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Defining Contextualized Vocabulary Acquisition

written by: Luds Kadimba • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 9/11/2012

Contextualized vocabulary acquisition in foreign language or second language learning is a vocabulary acquisition and retention strategy. What does it imply in teaching and learning? How does it affect students and teachers?

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    Primary Meaning of Contextualized Vocabulary Acquisition

    Contextualized vocabulary acquisition (CVA) is primarily a vocabulary learning method used in learning a second (L2) or foreign (FL) language through the use of contextual tools. It involves inferring the meaning of words in a given context, most often a text. As opposed to de-contextualized learning, this type of vocabulary learning is incidental and depends on the context the learner is exposed to. Vocabulary here is not systematically learned for a specific purpose, even if its understanding and acquisition will become purposeful in the long run and once it is mastered by the student.


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    CVA Implications for Students

    foreign lang teach class This vocabulary learning strategy is not suitable for beginners as it implies that the student has already acquired a certain level in L2 in order to be able to read a second language and infer meaning of particular words from the main context. It also implies more complex cognitive processes by the learner who is actively seeking meaning as opposed to mere memorization of a list of words, which conforms to its "opposite" strategy of de-contextualized vocabulary learning. CVA requires students to make more efforts to find out the meaning of words. Concentration, perseverance and reasoning are the types of skills students are bound to develop by using contextualized vocabulary acquisition extensively.

    Contextual language learning can be effective; however, words and expressions in a L2 or FL may be used in a variety of contexts. It is important that students are exposed to various contexts in which reiteration of certain words and expressions are used, so that they become able to abstract the latter and use them in all relevant contexts. Learning certain words from only one context and not being exposed to such vocabulary in any other context could limit theirStudent at table  understanding of usage.

    There exists differing views on the benefits of contextualized vocabulary acquisition as opposed to de-contextualized vocabulary learning; however, many have found that vocabulary learned using CVA led to better retention of it, as contextual elements helped memory. Words learned from a list appeared as an effective strategy for test and quick vocabulary recall; however, it did not facilitate students' ability to use vocabulary learned in this way in relevant contexts. CVA is not only about vocabulary retention, but actual vocabulary use, which is the real aim of language learning.

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    CVA Implications for Teachers

    Teacher teaching Teachers using contextualized vocabulary acquisition as a teaching method should be aware of their students' vocabulary knowledge levels in order to design appropriate tasks. The set tasks should be, to a great extent, comprehensible to most students so that new input can be inferred adequately and fairly. Tasks set should take into account previous input or known vocabulary in order to measure the amount of new input which is acceptable and challenging enough without being overwhelming to students.

    One thing teachers have to consider is that not all their students are bound to be at the same level even in terms of vocabulary knowledge. Therefore, potential need for differentiation or extra support to some students may also have to be part of teachers' planning concerns. They could potentially offer lower attaining students support with the least obvious words in context, by suggesting pictures or other visual cues designed to help harder vocabulary meaning extraction, for example. In any case, dictionaries should be widely available for theDictionaries  use of all.

    Teachers have to also consider progression of their students' vocabulary acquisition and should make sure it is secure before moving to a next level of difficulty each time. To ensure secure vocabulary acquisition and encourage mastery, teachers should provide a variety of contexts including certain vocabulary type. Teaching content should aim to help students' ability to abstract vocabulary from a context to reuse it in another relevant context. Re-adaptation of texts, overlapping themes consist of potential teaching content prone to bring a balance between new and old input.

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    The Value of Contextualized Vocabulary Acquisition

    Although it has been criticized, contextualized vocabulary acquisition is essential to language teaching and learning at some point in time in learning a L2 or FL. It provides adequate training in actual language use, which is the main purpose of language learning. Meeting or experiencing new vocabulary in contexts open the doors of practical purpose of language for students, which vocabulary memorization on its own does not do.

    What would be the point of accumulating vocabulary memorization without being able to use it adequately? Nevertheless, it is true that this teaching and learning strategy cannot and should not be used on its own and that optimal language teaching and learning conditions require a mixture of methods and strategies. It still is an essential strategy which should not be left out as it could be detrimental to students.