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Focus on Vocabulary.

Focus on Vocabulary

Paul Nation and Peter Yongqi Gu

Sydney, Australia: National Centre for English Language Teaching and Research (NCELTR), 2007. 184 pages

In recent years there has been a surge in publications on learning and teaching vocabulary in terms of both pedagogy and research. Focus on Vocabulary is a noteworthy example of this interest; it is part of the Focus on ... series from the NCELTR at Macquarie University, which also includes titles on reading, grammar, and speaking. Written for teachers and other language professionals, these books are research-based, but address practical issues in classroom teaching, as this addition does nicely. Authors Paul Nation and Peter Gu are from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, where a number of staff have been active in adding to the vocabulary literature. Nation's (2001) tome, for example, is considered the most comprehensive book on the topic to date, and Gu's (2005) study (published before he moved to New Zealand) is the only book-length work I am aware of on vocabulary-learning strategies.

Following a brief overview, Focus on Vocabulary is composed of eight chapters and four appendices. Each chapter starts with good prereading questions, which are then answered as one reads the chapter, and ends with a summary and references for further reading. Chapter one, on vocabulary in the curriculum, outlines four types of vocabulary (high frequency, academic, low frequency, and technical words), discusses how such vocabulary can hinder students' comprehension of technical texts, and summarizes what it means to know and learn a word. Based on a statistical perspective, chapter two introduces using corpora ("collections of text," p. 18) and computer analysis programs to create word frequency lists, compare texts (and the vocabulary in them), and produce concordances: examples of word use. Perhaps most useful for teachers, chapter three offers guidelines on how instructors can plan for and make decisions about dealing with the four types of vocabulary outlined in chapter one. Using Nation's (2007) four strands, the authors present the view that "a well-balanced language course" has four roughly equal components: "meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, language-focused learning and fluency development" (p. 33). This chapter also considers how to approach low- and high-frequency words and a five-step plan for an effective vocabulary program.

The next two chapters deal with vocabulary and receptive (listening and reading, chapter four) and productive (speaking and writing, chapter five) skills. Chapter six offers an overview of learners' strategies and vocabulary acquisition, discussing the task involved, the four frequency levels of vocabulary (from chapter one), and how varied strategies might be used at various stages of vocabulary learning. Measuring vocabulary knowledge is the topic of chapter seven, which summarizes research on vocabulary size and shows how learners with varying levels of vocabulary knowledge would view or understand sections of various texts taken from a written corpus. This chapter refers to and is connected with three of the four appendices, which include a version of the popular Vocabulary Levels Test (appendix one) and a guide to using it (appendix three), plus a vocabulary size test (appendix two). The fourth appendix is made up of the Academic Word List. The final chapter, eight, asks 10 common questions about vocabulary (on the use of translation, context, dictionaries, etc.) and is devoted to short one-to-three-page explanations on each of these issues.

Focus on Vocabulary is commendable for many reasons, and teachers and teacher trainers will find it a current, relevant, and easy-to-use resource. This is a practical book that summarizes research and theory, but relates them to examples and strategies that teachers can apply in their own classrooms. For example, chapters one to seven include tasks to help readers connect issues to their own situations. In chapter two, for example, these include using MS-Word for word counts in a text and then comparing the results with a frequency program available for free download on Nation's Web site. Another great feature of the book is the sample texts and activities throughout that draw from school textbooks dealing with (mostly) science and social studies, and the use of tables, charts, and diagrams is excellent, so the book will appeal to various types of readers. The book is written not only for ESL/EFL teachers, but will also be of interest to subject matter teachers who work with English language-learners in mainstream classes. The word list and the two tests (and directions) in the appendices are also great resources for teachers to have on hand.

I used Focus on Vocabulary as a textbook in my TESOL Topics: Teaching Vocabulary course this year with good results. The examples are mainly from elementary and secondary texts, which students working with younger learners appreciated. But those teaching adults at college or university found the other textbook for the course (Coxhead, 2006) more relevant, and there was much common ground (she was one of Nation's graduate students). As a result, I am not sure if I will use either the Nation and Gu or the Coxhead books again, especially as Nation's new (2008) volume arrived recently and Zimmerman's (2008) handbook might be a better complement for it. The book also has a number of typos and missing references and seemed repetitive at times. My final concern about this and similar texts is the almost exclusively quantitative approach to vocabulary that it presents, as vocabulary knowledge is complex. Although this is the dominant paradigm, it is not without weaknesses. Yet if readers approach Focus on Vocabulary with these limitations in mind, they will find much that they can learn. I thus strongly recommend it.


Coxhead, A. (2006). Essentials of teaching academic vocabulary. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Gu, P.Y. (2005). Vocabulary learning strategies in the Chinese EFL context. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish.

Nation, I.S.P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Nation, I.S.P. (2008). Teaching vocabulary: Strategies and techniques. Boston, MA: Heinle.

Nation, P. (2007). The four strands. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1, 2-13.

Zimmerman, C. B. (2008). Word knowledge: The vocabulary teacher's handbook. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

The Reviewer

Michael Lessard-Clouston has taught for 20 years in Canada, China, Japan, and the United States. He is an associate professor of applied linguistics and TESOL in the School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University in La Mirada, California, where his courses include discourse analysis, second-language acquisition, and vocabulary teaching.
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Author:Lessard-Clouston, Michael
Publication:TESL Canada Journal
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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