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AUTHOR: Yongqi Gu; Robert Keith Johnson

TITLE: Vocabulary Learning Strategies and Language Learning Outcomes

SOURCE: Language Learning v46 p643-79 D '96

The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further
reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.

We aimed to establish the vocabulary learning strategies used by Chinese university learners of English and the
relationship between their strategies and outcomes in learning English. We asked 850 sophomore non-English
majors at Beijing Normal University to complete a vocabulary learning questionnaire. We correlated replies to
the questionnaire with results on a vocabulary size test and on the College English Test (CETBAND2).
Participants reported using a wide variety of vocabulary learning strategies. In a multiple regression analysis,
Self-Initiation and Selective Attention, two metacognitive strategies, emerged as positive predictors of
CETBAND2 scores. Contextual guessing, skillful use of dictionaries, note-taking, paying attention to word
formation, contextual encoding, and activation of newly learned words also positively correlated with the two
test scores. However, visual repetition of new words was the strongest negative predictor of both vocabulary
size and general proficiency. Furthermore, strategies aiming at vocabulary retention only related more to
vocabulary size than to English proficiency. We identified 5 approaches to learning. These strategy
combinations, rather than individual strategies, may have made the difference in these people's learning.
The word vocabulary has long connoted word lists, and vocabulary learning strategies have been
tantamount to techniques that help commit these lists to memory. Most research on vocabulary learning
strategies has therefore explored various methods of vocabulary presentation and their corresponding
effectiveness in retention (Meara, 1980). Hence, most studied are memory strategies, one of the many aspects of
vocabulary learning strategies,(FN1) on the presupposition that strategies good for vocabulary retention will
also benefit language learning in general.
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 optimum
number of words to be learned at one time (Crothers & Suppes, 1967), or the timing of repetitions (Anderson &
Jordan, 1928; Seibert, 1927). Overall, rote repetition appears less efficient than using spaced recall and
structured reviews (Atkinson, 1972; Royer, 1973; Seibert, 1927); silent repetition and silent writing are less
effective than repeating the words aloud (Gershman, 1970; Seibert, 1927).
Research into mnemonics has continued through the past two decades, following Atkinson (1975) and
Atkinson and Raugh (1975). The bulk 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. Despite awesome evidence showing its
superiority over any other strategies (extensive reviews in Cohen, 1987; Meara, 1980; Nation, 1982; Paivio &
Desrochers, 1981), the keyword method (or any other mnemonic technique, for that matter) suffers from its
fundamental assumption that vocabulary learning largely means list learning. As Meara (1980) rightly pointed
out, these laboratory experiments "completely ignore the complex patterns of meaning relationships that
characterize a proper, fully formed lexicon" (p. 225). Consequently, even if these memory crutches do not
interfere with retrieval and production, though researchers have presented little convincing evidence that they
do not, they are unlikely to play a major role in the development of a dynamic living lexicon in the target
Developments in lexical semantics and studies on the mental lexicon form a different, more recent focus on
vocabulary learning. Componential analysis and the "paradigmatic versus syntagmatic" conceptions of the
mental lexicon, for example, have prompted the development of the semantic field, semantic network/map, or
semantic grid strategies, which present and organize new words in terms of maps or grids of interrelated lexical
meanings (Channell, 1981, 1988; Crow & Quigley, 1985). These semantically based strategies, though
intuitively appealing, tend to be prescriptive. Although some empirical evidence does suggest their effectiveness
(e.g., Crow & Quigley, 1985), other studies have warned of the danger of presenting closely related new words
at the same time (Higa, 1963; Nation, 1994; Tinkham, 1993). Researchers have little idea whether these
strategies make vocabulary retention easier, let alone how much they help develop the active use of vocabulary
thus learned.
Most previous research either ignores or overlooks one of the crucial characteristics of second language
(L2) learners that makes them fundamentally different from mother-tongue (L1) learners of vocabulary:
Beginning L2 learners most need not concept-formation but threshold-level L2 skill, without which the simple
retention of word lists is meaningless. In fact, some evidence (e.g., Gu, 1994) shows that inadequate
understanding of vocabulary is but one aspect of language development, which must relate to and integrate with
other aspects results in serious consequences.
Research on vocabulary learning through reading, a direction that has received rigorous scrutiny
particularly in recent years, has dealt with this issue head-on (e.g., Huckin, Haynes, & Coady, 1993). Research
now has extensively demonstrated that vocabulary can be acquired through reading (Krashen, 1989; Parry,
1991; Saragi, Nation, & Meister, 1978) or any "fully contextualized activities" (p. 240), to use Oxford and
Scarcella's (1994) term. Furthermore, vocabulary words thus acquired retain not just their referential meaning
but also the syntactic, pragmatic, and even emotional information from their context. Most important,
vocabulary is not longer 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. That said, researchers need to remember
two points when examining this promising line of research. First, vocabulary acquisition through reading
presumes a basic reading ability in the L2, a skill beginning learners possess only to a limited extent. Learning
to read an L2 with totally different orthography--for example, Chinese students learning English as a foreign
language (EFL), seriously challenges not just the development of reading ability but also vocabulary learning
through reading (Haynes, 1990). Second, instruction should not overemphasize the incidental/indirect, or even
subliminal, acquisition of words at the expense of intentional and direct studying of vocabulary (not necessarily
in lists) that has proved so effective among good EFL learners in "input-poor environments" (Kouraogo, 1993,
p. 165), where learners unluckily have insufficient reading materials at their disposal. These vocabulary learning
strategies might, in any context, valuably add to the acquisition of vocabulary through extensive reading; they
should lead to increased retention of that new vocabulary and increased availability of those items for active
Thus far, research has largely sought the "best" strategy for vocabulary retention. In reality, however,
learners tend to use a variety of strategies in combination (Ahmed, 1989; Gu, 1994; Sanaoui, 1995). Even
discussants of "approaches" to vocabulary learning normally take a stand either on the "direct" side or the
"indirect" side, as if direct and indirect methods were mutually exclusive. A more balanced and integrated
approach is likely to be the most effective. Students consistently adopt types of strategies based either on their
beliefs about vocabulary and vocabulary learning (cf. Abraham & Vann, 1987; Horwitz, 1987), or on other
preexisting cognitive or social factors. Although each strategy contributes to success or failure, consistent
employment of certain types of strategies forms an approach to vocabulary learning that may considerably
influence the outcomes of L2 learning (cf. Sanaoui, 1995). Therefore, how different learners combine different
strategies and how this affects their learning outcomes warrant studying as much as, perhaps more than, the
effects of individual strategies.
Research questions. Vocabulary study no longer languishes as the neglected "Cinderella" of applied
linguistics (cf. Carter & McCarthy, 1988; Laufer, 1986; Lord, 1974; Meara, 1980). Yet too many questions
remain unanswered. To begin with, among a spectrum of vocabulary learning strategies, do any strategies work
better or worse than others? Do all strategies good for vocabulary retention automatically benefit the
development of general L2 proficiency? Do learners stick to certain types of strategies and adopt distinctive
approaches to vocabulary learning? If so, how does that influence outcomes? Above all, among a whole range
of vocabulary strategies, from initial handling of a new word, to contextual guessing, to dictionary use, to
notetaking, to reinforcement strategies, and to the activation and use of the newly learned word, which do EFL
learners tend to employ? In the context of tertiary students in a major teacher-training institution in China, we
also ask whether Chinese learners employ more rote learning strategies, the caricature of Asians so often seen in
the literature, than other "better" strategies endorsed by North American researchers (Field, 1984; O'Malley,
Chamot, Stewner-Manzanares, Kupper, & Russo, 1985; Oxford & Scarcella, 1994; Politzer & McGroarty,


