Some Thoughts on Hebrew (and Greek) Vocabulary Acquisition

As a language lecturer, I am keenly interested in good pedagogical practice. I strive to teach Hebrew and Greek in the best ways possible, because poor language teaching can be a severe hindrance to learning (and, thus, to continuing in the language). So, I was surprised earlier this year to learn, upon reading a friend’s PhD dissertation, that I had not given due attention to a crucial part of learning Hebrew and Greek: vocabulary acquisition. I have since made some modifications to what I do in the classroom, but there is still more that needs to be refined. In what follows, I will detail what I have learned and share the steps taken so far (as well as the steps I intend to take) to better guide first-year language students in their vocabulary work.

The Problem

The dissertation in question is Jeremy Thompson’s “Learning Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary: Insights from Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition” (Thompson 2011). Thompson’s research is refreshingly data-driven and theoretically-founded. His work is, appropriately, interdisciplinary, being steeped in the literature and research of SLVA (Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition). This means that he uses modern, tested research into vocabulary acquisition for second-language learners to inform his understanding of the cognitive and pedagogical issues and to guide his hypotheses. He then tests his hypotheses and shares the results. (I would love to see more work like this in biblical language research.)

Thankfully, I have talked with Jeremy about his research in the past, so some of his insights had made its way into my classroom. However, as I read his dissertation, it became clear that there was much that I had been neglecting. Before getting to that, though, let me clearly lay out the terms:

Vocabulary is an essential part of learning a language. This is not a bold claim—one cannot read a text if they do not know the words that make up that text!

Learning vocabulary is incredibly important. Students will not get far without it. In order to read their Hebrew Bibles or Greek New Testaments (or Septuagints!), it is crucial that they regularly revise their vocabulary and expand it.

Given this, we should expect that great care and time would be spent in Hebrew and Greek grammars teaching students how to learn vocabulary effectively, just as they spend great time and care teaching students the ins and outs of grammar. If vocabulary is so important to a student’s success and their continuing in the language, it stands to reason that vocabulary be presented in the best way possible and that the textbook provide a guide for the student (or at least the lecturer) as to the best methods for acquiring vocabulary. Unfortunately (and as Thompson examines in ch. 3 of his dissertation), this is not the case. Below, I will detail some of the major issues that Thompson raises in how Hebrew grammars present and conceive of vocabulary. (I encourage you to read his dissertation for more.)

Issue #1: At the end of each chapter, most Hebrew (and Greek) first-year grammars simply provide a large list of vocabulary to be learned and do not provide any further instruction.
Such a format sets the student up for ineffective vocabulary acquisition. The problem is that these lists do not provide any guidance to the student as to how they ought to approach the vocabulary. Should they try to learn the whole list and then revise it every day? Should they do a few words a day? What do they do once they have got a word down? There are answers to these questions, but our grammars have not even thought to ask them in the first place.
Regarding how many words they should learn a day, Thompson (130–31) points to research showing that, cognitively, the ideal number of new vocabulary items per day is seven or fewer. Without instruction concerning this, most students will likely end up trying to learn vocabulary in blocks of too many words. This will negatively impact their ability to learn and retain information.*

* It is actually more complicated than this. In truth, the seven vocabulary items are likely the ideal number per session instead of per day, so it is possible to learn a plethora of new items every day if the person knows how to do memory work effectively (e.g., see the next point on spaced repetition). However, given that there is much that must be covered in a first-year course (and it is enough of a battle getting them to do just seven words a day!), the possible negative effects of overloading vocabulary, and that students have a number of other study commitments, I think sticking to one list of no more than seven per day makes good sense. Over two 12-week semesters, if students have a new list six days per week and the average list contains 5.5 items, then that is 792 items, which is far more than any introductory textbook.

In addition, students ought to employ spaced repetition in how they learn and revise vocabulary. Spaced repetition, put simply, is exposing oneself to an item more frequently when it is first learned and then spacing out its revision more and more over time (60). There is a good deal of science behind spaced repetition and how to do it effectively, so I encourage those interested (or those who have a responsibility to teach students biblical languages) to look it up. Thankfully, there are apps available now that implement spaced repetition, such as Anki and Bible Vocab.

Issue #2: Many grammars often group semantically-similar vocabulary items. (This is becoming more popular even outside of first-year textbooks.)
The problem here is simple: Research shows that when semantically-similar items are presented near each other, it runs the risk of interference (13, 58), that is, the student will get the similar words confused because they were presented in close temporal and spatial proximity. (Related to this, morphologically-similar words can also be problematic (83)).

Issue #3: Many grammars often group items of the same grammatical class together.
Similar to issue #2, grouping items of the same grammatical class together risks interference (13, 64). If anyone wants proof of this, teach Greek prepositions to a class of first-year students. Many Greek grammars devote a chapter to teaching students about prepositions and then end the chapter with a vocabulary list of nothing but prepositions (or at least mostly prepositions and a lot of them). Every year, I witness firsthand the interference this causes.
Granted, there are only so many grammatical classes, so there will be many words in a list that share the same class. However, if the advice above is taken and each list at the end of a chapter is broken into smaller, daily lists of seven or fewer words, this problem can be significantly mitigated.

