Vocabulary Acquisition and Imageability

This article talks about imageability and vocabulary acquisition as well as my own vocabulary learning experience related to it.

The research:

Booton, S. A., E. Wonnacott, A. Hodgkiss, S. Mathers, and V. A. Murphy. 2022. ‘Children’s knowledge of multiple word meanings: Which factors count and for whom,’ Applied Linguistics 43/2: 293-315.

looked into factors accounting for children’s knowledge of multiple word meanings. One of the findings demonstrated that higher imageability of the separate meanings of the word was beneficial to children’s knowledge. This article is going to talk about imageability and vocabulary acquisition as well as my vocabulary learning experience related to it.

It is said that both adults and children learn more imageable words more easily (e.g. Ellis and Beaton 1993; Palmer et al. 2013; Elgort and Warren 2014; McFalls et al. 1996). The implication of teaching is that teachers should make use of tools and materials at their disposal to visualize word meanings so that children can remember them better, especially less imageable concepts. Such significance of imageability surprises me because I seldom learn new words with visuals like pictures to help me with memorizing. That should be mostly attributed to the way I was taught English vocabulary before I went to university, which has already exerted a long-lasting influence on my habit of acquiring new words and attitudes towards popular vocabulary learning apps.

Generally speaking, textbooks in my country contain fewer pictures and photos than those in some other countries. I assume that it is a kind of prevailing and deeply-ingrained imagination that colorful pictures are more likely to distract young children while texts always contain much more rewarding information. In primary school, although we did play some funny games or sing children’s rhymes in English classes, the focus was actually on language drills. As for vocabulary learning, my teacher usually asked us to read aloud the vocabulary list and to copy each word several times after class as homework. Sometimes we also had dictations. In junior and senior high school, there are, presumably, much fewer images in textbooks. We continued to go over the vocabulary list and to copy new words. There was one thing different, though. Teachers started to require us to come up with a sentence using each word. We were persuaded that this approach was similar to setting a personalized learning plan. Since these sentences were closely associated to our own day-to-day contexts, it became easy for us to remember them by heart.

All in all, the twelve years from primary school to senior high school witnessed the formation of my belief of the proper way L2 vocabulary should be acquired. It never occurred to me how strong the belief was until my friend at college recommended a vocabulary learning app to me. At the very beginning I was very enthusiastic about it, whereas later on I found myself suspicious of its usefulness, particularly in terms of expanding productive vocabulary. The major interaction type seems like Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, where you choose one of four pictures most relevant to the word presented on the screen. Such a way to remember new words under the auspices of pictures really got me confused. Because in my mind writing down words many times and creating sentences about them with pen and paper are the most appropriate and efficient way to acquire new vocabulary. Every day, after fifteen minutes’ practice with the app, I thought I just remembered those pictures, rather than the words, not to say the spelling and pronunciation. Moreover, this app may help improve receptive vocabulary, yet I am not sure whether or not it increases productive vocabulary. During a period of two to three months, I only learnt vocabulary with the PPVT-like interaction type (the app also provides other vocabulary training modes), and when writing essays, I seldom managed to use words newly acquired. It was the match between words and pictures that I knew well, but without the stimuli, I failed to think of the words or apply them to new contexts.

However, research revealing the significance of imageability makes me reconsider my vocabulary learning habit and experience. Perhaps if my teachers attached importance to visuals, I would feel more comfortable with the app. In addition, I suppose more studies are necessary on the contribution imageability can make to enlarging productive vocabulary.

In addition, I try to examine some English textbooks nowadays to see whether or not they pay more attention to images than they did in my times. In general, I am glad to find that there are much more pictures in materials for primary school and they are also better-painted than they were in the past. In most cases, new words in a unit are listed with images.

Most interestingly, besides nouns which are often considered more imageable (Piccnic and Waxman 2007), words of other parts of speech, like prepositions, adjectives and verbs are also accompanied with pictures.

Nevertheless, the progress is merely restricted to textbooks for primary school. Those for higher grades are almost the same as they were. It is understandable though, because texts are supposed to occupy most space to convey more informative and more complicated grammatical knowledge. In spite of that, since adults also find it less difficult to learn more imageable words, perhaps teachers can continue to highlight the benefit of memorizing vocabulary with the help of pictures to junior and senior high school students.


Booton, S. A., E. Wonnacott, A. Hodgkiss, S. Mathers, and V. A. Murphy. 2022. ‘Children’s knowledge of multiple word meanings: Which factors count and for whom,’ Applied Linguistics 43/2: 293-315.

Elgort, I. and P. Warren. 2014. ‘L2 vocabulary learning from reading: Explicit and tacit lexical knowledge and the role of learner and item variables,’ Language Learning 64/2: 365-414.

Ellis, N. C. and A. Beaton. 1993. ‘Psycholinguistic determinants of foreign language vocabulary learning,’ Language Learning 43/4: 559-617.

Mcfalls, E. L., P. J. Schwanenflugel, and S. A. Stahl. 1996. ‘Influence of word meaning on the acquisition of a reading vocabulary in second-grade children,’ Reading and Writing 8/3: 235-50.

Palmer, S. D., L. J. MacGregor, and J. Havelka. 2013. ‘Concreteness effects in single-meaning, multi-meaning and newly acquired words,’ Brain Research 1538: 135-50.

Piccin, T. B. and S. R. Waxman. 2007. ‘Why nouns trump verbs in word meaning: New evidence from children and adults in the human simulation paradigm,’ Language Learning and Development 3/4: 295-323.

Stadthagen-Gonzalez, H. and C. J. Davis. 2006. ‘The Bristol norms for age of acquisition, imageability, and familiarity,’ Behavior Research Methods 38/4: 598-605.