All second-year non-English majors at Beijing Normal University (BNU), an intact grade totaling 27
classes of university students,(FN2) participated in this study. By the time of the study, these learners had all
had 6 years of English learning experience in secondary schools (932 contact hours), and had just completed 1
year (140 hours) at BNU (The State Education Commission, PRC, 1986). After initial elimination of unusable
data, 850 of these students formed the final pool of participants.
Questionnaire. We used a vocabulary learning questionnaire (VLQ Version 3, see Appendix(FN3)) to elicit
students' beliefs about vocabulary learning and their self-reported vocabulary learning strategies. The
questionnaire, written in Chinese, reflected previous quantitative and qualitative research (e.g., Ahmed, 1989;
Gu, 1994; Oxford, 1990; Politzer & McGroarty, 1985) and item analyses that removed redundant items from
two earlier, pilot versions. It included 3 sections. Section 1, Personal Data, asked about each respondent's
demographic information, nationwide college-entrance English score, and score on a universitywide College
English Test (CETBAND2), which the students had taken at the end of their first year at BNU--about 2 months
previously. Section 2, Beliefs About Vocabulary Learning, included 17 statements representing 3 dimensions of
beliefs: Vocabulary should be memorized; Vocabulary should be picked up naturally; and Vocabulary should be
studied and used. We asked participants to rate each statement on a 7-point scale from Absolutely Disagree (1)
to Absolutely Agree (7). Section 3, Vocabulary Learning Strategies, contained 91 vocabulary learning behaviors
divided into two major parts: Metacognitive Regulation and Cognitive Strategies. We asked respondents to rate
each statement, again on a 7-point scale, ranging from Extremely Untrue of Me (1) to Extremely True of Me
(7). Table 1 outlines the major dimensions in the questionnaire, the categories under each dimension, the
number of items under each category, acronyms for the independent variables that will appear in later sections,
and the internal consistency reliability of each category.
Vocabulary size tests. We combined two vocabulary size tests as our vocabulary size indicator (VOCSIZE).
We adapted the first test from Goulden, Nation, and Read (1990). We asked the students to provide a Chinese
equivalent, a synonym, or paraphrase showing their understanding of at least one meaning, for each of the 50
target words and to leave "unknowns" blank. Lest this test turn out too difficult to enable discrimination among
this group of learners (see Bird, 1994; Izawa, 1993), we added Nation's (1990, pp. 266-268) Vocabulary Levels
Test at the 3,000-word level. Scores summed the number of correct responses in both tests.
Proficiency Measures. The best available English proficiency measure at the time of study was a composite
score (CET Band 2, 85%, 10 quizzes taken throughout the year, 10%, and the teacher's overall rating, 5%). This
composite might better indicate proficiency than a single test; we therefore used it as our English proficiency
measure (referred to hereafter as CETBAND2). The CET Band 2 test itself, mock-Band 4[sup4] in format,
comprised sections on listening comprehension (15%), vocabulary (10%), structure (10%), reading
comprehension (30%), cloze (10%), and sentence translation from Chinese into English (10%).
In addition, we obtained participants' English scores on their college entrance examinations, a nationwide,
standardized test taken each year by hundreds of thousands of high school leavers in China. The full score is
usually 100, except for a few experimental cities where a score of either 900 or 150 was also possible. We
converted the scores for the minority of participants with scores of the latter two types into percentages to make
them comparable to the majority. This variable we coded as PRESCORE.

We held a briefing about one week before data collection for all teachers whose students were to
participate. We distributed a guide to administration during the briefing. The teachers then took the
questionnaires to class and administered them, using about 30 minutes of class time. We then collected them
from the teachers immediately after class and coded them for analysis.
The 2 vocabulary size tests were administered immediately after the questionnaire was filled in and were
collected together with the questionnaire. We obtained both CETBAND2 and PRESCORE as part of the
Personal Data in Section 1 of the anonymous questionnaire.

