Vocabulary mastery and pedagogical problems faced by level 300 English language majors of the University of Buea

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Nowadays, vocabulary mastery plays an important role in language teaching especially in the context where English is taught as a foreign language and a second language. This is because lexical competence is now seen as the heart of vocabulary learning and the ultimate goal of language teaching is to improve the language competence of learners. Additionally, vocabulary has been recognized as an important factor for language learning because insufficient vocabulary knowledge leads the learners to encounter difficulties in language learning.

Learners can significantly improve their language competence by developing their ability to use vocabulary learning strategies. The present research evaluates the effective mastery of vocabulary amongst some selected level 300 level English language majors of the University of Buea. The choice is justified to be studying a degree program in English.

In a structured multiple-choice test, the observation was used as a method of data collection. After completing the stage of data collection, The data was then validated and analyzed Under the constraint of vocabulary learning, the information gotten was analyzed and distributed demographically according to age group and sex, which made up the discussions of the findings thus influencing the recommendations that were arrived at the end of the research, we found out that there is the relationship between knowledge, exposure to new words to expand vocabulary, teaching methods of vocabulary and students attitude towards learning, these factors inevitably affect influence their vocabulary mastery and determines their performance in classroom activities.



Background of the study

The English vocabulary is one of the most invaluable aspects of the language and most university students today have fallen short of the mastery of the English vocabulary. This has gone a long way to influence them academically because English in Cameroon is the language of instruction, perhaps it would be credible to justify and attribute this seemingly poor mastery of the English vocabulary to the influence of pidgin, French and indigenous languages.

Vocabulary is an essential building block of language and it makes sense to be able to measure learners’ knowledge and use of it (Schmitt, Schmitt, & Clapham, 2001). However, much less time is dedicated to the teaching and thereby testing of vocabulary than to that of the other language skills. Despite the inadequate attention paid to it in the field, assessing vocabulary should have the same priority as other skills such as grammar, pronunciation and spelling.

The ineffective pedagogical techniques used by teachers of the English language in teaching, and the environment that plays an important role in the development of a student’s vocabulary. Graves (2000, as cited in Taylor, 1990) defines vocabulary as the entire stock of words belonging to a branch of knowledge or known by an individual. He also states that the lexicon of a language is its vocabulary, which includes words and expressions.

Krashen (1998, as cited in Herrel, 2004) extends Graves4 definition further by stating that lexicon organizes the mental vocabulary in a speaker’s mind. An individual’s mental lexicon is that person’s knowledge of vocabulary (Krashen, 1998, as cited in Herrel, 2004). Miller (1999, as cited in Zimmerman, 2007) states that vocabulary is a set of words that are the basic building blocks used in the

Hornby (1995:1331) states that vocabulary is the total number of the words which (with rules for combining them) make up a language. This statement is then strengthened by Bums (1975:295) who says that vocabulary means the stock of words used by a person, class or profession. From those statements, we can infer that vocabulary is a stock or list of words with an explanation of their meanings used to make up a language by a person, class or profession.

According to Gardener (2009, as cited in Adger, 2002) vocabulary is not only confined to the meaning of words but also includes how vocabulary in a language is structured: how people use and store words and how they leam words and the relationship between words, phrases, categories of words and phrases (Graves, 2000, as cited in Taylor, 1990).

We divide the knowledge of vocabulary known by a particular person into two groups: receptive/passive vocabulary – it is defined as the set of all words that are understood at reading or listening but not used in the spoken or written expressions: productive/active vocabulary – it is the set of all words that are not only understood but also used meaningfully when creating new sentences. The passive vocabulary is naturally bigger than the active one.

The more often we meet a particular word and the more often we use it the sooner it becomes an item in our active vocabulary, in our own context of vocabulary used by students of the university, I can firmly assess the vocabulary used by these students to be neither passive/active because a great majority of these students come across new words for the very first time in the classroom but because the word appears new to them, they tend not to use the word in their sentences or conversations, it is typical of level 300 level students to come across a particular word which is new to them once or twice in a whole semester, it makes it almost impossible to master that word.

