How to Possess a Word

One of the most common challenges in writing is coming up with the “right” word. Indeed, having a good command of vocabulary is a crucial precondition for success in writing, not only in a second language but also in a mother tongue. Therefore, as writing teachers, we should encourage our students to expand their vocabulary knowledge, so that writing is seen more as a pleasure and less as a tormenting activity.

What does it mean to know the word? When language learners see a new word and try to memorize it, the meaning of the word is only one part of the word knowledge that helps them “possess” the word and use it appropriately in different contexts. In fact, word knowledge consists of several components that are required from a language learner for its successful acquisition. They include meaning, orthography, pronunciation, part of speech, morphology, register, collocations, and connotation.


There is no doubt that learning a new word in a different language assumes that the learner understands what the word actually means. Learners can use various strategies to get to the meaning of the target word, including translating the word into their native language, asking another person to explain the meaning and use of the word, looking up the definition of the word in a dictionary, guessing it from the context. It’s important to remember that many words in the English language have more than one meaning.

Orthography (Spelling)

When students learn a word, it is important to attach its meaning to the correct spelling of the target word. In the English language, there are words that are called homophones (words that have a similar pronunciation but a different spelling, such as poor and pour, male and mail, weight and wait); therefore, it’s always a good idea to check the spelling of the target word if it was encountered in a conversation or by listening. Knowing the correct spelling of the word will help learners recognize this word when they encounter it in reading.


If the new word was encountered in reading, then knowing the correct pronunciation of the word will help students recognize this word when they hear it later on. This is especially important considering that many English words are pronounced differently from the way they are spelled.

Part of Speech

Knowing a part of speech of the target word will help learners use this word correctly in a sentence. This knowledge is also helpful when the word has the same form (both spelling and pronunciation) in more than one part of speech, such as a run (N) and to run (V).

Morphology (Word-Family Relations)

Word families are groups of words that have a common base to which the prefixes and suffixes can be added. Knowing the related words from the same word family will help students expand their vocabulary. For example, if they learn the word benefit, they should also be aware of the words to benefit, beneficial, beneficially.


We usually refer to the level of formality when we talk about registers. For example, the word benefit may be used in both formal and informal contexts; however, a synonym of this word—plus—will most likely be used in an informal context.


Collocations are words that frequently occur together. Knowing collocations of the target word will help students use the word correctly in different contexts. For example, when memorizing the word benefit, they may also pay attention to the following common collocations of this word: benefits of, gain benefits, receive benefits.


Connotation can be defined as a secondary meaning of the word or its flavor. The most common connotations are positive, neutral, and negative. For example, the word ugly tends to have a negative connotation, so students have to be careful using this word as they may unintentionally offend someone. Depending on the context, they could instead use words with a neutral connotation, such as unpleasant, unattractive, or unappealing.

Paying attention to these components of word knowledge can help learners to more successfully memorize new words and thus expand their vocabulary knowledge.


About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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2 Responses to How to Possess a Word

  1. Huong Nguyen says:

    Thank you for this interesting post!

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