We obtained descriptive statistics first to see the overall patterns of vocabulary learning strategies used by
the students. We then performed correlation analyses between all independent variables and the 2 dependent
variables--vocabulary size and English proficiency--to see how various strategies related to vocabulary size and
general proficiency. We subsequently did multiple regression on the 2 dependent variables to identify the best
predictors from all variables considered together. Finally, we performed a cluster analysis to identify the
strategy profiles of different types of learners.


Table 2 presents descriptive statistics on each category of beliefs and strategies. A look at the 3 types of
beliefs tells us that, overall, these learners emphasized the belief that vocabulary should be memorized
(MEMORIZ) (M=3.04, SD=.83) less than the other 2 belief categories. They predominantly believed that
vocabulary should be carefully studied and put to use (LEARN) (M=5.74, SD=.62), though they also tended to
agree that words can be acquired in context (ACQUIRE) (M=4.94, SD=.78).(FN5)
The students were generally more positive with regard to regulating their own vocabulary learning with
Self-Initiation (SELFINI) ranked higher (M=4.58, SD=1.00) than Selective Attention (ATTEND) (M=4.23,
SD=.86). The students reported extensive use of guessing strategies when reading, employing both local cues
(LOCOCUE) (M=4.47, SD=.84) and wider cues (WIDECUE) (M=4.60, SD=.85). They seemed to use
dictionary strategies widely, both for comprehension (DICOMPR) (M=4.97, SD=1.00) and for vocabulary
learning (DICEXTN) (M=4.82, SD=.93). They also reported a variety of looking-up strategies (DICLOOK:
e.g., looking up the root if an affixed form of a new word cannot be found in the dictionary; M=4.55, SD=.94).
They also used note-taking strategies, notes containing either meaning-related (NOTEMNG; M=4.15, SD=.99)
or usage-related information (NOTEUSE; M=4.27, SD=1.14) or both. They were generally less likely to use
rehearsal (often associated with rote learning) and encoding strategies than other strategies. Of the rehearsal
strategies, Oral Repetition ranked highest (ORALREP; M=4.20, SD=1.07) and the Use of Vocabulary Lists
lowest (VOCLIST; M=3.15, SD=.99). Among encoding strategies, Contextual Encoding (arguably the least
"rote") ranked highest (CONTEXT; M=4.11, SD=1.07), and Imagery, for example, associating a part of a word
with word meaning: two "eyes" in the word look) the lowest (IMAGERY; M=3.11, SD=1.02). Activation
strategies ranked relatively low (ACTIVAT; M=3.80, SD=1.05), not surprising given the extent to which such
strategies demand the management of learning time and effort.
Generally, the participants did not seem to believe in memorization; in accordance with their beliefs, they
generally responded negatively to rote memorization strategies, except for oral repetition. Neither the
mnemonic devices so much valued by some psychologists nor the semantically based strategies favored by
some linguists enjoyed much popularity among these learners. What these students did most centered on
guessing, dictionary work, and note-taking (cf. Chern, 1993). These findings do not indicate whether Chinese
learners employ more rote strategies than do students of other cultural backgrounds. In fact, they may well
utilize more rote strategies compared with students from western cultures. Results here only suggest that these
learners do not value rote learning as highly as other strategies, and that they employ a wide range of
vocabulary learning strategies.


We obtained simple correlations among 24 independent variables (3 belief variables, 2 metacognitive
regulation variables, 18 cognitive strategy variables covering the whole process of vocabulary learning, and a
time variable representing extracurricular time spent weekly on English learning) and the 2 dependent variables
(English proficiency and vocabulary size); these appear in Table 3. Listwise deletion of missing data reduced
the sample size to 548.
Believing in memorization was negatively correlated with both CETBAND2 (r=-.2339, p<.001) and
VOCSIZE (r=-.1273, p<.01). Visual Repetition (e.g., repeating a new word to oneself by writing it again and
again) also was negatively correlated with the 2 dependent variables (p<.001 for both). The 2 metacognitive
regulation variables were positively correlated with the 2 dependent variables, as were the 2 guessing variables
and the 2 notetaking variables. Among the 3 dictionary variables, only Looking Up Words for Comprehension
did not reveal a significant correlation. Some interesting patterns showed up for the other independent variables.
Mnemonic devices (e.g., imagery, visual associations, and auditory associations) probably related more to
vocabulary size; their correlations with general English proficiency were mostly insignificant or even negative.
Likewise, semantic encoding strategies and word list learning correlated highly with vocabulary size, but not
with general English proficiency. Contextual encoding, on the other hand, correlated significantly with both
dependent variables. We then examined the relationship between vocabulary size and general English
proficiency, and obtained a reasonably high correlation coefficient (r=.5338, p<.001), signifying, nevertheless,
28.5% of shared variance only.
We next performed multiple regression analyses to get a better picture of the relationship between the
independent and dependent variables when considering all independent variables simultaneously. We entered 24
independent variables in 9 blocks in an order roughly characterizing a normal vocabulary learning process
(Tables 4 & 5). We found 7 variables significantly predicted CETBAND2 (Table 4). Both Self-Initiation and
Selective Attention, the 2 metacognitive regulation variables, turned out to best predict overall proficiency in
EFL learning. Contextual Encoding and Oral Repetition also entered the equation as significant positive
predictors. On the other hand, Visual Repetition, Imagery mnemonics, and believing in Memorization emerged
as significant but negative predictors of overall proficiency.
We subjected the same group of independent variables to a multiple regression analysis against VOCSIZE
as the dependent variable (Table 5). Self-Initiation again emerged as the best predictor, followed by dictionary
Looking-Up strategies, extracurricular Time spent on English, and intentional Activation of new words learned.
Semantic Encoding also seemed to play a role in predicting vocabulary size. Visual Repetition and Imagery
encoding again emerged as strong negative predictors. Learners' vocabulary sizes seem very much related to,
among other things, the learners' self-initiation in learning, their skillful use of a dictionary, their willingness to
spend extracurricular time to practice newly learned items, and their remembering words in semantically
meaningful groups. Learners should not, on the other hand, depend on visual repetition and fanciful imagery
techniques to remember the words they might thus spend so much time on.
But the size of vocabulary, though highly correlated with language proficiency, forms only part of a living
language; strategies highly correlated with vocabulary size may not demonstrate a similar relationship with
overall proficiency. Students would benefit more if they aimed at learning the language skills rather than at just
remembering English equivalents of all Chinese words.
Learning a word includes much more than remembering the orthographic and phonological forms and their
corresponding meanings. A large part of EFL vocabulary learning involves learning to use words syntactically
and pragmatically (Richards, 1976). Vocabulary learning should hence aim toward vocabulary in action. In this
connection, some theorists (e.g., Carter, 1987; Judd, 1978; McCarthy, 1984) also see vocabulary not as items in
isolation, but as a skill to be developed. In other words, in addition to remembering the form-meaning
association, learning the skill of recognizing a word automatically in natural contexts, the skill of guessing what
a word means, and most importantly, the skill of using a word correctly and appropriately should be the purpose
of vocabulary learning. Teachers should adopt materials, teaching methods, exercises, and evaluation techniques
that encourage developing learning strategies suitable for skill learning. If it does not get through to the students
that words do not just mean something in isolation, they could continue, for example, to insert foreign words in
L1 sentences, and in the wrong part of speech.
That said, the previous results and implications should be understood in the context that the students'
vocabulary-related beliefs and strategies explained only about 20% of the variance in either vocabulary size or
English proficiency. However, this is a substantial proportion given the number of related factors not
investigated here. Within these limitations, among vocabulary strategies examined here, strategies that aim only
for retaining vocabulary words did not necessarily lead to the development of general English proficiency, and
learning vocabulary in its natural contexts positively related to both vocabulary size and general proficiency.


