Improving the Vocabulary Mastery of EFL Students


Abstract: When we learn a foreign language, the most difficult aspect is the mastery and the retention of its vocabularies. This is because of the different rules of our native language and the target language including the rules of sounds system, the words’ formation, the words’ structures, the words’ meanings, and the social context in which the words are used. Teachers of EFL then face some problems in helping their students to improve vocabularies related with these differences of the language. This article is trying to show the importance of vocabulary mastery and to propose some activities that can be carried out in EFL classrooms in teaching vocabulary to students.

Key words: vocabulary, word, word classes, word formation


Learning a language means learning its vocabularies. We use the vocabularies in communication either in spoken form or written form. We try to send messages, share information and ideas by using the language. In general, no language acquisition is possible without understanding the vocabulary, either in the first or the second language (Kweldju, 2004:18).

The process and the way that we go through in learning and using the target language usually take hard effort especially in learning a foreign language. This is because a foreign language is different from a mother language. The differences can be in the rules of the sounds system (phonology), the word formation (morphology), the word structures (syntax), the words’ meaning (semantic), and the social context (sociolinguistic). These can cause problems in learning a foreign language. However, teachers of a foreign language should always motivate their students to keep practicing using the language. They should use many methods which can interest their students in using the target language in classroom communication.

Students often find difficulties in using a foreign language because they lack of vocabularies and they often forget easily new vocabularies after they get the meaning from dictionaries. Sometimes in speaking classes, students can not speak fluently because they lack of vocabularies. They say only a few sentences because they can not find the appropriate vocabularies to be used in expressing their ideas. The same problem is found in writing classes that students can not write essays easily because they lack of vocabularies. Even though they have already learned the strategies or techniques in writing essays, still they find difficulties in constructing sentences. They find difficulties in choosing and using the appropriate vocabularies. This article is not aim at neglecting the students’ problems in sounds system, grammar, and so on. Nor is it aim at placing vocabulary as the most influential factor in foreign language mastery. It just intends to bring vocabularies as one of students’ most difficult aspect to the discussion. This writing concern with the ways teachers can use to help their students to improve the vocabularies since vocabularies are very crucial in learning a foreign language. This writing is hopefully can give suggestions to improve or enlarge students’ vocabularies toward English as a foreign language.


Vocabulary learning is the important aspect in learning a foreign language. Students will improve much if they learn more words and expressions. As a linguist David Wilkins (in Thornbury 2002:13) says that vocabulary learning is very important. ‘Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.’ Thus, vocabularies are the flesh of a language while grammar is the skeleton. In order to be able to use the language productively, students must know certain amount of vocabularies, not only for communicating orally, but also written. It is in line with the concept of communicative approach in which learners have a big chance to use the language directly in classroom activities. This approach is useful in improving students’ vocabularies. Through the approach students are forced to use the language directly in either spoken or written communication.

The questions relate with vocabularies acquisition are what kinds of words one needs to know and how many words he must know. The vocabularies that should a student know first are the high frequency words. These are words that he uses most often in communication either in classroom activities or outside classroom. The high frequency words are called the general service vocabulary. Next, he also should know the academic or sub technical words which are not in general service vocabulary but occur frequently over a range of academic texts.

How many words a student must know is varied. Kweldju (1997) found that the average vocabulary sizes of students from fifteen English Departments ranged from 2041 to 3352 word families. A study conducted to 1776 students in 21 state graduate schools in Indonesia showed that the graduate students’ vocabulary size averaged 2861 words, while S2 students’ vocabulary size 2671 words and S3 students’ was 3211 words.

Learning the vocabulary of a foreign language presents the learner with firstly making the correct connections when understanding the language between the form and the meaning of words including discriminating the meanings of closely related words. Secondly, when producing the language, using the correct form of a word for the meaning intended.

A student of a foreign language must know about the words and word formation in order to be able to understand the form and meaning of words as well as to be able to use the correct form of word. The next discussion is about the definition of word, word classes, and word formation.

