foot taller?

He suggests these must be taught as different words and at different times. There are also some words that have a clear relationship or related meanings such as the word link in the following sentences:

There are some problems with the link to the Internet.

The link between the two ideas is very clear.

c.       Association: Learners have to know how the lexicon is organised in a language. It is essential to distinguish between parts of speech to describe the organisational structure of the lexicon. Although the most significant relationship between words is synonym, nouns, verbs and adjectives use preferred semantic relations and have their own kind of organisation. For example, nouns can use hyponymy relationship, which can be defined as a word which as more specific meaning than another more geberal word of which it ia an example. For example, ‘lion’ is a hyponym of ‘animal’.

3.     Use 

a.       Grammatical function: It is important to know the part of speech to which a word belongs and what grammatical patterns it can fit into. Many linguists say the lexicon play a significant role in grammar. Lexical choice determines the grammatical construction of the rest of sentence.

b.      Collocation: “it is a marriage contract between words, and some words are more firmly married to each other than others”. McCarthy (1991: 12). It is necessary for learners to recognise the words that typically occur with another. Nation (2001: 54) states that collocations differ in five factors which are size, type, content words, closeness of collocates and in the possible range of collocates.

Carter (1998: 232) recommends using computer corpora to find word collocations. An invaluable site is the British National Corpus online

c.       Constraints on use: Words are not restricted in their use by sociolinguistics. He says “where there are constraints, the clues on use can come from the way the word is translated into the first language or from the context in which the word is used”.  In other words, learners must know where, when and how often they could meet or use a specific word. There are several factors that limit where and when certain words can be used.

4.     The implications for learning and teaching Vocabulary :

Nation (2001: 26-28) discusses the scope of the receptive/productive distinction. He believes that these terms “apply to a variety of kinds of language knowledge and use”. Regarding vocabulary, these terms cover all aspects of knowing a word. I exploit both of these terms to investigate the implications of knowing a word. In addition, I combine what nation said with what Carter (1998: 239-240) discusses in his conclusion as follows:

If learners fail to pronounce or spell a word correctly, they will be misunderstood. The hearer or reader cannot recognise what is said or written. Thus, there will be poor communication when speaking or writing. Moreover, it is important to know the word parts to realise what a specific word consists of. If the learners do not know the parts of a word, it will be difficult to relate these parts to its meaning. The learner will lose time trying to understand each word part separately. The learners will have problem while hearing and using a word without recognising its parts. In other words, they will not have the ability to construct the word using the right word parts in the suitable forms.

In terms of meaning knowledge, not knowing the form and meaning implies that learners will not recognise the meaning of a word when hearing it. Also, they will not be able to reproduce or retrieve it while speaking. Regarding McCarthy’s ideas about mental storage in terms of phonology, graphology and meaning, it is important to point out that teachers have three options when teaching their students, i.e., they can teach students words with similar graphological or phonological forms or similar meanings. This helps students to learn and acquire the language faster. Furthermore, the implication regarding concepts and referents is, as Nation recommends, that homonyms are taught separately and at different times. As words have a range of different meanings depending on the context in which they occur, learners must be able to use a word appropriately in a particular context in which it has just occurred. Otherwise, they will not be able to reproduce it in various contexts. Finally, the implication of learners not knowing word association is that they fail to have the ability to produce synonyms and antonyms or, to understand that some words are related to others such as the hyponym relationship.

Regarding use, the implication of not knowing the grammatical function is that learners will not have the ability to use the word in the correct context i.e., they will not be able to construct syntactically correct sentences. Furthermore, if the learner does not know which words collocate with others, they will produce awkward or strange sentences like, she did an accident or expensive people live in young towns eating wealthy food. They need to realise that some words are typically collocated with others. Finally, the implications of not knowing the constraints on the use of a word, could lead to inappropriate use. There are some words that are uncommon, pejorative, polite, formal and informal for example. Knowing when they are appropriate will help learners to use them in the correct situations.