Issue #4: Grammars have an under-realized definition of what constitutes vocabulary.
This is an issue that stood out to me as I read Thompson’s dissertation. The assumption of grammars is that vocabulary is comprised of words, but this is a far too narrow understanding that neglects everything we know about learning, language development, cognition, and the mental lexicon. Thompson (24–27) helpfully explains, citing linguistic research along the way, that vocabulary is comprised of words, polywords (multi-word items that are highly idiomatic, e.g., “by the way”), collocations, idioms, and derivatives. Each of these needs to be treated as a distinct vocabulary item and thus ought to be presented as such. However, that is not all. Inflected forms that are semi-productive (they follow the dominant paradigm(s) only partially, e.g., עִיר city inflects its plural as עָרִים cities) and forms that are irregular (to use Thompson’s example: נָשִׁים women, the plural of אִשָׁה woman) should be considered separate items in the mental lexicon and thus presented as distinct vocabulary items. As it stands, though the occasional idiom or collocation may be given as a vocabulary item, no Hebrew or Greek grammar conceives of vocabulary in this way.* If we want to strive for best pedagogical practice, this must change with the next generation of first-year grammars.

* Though many grammars will provide inflected forms that are semi-productive or irregular, they do this in the context of a single vocabulary word (the lexical form). So, while this is a good thing to do, it is not as effective as treating semi-productives and irregulars as distinct vocabulary items.

Issue #5: Grammars do not often consider what it means to learn vocabulary.
Thompson argues, correctly, that “learning a lexical item involves more than pairing one aspect of an item’s form with a meaning” (27). Pairing form with meaning is just one piece of the vocab-acquisition tapestry. Thompson then helpfully provides two meta-categories for vocabulary learning from the field of linguistics, aspects of vocabulary knowledge and levels of vocabulary knowledge, and breaks down what it means to learn vocabulary. Briefly:
Aspects of vocabulary knowledge include a given item’s meaning, written form, spoken form, grammatical behavior, collocations, associations, and frequency (28). Thompson states, “A model for learning Biblical Hebrew vocabulary should include each of these aspects of knowledge for the target vocabulary items” (ibid.). Note that it is not the case that each of these aspects need to (or can!) be learned at the same time; learning the aspects of a given vocabulary item is incremental. However, all of these are integral parts to one’s knowledge of a vocabulary item, so knowledge of an item’s aspects does need to be gained to fully learn that item. One very helpful part of Thompson’s discussion here was the acknowledgement that some aspects of vocabulary knowledge are best learned through implicit activities (e.g., reading) rather than explicit activities (e.g., flash cards). Of course, this then raises the issue that gaining such knowledge through both implicit and explicit activities requires a level of intention on the part of the grammar (in the way that vocabulary lists, information, and reading exercises are given and organized) that far exceeds anything I have seen currently available.
Levels of vocabulary knowledge pertain to how well a lexical item is known. Drawing from psychological research, Thompson discusses that a lexical item can be unknown, familiar, or known (29). The difference between familiar and known is active and passive recognition (familiar) vs. active and passive recall (known). This is probably not news to many people. Still, though, it is helpful to have in mind that one’s level of knowledge for any given item exists on a spectrum.


We have looked at (some of) the issues in how vocabulary is taught, or not taught, in biblical language grammars.* So, what are some solutions?

* Again, I encourage the reader to sit down with Thompson’s dissertation. There is much that I am glossing over or have omitted entirely in the interest of keeping this blog post from going on forever.

First, I hope that it is clear that students need to be taught how to learn vocabulary. It does not do to simply give them a list of words and tell them to memorize it. Second, professors of Hebrew and Greek need to be aware of vocabulary acquisition research and how to put it into practice.

Now, let me briefly speak to each issue raised above.

Issue 1: (Most first-year grammars simply provide a large list of vocabulary to be learned and do not provide any further instruction.)
A simple change that would have immediately beneficial effects is for vocabulary lists to be broken up into lists of seven or fewer words and for students to be instructed to learn no more than one list per day. If the grammar does not do this, it is a relatively easy thing for a professor to do for their students (if a little time consuming).
Another simple change is to inform students about spaced repetition and how to implement it in study. Or, at the very least, point students to apps that implement spaced repetition.

Issues 2-3: (Semantically-similar and morphologically-similar vocabulary items grouped together; items of the same grammatical class grouped together)
Until grammars are published that arrange their vocabulary according to better principles, it is up to the professor to arrange lists for their students. If the professor is providing lists of vocabulary items of seven words or fewer already, then it is a relatively simple task to arrange these lists (even within the boundaries of the chapters of the textbook) so that semantically- and morphologically-similar words are spaced out and words of the same grammatical class are somewhat spaced out (as much as is possible and reasonable).