On the part of the students, they are faced with limited opportunities to learn new words to add to their vocabulary. Some research findings also disclose that students who have acquired more vocabulary items will be more likely to articulate and communicate the message eloquently and fluently. As a result, their achievement in speaking skills is better than those who are short of vocabulary understanding or have acquired fewer vocabulary items.

Pedagogically, it is unfortunate that many teachers keep teaching and learning as a monotonous process. They speak formally in front of the class, give some explanations, read some information from books, show the materials, and students keep watching and listening to the teacher.

Students do less participation in-class activities and do not have the chance to show what they have learnt, when we critically analyze the teaching methods and techniques adopted by teachers in the teaching of English vocabulary in the university, it can indirectly be linked to the Comprehensible input theory propounded by Steven Krashen to explain the way learners learn, he further explains that when the teacher uses appropriate material, the learner makes more progress when he or she is exposed to material that is one step higher in terms of his/her knowledge of vocabulary.

This can be quite evident in a classroom situation where a teacher is teaching students the various forms of the sound /s/ and the various words that have that sound, instead of taking examples of words that the students can easily relate to, she draws an example like ‘snow’ that is far-fetched and alienated to the students’ environment and context of use because they might have never seen snow.

English language learners who experience slow vocabulary development are less able to comprehend text. Such students are likely to perform poorly when assessed in various areas and are at risk of being diagnosed as learning disabled.

I am cognizant of the fact that vocabulary acquisition, semantic development and growth of word knowledge are currently being studied in several interesting ways, hence the research that is presented here is to complement and augment these study by critically analyzing challenges faced by students through the introduction of effective vocabulary teaching strategies in the classroom that will expedite the vocabulary development

Statement of the problem

There is always a reason for every research questions such reasons could either be motivated by personal experience or by observations over a period of time, vocabulary is the core of every language including the English language. The problem here is that university students often have a very low vocabulary and it hinders their understanding of certain words which are synonymous and antonymous. It is challenging because when students at the university level express themselves, it is very uncommon to find them to use words that are completely different from what they intend to say.

I personally witnessed a conversation between University of Buea students who were talking about their marks in a course. One of them complimented the other who scored 24/30 by saying that ‘…you are very sensible…’, it is clear that the student actually intended to say intelligent but was unable to because of his limited mastery of the English vocabulary.

Another very common error made by almost all University student is referring to gas cylinders as ‘gas bottles’. To an extent, one key factor to vocabulary mastery is the environment students find themselves in. students are not exposed to material that can enrich their vocabularies such as books, the internet, magazines and educative games.
I can prove this by simply comparing two students of the same class, language acquisition device (LAD) and age; one who is a student in Cameroon and the other is a student who has left Cameroon for England, keeping aside their already acquired childhood vocabulary, the student in England would make far more progress in vocabulary mastery than the student in Cameroon because of his exposure to so many things and his interactions with native English speakers.

Back to our context of the University of Buea students, the low level of the English vocabulary both spoken and written has motivated me to carry out this research to see how it can be improved because a failure in language and vocabulary mastery affect students’ all-round academic performance in all other subjects and disciplines.

Purpose of the study

The aims are formulated as follows:

  • The aim of this study is to examine the main challenges faced by level 300 English majors of the University of Buea in mastering English vocabulary and the specific aspect of the English vocabulary that students find most challenging to understand
  • What problems in the classroom prevent students from learning the English vocabulary effectively
  • The study equally aims at critically analyzing how the environment affects the students’ ability to master and use vocabulary effectively, by so doing, the study will propose measures that can be taken to improve on vocabulary mastery taking into consideration environmental factors
  • the study aims at explaining why a student’s background is so important with regards to his or her first and second language in relations with mastering vocabulary in English, such mechanisms may involve the transfer of knowledge from their first language or interference with the vocabulary of the target language.
  • the study also investigates the teaching methods and strategies that be implemented to improve the teaching of English vocabulary. It makes sure the teaching methods and techniques put in place for vocabulary teaching are effective in the communication of language

Research Question

what are the problems faced by level 300 English majors in the effective mastery of vocabulary?

How do vocabulary teaching strategies ensure that students understand vocabulary lessons that are taught?

What are the various measures students can take to improve on their vocabulary?

Do the attitudes of students towards learning vocabulary determine how efficient they can learn?

What role does the background of students play inability to learn vocabulary?

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