Review of Norbert Schmitt, Vocabulary in Language Teaching.

New York: Cambridge University Press. 2000. 224 + xv pp.  $20.95 paper.


By Tom Cobb, Dépt. de linguistique et de didactique des langues, Université du Québec à Montréal, 4 February 2002, for Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics.


It is now commonplace to say there is an explosion under way in pedagogical vocabulary studies, and yet it is a trend with at least two anomalies. One is that despite the number of interesting findings in the last two decades, they are rather isolated and there remain far more questions than answers. The other is that while virtually all teacher-training courses offer a course in pedagogical grammar, few offer a course in pedagogical vocabulary—a striking discrepancy, in that one of the few things we know about either is that lexis is to some extent teachable while the same has never been shown for grammar.


Vocabulary is normally given a brief mention in reading methodology courses, consisting of an acknowledgment of its importance and some remarks about the benefits of inferring rather than looking up in a dictionary. In my own training course as an English teacher in the late 1970s, one memorable point was made about teaching the new vocabulary of a reading passage, namely that it was less useful to define words for learners ("a dog is a four-legged animal that barks") than to ask them to find a word for a meaning ("a word that means a four-legged animal that barks"). The idea seemed correct, although I would have been hard pressed to say why. For years this teaching tip was my personal example of something you can learn about language teaching, something you can do in a more and a less effective way. I gradually worked out the reasons why the tip had seemed appealing, i.e., that it gives learners a role in the conversation and proceeds from (known) concept to (unknown) label, and wondered if we trainees might not have been given a little more help to get started with this type of reasoning.


There is now a minor industry devoted to the production of lengthy volumes attempting to pull together the growing amount that has been unearthed about vocabulary (how words are learned, organized in memory, in first language (L1), and second (L2), how words can be taught, which ones can be taught, what about them can be taught, how much they can be taught, and how the teaching can be tested). Nation (1990), Nation (2001), Carter (1998), and Schmitt and McCarthy (1997) are the main ones. The audience for these volumes is clearly teachers or lecturers with several years of teaching experience who have returned to university for an MA or PhD. In each of the volumes, numerous complex studies are referred to, in some cases along with inaccessible or hard-to-use computer programs, many of the conclusions are extremely tenuous and hard to see the practical bearing of, and the 'teaching implications' ending each chapter are often perfunctory. To follow this body of work clearly demands a high state of commitment that will not necessarily characterize trainees mainly concerned with how they will get on in the classroom; indeed many who read these books may be doing so precisely with a view to spending less time in the classroom. There is a place for an undergraduate version of such a volume.


This is what Norbert Schmitt has set out to do with his Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Unlike some in the vocabulary field, Schmitt has risen through the ranks of the teaching profession himself and is in a good position to know what teachers need to know about vocabulary and its acquisition. When he turned his attentions to research he embraced vocabulary with a passion, and in the past ten years he has worked with several of the major figures in the field (Paul Meara, Paul Nation, Mike McCarthy, and Ron Carter). He is, to say the least, qualified for the job.


For the most part, the chapters of the book follow a scheme proposed by Nation (1990), detailing the eight types of word knowledge that native speakers generally possess in a highly developed form. These are meaning(s), written form, spoken form, grammatical behaviour, collocation (the habitual company a word keeps), register (formal, vulgar, etc.), associations, and frequency. In addition, there is an introductory chapter on the history of language teaching methodology from the point of view of how vocabulary was treated in the major phases (it was mainly ignored), and there is a chapter toward the end on vocabulary testing. Each chapter and even each section ends with a substantial text on teaching implications, and there is a final whole chapter pulling all the teaching implications together.


In principle, everything should be in place to make this a very useful volume for teacher trainees, and largely it is a useful volume. The historical sketch is well done and includes an excellent account (that I had never understood fully) of the difference between the two branches of the vocabulary control movement of the 1930s: the Basic English version proposed by Ogden and Richards, based on supposedly universal concepts, that in fact was quite unnatural and had to be learned apart from the language per se; and the frequency version, based on the idea that more frequent words should be learned first, proposed by Michael West and still under development by Nation and colleagues and to some extent by everyone on the corpus side of applied linguistics including Schmitt himself.


Another chapter that is very well done is Chapter 5, corresponding to Nation's knowledge categories collocation and frequency. These are naturals for a computational treatment, as formerly intuitive knowledge types now confirmable through analysis of large and representative text corpora by concordance and related software. The author warms to his theme here, and explains well and clearly what a corpus is and what can be learned from it. Every chapter ends with exercises that would be ideal for homework and assignments, and the exercises with this chapter are particularly engaging. One that I took the time to do myself was to judge the frequency of a list of ten words (age, and, brainy, complication, device, disaster, effort, emblem, vanquish, and wine) against disaster as a base word (twice as frequent, half as frequent, etc.) and then check intuition against hard corpus data in an appendix. This, of course, would make a fine hands-on computer task, particularly if the reader could do the exercise with different corpora.


The book is not without foibles, which will no doubt be corrected in a future reprinting. Some are small inconsistencies. In the collocation and frequency chapter, Schmitt discusses a possible teaching activity, consisting of a grid students fill in for the collocates of drive and ride (writing + or - for each of bike, motorcycle, car, truck, horse, and camel), but then warns that the exercise might not be useful because the learners "have no option but to guess" (p. 88). Since we have just been hearing about hands-on concordancing tasks, would it not be a perfect one of those if learners used corpus and concordance searches to determine for themselves the sorts of conveyances one drives vs. rides?


There is another problem that will take more work. This concerns the sections in the book where Schmitt attempts to explain to his readers one or another heavyweight piece of psycholinguistics (as happens in Chapters 2, 3, and 4). There are great popularizers of this kind of material, notably Jean Aitcheson (Words in the Mind, 1994), whom the author cites regularly and would do well to emulate. One of her strategies is to dual-track complex information through both text and pictures (of which the present volume has none). At one point there is a foray into the various ways that words and their morphologies might be stored in the mental lexicon (pre-assembled vs. assembled at the point of delivery, pp. 62-63). As a reader somewhat familiar with this literature, I found it took me a few minutes to focus on the topic. The reason became clear when I compared Schmitt's to Nation's (2001) treatment of the same issue. Nation spends several pages (pp. 269-281) developing the point and preparing the ground for detailed and concrete teaching ideas, while Schmitt passes over in a few paragraphs, hastening to the rather abstract injunction that teachers "should consider giving a higher profile to derivative forms in their instruction" (p. 64). Brevity is clearly implicit in Schmitt's brief, but there are fascinating word issues better dropped than summarized too much. The conflict to resolve for the next edition is between telling it all and telling teachers what they can use.


When there is a crying need for a book, there is usually some reason why it has not already been written. The reason here is that the book is a difficult one to write. A good start has been made, and Schmitt will undoubtedly persist.




Aitcheson, J. (1994). Words in the mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.


Carter, R. (1998). Vocabulary: Applied linguistic perspectives (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.


Nation, P. (1990). Teaching and learning vocabulary. New York: Newbury House.


Nation, P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Schmitt, N., & McCarthy, M. (Eds.) (1997). Vocabulary: Description, acquisition, and pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.