Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.
How many words does a learner need to know?
An educated native speaker will probably have a vocabulary of around 20,000 words or, more accurately, 20,000 word families.
It has been calculated that a classroom learner would need more than eighteen years of classroom exposure to supply the same amount of vocabulary input that occurs in just one year in natural settings.
One figure that is often quoted is 2,000. This is around the number of words that most native speakers use in their daily conversation. About 2,000 words, too, is the size of the defining vocabulary used in dictionaries for language learners. These are words and suffixes that are used in dictionary’s definitions. Moreover, a passive knowledge of the 2,000 most frequent words in English would provide a reader with familiarity with nearly nine out of every ten words in most written texts.
Most researchers nowadays recommend a basic vocabulary of at least 3,000 word families, while for more specialized needs, a working vocabulary of over 5,000 word families is probably desirable. Students aiming to pass the Cambridge First Certificate Examination, for example should probably aim to understand at least 5,000 words even if their productive vocabulary is half that number.
How words are remembered
Repetition: It has been estimated that, when reading words stand a good chance of being remembered if they have been met at least seven times over spaced intervals.
Retrieval: The act of retrieving a word from memory makes it more likely that the learner will be able to recall it again later.
Spacing: It is better to distribute memory work across a period of time than to mass it together in a single block. When teaching students a new set of words it is best to present two or three items, then go back and test these, then present some more, then backtrack again, and so on. As each word becomes better learned, the testing interval can gradually be extended. The aim is to test each item at the longest interval at which it can reliably be recalled. Similarly, over a sequence of lessons, newly presented vocabulary should be reviewed in the next lesson, but the interval between successive tests should gradually be increased.
Pacing: Students have different learning styles and process data at different rates, so ideally they should be given the opportunity to pace their own rehearsal activities. This may mean the teacher allowing time during vocabulary learning for learners to do ‘memory work’ – such as organizing or reviewing their vocabulary – silently and individually.
Use: Putting words to use, preferably in some interesting way, is the best way of ensuring they are added to long term-memory.
Cognitive depth: The more decisions the learner makes about a word, and the more cognitively demanding these decisions, the better the word is remembered.
Personal organizing: The judgments that learners make about a words are most effective if they are personalized.
Imaging: Test have shown that easily visualized words are more memorable than words that don’t immediately evoke a picture. This suggests that – even for abstract words – it might help if learners associate them with some mental image.
Motivation: Simply wanting to learn new words is no guarantee that words will be remembered. The only difference a strong motivation makes is that the learner is likely to spend more time on rehearsal and practice, which in the end will pay off in terms of memory. But even unmotivated learners remember words if they have been set tasks that require them to make decisions about them.
Attention/arousal: Words that trigger a strong emotional response are more easily recalled than ones that don’t. This may account for the fact that many learners seem to have a knack of remembering swear words, even if they’ve heard them only a couple of times.