Definition of Word

There are some definitions of the term word. Longman dictionary of American English stated that word is written representation of one or more sounds which can be spoken to represent an idea, object, etc. Crowley (1995:7) stated that the term word is a unit of linguistic analysis which has these characteristics: (1) isolability, means that words can be pronounced in isolation from other words, (2) mobility, means that words are item which can be moved around within a sentence to form new sentences, and (3) phonological independence which means that words are correspond to the minimal units of phonological analysis.

Class of Word

The classes of word can be divided into eight different classes such as nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and determiners. Thornbury (2002:3) mentioned that there are two crude division of word that is content words (lexical words) and function words (grammatical words). Content words are those that carry high information load such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. The membership is unrestricted and still allow for the addition of new members. Meanwhile function words are words that mainly contribute to the grammatical sentence such as prepositions, conjunctions, determiners, and pronouns. The membership is restricted and definite.

Formation of Word

There are many ways of words formation. These develop and enrich vocabularies of a language. In English, the common word formation processes are (1) derivation, (2) compounding, (3) acronyms, (4) back formation, (5) blending, (6) clipping, (7) coinage, (8) functional shift, (9) false etymology, and (10) proper names. (Fromkin, 1988). Below is the definition of each process.

  1. Derivation: It is the process that derives new words by using prefixes and suffixes. Some common prefixes are anti-, dis-, in-, pre-, post-, un-, and re-. Some common suffixes are –ation, -able, -al, -er, -ed, -ful, -ity, -ing, -ly, -ness, and –y. For instance, from the word believe (verb) can be derived into some adjectives by adding prefix and suffix like follow: believable, unbelievable.
  2. Compounding: It is the process that forms new words by putting together two or more existing words. For instance by combining noun and noun like girlfriend, landlord, or mailman.
  3. Acronyms: It is the process that forms new words by uniting the initial sounds or letters of words then pronounceable as a new separate word. For example the word laser from light amplification through the stimulated emission of radiation or UN from United Nation.
  4. Back Formation: It is the process that uses analogy in a rather backwards manner to derive new words. For instance the word revise is derived from the word revision.
  5. Blending: It is the process that combines parts of two words, usually the initial part of a word and the last part of another word. For example the word brunch is the blending from breakfast and lunch.
  6. Clipping: It is the process that derives new words by shortening the words so it is easy to be pronounced without paying attention to the derivational morphology of the word. For instance the word dorm from the word dormitory and the word lab from laboratory.
  7. Coinage: It is the process that derives new words by using no morphological methods but just take the brand of some products to name the things refer. For example the word aqua to name all bottled mineral water and the word Kodak to name any kind of camera.
  8. Functional Shift: It is the process that derives new words by moving the part of speech of a word and no changing of its form. For instance the word run can be used as noun and also as verb.
  9. Morphological Misanalysis: It is the process that derives new words by introducing new words taken from similar words. This can be because of actual misunderstanding, or intentional (creative) extension of morphemes. For instance the word workaholic derives from alcoholic.
  10. Proper Names: It is the process that derives new words from names of persons connected with them. For example the word watt from James Watt the name of the person who invented electricity.

These processes of words formation can be introduced to students in order to give them the rule of deriving new words which they can apply and to improve their vocabularies. The knowledge of words and words formation processes is beneficial to help the students in learning vocabularies. First, they can learn the principles in forming words. Then, the knowledge leads them to be productive and creative that is by applying the principles in order to ‘create’ words. As the result, they may improve their vocabularies.


This part proposes some activities that teachers can use to vary their techniques of teaching vocabulary. These activities should be chosen by determining the students’ level, the teaching objectives, and the time allocation.

1. Introduce words in lexical sets to make good sense. The meanings of the words can be made clearer by contrasting them with closely related words in the same set. For example if the topic of your lesson is about The Airport, the following lexical set may be useful:

airplane                                               take-off

passport                                              check-in

boarding Pass                                     transit

luggage                                               landing

Teacher can ask the students to make or to complete the set related with the topic Allow them to use their dictionaries.

2. Take the form of derivation or affixation in your reading or speaking classes as the activity of vocabularies development, for instance the adjective formation below.

Adjectives formed with –ed describe our reaction to someone or something.

