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What do we need to know about words?

Summary of Nation’s ideas about what it is to know a word.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

Knowing a word means more than just knowing what object or concept it refers to.

If we really know a word, we should be able to answer (consciously or unconsciously) a wide range of questions about it. Look at the questions below, adapted from a list provided by Paul Nation in his book Teaching and Learning Vocabulary (Nation 1990:31).

We have grouped them into four areas of knowledge: form, meaning, context and usage.

Form (spoken and written)

  • What does the word sound like?
  • How is the word pronounced?
  • What does the word look like?
  • How is the word written and spelled?

Meaning (concept and associations)

  • What does the word mean?
  • What word could be used to express this meaning?
  • What other words does this word make us think of?
  • What other words could we use instead of this one?

Context (grammar patterns and collocations)

  • In what patterns does the word occur?
  • In what patterns is this word be used?
  • What words are expected before or after the word?
  • What other words could be used with this word?

Usage (frequency and appropriateness)

  • How common is the word?
  • How often is the word used?
  • Where would we expect to meet this word?
  • Where can this word be used?

Paul Nation also divided these questions according to whether they are related to reception (listening and reading) or production (for speaking and writing), as discussed in Week 1, Step 1.5.

This distinction is an important one. Certain types of dictionary information help us with words we do not recognise when we read or hear them while others help us with concepts we want to express in our own speaking or writing but do not know the words for.

Your task

Group the questions above according to whether you think they relate to receptive or productive word knowledge (or both).
Does the dictionary you use provide receptive and productive information in all four knowledge areas?


<subNation, I.S.P. (1990) Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. New York: Newbury House</sub>

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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Understanding English Dictionaries

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