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In defense of the glossary

Published: 1 October 2020

The classic glossary list is today considered a relic from the school of old, although research shows that it can actually be a recipe for success for school students' language development.

− Many people wrinkle their noses when they hear the word glossary, but current research shows that it is an excellent tool for word learning and thus language development, says Denise Bergström, doctoral student at Luleå University of Technology.

Provides an expanded vocabulary

This somewhat controversial conclusion was presented at the annual Language Day at the university. Her own research on the subject is based on interviews with teachers, textbook authors and editors of textbooks where it appears that many view the glossary negatively, despite the research showing many benefits of using vocabulary as an educational tool for an expanded vocabulary.

− The importance of word learning for language development cannot be overestimated. Without words we can not do much at all with the language and to be able to understand texts and be able to communicate in a target language, a vocabulary of many thousands of word families is required. In terms of understanding text, it is usually said that you need to know 98 percent of the words in a text to understand what you are reading, says Denise Bergström and continues.

− If a student is to learn the thousands of words and word families needed to speak a language, the glossary is a very good tool for giving the student an expanded vocabulary. But it obviously needs to be supplemented with in-depth work that takes place both in a structured way but also in the encounter with the language you are studying. The words themselves are not enough, but they can play a very central role in reaching the high level of words we want to reach.

Repetition important

The great advantage of glossaries is that it draws the student's attention to selected words that expand the basic vocabulary required to learn a language. Although it is considered by many to be outdated and counterproductive to study words from a glossary, research shows that this is not the case if the words recur continuously in the teaching.

− The most important component of learning a word is that you repeat the words many times and spread over time. It does not work to learn the words the day before a homework interview to really learn the words. Maybe in that case it is better that you have vocabulary lessons less often and instead practice the words several times.

Today, there are many modern ways of working with words, both digital and analog, but perhaps the best way is to use marginal words, says Denise Bergström.

− Having a glossary in the margin when reading makes reading work better as a tool for word learning and the most important first step in learning a word is that you consider it as a language part and not as part of the context. And then the glossary is very helpful. In homework, we can use the glossary to make connections between the form of a word and its meaning, but all this must of course be supplemented with in-depth work.

Denise Bergström belongs to the graduate school PROFS (Practical School Research) which is a collaboration between Luleå University of Technology, Luleå Municipality, Boden Municipality and the Norrbotten Region.


Denise Bergström

Bergström, Denise - PhD Student

Organisation: English, Specialization in Didactics, Education and Languages, Department of Health, Education and Technology
Phone: +46 (0)920 493008