As discussed earlier, learners seldom use one single strategy in learning vocabulary. Perhaps their choice of
strategy combinations, rather than individual strategies, results in learning differences. We therefore conducted
the following cluster analysis to classify learners by their strategy profiles and learning outcomes. Again, we
used listwise deletion of missing data, which reduced the sample size to 486.
Besides all independent and dependent variables mentioned above, we added another variable, college
entrance score (PRESCORE) to this analysis, in comparison with CETBAND2, which the participants took one
year after they entered the university. To make values comparable between different types of variables, we
converted all original values into z scores; thus, values shown in Figures 1, 2, and 3 are expressed in terms of
standard deviations. We accepted a five-cluster model because at this level we discovered significant differences
among the clusters on all variables but PRESCORE in an analysis of variance.
Readers. The best group of students, Cluster 2 (n=3, 0.6%), obtained vocabulary size scores 2.2 standard
deviations above the mean and CETBAND2 scores 1.5 standard deviations above the average. They strongly
believed that vocabulary should be picked up through natural exposure (z=0.40) and careful studying (z=1.18),
but not memorization (z=-1.35). Their strong self-initiation (z=0.56) mostly reflected in their positive response
to guessing and contextual encoding of new vocabulary. In addition, they paid some attention to word-structure
(e.g., affixation). Given the difficult EFL environment in China, this group represents only a tiny minority of
Chinese who learn EFL and its vocabulary primarily through reading, guessing, and contextual encoding, while
at the same time sparing some attention to word forms. We hence labeled this group Readers. The small number
of Readers in our sample population renders any interpretation speculative. However, unrepresentative as it is,
this cluster shows the possibility of acquiring vocabulary through reading in a difficult EFL context. Moreover,
it demonstrates the benefits of doing so. This group, mostly acquisition-oriented in terms of what they claimed
they did, were 1.18 standard deviations above the mean in believing in the effortful study and deliberate use of
new words. This suggests not so much a conflict between the two seemingly contrasting approaches to learning,
but rather an integration of the two, in that these learners might have regarded reading as the best way of using
new words. Furthermore, it also shows how much Chinese culture values effort, a fact backed up by the figures
(M=5.74, SD=.62) for the LEARN variable in Table 2. Although it is theoretically plausible for students to read
to learn, and although teachers should encourage students to read as much as they can, finding enough suitable
English materials to read in China is not easy; teachers should make students aware of other means to success.
Active Strategy Users. Cluster 3 (n=48, 9.9%), the second best group in terms of vocabulary size and
general proficiency, achieved success through a very different approach. Although they also believed in natural
acquisition as well as careful study and use of new words, they did not disagree as drastically as the Readers did
with the memorization of words. They spent a lot of extracurricular time on English learning (z=0.47) and
employed almost every strategy 0.29 to 1.28 standard deviations more than average, except for visual repetition
(z=-0.1). One could readily interpret this as proving that using more strategies is better than using fewer.
However, the success of this group rests more on their self-initiation and high flexibility in strategy use. They
probably more willingly tried new strategies and therefore had a wider spectrum of strategies in stock. We can
best characterize these learners as hard-working and motivated. They guessed more, used more dictionary
strategies to learn vocabulary, took more notes, did more memorization, and activated more newly learned
words than their peers (cf. Sanaoui, 1995). What paid off eventually was the time and effort they exerted. In
other words, these students might have succeeded despite using certain strategies. That a majority of the good
learners in this study used certain strategies (e.g., visual repetition) shown to be least conducive to success in
the previous section does not contradict the results there.
Passive Strategy Users. Cluster 5 (n=9, 1.9%) shows an almost mirror image of the Active Strategy Users.
This group, whose vocabulary size and CETBAND2 scores recorded 0.41 and 0.93 standard deviations below
average, respectively, strongly believed in memorization (z=1.18). They also believed in the effortful studying
of new words. Nevertheless, with the sole exception of Visual Repetition (z=-0.03), their strategy use was 0.35
to 2.13 standard deviations below average. They spent only as much time on English learning, albeit not much
in absolute terms (z=-0.35), as did the Readers, who reported the least extracurricular time on learning English
among the five groups (z=-0.40). For whatever reasons, this group, about 2% of the participants, did not learn
much after spending 7 years learning English as a school subject. Apparently, they had not developed the basic
idea of what a language is and how it should be learned, and relied most heavily on visual repetition--the kind
of strategy they might have used in primary school to memorize Chinese characters. That the z score of the
strategy they used most, Visual Repetition, barely reached the mean indicates their lack of motivation in
learning EFL. In other words, unlike the poor learner reported in Gu (1994), they could attribute their failure not
to their inappropriate beliefs (though they strongly believed in memorization) nor to their ineffective strategies
(visual repetition), but to their lack of effort. Regrettably, the anonymity of data collection procedures prevented
locating these learners, or for that matter, the good learners as well: exactly where quantitative methods fall
short, qualitative in-depth alternatives start to reveal.
Encoders and Non-Encoders. Clusters 1 (n=157, 32.3%) and 4 (n=269, 55.3%) clustered around the mean
and were almost indistinguishable from each other except for their use of encoding strategies, hence the labels.
Cluster 1, the Encoders, used encoding strategies 0.29 to 0.56 standard deviations above average; both their
vocabulary size and proficiency scores were below average and lower than those of the Non-Encoders, who
used the same encoding strategies 0.26 to 0.47 standard deviations lower than the mean.
Overall, then, in terms of VOCSIZE and CETBAND2 scores, the most successful learners were the
Readers, followed in order by Active Strategy Users, Non-Encoders, Encoders, and Passive Strategy Users.
When we examined college entrance English scores (PRESCORE) in the light of these different strategy
profiles, the five clusters did not vary significantly (F=0.379, p=.824), suggesting that differences in vocabulary
size and general English proficiency were largely a function of the beliefs and strategies studied here and not of
the students' initial proficiency level in English on entering the university.
The Readers and the Active Strategy Users, the two types of high achievers, constituted less than 11 % of
the whole population; the Passive Strategy Users, the "underachievers," represented less than 2%. The great
majority (more than 87%) of the participants here had similar belief and strategy profiles (the Encoders and the
Non-Encoders). This suggests that, at least for the population of this one university, (a) most Chinese non-
English majors hold similar beliefs and use similar strategies in vocabulary learning; and (b) although using a
bit of every strategy may have saved them from total failure, it did not help most learners perform as well as
their high-achieving classmates.
The strategy profiles of these clusters of learners more probably result from social and educational than
from cognitive factors, though differences may stem from cognitive style too. The successful Readers, for
example, represent the exceptional few who not only believe in actively seeking opportunities to use English
outside and beyond the classroom environment but are successful in doing so. Perhaps these students are more
resourceful that others, or socially advantaged in ways that make such opportunities more possible for them.
The Active Strategy Users represent more the traditional, hard-working Chinese learners who believe in effort
regardless of approach. Passive Strategy Users may see little value in learning EFL; it is a requirement in their
courses but their main interest lies elsewhere; or perhaps they are generally less motivated toward their studies.
The Encoders seem to value vocabulary learning and to find attractive the shortcuts to vocabulary acquisition
offered by mnemonics. A number of books available in China recommend such approaches to learning and are
popular among some language learners. The Non-Encoders typify learners who do not believe in quick fixes
and, like the Passive Strategy Users, show little self-initiation in (or perhaps motivation for) learning English.
These explanations are speculative; more work is required to determine not only what makes one approach
more effective than another but also what contributes to more or less effective vocabulary learning within the
different approaches.


