The dimensional approach to vocabulary testing: What can we learn from past and present practices?

  • Déogratias Nizonkiza School of Languages, Potchefstroom Campus, North-West University
  • Karien van den Berg School of Languages, Potchefstroom Campus, North-West University
Keywords: vocabulary dimensions, vocabulary size, vocabulary depth, productive vocabulary, receptive vocabulary, testing vocabulary


Vocabulary constitutes an important component of language and its study has attracted the interest of second-language (L2) and foreign-language (FL) teachers and applied language researchers, booming in the 1990s (cf. for example Ellis 1992, Read 2000). Among other things, this interest has been characterised by the attention paid to testing learners’ knowledge of vocabulary. The dimensional approach to vocabulary knowledge as proposed by Henriksen (1999), i.e. vocabulary size, depth, and receptive-productive knowledge/skills, has influenced test design for measuring L2/FL vocabulary acquisition. This article aims to describe the major vocabulary tests along the vocabulary dimensions and highlights what testing under this approach has contributed to the teaching of vocabulary. To this end, it reviews some major L2/FL vocabulary tests alongside the above dimensions, focusing on the pedagogical consequences that followed testing. The review shows that testing has not been an end in itself. The extensive investigation of vocabulary size has led to standardisation of methods, as well as insight into how to determine the amount of vocabulary needed at different learning stages. Furthermore, it has influenced the development of course materials for fostering vocabulary growth. However, testing depth and productive knowledge still lags behind. Despite progress made in this regard, scholars have not succeeded in measuring the two dimensions in a standardised manner, nor have they determined the extent of depth and productive knowledge associated with different learning stages. Given the importance of speaking and writing (i.e. productive use rather than mere comprehension), suggestions for future directions are discussed.


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