Vol. 8. No. 4 R-6 March 2005
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching

Keith S. Folse (2004)
Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press
Pp. v + 185
ISBN 0-472-03029-9 (paper)

I would imagine that many ESL teachers (and students) will find vindication in Keith Folse's Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching (2004).ESL teachers have been told "by experts" to relegate vocabulary teaching to a minor component of their lesson plans. Research and teacher training courses have long criticized explicit vocabulary teaching as unnecessary, a poor utilization of class time, and even detrimental to acquisition due to frustration and boredom. Second language acquisition (SLA) research has been driven by areas such as "grammar, contrastive analysis, comprehensible input, learner strategies, and motivation" (p. 160) and "an overzealous comparisons of learning a first and second language" (p. vi). Thus vocabulary has received little treatment in research and in second language classrooms. Folse challenges the prevailing wisdom of giving primary attention to grammar, comprehensible input, and motivation while ignoring what many teachers and students know to be the heart of second language learning: vocabulary learning. Folse is careful to not dismiss or trivialize the advances in SLA research and their contributions to classroom teaching. However, he does challenge the notion that vocabulary "will come naturally" or will be acquired "incidentally." While this does happen, he notes this is simply not sufficient nor efficient for vocabulary acquisition. This premise and his review of the research will appeal to teachers and students who maintain explicit vocabulary teaching must have a central role in ESL programs and programs.

Vocabulary myths begins with an excellent review of basic concepts about vocabulary in SLA including elements such as phrasal verbs and collocations. The introductory chapter also discusses what it means to know a word, which is a complex issue but Folse handles the complexity in a clear and comprehensible style. The next part of the book deals with eight prevailing myths about vocabulary. Each myth is introduced with a short vignette called "In the real world..." which are anecdotes taken from Folse's teaching experiences. After this vignette, Folse discusses why each myth is wrong and what research says about the myth. Finally, practical classroom advice is offered in light of research. The book concludes with short chapter aimed at highlighting real applications for the research. [-1-]

Overall, the book is well written and engaging, though some of the reviews of the research do get somewhat tedious. However, the research review is extensive and offers ample support for each of Folse's assertions. By far the strength of the text lies in its ability to connect with those classroom teachers who feel that vocabulary not only matters but is vital to SLA success. It also is a must read for those teachers who feel that vocabulary should not be taught explicitly. These teachers will have many of their assumptions challenged. Folse notes that some teachers and most researchers have ignored vocabulary due to the feeling that it is not that complicated or that teaching it is ineffective. Some of the myths Folse discusses run counter to what many in the ESL field have been taught for years. For example, few teachers encourage the use of word lists or the use of translation (myths 2 and 4), but Folse argues if used in moderation, these are effective ways to learn new vocabulary. He also argues that encouraging students to guess meanings from context (myth 5) or to exclusively use monolingual dictionaries (myth 7) may not be as easy for the students as we are often told. While guessing from context may be effective for L1 vocabulary development, L2 learners are unique in that they lack sufficient vocabulary to guess from context or as is often the case, learners assume an incorrect definition.

In addition to dispelling these myths, Vocabulary Myths reviews research that consistently reports that L2 students note their major obstacle is vocabulary. Students also rate vocabulary high on lists of areas they would like to study in the L2 classroom. Typically, it is second behind opportunities to speak in class. Unfortunately, Folse is not able to offer definitive solutions for the vocabulary teaching issue because they simply do not exist. He is quick to point out that any there is not one method to teach vocabulary nor are there methods that should be avoided in all circumstances. Rather, Folse offers a compelling case to include explicit vocabulary teaching in curriculum and classroom decisions as well as in published textbooks. How each teacher or each program goes about including vocabulary in their curriculum will vary, but the evidence is clear. In light of the research, student expectations, and teacher intuition, explicit vocabulary teaching should be included.

David Johnson
Kennesaw State University

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note:

Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..
Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page