This study profiled the beliefs and strategies of adult Chinese learners for learning EFL vocabulary.
Contrary to popular beliefs about Asian learners, the participants generally did not dwell on memorization, and
reported using more meaning-oriented strategies than rote strategies in learning vocabulary. Second, we
examined a wide range of vocabulary learning beliefs and strategies in relation to both vocabulary size and
general English proficiency. Self-Initiation and Selective Attention, the 2 metacognitive strategies studied here,
emerged as positive predictors of general proficiency. At the cognitive level, contextual guessing, skillful use of
dictionaries for learning purposes (as opposed to looking up for comprehension only), note-taking, paying
attention to word formation, contextual encoding, and intentional activation of new words all positively
correlated with the 2 dependent variables. In addition, oral repetition positively correlated with general
proficiency, a finding in line with previous research (Hill, 1994; Kelly, 1992; Seibert, 1927). On the other hand,
visual repetition of new words was the strongest negative predictor of both vocabulary size and general
proficiency. Strategies aiming at vocabulary retention only correlated more with vocabulary size than with
English proficiency in general. Finally, a cluster analysis identified five approaches to learning. One small
group excelled primarily through extensive reading; another group by actively employing a wide range of
strategies. This suggests that both direct and indirect approaches to vocabulary learning can be useful, and that
both can, with disinterested and well-informed advice, foster "situated cognition" (Brown, Collins, & Duguid,
1989). The weakest group strongly believed in memorization and placed the greatest emphasis on visual
repetition of word lists.
This was an exploratory study: Therefore, correlational results suggest only strong or weak, positive or
negative links between the beliefs and strategies studied and the 2 dependent variables. Furthermore, as with
any similar studies, one can ask how much self-reports reflect reality. In answer, the participants had not been
exposed to similar studies before; therefore, they had not received much influence from existing theoretical and
empirical work on learning strategies. In addition, the anonymity of the questionnaire considerably reduced the
possibility of false reports.
With these limitations in mind, the study obtained enough evidence to issue the following warning to EFL
learners: Vocabulary knowledge, to be of real use, must become integrated into discourse. Therefore, a large
part of EFL vocabulary learning necessarily involves skill learning. Pure retention of decontextualized words
without a threshold level of L2 skill offers limited value no matter what "deep" processing strategies learners
use to achieve this purpose. Learners should use memory strategies that aim for retaining word-meaning pairs
with caution, if at all, and should complement them with other fully contextualized strategies. Taking care of
words individually will not necessarily take care of other aspects of the language, especially for foreign
language learners in input-poor environments.
Added material
Yongqi Gu, Department of English; Robert Keith Johnson, Department of Education.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the International Language in Education Conference held
in Hong Kong, 14-16 December 1994. We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of students and teachers at
Beijing Normal University.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Yongqi Gu, Room 603, Bonham Campus,
Department of English, The Hong Kong Institute of Education, 2 Hospital Road, Hong Kong. Telephone (852)
28037452. Internet:
Table 1 Dimensions and Categories (VLQ Version 3: 108 items)