5.     Examples of classroom activities used the aspects of “knowing a word”

Many classroom activities focus on the aspects of knowing a word. Nation (2005) suggestsuseful vocabulary learning exercises that require little preparation which may help acquire those aspects. I will discuss three examples that are similar to those cited by Soars (1998: 12-59) and I will also develop my discussion through utilising Nations’ exercises as follows:

Activity One

This activity is chosen to focus on two aspects of knowing a word which are spelling and pronunciation. Teachers can utilise this activity to improve their students’ ability to pronunce and spell as follows:   

1.      There are many silent letters in English words. The bold underlined letters are examples of these letters.

                     listen        talk          knee       wring

Cross out the silent letters in the following words

a.       sign                     d.  half              g. salmon                j. answer

b.      receipt                 e.  honest          h. cupboard            k. whistle

c.       knife                    f.  iron             i. light                    l. castle

This activity can be utilised for learning written (spelling) and spoken (pronunciation) forms of a word.  Students listen to the word first. In other words, the teacher pronounces the words two or three times while the students are listening. The teacher will expect the students to notice the unpronounced letters. They must circle the silent letters and then repeat the word trying to get the correct pronunciation. After that, the teacher can write words on the board and ask the students to pronounce them, giving feedback. The teacher may use direct or indirect correction while students are pronouncing the words. The teacher can then ensure this aspect has been learnt by asking the students prepare sentences for the next lesson, or by dictating a paragraph containing the words. This will reinforce the learning process.

Activity Two

This task focuses on one of the most significant aspects of knowing a word, which is collocation. Teachers can exploit this activity to improve their students’ ability to recognise collocated words as follows:

Look at the following group of words. Which four of the following adjectives cannot go with the nouns shown in the table?

Adjectives Noun Adjectives   Noun Adjectives Noun Expensive Reserved Bored Boring Tall Rude Antique                     Wealthy Sophisticated Crowded Starving High Rich                 +   people Polluted Historic Capital Old Young Agricultural Industrial Seaside Rural Busy Exciting Excited Antique                 + towns Delicious Boiled Fresh Rich Fast Wealthy Disgusted Disgusting Plain Starving Tasty Frozen Vegetarian               + food

This activity is a good for learning collocations. Students can work in pairs or in small groups to list collocates for the given words. The teacher will discuss the answers the students give. He/she can use a corpus to check the answers with the students. This activity should improve the students’ ability to collocate words correctly. The teacher may also write examples on the board using these collocations and ask the students to write their own examples ready for the next lesson. Teachers can recommend the British National Corpus online which can help students find collocations.


Activity Three

The main idea of this task is to help students recognise word parts as shown below.

Fill in the following charts with the missing verb or noun, and underline the stem and any affix.

Verb Noun ……………… arrangement ……………… behaviour reconstruct ……………… admire ………………. ……………… discussion tip ……………….. ……………… acceptance Noun Adjective foreigner ………………. shock ………………. ……………. sick ……………. respectful difficulty ……………….. reserve ………………… …………….. strange

The teacher writes words on the board and the students cut them into parts and give the meanings of the parts before solving the activity. The students will understand the importance and role affixes through highlighting them. The teacher may ask the students to use a dictionary to help them with what parts a specific word consists of.  He/she will give feedback to the students and ask them to use the words in their own examples. This will help retrieval in the future.

6. Conclusion

It is clear that the aspects of knowing a word have occupied many researchers in finding out about them and their implications for teaching and learning vocabulary. Teachers need to choose the activities carefully, ensuring that they focus specific aspects of knowledge. In my opinion, it is better to select activities which cover more than one aspect; this will save time. Furthermore, they must ensure they do not neglect any aspects since they are all essential in making language comprehensible. Finally, I think that knowing the aspects of a word is one of the most significant parts in acquiring a language because words are the gateway to language acquisition and are the building blocks of a language.



To my French teacher and friend, Lara, for everything.



To my close friend and sister, Hanan Naef, for supporting and motivating me.

And to my close friend and brother, Amjad Ghaznavi, for his effort and support during my work with him.



Abdelrahman Mitib Altakhaineh
PhD Candidate (Linguistics and Languages) Newcastle University
Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, UK

Jordan: +962777405212
UK: +447448055457




Carter, R. (1998) Vocabulary: applied linguistic perspectives. London: Routledge.


McCarthy M. (1991) Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Miller, G. A. (1999) ‘On knowing a word’, annual review of psychology, (50), pp 1-19 [accessed 15 December 2009]


Nation, P.  (2005). ‘Teaching vocabulary’, Asian EFL journal, 7 (3),  [accessed 10 Dec 2009]


Nation, P. (2001) Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge


University Press.


Soars, J. (1998) New headway English course: Pre-Intermediate student’s book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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