An orthographic definition is one which is formalistic in the sense of being bound to the form of a word in a particular medium. It is not sensitive to distinctions of meaning or grammatical function. To this extent it is not complete" (1998, p. 4). Therefore, in an effort to help complete the definition, a reference to Webster's advises that a word is simply "something that is said" (1999, p. 2633).
Unfortunately, this formal definition does little to clear the muddied waters with respect to what a word is, and Carter (1998) suggests that, "It may be more accurate to define a word as the minimum meaningful unit of language. This allows us to differentiate the separate meanings contained in the word fair in so far as they can be said to be different semantic units" (p. 5). Furthermore, this definition fails to embrace the polysemous nature of many words. For example, Carter cites the following examples of how even the straightforward definition of word provided above can be confounded by such polysemous aspects of words:
1. There are single units of meaning which are conveyed by more than one word: bus conductor, train driver, school teacher, model railway. And if they are compound words do they count as one word or two?
2. There are also different boundaries of meaning generated by 'words' which can be read in more than one way. For example, police investigation is read more normally as an investigation by the police but its appearance in a recent headline fronting a police bribery case enables us to read it as an investigation of the police.
3. More problematically still, to what extent can 'meaning' be said to be transmitted by the following words: if, by, but, my, could, because, indeed, them (Carter 1998, p. 5).
These features appear to be applicable to many words in the English language, for example, but even here Carter (1998) suggests that there are some nebulous qualities of words that defy strict definition. For instance, according to Cartern, "Such items can serve to structure or otherwise organize how information is received, but on their own they are not semantic units in the sense intended above. The presence of such words in the lexicon also undermines another possible definition of a word, namely, that a word is a 'minimal free form'" (1998, p. 5).
This lack of consensus concerning what a "word" is adds to the complexity in defining what "knowing a word" involves. In recent years, a number of authorities have weighed in concerning what actually knowing a word entails, and many resort to a "laundry list" of items that characterize the word knowledge process. For instance, Cervatiuc identifies the following as being common assumptions that are associated with depth of vocabulary knowledge.
1. The native speaker of a language continues to expand his vocabulary in adulthood, whereas there is comparatively little development of syntax in adult life.
2. Knowing a word means knowing the degree of probability of encountering that word in speech or print. For many words, we also 'know' the sort of words most likely to be found associated with the word.
3. Knowing a word implies knowing the limitations imposed on the use of the word according to variations of function and situation.
4. Knowing a word means knowing the syntactic behavior associated with that word.
5. Knowing a word entails knowledge of the underlying form of a word and the derivatives that can be made from it.
6. Knowing a word entails knowledge of the network of associations between that word and the other words in the language.
7. Knowing a word means knowing the semantic value of a word.
8. Knowing a word means knowing many of the different meanings associated with the word (Cervatiuc 2007, p. 41).
By contrast, Carter (1998) suggests that knowing a word in a second or foreign language is typically characterized by the following:
1. It means knowing how to use it productively and having the ability to recall it for active use, although for some purposes only passive knowledge is necessary and some words for some users are only ever known passively.
2. It means knowing the likelihood of encountering the word in either spoken or written contexts or in both.
3. It means knowing the syntactic frames into which the word can be slotted and the underlying forms and derivations which can be made from it.
4. It means knowing the relations it contracts with other words in the language and with related words in an L1 as well.
5. It means perceiving the relative coreness of the word as well as its more marked pragmatic and discoursal functions and its style-levels.
6. It means knowing the different meanings associated with it and, often in a connected way, the range of its collocational patterns.
7. It means knowing words as part of or wholly as fixed expressions conveniently memorized to repeat -- and adapt -- as the occasion arises (p. 6).
Despite a growing body of knowledge accumulated by vocabulary researchers in recent years and a corresponding amount of attention on the part of the educational community to develop vocabulary-teaching materials, there remains a lack of overall consensus concerning what "knowing a word" involves that can be used by educators in all situations. Notwithstanding this paucity of a "one-size-fits-all" definition of "knowing a word," the following observations provide a useful framework in which educators can evaluate their own teaching methods to ensure they are achieving their intended academic outcomes in the second language classroom:
1. For most learning purposes, vocabulary needs to be taught for comprehension and for production: (a) comprehension relies on strategies which help learners to understand lexical items and to store them in memory; (b) production relies on strategies which help learners to activate their lexical store, retrieve items from memory and use them in contextually appropriate ways. Some teaching techniques are better suited for comprehension than for production, and vice versa. For example, as a teaching technique cloze procedure encourages skills of lexical comprehension, particularly with respect to reading.
2. In the early stages of learning a language a range of techniques to aid memorization is necessary. In particular, teaching techniques which foster imagistic and picturable associations across L1 and L2 can be valuable. Particular attention should be given to phonological patterns to aid retention in the lexical store. There is a need for a psycholinguistic perception of words as individual 'entities' to be reconciled with more pragmatic, social encounters with words in discourse contexts of actual use.
3. Teaching vocabulary in early language learning requires constant reference to the notion of certain words being more core than others. Word lists should be scrutinized in the light of theories of core vocabulary.
4. The more advanced the learner becomes and the more emphasis is placed on production then the more teaching of words in a network of semantic associations should be activated. The teaching of words in semantic sets or grids can be beneficial here.
5. The skills of guessing and of using contextual clues to make inferences is important, especially in reading in a foreign language and especially if the learner is to become more self-reliant.
6. Teaching fixed expressions can be valuable at all levels and is especially important to allow learners access to more routinized aspects of production and to the essential skills of maintaining discoursal relations through language use. 'Fixed expressions' also include here collocations, idioms, etc.
7. Teaching words in discourse fosters the development of advanced skills of production but encourages appreciation of the syntactic, semantic and pragmatic functions of lexical items at all levels. The fuller activation of these skills is dependent on the kinds of knowledge of lexical patterning which only extensive computer databases can reveal; but, in particular, skills of negotiating, meaning and marking attitudes can be extended if attention is given to lexical items in texts and discourse contexts. Too great a focus on learning vocabulary as individual decontextualized items may lead to neglect of these skills (Carter 1998, p. 240).
Clearly, knowing a word in its entirety is a complicated enterprise, and the process is an evolving and iterative one in which young learners take what they know about a word and apply it in a series of mental "what-if" scenarios to evaluate its appropriateness in various contexts. All of this may take place in the blink of an eye, of course, but this is the essence of truly "knowing a word."
Finally, Nation (2001) advises educators to conduct regular assessments of student progress to help identify areas of deficiency as well as a means of motivating students to put forth the extra effort that is required in order to learn the words they need, and that this extra effort should be reflected in their assessments. Therefore, in order to measure the effectiveness of teaching regimens designed to facilitate…