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The Internet as an Educational Tool in Vocabulary Instruction. By Fatemeh Alipanahi Faculty member of Zanjan Azad University & Zanjan University of IRAN . Abstract Introduction Traditional Approaches to Vocabulary Learning

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the internet as an educational tool in vocabulary instruction

The Internet as an Educational Tool in Vocabulary Instruction

By Fatemeh Alipanahi

Faculty member of Zanjan Azad University & Zanjan University of IRAN

  • Introduction
  • Traditional Approaches to Vocabulary Learning
  • Criticisms of Traditional Approaches to Vocabulary Learning
  • Incidental Learning Versus Intentional Learning
  • Internet & Vocabulary Learning
  • Conclusion


Modern research shows that mastering an item of vocabulary involves far more than merely memorizing the denotative – or dictionary – meaning of a word.

This study reviews the communicative nature of computer networks and proposes that adding the Internet to the classroom environment can benefit vocabulary learning by making word learning as a natural part of communicative activities.


Computer-aided research gives us vast amount of information about how words behave and the relationships they form in real-life communication; psycholinguistic studies are providing further insights into how the mind processes and stores vocabulary and we also know more about effective teaching and learning strategies.

traditional approaches to vocabulary learning
Traditional Approaches to Vocabulary Learning

For many years vocabulary had been considered

as the “ Cinderella” (neglected step-child) of applied linguistics. L2 vocabulary research has amounted to little more than testing memory strategies for learning lists of words such as repetition, review and mnemonics.

“The word vocabulary has long connoted word lists, and vocabulary learning strategies have been considered techniques that help commit these lists to memory (Gu & Johnson 1996: 643”. Most research on vocabulary learning strategies has explored different methods of vocabulary presentation and their effectiveness in retention (Meara, 1980). Memory strategies, one of the many aspects of vocabulary learning, are studied most on the presupposition, that strategies which are good for vocabulary retention will also help language learning in general (Gu & Johnson, 1996).
Some earlier research focused on rehearsal strategies and addressed questions such as the number of repetitions needed to learn a list. (Crothers & Suppes, 1967; Lado, Baldwin, & Lobo 1967), the suitable number of words to be learned at one time (Crothers & Suppes, 1967), or the timing of repetition seems to be less efficient than using spaced recall and structured reviews (Atkinson, 1972; Royer, 1973; Seibert, 19277); silent repetition and silent writing are less effective than repeating the words aloud (Gresham, 1970; Seibert, 1927).
Research into mnemonics has continued through the past two decades, following Atkinson (1972) and Atkinson and Raugh (1975). Most of such interest has centered on the key-word method, a technique that starts with an acoustic link (i.e., finding a keyword in L1 that sounds like the foreign word) then links the keyword, and the foreign word by means of an interactive image (Cohen, 1987; Meara, 1980; Nation, 1982; Carter & McCarthy, 1988).

Criticisms of Traditional Approaches to Vocabulary LearningThe key word method or any other mnemonic suffers from fundamental assumptions that vocabulary learning largely means list learning. According to Meara (1980) “ these laboratory experiments completely ignore the complex patterns of meaning relationships that characterize a proper, fully formed lexicon (Meara 1980: 225)”. So they are unlikely to play a major role in the development of a dynamic living lexicon on the target language (Gu & Johnson, 1996).

Modern theory suggests that learning a word is much more than memorizing the word and its definition.
  • Every vocabulary item can be seen as consisting of the following layers of meaning:
  • Denotative Meaning (explicit or dictionary meaning)
  • Connotative Meaning (additional suggested meanings)
  • Collocative Meaning (how words are arranged together)
  • Contrastive or Paradigmatic Meaning (conceptual association with other words), the meaning derived from the relationships that hold among the members of a semantic field.
  • Stylistic Meaning ( interpersonal meaning, associated with the degree of intimacy between the interlocutors and the type of the relationship between them).
  • Implicative Meaning (implied meaning).
  • The meaning of a word takes shape in the context of the words that surround it. By focusing only on the denotative layer of a word’s meaning, traditional list learning ignores these underlying layers of connection.

Theorists now consider a word, not as an isolatedlist entry, but as a node within a web of connections with other words. Lotfipour saw vocabulary as “ an integrated system of lexemes in sense” (1990)“Learning a word includes much more than remembering the orthographic and phonological forms and their corresponding meaning. This means that a central purpose in teaching should be to encourageand help the learners to become more


aware of how native speakers and other proficient speakers use the target language, and to be more sensitive to different shades of meaning. What is important for the language learners is to determine the “value” of a lexical item in a given context not its dictionary meanings or “signification” . To achieve this, he should be aware of various “potential” meanings or “layers of lexical meaning” which contribute to the “actual” meaning or value a specific lexical item assumes in a context.


For this to be accomplished, lexis, grammar, and discourse should no longer be thought of being separate in the language”, Ooi and Kim-Seoh (1996) An integrative approach would allow the teacher to shift attention from one to the other and back again. They believe that “this can be achieved without too much strain by reorienting the more established approach, and thinking in terms of activities rather than clearly demarcated “lessons”.

incidental learning versus intentional learning
Memorizing lists of words is an example of intentional learning – the primary task in front of the student is memorizing the given words and

Incidental learning, by contrast, includes skills, attitudes, and information that the participant did not intend to acquire while doing a task, but nevertheless did learn.  

Incidental Learning versus Intentional Learning
It has been assumed that older L2 students, unlike children, cannot pick up vocabulary by incidental learning. Consequently, we have focused on intentional learning strategies. However, several studies have shown that incidental learning does play a significant role in vocabulary development.

