Effective English vocabulary learning strategies: A research summary

Heng Kimkong
The University of Queensland
Brisbane, Australia
July 16, 2020

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As long as English is still the language of science, technology, international business, research, and academic publication, strategies on how to teach and learn the English language effectively continue to be a subject of great interest among English teachers and learners, and perhaps effective English learning and teaching strategies will remain a popular topic of discussion and research for years to come.

Given the significance of having extensive vocabulary knowledge, that is, knowing a lot of English words, particularly high frequency ones, many, if not all, English as a second or foreign language learners from all over the world may have a strong interest in knowing and understanding how English vocabulary can be learned in an effective way.

To provide English learners, especially Cambodian English learners, with some ideas on how to learn English vocabulary effectively, this short article presents learning strategies believed to be effective for learning English vocabulary. The ideas presented in this essay are based on research findings drawn from the author’s unpublished master’s thesis conducted about 10 years ago. Although the research on which this article is based is relatively old, its findings are still highly relevant and applicable to the current context of English language learning in Cambodia and beyond.

To offer context, the thesis was conducted by the author to fulfill the requirements of his master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at a public Cambodian university. The study adopted a qualitative research method involving in-depth semi-structured interviews with 10 Cambodian English students and teachers (five in each category) purposefully selected from a private English school in Phnom Penh.

The findings obtained from the analysis of the interview transcripts reveal a number of strategies used by the research participants and perceived by them as effective English vocabulary learning strategies. These strategies, some of which were mentioned by both groups of participants, are summarized in Table 1 below.

As can be seen in Table 1, there are many strategies the participants perceived to be effective for learning new English vocabulary. Although generalization was not the aim of the study, it is worth mentioning that a few strategies were commonly used by both the teachers and the students. They include extensive reading, dictionary use, practicing new words in speaking and writing, memorization, and keeping word lists or vocabulary notebooks.

Obviously, the strategies included in the above table is not exhaustive as there are numerous other strategies the participants did not mention during the interviews. Readers are therefore encouraged to explore this topic further by reading different sources ranging from blogs and websites to books and to academic journal articles.

In the context of advanced technology and the rise of social media, it is advisable that English language learners make use of the technology and technological devices at their disposal such as tablets and smart phones to learn new words and improve their English. They can practice using new words they have learned in writing by, for example, posting them on Facebook or Twitter and practicing new words in the comment section. They can also subscribe to YouTube channels that aim to teach new words or the English language generally. They may download some applications for learning English vocabulary, such as Quiz your English and Duolingo, and explore them to see whether they are useful or meet their interests.

In short, English learners are different, so are their learning styles and strategies. Some may find one or a few strategies useful or effective, while others may find the same strategies to be less useful or effective for them. Thus, it is vital they explore each strategy by using it and changing it to a new strategy if they find a particular strategy not effective.

It is true that knowing effective vocabulary learning strategies is important, yet applying the strategies, exploring new strategies, making the commitment to learn new words, using them in speaking and especially in writing, and having a strong desire to increase one’s vocabulary size are even more crucial.

Finally, I wish to conclude this article with a quote: A new word a day keeps the dictionary away.

The Author

HENG Kimkong, a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship, is a PhD candidate in the School of Education at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and a founding co-editor of the Cambodian Education Forum. His articles have appeared in East Asia Forum, the Diplomat, the Interpreter, and Nikkei Asian Review, among other outlets. His research interests include TESOL, English teacher education, academic research engagement, Cambodia’s foreign policy and the role of youth.

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