After 25 Years of Researching Vocabulary: A Personal Reflection on Where Vocabulary Research Needs to Go Next

Norbert Schmitt, University of Nottingham, UK

Since Paul Meara’s 1980 paper describing vocabulary as a neglected aspect of language learning, lexical research has boomed. Today vocabulary research and pedagogy is vibrant, but there is still much to do. I have been researching and thinking about vocabulary now for 25 years, and have seen a number of trends unfold. The field has made a number of important advances in our understanding of how vocabulary works, including:

  • The rough establishment of vocabulary size targets for doing things in English (but mostly reading)
  • A consensus that around 10 exposures for incidental learning
  • A better understanding of the vocabulary required for academic and specific purposes
  • The use of psycholinguistic measurement techniques 

Vocabulary scholars can congratulate themselves on these advances. However, I see there are still many gaps and challenges to address, and this presentation will outline my views of where vocabulary research needs to focus its energies in the near and mid-term future: e.g.:

  • Future vocabulary tests need to be validated much more rigorously than they have been in the past
  • Word lists can be useful, but some seem to be made without much thought to their need or purpose. Future lists need to be validated in much the same way as tests
  • There is still a no overall theory or description of vocabulary acquisition. We need research which throws light on the incremental development of vocabulary knowledge
  • The message has reached practitioners that formulaic language is important for language use, but we still do not know the best way to teach it
  • There are many practical aspects of teaching vocabulary which we need to understand better, e.g. how many repetitions are necessary for explicit instruction, and how to best combine explicit teaching with incidental learning.  

Read his presentation here.


Norbert Schmitt is Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Nottingham. He is interested in all aspects of L2 vocabulary, including vocabulary measurement, descriptions of vocabulary acquisition, vocabulary pedagogy, corpus analysis, psycholinguistic methods of researching vocabulary, and how vocabulary relates to the ability to use the four skills. He has authored, co-authored, or edited more than 100 publications and has an h-index of 46. He travels and consults widely on lexical issues. In any spare time, he likes to play ice hockey and fly his home-built airplane. 

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