Academic Vocabulary Learning: Literature Review and Criticism

The present review of literature aims at summarizing and critically evaluating several scholarly studies focused on academic vocabulary learning. All of the articles under analysis investigate some aspects related to vocabulary learning strategies (VLSs). Whereas the general focus of scholars’ attention in on the same issue, each of the articles scrutinizes the enhancement of VLSs at different levels. Thus, research ranges from primary school students (Ferreira, Simão, & da Silva, 2014), middle school learners (Diaz, 2015), high school students (Ostovar-Namaghi & Rajaee, 2013; Rahimi & Allahyari, 2019), and freshman college students (Alqarni, 2018a; Alqarni, 2018b), to undergraduates (Sulaiman, Salehuddin, & Khairuddin, 2018).

Each of the reviewed articles has a specific focus of investigation within the domain of VLSs, but it is possible to single out common directions in some of them. The majority of studies are concerned with the enhancement of VLSs in the process of ESL (EFL) students’ learning process (Alqarni, 2018a; Alqarni, 2018b; Diaz, 2015; Ferreira et al., 2014; Ostovar-Namaghi & Rajaee, 2013; Rahimi & Allahyari, 2019).

Meanwhile, Sulaiman et al. (2018) pay particular attention to ESL students’ knowledge of the Academic Words List (AWL). Still, there is a connection between this source and the other ones in that Suleiman et al. (2018) emphasize the need for increasing comprehension of the AWL for developing one’s vocabulary. Another common theme for the articles is the implementation of multimedia (Rahimi & Allahyari, 2019) and metacognitive (Alqarni, 2018a; Alqarni, 2018b; Diaz, 2015) strategies to improve students’ VLSs. Vocabulary training interventions were employed by Alqarni (2018a) and Ostovar-Namaghi and Rajaee (2013). A detailed overview of each of the articles will summarize their purposes, samples, contexts, procedures, results, and conclusions.

The aim of the study by Alqarni (2018a) was to increase students’ awareness of a variety of VLSs and stimulate them to employ those means in the process of vocabulary learning. Twenty-nine first-semester male Saudi students studying EFL were enrolled in research. Alqarni (2018a) utilized a questionnaire to collect data from respondents. The questionnaire was divided into five major VSL categories with eight sub-categories in each of them, thus amounting to forty sub-strategies. The data collection tool was employed two times: before vocabulary training and after it. Data were analyzed with the application of SPSS and t-test to obtain the means and standard deviations.

The results indicated the awareness-increasing effect of VSL training in all categories. However, a statistically significant divergence was noted in three of them, namely cognitive, memory, and determination strategies (Alqarni, 2018a). Students acknowledged that they had enhanced their VLSs to a great extent due to the participation in training. More importantly, the participants realized that they could apply the strategies learned not only in the course included in the study but also in other courses, such as grammar and reading (Alqarni, 2018a). Despite a comparatively short duration of the study, the scholar managed to demonstrate the apparent impact of such training. It may be concluded that training sessions aimed at increasing EFL students’ VLSs have a beneficial effect on learners’ academic achievement in various domains.

Another article by Alqarni (2018b) pursued the goal of examining the VLSs applied by Saudi first-year students whose major was EFL. The sample consisted of 81 male participants who studied in the College of Language and Translation at King Saud University.

Respondents were requested to fill out a questionnaire adapted from Rabadi’s (2016) research (as cited in Alqarni, 2018b, p. 141). The data collection tool incorporated five main VSL categories: determination, memory, cognitive, metacognitive, and social ones. The researcher and two other instructors distributed the questionnaire to three groups of respondents on the fourth week of their first semester (Alqarni, 2018b). The students received oral instruction in their native language prior to starting work on their questionnaires. No time limit was set for completing the survey, but students completed it in 17-35 minutes.

