How vocabulary is learned


  • Paul Nation



vocabulary learning, mental processing, vocabulary size, repetition


Vocabulary learning requires two basic conditions – repetition (quantity of meetings with words) and good quality mental processing of the meetings.  Other factors also affect vocabulary learning. For example, learners may differ greatly in their motivation to engage in learning, and words may differ greatly in their learning burden.  However, without quantity and quality of processing, learning cannot occur.  The greater the number of repetitions, the more likely learning is to occur.  The deeper and more thoughtful the quality of processing, the more likely learning is to occur.  This paper explains quantity and quality, and shows how teachers and learners can increase the quantity and quality of their processing of vocabulary, thus increasing their vocabulary size.


Bauer, L., & Nation, I.S.P. (1993). Word families. International Journal of Lexicography, 6(4), 253-279.
Craik, F.I.M., & Lockhart, R.S. (1972). Levels of processing: a framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.
Daulton, F.E. (2008). Japan's Built-in Lexicon of English-based Loanwords. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Elley, W.B. (1989). Vocabulary acquisition from listening to stories. Reading Research Quarterly, 24(2), 174-187.
Gardner, D. (2008). Vocabulary recycling in children's authentic reading materials: A corpus-based investigation of narrow reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 20(1), 92-122.
Griffin, G.F., & Harley, T.A. (1996). List learning of second language vocabulary. Applied Psycholinguistics, 17, 443-460.
Joe, A. (1998). What effects do text-based tasks promoting generation have on incidental vocabulary acquisition? Applied Linguistics, 19(3), 357-377.
Horst, M., Cobb, T., & Meara, P. (1998). Beyond a Clockwork Orange: acquiring second language vocabulary through reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 11(2), 207-223.
Krashen, S. (1996). The case for narrow listening. System, 24(1), 97-100.
Malarcher, C. & Nation, P. (2017). Timed Reading for Fluency. Seoul: Seed Learning.
Nakata, T. (2015). Effects of expanding and equal spacing on second language vocabulary learning: Does gradually increasing spacing increase vocabulary learning? SSLA, 37, 677-711.
Nation, I.S.P. (2014). How much input do you need to learn the most frequent 9,000 words? Reading in a Foreign Language, 26(2), 1-16.
Nation, I.S.P. (2013a). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nation, P. (2013b). What should every EFL Teacher Know? Seoul: Compass Publishing.
Nation, P. (2013c). What should every ESL Teacher Know? Seoul: Compass Publishing.
Nation, I.S.P. (2007). The four strands. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1(1), 1-12.
Nation, P., & Crabbe, D. (1991). A survival language learning syllabus for foreign travel. System, 19(3), 191-201.
Pellicer-Sánchez, A. (2016). Incidental vocabulary acquisition from and while reading: An eye-tracking study. SSLA, 38(1), 97-130.
Pellicer-Sánchez, A., & Schmitt, N. (2010). Incidental vocabulary acquisition from an authentic novel: Do Things Fall Apart? Reading in a Foreign Language, 22(1), 31-55.
Pressley, M. (1977). Children's use of the keyword method to learn simple Spanish vocabulary words. Journal of Educational Psychology, 69(5), 465-472.
Sorell, C.J. (2012). Zipf's law and vocabulary. In C.A. Chapelle (Ed.), Encyclopaedia of Applied Linguistics. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Sutarsyah, C., Nation, P., & Kennedy, G. (1994). How useful is EAP vocabulary for ESP? A corpus based study. RELC Journal, 25(2), 34-50.
Webb, S. (2007). The effects of repetition on vocabulary knowledge. Applied Linguistics, 28(1), 46-65.
Wei, Z., & Nation, P. (2013). The word part technique: A very useful vocabulary teaching technique. Modern English Teacher, 22(1), 12-16.



Abstract views: 1251 | PDF downloads: 2149