Issue 4: (Under-realized definition of what constitutes vocabulary)
This is a major issue, but it is very time consuming for the professor to solve. It requires adding new items to students’ vocabulary lists as necessary. This results in larger lists and thus difficulty in managing issues #2-3 as well as the volume of vocabulary. However, it is not an impossible task (see the next section to see how I have done this in my Hebrew class).

Issue 5: (Grammars do not often consider what it means to learn vocabulary.)
Having the levels of vocabulary knowledge in mind is helpful and may guide what exercises we use in class and in homework. However, when it comes to aspects of vocabulary knowledge, because so many of the aspects are best learned implicitly, this is difficult to address effectively. Creating practice exercises and giving students readings that are populated with vocabulary that they have learned or are learning is one positive solution. Really, though, we need grammars to be built from the ground up with this issue in mind. (Admittedly, some do this relatively well already, but other grammars are hopeless here.)

What I Have Done

In my second semester of first-year Hebrew, I implemented the above solutions I proposed generally and for issues #1-5. I will break down what I did and then provide some examples:

  1. I explicitly instructed students on how to learn vocabulary effectively and gave them a handout with those instructions (I already did this because of conversations with Jeremy back in the day).
  2. I took the vocabulary from our textbook (Hackett) and arranged it into six lists per week of no more than seven words per list. I printed these out for the students.
  3. When I made the lists, I attempted to place semantically-similar words, morphologically-similar words, and words of the same grammatical class into separate lists (as much as was possible).
  4. When I made the lists, I attempted to add relevant idioms, collocations, semi-productive forms, and irregular forms.
  5. With regard to issue #5, something I have already been doing for years is creating practice and homework exercises for my students (whether my own compositions or pulled from the biblical text; it depends on what is available) for every lecture. With these, I try to include as much new and recent vocabulary as possible.

Here are some examples of my vocabulary handouts:

Regarding the vocabulary lists, I am under no delusion that I have produced the perfect resource. I know there are things that could have been done better and more that could have been done. However, if I succeeded in helping my students learn vocabulary even a little better (and have good practices in place to continue their vocabulary learning), then I count that a victory. And, what’s more, I can build on that next time and make it even better.

Here are reflections from some of my students to some questions I gave them at the end of the semester. I should note that many of them ended up not using the lists as intended/instructed (these students did admit that they meant to but were not as disciplined as they wanted to be) and a couple did not use them at all:

  • What did you find helpful about the format, mode of learning, and instructions? What was unhelpful?
    • “I think the break down of format with the marked places for revising and suggestions on revision of not just new words was helpful.”
    • “Small chunks were helpful and it was easy to revise past vocab because of the layout/create cards option.”
    • “Having them divided up into days was helpful. I knew how much I had to do, where I was supposed to be up to, etc.”
    • “Helpful: manageable chunks of vocabulary”
    • “A bit full on” (not everyone was a fan!)
  • If you did use them as, or mostly as, intended how did you feel about your vocabulary knowledge over the course of the semester?
    • “It grew because it is easy to revise old vocab using the vocab sheets because of the layout and format.”
    • “It as helpful to know what I should have known when , and to see the lists broken up into manageable chunks.”
    • “Vocab was harder overall than first semester (just because there’s more to keep in your mind all up), so having this guide was invaluable. There was a clear place to go to look up vocab (not having to flick through all of Hackett), and I felt more confident I knew what to cover.”
    • “Good! Seemed like a fairly manageable method of memorizing.”

The students also responded to questions asking what I could have done differently or better. Some of these responses were very helpful and will be taken on board in future iterations of the lists.

Lastly, for what it is worth, I can say this about students who used the lists as (or somewhat as) intended:

  • They all did well on their vocab quizzes, scoring better than the rest of the class.
  • They also did well on their grammar/translation/reading comprehension quizzes, again scoring better than the rest of the class.
  • They had the highest average marks at the end of the semester.

Granted, there are more factors involved than simply the vocab lists and making use of them, but the data are worth noting nonetheless.

What I Hope to Do

I intend to finish what I started with my introductory Hebrew class by creating lists for the first semester of the unit. I also intend to create lists for both semesters of my introductory Greek class. I am looking forward to this, because then I will be able to observe how vocabulary acquisition is affected when students are given these lists from the very beginning.*

* It is worth noting that I have always instructed my students (from the very first class of the year) to space out their vocabulary learning by never attempting to learn more than seven new words a day. However, I have yet to see students implement this or at least to do so consistently. It would seem that best pedagogical practice is to provide the lists for them. (Of course, there are the other benefits of making the lists, i.e., separating similar words and including vocabulary items not normally regarded as such in the grammars.)

At some point, I hope to create a better format for my lists that is not only more pleasing aesthetically but that also includes space for a simple example of the vocabulary item in a sentence. This brings in some implicit learning strategies into the lists, as students will not only associate meaning with a given form but also see that word being used in a context. As Thompson discusses, drawing from SVLA research, learning from context is necessary, and it complements and reinforces learning from a flashcard (54).

Finally, I hope to have convinced anyone reading this to go read Thompson’s dissertation. It is freely available digitally through Stellenbosch University. There is much more there that is worth digesting.