For example terrify + -ed becomes terrified. Example:

I was terrified when I saw the movie.

Adjectives formed with –ing describe the person or the thing that causes the

reaction. Example:

The movie was terrifying.

The other adjectives formations are:

Amuse – amused – amusing

Annoy – annoyed – annoying

Bore – Bored – Boring

Tire – Tired – Tiring

Interest – Interested – Interesting

Teachers can ask the students to use these adjectives in vocabulary exercises for instance by filling the gaps in sentences.

3. Encourage students to bring to class jokes, magazines, and newspapers in English that they like reading. They will find many examples of word formation that they may do not know the meanings. Below is the example from Reader’s Digest (1993:53):

Happy New Year!

“We jingle the bells in December and juggle the bills in January.”

From the example, the suffix –gle expresses the idea of movement. The author makes use of the similar form and meaning in jingle and juggle for a comic purpose. Then, ask your students to find words with j- (or phoneme [dz] that express the idea of movement. By using their dictionaries they will find these words in the same list of movement: jerk, jet, jiggle, jitney,   jitterbug, jitters, jive, jog, joggle, jolt, jostle, journey, jump

4. Ask students to write another list of words with meanings associated with the word for example twilight as can be seen in the example below taken from a newspaper advertisement (Kompas, 2007):

Twilight Orchestra

Arrangement by Adie M.S.

Ask the students to make a list with associated meanings with twilight. Students will come across words like two, twice, twain, ‘tween (from between), twelve, twenty, tweezers, twin, twine, twist. They will learn a lot of new words and memorize them easily since they are all associated.


Vocabularies are very important when we learn a language, not only in a native language but also in a foreign language. The complexity of vocabularies may cause the problem in the mastery. In English as a Foreign Language classroom, the most difficult aspects are the retention of vocabulary. Teachers work hard to improve the vocabulary of their students by using many methods and activities. Yet, this effort sometimes does not give good result because of the complexity of vocabulary learning in a foreign language.

There are many ways to improve vocabularies recognition. This article only proposes a small part of the ways. Teachers of EFL can develop many other ways to enrich the students’ vocabulary. Teachers should use the appropriate method in the classroom by considering the objectives of teaching, the students’ level of acquisition, and the time allocation. The most important thing is that the teacher should always motivate their students to develop good reading habits as one basic way to enrich their vocabularies. Once they develop this habit, they will be able to learn many things including vocabularies improvement.


Crowley, Terry, Lynch, John, Siegel, Jeff, and Piau, Julie. 1995. The Design of

Language, an Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics. New Zealand. Longman

Paul Limited.

Fromkin, Victoria, and Robert Rodman. 1988. An introduction to Language. New

York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Kweldju, Siusana. 2004. Invest Your Time in Learning English Today For Building

Better Indonesia. University of Malang.

KOMPAS. 10 Januari 2007. Hlm.5.

LONGMAN. Learner’s Dictionary of American English. 2001. England. Pearson

Education Limited.

Reader’s Digest. October 1993. Pp 53

Teresa, Carmem. 1996. Blends: Developing Creative Vocabulary Building Activities.

English Teaching Forum. Pp58-59

Thornburry, Scott. How to Teach Vocabulary. England  Pearson Education Limited.


  • endah

    hello mrs jumariati,
    it’s such a quite understandable article and organized properly
    you should write more and share your knowledge
    veel succes…!

    • Sudarmi

      I agree to Endah’s comment on your writing. Keep on writing.

  • Tim


    Every time you write “vocabularies” you should write “vocabulary” as it’s an uncountable noun. There are some other grammatical errors, so I would advise that you recheck.

    However, a good piece of scholarship and one that I find very useful for my research into English language in Indonesia.

  • DIAH

    i think grammatical error will be always find in our writing, because it’s not our language..i think it’s usual…keep trying to give your best miss Jumariati..i like your’s very useful for me to improve my knowledge about vocabulary. thanks a lot….

  • Amelya Herda Losari

    would u please answer my question about how many vocabulary size for SMP,SMA in indonesia and in international according to some expert as know? or do u have any refferences?

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