This article takes a look at the different aspects of ‘knowing’ a word, starting with a look at some of the things we need to know about a word in order to really understand it and finishing with a few practical activities.


Words are the fundamental component of any language – without words there is no language. But learning the words of a language can be a daunting task; there are over 170,000 words in current use in the English language. Fortunately, it is totally unnecessary to learn every word in any language. Over the course of a lifetime we will learn many words and quite probably we will also forget many. So, what exactly does it mean to know a word?

Active and passive knowledge

Before we start examining what exactly we mean when we say we 'know' a word, I think it’s important to make a distinction between 'active' and 'passive' knowledge. It is possible to 'know' at a basic level – knowing it in the sense of recognising it and being able to more or less figure out what it means – this is called passive knowledge. At this level of knowledge we are unable to use the word ourselves in our writing or speaking, but we can understand the general meaning within the specific context. Passive knowledge is often used when we are reading a book, watching a film or some other situation, when we either don’t have the opportunity to stop and check the meaning in a dictionary or we simply can’t be bothered.

Turning passive knowledge into active knowledge is often one of the main concerns when we are teaching or learning a language. However, I would argue that learning to spot when passive knowledge is enough is also an important skill.  

Shouldn’t we use the term lexis?

In many respects the word vocabulary is limiting as it really only refers to single units of the language, i.e. individual words. The reason this is limiting is that there are situations where a combination of words function as a single item in terms of their meaning. These word combinations fall into three categories: collocations, phrasal verbs and fixed expression s.

For example, a collocation such as commercial break, is made up of two words. Students may well know the meaning of each individual word and hopefully would be able to work out the meaning of the two words together. They would even find them together in the dictionary as they are regarded as a single item or a lexical unit.

Phrasal verbs, of course, are slightly more complicated as even if a student knows the meaning of the two words as individual items, they may not know the meaning when they are combined. As an example, take the phrasal verb look up. Students may know the meaning of look and up as individual items, but when the two are combined to mean to try and find a piece of information in a book, etc then knowing the meaning of the two words individually does not help.

Finally, fixed phrases can pose an even bigger problem. Such phrases might be idioms, such as, to have your feet on the ground  or to have your head in the clouds, or they might simply be lexical chunks – How do you do? I’m sorry to say ..., Thanks all the same, etc. Such chunks of language need to be treated as individual items in terms of meaning and trying to analyse them word by word would be pointless.

However, I will use word and vocabulary to talk about all lexical items as I feel that students are more familiar with these terms. Trying to explain the difference between vocabulary and lexis is not really a priority for most teachers and students.

Are words more important than grammar?

The simple answer to this is, Yes. The reason is it is possible to convey meaning even when making a grammatical mistake. For example, I go dance last night, or, I hungry are both understandable despite being grammatically incorrect. This is often what is referred to as global vs local errors. A global error is one which makes the utterance difficult to understand, whereas a local mistake, such as the absence of the verb to be in I hungry does not impede comprehension.

On the other hand, having the grammar but not having the necessary word leaves the speaker unable to communicate – for example, being able to say Can I have a ...? but not knowing the vocabulary item to specify what you want is useless. Knowing the correct word by itself may be enough; the word beer, for instance, and saying it with a rising intonation will usually work in our example. 

Why is it important to know what a word means?

Quite simply, if we don’t know what a word means, then we won’t be able to understand it or use it. Knowing the meaning of words is essential if we want to be able to communicate in a language. The problem comes in defining what we actually mean by knowing a word. When a student says, 'I know this word' what is it they mean? Often it is that they have come across the word in a particular context and that they know one particular meaning of the word. However, this does not necessarily mean that they know a word thoroughly, but simply that they know one particular meaning and use of the word.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine a student reads a sentence with the word bank in it. The student has come across this word before and feels that they must know the word. They think that a bank is a building in which people keep their money. To them, the word bank is a noun and can be equated to something in their own language. However, in the context of what they are reading the word bank may well have a completely different meaning e.g. You can’t bank on them turning up on time, they’re often late.  So now the word is a verb; in fact it is part of a phrasal verb – bank on– and it means depend on something happening. Quite clearly, knowing the meaning of words is important, but it is a complex process.