Findings indicated that students employed all of the VLS dimensions. However, the metacognitive approach was reported to be the most widely used and preferred by learners. Another result was recorded by Alqarni (2018b) was that the overall mean score of VLS use constituted 1.63, which indicated that the level of strategy use of the students participating in the study was low. To conclude, Alqarni’s (2018b) findings may serve as an exemplification of the current level of Saudi students’ VLS use when learning English. On the basis of this research, other investigations may be performed to increase the understanding of the research problem.

The study by Diaz (2015) aimed to analyze the potential of metacognitive strategies to improve young learners’ abilities to increase and retain vocabulary. The sample consisted of ten 3rd-5th grade students, four boys and six girls, aged between eight and ten. All of the children came from middle-class families, and their level of English was A1. The rationale behind selecting the children for the study was that they had problems in communication due to not having sufficient vocabulary to convey their thoughts or formulate their purpose of utterance. Diaz (2015) performed a qualitative study that combined several phases to evaluate the use of VLSs by children.

The first stage involved the metacognitive strategy instruction, which helped students to understand the basics of learning strategies. The second step was composed of five interventions that were established on the “cognitive academic language learning approach instructional model” (Diaz, 2015, p. 87).

Additionally, the journaling progress of each child was recorded, which allowed explaining the application of metacognitive strategies to students. Research findings indicated that metacognitive strategy training had a beneficial effect on children’s vocabulary acquisition. As a result of interventions, students gained knowledge about the best ways of enhancing vocabulary. The study allows making a conclusion that the use of learning strategies increases young learners’ vocabulary considerably. What is more, both the linguistic and cognitive processes of the students become activated when metacognitive strategies are applied.

In their research, Ferreira et al. (2014) worked on identifying the correlation between one’s learning regulation and reporting strategies of self-regulated learning. The authors noted that it was not an easy task to evaluate learners’ self-regulation. Hence, scholars approached the problem from different angles, which allowed them to analyze and evaluate the perceptions and processes of self-regulated learning. Specifically, the study by Ferreira et al. (2014) aimed at assessing to what extent training in regulating one’s learning processes was associated with students’ patterns of growth. Additionally, scholars studied whether such training could influence children’s academic performance and reflective abilities.

The convenience sample was composed of 204 primary school students coming from middle-class families. The participants were in EFL classes, and their level of English was A1 (Ferreira et al., 2014). The sample utilized in the study was 100 children, 40 of whom were placed in the experimental group, and 60 – in the control group. The procedures involved evaluating students’ academic performance with a vocabulary and oral task.

Findings obtained by means of multilevel modeling demonstrated that the growth rates of reported self-regulated learning were dissimilar in the experimental and control groups. Moreover, learners who received training were able to reflect their opinions more autonomously than those who did not receive any. To conclude, it is viable to notice that the implications of Ferreira et al.’s (2014) research bear significance for elementary school teachers who can employ the approach suggested by scholars to enhance their students’ reflectiveness.

The study by Ostovar-Namaghi and Rajaee (2013) aimed to investigate the effect of vocabulary strategy training on Iranian students’ vocabulary learning. The sample was composed of 60 EFL male students aged from 14 to 16. The participants were randomly divided into the experimental and control groups. At the beginning of the study, both groups were given a writing pre-test with 40 multiple-choice questions (Ostovar-Namaghi & Rajaee, 2013). Next, the experimental group received a two-month training session on vocabulary learning. Finally, the two groups completed another 40-question test at the end of the experiment. To assess the differences between the experimental and control groups, statistical analysis was utilized.

The results of the study indicated a considerable difference between post-test scores in the two groups. Thus, Ostovar-Namaghi and Rajaee (2013) found that vocabulary strategy training had a beneficial effect on the members of the experimental group. It was reported that successful learners of English employed vocabulary strategies more often than students with sparse knowledge. Since the pre-test scores in the two groups were similar, and post-test results were different, Ostovar-Namaghi and Rajaee (2013) concluded that vocabulary training had a highly positive impact on EFL students’ mastery of English.