Dimensions and Categories No. of Items Variable Labels Reliability

Beliefs About Vocabulary Learning 17
Words Should Be Memorized 8 MEMORIZ alpha=.68
Words Should Be Acquired in Context: Bottom-Up 4 ACQUIRE alpha=.46
Words Should Be Studied and Put to Use: Top-Down 5 LEARN alpha=.46
Metacognitive Regulation 12
Selective Attention 7 ATTEND alpha=.71
Self-Initiation 5 SELFINI alpha=.71
Guessing Strategies 12
Using Background Knowledge/Wider Context 7 WIDECUE alpha=.79
Using Linguistic Cues/Immediate Context 5 LOCOCUE alpha=.68
Dictionary Strategies 17
Dictionary Strategies for Comprehension 4 DICOMPR alpha=.67
Extended Dictionary Strategies 8 DICEXTN alpha=.81
Looking-Up Strategies 5 DICLOOK alpha=.63
Note-Taking Strategies 9
Meaning-Oriented Note-Taking Strategies 5 NOTEMNG alpha=.68
Usage-Oriented Note-Taking Strategies 4 NOTEUSE alpha=.75
Rehearsal Strategies 12
Using Word Lists 6 VOCLIST alpha=.73
Oral Repetition 3 ORALREP alpha=.50
Visual Repetition 3 VISUREP alpha=.56
Encoding Strategies 24
Association/Elaboration 4 ASSOCIA alpha=.61
Imagery 4 IMAGERY alpha=.67
Visual Encoding 3 VISUCOD alpha=.48
Auditory Encoding 3 AUDICOD alpha=.73
Using Word-Structure 3 WDFORM alpha=.70
Semantic Encoding 3 SEMANET alpha=.58
Contextual Encoding 4 CONTEXT alpha=.72
Activation Strategies 5 ACTIVAT alpha=.78

Table 2 How Chinese Learners Learn Vocabulary: Self Reports

Categories and Strategies M SD n

Words Should Be Memorized 3.04 0.83 849
Acquire Vocabulary in Context 4.94 0.78 850
Learn Vocabulary and Put It to Uuse 5.74 0.62 847
Metacognitive Regulation
Selective Attention 4.23 0.86 822
Self-Initiation 4.58 1.00 829
Guessing Strategies
Wider Context 4.60 0.85 824
Immediate Context 4.47 0.84 824
Dictionary Strategies
Comprehension 4.97 1.00 830
Extended Dictionary Strategies 4.82 0.93 820
Looking-Up Strategies 4.55 0.94 823
Note-Taking Strategies
Meaning-Oriented Note-Taking 4.15 0.99 824
Usage-Oriented Note-Taking 4.27 1.14 834
Rehearsal Strategies
Using Word Lists 3.15 0.99 824
Oral Repetition 4.20 1.07 840
Visual Repetition 3.92 1.17 833
Encoding Strategies
Association/Elaboration 3.69 0.97 826
Imagery 3.11 1.00 833
Visual Encoding 4.00 1.08 831
Auditory Encoding 3.69 1.19 832
Using Word-Structure 3.96 1.16 840
Semantic Encoding 3.24 1.03 839
Contextual Encoding 4.11 1.07 829
Activation Strategies 3.80 1.05 827

Table 3 Correlations Among 24 Independent Variables and 2 Dependent Variables


CETBAND2 -0.23(FN**) 0.09 0.06 0.26(FN**)
VOCSIZE -0.13(FN*) 0.10(FN*) 0.07 0.24(FN**)
CETBAND2 0.30(FN**) 0.24(FN**) 0.23(FN**) 0.08
VOCSIZE 0.35(FN**) 0.17(FN**) 0.19(FN**) 0.08
CETBAND2 0.27(FN**) 0.23(FN**) 0.17(FN**) 0.16(FN**)
VOCSIZE 0.23(FN**) 0.24(FN**) 0.23(FN**) 0.18(FN**)
CETBAND2 0.08 0.15(FN**) -0.24(FN**) 0.10(FN*)
VOCSIZE 0.16(FN**) 0.03(FN**) -0.23(FN**) 0.18(FN**)
CETBAND2 -0.01 0.05 0.01 0.14(FN**)
VOCSIZE 0.06 0.02 0.08 0.15(FN**)
CETBAND2 0.09 0.25(FN**) 0.18(FN**) 0.11(FN*)
VOCSIZE 0.24(FN**) 0.22(FN**) 0.31(FN**) 0.13(FN*)


* p<.01
** p<.001.
MEMORIZ=Memorize words; ACQUIRE=Acquire words in context; LEARN=Study and put words to
use; ATTEND=Selective attention; SELFINI=Self-initiation; WIDECUE=Wider context;
LOCOCUE=Immediate context; DICOMPR=Dictionary strategies for comprehension; DICETXN=Extended
dictionary strategies; DICLOOK=Looking-up strategies; NOTEMNG=Meaning-oriented note-taking strategies;
NOTEUSE=Usage-oriented note-taking strategies; VOCLIST=Use word lists; ORALREP=Oral repetition;
VISUREP=Visual repetition; ASSOCIA=Association elaboration; VISUCOD=Visual encoding;
AUDICOD=Auditory encoding; WDFORM=Use word-structure; SEMANET=Semantic encoding;
CONTEXT=Contextual encoding; ACTIVAT=Activation strategies.
Table 4 Multiple Regression: Predictors of CETBAND2