Incidental learning seems to improve mastery of words students already recognize (receptive vocabulary). Words learned in context – as opposed those learned from a list -- are more likely to be words that are actually used (productive vocabulary) instead of merely recognized.


A word will not move from students’ receptive vocabulary to their productive vocabulary if they don’t feel motivated to use the word (Hatch & Brown, 1995). Richards (1996) strongly suggests that complete “lexical competence” must involve some degree of incidental learning that results from meeting words in context. And, contrary to the assumption that adults cannot learn words without intentionally memorizing them, Richard suggests that incidental learning is the way most words are acquired during our adult years. Richards characterizes lexical competence in the following eight assumptions:

native speakers continue to expand their vocabulary in adulthood
Knowing a word means knowing:

the degree of probability of encountering it and the kind of words most likely to be found associated with it (frequency and collocability).

its limitations of use according to function and situation (temporal, social, geographical, field, mode, etc).

its syntactic behavior (e.g. transitivity patterns, cases).

Its underlying forms and derivation.

its place in network of associations with other words in the language.

its value (its composition).

its different meanings (polysemy)  

Native speakers continue to expand their vocabulary in adulthood
This means that vocabulary instruction should go beyond helping the learner to internalize dictionary meaning.

In the traditional classroom the only practical way to do so was by individual reading. (Huckin, & Coady, 1993). Research now has extensively showed that vocabulary can be acquired through reading or any “ fully contextualized activities” (Scarcalla, 1994; 240). Words, which are acquired through reading, not only retain their referential meaning but the syntactic, pragmatic, and even emotional information from their context. In this way vocabulary is not thought of as acquired as separate items, it is an integral part of discourse and is developed along with reading strategies such as contextual guessing (Ooi & Kim- Seoh, 1996).


The Internet and Vocabulary Learning

Vocabulary teaching has not kept pace with current thinking on other aspects of language teaching. Raimes has described the modern paradigm of teaching language as one which:

Sees language as communication

Emphasizes real language use

Recommends a student-centered classroom

Encourages language acquisition

Develops interpersonal and humanistic approaches

Considers the nature of the learner, the learning process and the learning environment.

Rote memorization of word lists does not comply with any of these goals. (1995)


Computer technology will change this situation by providing interaction and stimulation that students do not find on the printed page. Furthermore, various functions of the Internet appeal to different learning styles. (For example, a student bored by books may become excited by interactive games over the Internet). Then there is the psychological effect of technology that enables student-centered learning. Students become empowered because they develop self-discipline and confidence through increased responsibility for their own learning processes (Berge & Collins, 1995 ).

How does the Internet support the paradigm of student-centered, communicative and collaborative classroom?

In general, to use the Internet is to communicate (Anderson, 1995). The main purpose of the Internet is to connect people all over the world to share information, experiences, and opinions. Because the Internet is a natural resource, it contains real language. As students navigate their way around the primarily text-based Internet, they must read and write in English, which helps them acquire the language (Falsetti, 1995).


On the Internet students and teachers can communicate with individuals and groups, talk in real time, and retrieve information and resources (Warschauer, 1995). The emphasis is on people working together in collaboration rather than in competition with each other. By helping each other, we expand our realm of knowledge in process. Internet users store information on Web pages so that it is easily accessible by others.


Berge & Collins (1995) further emphasize the collaborative and communicative nature of the Internet: 

·As an agent for socialization and collaboration, the networked computer has an even greater potential in education than does the stand-alone, knowledge server-type of computer. The active environment of social learning provided by computer increases interaction and communication among students, their teachers, peers, parents, and other members of the world community.


In addition to , sharing information and resources, there is a general sense that it is important to help others who are new to the online environment, rather than judging them negatively for not having prior knowledge of Internet functions and awareness of on online manners. This supportive environment can be especially helpful in empowering students, as they will feel comfortable asking questions or taking risks with their language use.


Crawford (1995) claims that the Internet will have a direct effect on the way we teach our students, especially if our global goal is to prepare them for life outside the classroom.The networking culture that will find its way into all schools requires participants to be more than just consumers of information and knowledge. They must also become contributors as well. Our children will become actively involved in research, synthesis and presentation of knowledge rather than passive observers of it.


Furthermore, some researchers describe a shift from a teaching environment to a learning environment in which students are taught through the Internet “ to become lifelong learners by helping them locate the resources to continue learning.” (Berge & Collins, 1995).

Students who are shy or inhibited in group settings can feel free to communicate, knowing they will be judged by what they say, not what they look or sound like.


The classroom setting still has much to offer L2 vocabulary instruction, but with communication technology students can get the best of both worlds. On the one hand, they have access to vast amount of timely information, as well as opportunities for authentic communication for real purposes. On the other hand, they can also have the social aspects of the traditional classroom that some enjoy, meeting with their instructors and peers, in the same physical space.

Overall, the Internet promotes philosophies of shared resources and knowledge, plus active involvement in the learning process. Indeed, this rich resource lends itself naturally to creating a student-centered, communicative and collaborative classroom.



Computer and communication Technology offer a way to bring L2 vocabulary teaching in line with linguistic research in a ways that were not practical a few years ago. Rote memorization will always be a part of L2 study, but technology now permits incidental learning to assume its proper role in vocabulary building. In this way, vocabulary learning can become as interactive and participatory as it has become in other areas of L2 instruction.

L2 teachers have known for some time that vocabulary knowledge, to be of real use, must become integrated into discourse. We have realized that with the skills developed by meeting and using words in context, pure retention of decontextualized words offers limited value. The problem was how to put this understanding into practice while teaching vocabulary in the classroom. Until now there were few activities available in the classroom that would permit L2 students to learn vocabulary as a natural part of communication. Computer assisted communication promises to change this situation and to bring fully contextualized strategies to L2 vocabulary learning.