Research by Rahimi and Allahyari (2019) pursued two aims: to analyze the effect of multimedia-facilitated VLS instruction on the awareness and use of EFL students and to evaluate the possible influence of such instruction on the students’ vocabulary learning. The sample was composed of 40 beginning language learners, who were further equally divided into the experimental and control groups. All respondents were females aged between 14 and 16 with the basic user level of English, who studied in an English elementary course. The main instruments were a vocabulary test, a nation’s vocabulary size test, and a vocabulary learning strategies questionnaire. The procedure involved explicit or direct VLS six-phase instruction, which was chosen due to its benefits for learners’ understanding.

The control group’s instruction incorporated oral explanations given by the teacher, pencil-and-paper handouts, and the board. Meanwhile, the experimental group received multimedia presentations at several stages of the instructing process (Rahimi & Allahyari, 2019). The experiment lasted for fifteen weeks, and it resulted in considerably different vocabulary learning and size between the two groups. The scholars found that the use of multimedia-assisted VLS instruction significantly increased the experimental group’s application of cognitive and memory strategies. However, Rahimi and Allahyari (2013) acknowledged that determination and metacognitive strategies were not influenced by the intervention. Thus, it is possible to conclude that the utilization of multimedia-facilitated instruction had the potential to enhance EFL students’ vocabulary.

The article by Sulaiman et al. (2018) aimed at exploring the knowledge of academic words among Malaysian ESL undergraduate students. To pursue their purpose, scholars utilized Coxhead’s AWL. The sample consisted of 111 first-year students because their level corresponded to the period of forming the tertiary level of academic literacy. The participants were enrolled in three programs: English language studies, economy and management, and health sciences.

The AWL list consisted of 570 word families divided into ten sub-lists according to their range and frequency (Sulaiman et al., 2018). The data collection method was a questionnaire encompassing a list of words from the AWL. Results indicated that the sub-lists 8-10, which included the low-frequency academic words, had the highest rate of unawareness among students. Additionally, it was found that the distribution of academic words depended on learners’ academic disciplines and proficiency in English. Scholars concluded that the identification of unknown academic vocabulary was crucial both to teachers and students since the former could single out the words on which the latter should focus.

Although each of the reviewed articles has a specific purpose and utilizes different groups of participants, it is possible to make some common conclusions about them all. Firstly, the role of strategy training in academic vocabulary learning cannot be overestimated. All of the studies have analyzed ESL and EFL students’ difficulties in learning English, and all of them have found that increasing these students’ vocabulary has the potential to deepen their communication skills.

Secondly, a variety of multimedia and metacognitive instruction approaches may be utilized by teachers to enhance their students’ mastery of English since the earliest stages of learning. Finally, it is necessary to perform research on larger samples in order to gain more reliable and valid results and to prepare effective guidelines for educators.


Alqarni, I. R. (2018a). Awareness-raising of vocabulary learning strategies: Does it make a difference? Arab World English Journal (AWEJ), 9(3), 98-110. Web.

Alqarni, I. R. (2018b). Saudi English major freshmen students’ vocabulary learning strategies: An exploratory study. International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, 7(1), 141-145. Web.

Diaz, I. (2015). Training in metacognitive strategies for students’ vocabulary improvement by using learning journals. PROFILE Issues in Teachers’ Professional Development, 17(1), 87-102. Web.

Ferreira, P. C., Simão, A. M. V., & da Silva, A. L. (2014). Does training in how to regulate one’s learning affect how students report self-regulated learning in diary tasks? Metacognition and Learning, 10(2), 199-230. Web.

Ostovar-Namaghi, S. A., & Rajaee, M. (2013). Effect of strategy training on vocabulary in EFL contexts. Web.

Rahimi, M., & Allahyari, A. (2019). Effects of multimedia learning combined with strategy-based instruction on vocabulary learning and strategy use. SAGE Open, 9(2), 1-14. Web.

Sulaiman, N. A., Salehuddin, K., & Khairuddin, R. (2018). Academic word list knowledge of Malaysian ESL undergraduates. GEMA Online® Journal of Language Studies, 18(4). Web.