Variables R[sup2]
Step Entered Beta t p Change
Block 1 1 LEARN -.04 -0.95 .34 .05
2 MEMORIZ -.08 -2.02 .04
3 ACQUIRE .01 0.26 .80
Block 2 4 ATTEND .17 3.46 .00 .10
5 SELFINI .15 3.28 .00
Block 3 6 LOCOCUE -.11 -1.72 .09 .00
7 WIDECUE .08 1.29 .20
Block 4 8 DICOMPR -.01 -.29 .77 .01
9 DICLOOK .07 1.44 .15
10 DICEXTN .07 1.15 .25
Block 5 11 NOTEUSE -.04 -.68 .49 .00
12 NOTEMNG -.01 -.25 .80
Block 6 13 VISUREP -.18 -4.40 .00 .03
14 ORALREP .11 2.80 .01
15 VOCLIST .00 .02 .98
Block 7 16 IMAGERY -.15 -3.07 .00 .03
17 AUDICOD -.09 -1.80 .07
18 WDFORM -.06 -1.25 .21
19 VISUCOD .03 .59 .56
20 CONTEXT .16 3.40 .00
21 SEMANET .08 1.41 .16
22 ASSOCIA .05 .89 .37
Block 8 23 ACTIVAT -.07 -1.38 .17 .00
Block 9 24 TIME .05 1.23 .22 .00

F=7.25, p<.001, R[sup2]=.22.

Table 5 Multiple Regression: Predictors of VOCSIZE

Variables R[sup2]
Step Entered Beta t p Change
Block 1 LEARN .01 0.14 .89 .02
2 MEMORIZ .02 0.56 .57
3 ACQUIRE .04 1.09 .28
Block 2 4 ATTEND .08 1.68 .09 .11
5 SELFINI .16 3.51 .00
Block 3 6 LOCOCUE -.04 -0.66 .51 .00
7 WIDECUE -.03 -0.43 .67
Block 4 8 DICOMPR .03 0.59 .56 .01
9 DICLOOK .14 2.65 .01
10 DICEXTN -.05 -.89 .37
Block 5 11 NOTEUSE -.08 -1.48 .14 .00
12 NOTEMNG .06 1.10 .27
Block 6 13 VISUREP -.18 -4.47 .00 .03
14 ORALREP .01 0.31 .76
15 VOCLIST .04 0.82 .41
Block 7 16 IMAGERY -.12 -2.35 .02 .02
17 AUDICOD -.06 -1.16 .25
18 WDFORM -.06 -1.15 .25
19 VISUCOD -.07 -1.48 .14
20 CONTEXT .06 1.13 .26
21 SEMANET .10 1.95 .05
22 ASSOCIA .10 1.66 .10
Block 8 23 ACTIVAT .13 2.28 .02 .01
Block 9 24 TIME .09 2.45 .01 .01

F=6.54, p<.001, R[sup2]=.21.

Figure 1. Readers.
Figure 2. Passive Strategy Users and Active Strategy Users.
Figure 3. Encoders and Non-Encoders.

1 We distinguish here between memory strategies and vocabulary learning strategies. The former refers to
most vocabulary strategies, which aim only to commit form-meaning pairs to memory. We contend that these
constitute but one type of vocabulary learning strategy and that committing words to memory is far from an end
in itself in foreign language learning. The latter refers to a wide spectrum of strategies used as part of an on-
going process of vocabulary learning (see Ahmed, 1989; Gu, 1994; Sanaoui, 1995; Schmitt & Schmitt, 1995).
From the initial handling of a new word (guessing, postponing, or abandoning), to finding out the meanings,
usages, and examples of the word and taking down notes about it, if necessary, to committing the word to
memory, all the way to putting the word to use, learners differ in almost every step they take in learning
vocabulary. These strategies other than memory strategies warrant much more attention.
2 We excluded a class of "absolute beginners" in this grade, who had either learned other foreign languages
or no foreign language at all in their secondary schools and who only started to learn English after their
enrollment at BNU.
3 We administered the questionnaire in Chinese. This appendix shows the English version only. In addition,
questionnaire items in the appendix are organized under category headings. These items were randomly ordered
during administration.
4 College English Test (CET) Band 4 is a standardized English proficiency test taken each year by
thousands of university non-English majors across China at the end of their second year. Passing CET Band 4 is
the minimum requirement for students in key universities. The majority of students stop the formal classroom
learning of English after passing CET Band 4, whereas some others continue and finish Band 6 (The State
Education Commission, PRC, 1986).
5 The distinction between memorization and learning is often less clear-cut for Chinese than for Western
students. The Chinese tent to see memorization as a part, though not the whole, of the process of learning. In
this study, we distinguish between learning and rote-memorization; the students in this study generally rejected
the latter, often attributed to Chinese learners as a stereotype.

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Revised version accepted 18 June 1996






Once the English equivalents of all Chinese words have been remembered, English is learned.
The best way to remember words is to memorize word lists or dictionaries.
Remembering the meanings of a word is an end in itself.
English words have fixed meanings.
It is only necessary to remember one dictionary definition.
A good memory is all you need to learn a foreign language well.
Repetition is the best way to remember words.
You can only acquire a large vocabulary by memory of individual words.


The meanings of a considerable amount of words can be picked up through reading.
One can expand his vocabulary simply through reading a lot.
Guessing words in context is one of the best ways to learn vocabulary.
When you come across a word several times in different contexts, you will know what it means.


One should pay attention to set phrases and collocations that go with a word.
Words studied should be put to use before they are finally learned.
Using the language (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) is more important than memorizing words.
The least a learner should know about a word is its form, its meaning, and its basic usage.
Words are learned after you use them.



