Review: How Vocabulary is Learned by Stuart Webb and Paul Nation

Reviewed by Will Greenwood

As the authors point out in the introduction, there has been a huge amount of research on vocabulary in recent years: it has been estimated that 30% of all research on the topic has taken place since the turn of the century. A comprehensive review and summary of the evidence of how vocabulary is best learned and taught, presented in an easily digestible form, that can be put into practice by busy working teachers, is certainly very welcome. And that is what Webb and Nation have presented us with here.

After discussion of which words should be learned, and the vocabulary demands of various text types, the authors provide a very useful analysis of the factors that determine the difficulty of learning a word, or the learning burden. They then go on to discuss incidental and deliberate learning, and the advantages of both. This is followed by an analysis and assessment of vocabulary learning activities, a discussion of the challenges of different learning contexts, and a discussion of autonomous learning strategies. The authors then discuss the optimal design of teacher-led vocabulary learning program, based around ‘the principle of the four strands’ – that vocabulary learning should include meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, language-focused study and fluency work. Finally, they present a wide-ranging and very useful list of resources. As one would expect, the book is comprehensive and thorough. It is also well-designed for teachers, with a minimum of jargon, many thought-provoking reader tasks, and useful suggested reading lists for each chapter.

The authors carefully assess many different vocabulary learning exercises, analysing the specific purposes to which they should be used, and detailing the research that supports them. Nevertheless, it has to be said that there is little that is revolutionary about many of the ideas suggested. As you might expect from what is principally a compendium of the relevant research, there are no quick fix solutions, magic bullets or grand unifying theories. Most of the activities and methods presented and analysed will have been used in some form or other by most teachers; some are probably as old as language teaching itself. This is not intended as criticism, and it is certainly not to suggest that the book will not be directly and immediately useful for classroom teachers. It is likely that every teacher will find something here to help them. For me, the overriding benefit of the book was to put together what I already knew, and plenty that I didn’t, into a coherent whole. It gave me the knowledge and, above all, confidence to construct an organised and systematic vocabulary program, and to share the rationale with learners, safe in the knowledge that I had solid theoretical and empirical support.

For example, using the vocabulary levels test (described in the book and available on Stuart Webb’s website), learners got a rough idea of their present vocabulary knowledge. I could then present to them the scale of the vocabulary challenge needed to achieve their specific aims (in this case, IELTS band 6, which will probably demand a receptive vocabulary of perhaps 3-4000 word families). Online tools, detailed in the book, allow me to assess and select materials of an appropriate lexical level, and know which words can reasonably be ignored or glossed.

This clarity and transparency has had a powerfully motivating effect: given a clear view of the scale of the task, learners can see that while it is large and difficult, it is not endless or unachievable. And crucially, I have been able to explain and justify classroom activities in terms of how specifically they will contribute towards these learning goals, giving vocabulary activities a renewed sense of meaning and purpose. Autonomous learning strategies – including lexical notebooks and flashcard apps – have been embraced with a new enthusiasm.

In conclusion, this book has had a very positive effect on my teaching of vocabulary, and has benefitted my learners a great deal. I highly recommend it to any teacher serious about developing their own knowledge of vocabulary learning and committed to helping learners achieve their vocabulary aims.

How Vocabulary is Learned by Stuart Webb and Paul Nation is out now

Author's Bio: Will has taught in schools in Taiwan, Ecuador, Vietnam and the UK, mostly focusing on academic English and exam classes. He is currently working for IH Tbilisi.