Lexical inferencing

Should students leave their dictionaries at home?

Encouraging students to guess the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary is a widely used strategy in Communicative Language Teaching. However, a recent study by Nassaji (2012) suggests that inferring meaning from context is at times an impervious task: on average, students were found to successfully guess only 25% of unfamiliar words. This raises important questions about how we should deal with vocabulary in the classroom Are we expecting too much from our students? Nassaji argues that teachers should spend more time identifying, defining and explaining vocabulary rather than encouraging students to infer the meanings of new words through context.

  • Do you use lexical inferencing in your teaching? Do you think it’s effective?
  • Do you spend much classroom time teaching vocabulary explicitly? What sort of activities do you do?
  • Hirsh and Nation (1992) suggest that in order to successfully infer meaning, students must be familiar with around 98% of the surrounding vocabulary. What implications does this have for the classroom?
  • While Nassaji questions the validity of inference for new words, he recognises the importance of context for reinforcing vocabulary by making sure that learners encounter the same words in new contexts. How could you do this with your students?


Hirsh, D. & Nation, P. (1992). What vocabulary size is needed to read unsimplified texts for pleasure? Reading in a Foreign Language, 8, 689-696.



5 responses to “Vocabulary

  1. I come from a Communicative Language Teaching background where we were always told to discourage the use of dictionaries in the classroom. The Nassaji study presents interesting findings which suggest we should rethink the way we expect students to learn vocabulary.

    On a personal level I tend to agree with these findings: without a dictionary to help me make sense of what I’m reading, I get fed up and put the book back on the shelf very quickly! Expecting too much from students can be counterproductive. If they can’t complete the task, it’s demotivating. Texts which contain less than 5% unknown words are ideal, although it can be difficult to get the level right, especially in mixed classes.

    I agree with Jenny Hardacre and Yolande Deane (links 3 and 4 above) that a more explicit approach to vocabulary would benefit students.

    This doen’t mean giving up on inference all together. Inference is a valuable skill: students won’t always have their trusty dictionary to hand in real life situations, nor would we want them to. Likewise, it’s vital to prepare students for dealing with unknown vocabulary in exams. But these tasks should be directed at teaching inference as a skill, rather than teaching new vocabulary.

    • karrus72, my approach is: why should this be any different than L1 English learners. I’ve always encouraged my children to use the dictionary. I’ve even had them “red-dot” repeat words they have looked-up….. use any tools that get the job done………

  2. On the other hand, having to refer to a dictionary too often makes reading incredibly tiring. I find that I loose the purpose if I use the dictionary too often. And there is nothing more frustrating than having to look up words in the definition because they, too, are unknown to me.

    Having said that, I am addicted to my dictionary in my Kindle. Looking up a word is simple. I believe e-readers can be a huge help in this area of reading.

    Thanks for the post. I struggle with how to teach vocabulary to my middle grade students, some of whom are ELL.

  3. Ha! I make some terrible guesses with new vocabulary. I ‘guessed’
    that ‘campur’ (Malay) meant ‘camphor’ (why on earth would I think that?). Anyway, it means ‘mix’.
    But as akantics said, reading with a dictionary when there are too many unknown words is not reading for pleasure – it’s reading and looking up words, and that’s tedious.
    If you know anyone looking for ESL reading texts you could direct them to the READING ESL portion of my blog, where I re-write news and magazine articles from the net, link to the original, and provide a glossary of the less common words used in the original story.

  4. Why not get students to keep a personal dictionary of words looked up?
    It takes time but is useful when the personal glossary reaches critical mass.

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