I know when a new word or phrase is essential for adequate comprehension of a passage.
I know which words are important for me to learn.
I have a sense of which word I can guess and which word I can't.
I look up words that I'm interested in.
When I meet a new word or phrase, I have a clear sense of whether I need to remember it.
I know what cues I should use in guessing the meaning of a particular word.
I make a note of words that seem important to me.

Besides textbooks, I look for other readings that fall under my interest.
I wouldn't learn what my English teacher doesn't tell us to learn. (Reversed value)
I only focus on things that are directly related to examinations. (Reversed value)
I wouldn't care much about vocabulary items that my teacher does not explain in class. (Reversed value)
I use various means to make clear vocabulary items that I am not quite clear of.



I use alternative cues and try again if I fail to guess the meaning of a word.
I make use of the logical development in the context (e.g., cause and effect) when guessing the meaning of
a word.
I make use of my common sense and knowledge of the world when guessing the meaning of a word.
I check my guessed meaning against the wider context to see if it fits in.
I make use of my knowledge of the topic when guessing the meaning of a word.
I look for other words or expressions in the passage that support my guess about the meaning of a new
I look for any definitions or paraphrases in the passage that support my guess about the meaning of a word.


I make use of the grammatical structure of a sentence when guessing the meaning of a new word.
I look for any examples provided in the context when guessing the meaning of a new word.
I make use of the part of speech of a new word when guessing its meaning.
I check my guessed meaning against the immediate context to see if it fits in.
I analyze the word structure (prefix, root, and suffix) when guessing the meaning of a word.



When I see an unfamiliar word again and again, I look it up.
When I want to confirm my guess about a word, I look it up.
When not knowing a word prevents me from understanding a whole sentence or even a whole paragraph, I
look it up.
I look up words that are crucial to the understanding of the sentence of paragraph in which it appears.


I pay attention to the examples of use when I look up a word in a dictionary.
I look for phrases or set expressions that go with the word I look up.
I consult a dictionary to find out about the subtle differences in the meanings of English words.
When I want to know more about a word that I already have some knowledge of, I look it up.
When I don't know the usage of a word I already have some knowledge of, I look it up.
I make a note when I want to help myself distinguish between the meanings of two or more words.
When looking up a word in the dictionary, I read sample sentences illustrating various meanings of the
When I get interested in another new word in the definitions of the word I look up, I look up this word as


If the new word is inflected, I remove the inflections to recover the form to look up (e.g., for created, look
for create).
If the new word I try to look up seems to have a prefix or suffix, I will try the entry for the stem.
If the unknown appears to be an irregularly inflected form or a spelling variant, I will scan nearby entries.
If there are multiple senses or homographic entries, I use various information (e.g., part of speech,
pronunciation, style, collocation, meaning, etc.) to reduce them by elimination.
I try to integrate dictionary definitions into the context where the unknown was met and arrive at a
contextual meaning by adjusting for complementation and collocation, part of speech, and breadth of meaning.



I make a note of the meaning of a new word when I think the word I'm looking up is commonly used.
I make a note when I think the word I'm looking up is relevant to my personal interest.
I put synonyms or antonyms together in my notebook.
I write down the English synonym(s) or explanations of the word I look up.
I write down both the Chinese equivalent and the English synonyms of the word I look up.


I make a note when I see a useful expression or phrase.
I take down the collocations of the word I look up.
I take down grammatical information about a word when I look it up.
I note down examples showing the usages of the word I look up.



I make vocabulary lists of new words that I meet.
I write the new words on one side of a card and their explanations on the other side.
I keep the vocabulary lists of new words that I make.
I go through my vocabulary list several times until I am sure that I do not have any words on that list that I
still don't understand.
I make vocabulary cards and take them with me wherever I go.
I make regular and structured reviews of new words I have memorized.


When I try to remember a word, I repeat it aloud to myself.
Repeating the sound of a new word to myself would be enough for me to remember the word.
When I try to remember a word, I repeat its pronunciation in my mind.


When I try to remember a word, I write it repeatedly.
I memorize the spelling of a word letter by letter.
I write both the new words and their Chinese equivalents repeatedly in order to remember them.


I remember a group of new words that share a similar part in spelling.
I associate a group of new words that share a similar part in spelling with a known word that looks or
sounds similar to the shared part.
I create a sentence in Chinese when I link a new word to a known word.
I attach physical sensations to certain words (e.g., stinking) when I try to remember them.

2. IMAGERY (4)
I act out a word in order to remember it better.
I create a mental image of the new word to help me remember it.
I associate one or more letters in a word with the word meaning to help me remember it (look has two
"eyes" in the middle).
I create mental images of association when I link a new word to a known word.


I visualize the new word to help me remember it.
I associate a new word to a known English word that looks similar.
I remember the spelling of a word by breaking it into several visual parts.


I remember together words that sound similar.
I remember together words that are spelled similarly.
I associate a new word with a known English word that sounds similar.

I analyze words in terms of prefixes, stems, and suffixes.
I deliberately study word-formation rules in order to remember more words.
I memorize the commonly used stems and prefixes.
I try to create semantic networks in my mind and remember words in meaningful groups.
When I meet a new word, I search in my memory and see if I have any synonyms and antonyms in my
vocabulary stock.
I group words into categories (e.g., animals, utensils, vegetables, etc.).


When I try to remember a word, I remember the sentence in which the word is used.
I deliberately read books in my areas of interest so that I can find out and remember the special terminology
that I know in Chinese.
I remember the new word together with the context where the new word occurs.
I learn words better when I put them in contexts (e.g., phrases, sentences, etc.).


I try to read as much as possible so that I can make use of the words I tried to remember.
I make up my own sentences using the words I just learned.
I try to use the newly learned words as much as possible in speech and writing.
I try to use newly learned words in real situations.
I try to use newly learned words in imaginary situations in my mind.

WBN: 9633601954003