What are some of the different aspects of ‘knowing’ a word?

There are many aspects to knowing a word. To begin with it is important to know spelling, sound (pronunciation) and denotation (core meaning). In many cases this is as far as the teaching of vocabulary goes in classes. Aspects such as spelling are very important. I currently have a student who mixes up letters, which leads her to use incorrect words or to confuse particular words. For example, she will read the word brink and confuse it with the word blink. This kind of confusion clearly has ramifications for her comprehension and comprehensibility. However, while we certainly can’t ignore spelling, pronunciation and denotation, we need to explore words more thoroughly in order to really say we know them.

Next it’s useful to know the grammar of a word; in other words, in what part of speech it is (or can be), where it fits into a sentence (colligation) and how it operates with other words. The idea that words have grammar, that they follow patterns, was a driving force behind the lexical approach. Linked to this is the aspect of collocation. Everyone learning a language knows that certain words collocate (go with) other words, and that it is important to learn these combinations. For example, we say make the bed, not do the bed, but you do your homework, not make it. We can say brown hair, fair hair, black hair, blonde hair, but not yellow or beige hair.

Word formation and word families are also an important aspect of knowing a word. This can take two different forms, word building and superordinates and hyponyms. Word building is different forms of a word, e.g. destroy, destruction, destructive, destructible, indestructible, etc. Superordinates and hyponyms are words that are different but related, e.g. family (the superordinate or headword) and father, mother, son, daughter, uncle, aunt, niece, cousin,  etc. (the hyponyms).

It might also be important to know about the register of a particular word. As an example, whilst mate and friend are similar, mate is informal and colloquial while friend is neutral.

Synonyms and antonyms are useful to learn about in order for us to understand the meaning of a word. However, we need to be particularly careful with them. We may feel that synonyms are interchangeable, but there is no such thing as an exact synonym, while antonyms might well be context dependent. For example, what is the opposite of short? It could be long or tall.

These are just some of the aspects of the meaning of a word and quite clearly show the complex nature of really knowing a word.

How much can we teach about a word in one go?

Obviously we cannot expect our students to learn everything about a word in one go, but it is important that we don’t just stop once they have learnt the spelling, pronunciation and basic meaning. At lower levels we may consider it too much to teach our students synonyms, antonyms, collocations and register for every word they come across, but we should still think about what they might need to know and at least make them aware that knowing a word is more complicated than they might think. However, once our students become better with the language, we might want to consider teaching them more about each word (even the ones they say they already know) rather than always teaching new words. Helping our students become proficient with the language they already possess can only help them in the long run.

Some practical ideas

Here are some examples of practical activities based around one word: obey.

The three ‘core’ aspects.

1. Put these words in alphabetical order: obscure, obey, oasis, object.

2. Read the following sentence. What does the word obey mean?

When he tells you to do something you must obey him without question.

a) To do something you like doing.
b) To do something you don’t have to do.
c) To do something a law or person says you must do.

Looking at the grammar

1. When he tells you to do something you must obey him without question.

Obey is ...

a) an adjective  b) a noun  c) a verb


1. Obey collocates with three of these words. Which ones do you think it is and why?

  • an instruction
  • an idea
  • an order
  • a plan
  • a rule
  • a suggestion

Word building

1. Complete these sentences with the correct word.  Choose from the list below:

obey, obediently, obedient, obedience, disobey, disobediently, disobedient, disobedience

  • He’s so naughty. He’s such a __________ child.
  • They’re such an __________ group of children. I’m so lucky.
  • At school we demand total __________ from all the children.

Synonyms and expressions

1. Underline the words and expressions in the sentences below that have a similar meaning to obey.

  • I expect you to toe the line. If you don’t I’ll be very angry.
  • It’s important to conform to the rules.
  • You’re expected to comply with all the regulations.
  • In the army you have to swim with the stream or you risk getting kicked out.