Exploring Types of Vocabulary Learning Strategies used by TESL Teacher Trainees at The Institute of Teachers Education

South Asian Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities
Year: 2021 (August), Volume: (2), Issue. (4)
First page: (102) Last page: (116)
Online ISSN: 2582-7065
doi: 10.48165/sajssh.2021.2407

Exploring Types of Vocabulary Learning Strategies used by TESL Teacher Trainees at The Institute of Teachers Education

Umazah Omar1 and Aizan Yaacob2

1,2School of Education, Universiti Utara Malaysia, Malaysia

Corresponding Author: Umazah Bt. Omar, E-mail: umazah@ipgkda.edu.my

Online Published:
8th Aug 2021

23rd May 2021

26th July 2021

How to cite the Article

Omar, U., & Yaacob, A. (2021). Exploring Types of Vocabulary Learning Strategies used by TESL Teacher Trainees at The Institute of Teachers Education. South Asian Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, 2(4), 102–116. https://doi.org/10.48165/sajssh.2021.2407 Cite
Omar, Umazah, and Aizan Yaacob. “Exploring Types of Vocabulary Learning Strategies Used by TESL Teacher Trainees at The Institute of Teachers Education.” South Asian Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, vol. 2, no. 4, 2021, pp. 102–16, http://doi.org/10.48165/sajssh.2021.2407. Cite
Omar U, Yaacob A. Exploring Types of Vocabulary Learning Strategies used by TESL Teacher Trainees at The Institute of Teachers Education. SAJSSH. 2021;2(4):102‑16. DOI: 10.48165/sajssh.2021.2407 Cite
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Vocabulary is described as an essential element in second language learning. Having a good command over vocabulary helps in gaining unlimited access to latest information available at different platforms. Therefore, improving vocabulary through Vocabulary Learning Strategies (VLSs) will help the second language learners to become, academically and communicatively, more successful. The present study investigated the types of vocabulary learning strategies used by teacher trainees majoring in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) at the Institute for Teachers Education (ITEs) Darulaman Campus. Vocabulary learning strategies or skills are not directly taught to TESL teacher trainees during their training at ITEs. Teaching and learning vocabulary strategies are neglected by most of the teacher trainees. However, they need to make their teaching and learning processes more successful while learning a second language. This study was conducted based on the theories related to second language acquisition and used qualitative approach using the structured interviews of 14 TESL teacher trainees. The findings of the study were analysed based on Gu and Johnson’s (1996) and Schmitt (1996) categorisation of Vocabulary Learning Strategies and the results revealed TESL teacher trainees employed more metacognitive strategies in their vocabulary learning compared to other nine VLSs.   


Vocabulary learning strategies, teacher trainees, vocabulary learning, etacognitive strategy, online strategy


Vocabulary Learning Strategies (VLSs) are essential for second language learners in improving their primary skills in language learning. Previous studies concentrated on the development of pre-service teachers in their writing and speaking proficiencies, vocabulary awareness, beliefs, and instructional practices (Yu-Ling, 2005; Seray & Yusuf, 2014; Ta’amneh, 2014). Most TESL teacher trainees face difficulties in their writing and speaking skills, especially in their academic writing and communicative activities. These difficulties occur due to the lack of awareness of vocabulary language strategies in acquiring good vocabulary. Moreover, they are not exposed directly to VLSs because the course is not included in their programme structure during their studies for five years in the Institute of Teachers Education (ITEs).


This section discusses the literature available on Vocabulary Learning Strategies (VLSs). It also discusses types of VLSs, previous studies on VLSs of pre-service teachers, and previous studies on VLSs in the Malaysian context.

Types of Vocabulary Learning Strategies

Most second-language learners learn vocabulary indirectly, either at home or at school. Unfortunately, there is no single research-based technique for vocabulary development. Therefore, indirect and direct vocabulary teaching methods should be proposed to be widely used through reading (The National Reading Panel, 2000).

Moreover, a wide range of VLSs need to be introduced to second language learners to engage them in active learning of word meanings, its connection, and usage in different contexts (Graves, 2006; McKeown and Beck, 2004). As second language learners, they applied all kinds of VLSs in their unique and special ways to understand and use the words they learned in the proper contexts.

Gu and Johnson (1996) categorised VLS into two main dimensions: metacognitive regulation and cognitive strategies. There are six subcategories namely, guessing strategies, dictionary strategies, note-taking strategies, rehearsal strategies, encoding strategies, and activation strategies and these subcategories were further divided into 74 strategies. The taxonomy was organized to Oxford’s (1990) classification and the Discovery/Consolidation distinction. The 58 strategies discovered were grouped into discovery strategies and consolidation strategies.

Schmitt (1996) classified VLSs into two main domains: discovery and consolidation domains. He defined the discovery domain as uncovering the meaning of the unknown words without using another person’s experience, which is supported by determination and social strategies. Guessing the meaning is assigned to the determination strategy, and two other strategies, interaction and collaboration, are included in the social strategy.

Most of the studies in EFL learning contexts for VLS have adopted Schmitt’s taxonomy in their questionnaire design, especially using the quantitative method. The results of the studies showed that no strategy was declared as the most preferred to the others (Balidede & Lokmaciogle, 2014; Hadavi & Hashemi, 2014; Bristi, 2015; Senser, 2015; Rabadi, 2016; Elzubier, 2016; Maghsoudi & Golshan, 2017)

Previous Studies of Vocabulary Learning Strategies of Pre-Service Teachers

VLSs are very important for the second language learners in improving their main skills in language learning. Previous studies concentrated on the development of pre-service teachers in their writing and speaking proficiencies, vocabulary awareness, beliefs, and also instructional practices (Yu-Ling, 2005; Seray & Yusuf, 2014; Mohamed Ta’amneh, 2014; Tajuddin, Yaacob & Rahman, 2021; Setiyorini, Prihatin & Santoso, 2021)

Although there are various studies conducted on vocabulary learning strategies of the pre-service teachers and in-service teachers, very few studies examined the instructional tools used by the pre-service teachers in L2 vocabulary learning, especially using the learning management system (LMS) such as Schoology. Moreover, most studies were conducted using a quantitative approach, namely experimental design. Therefore, it is felt that a qualitative approach will be appropriate to explore how these students experience while learning L2 vocabulary.

Previous Studies of Vocabulary Learning Strategies in the Malaysian Context

Noor (2009) investigated the distinctive strategies that second language learners employed in understanding the meaning of the text and suggested some pedagogical considerations for teaching and learning vocabulary within an EFL context. Whereas Ahmad et al. (2009) studied VLSs preferred by university students in Malaysia that were guessing and dictionary strategies, they concluded that the most efficient and practical vocabulary learning approach comprised implicit and explicit instruction and learning.

Halilah et al. (2014) investigated the vocabulary learning strategies used by Malaysian TEVT- L2 learners and used mixed-mode research. The findings revealed that most of the learners preferred discovery strategies compared to cognitive strategies. 

Baharudin and Ismail (2014) explored the relationship between VLS and Arabic vocabulary size of pre-university students at the Religious high school and government-aided religious school. They used Schmitt’s (1997) questionnaires in their study, and the main findings of the study showed that the most preferred VLSs are determination strategies, social, memory, cognitive, and metacognitive strategies.

Another research is the qualitative study by Asgari (2011), which investigated the types of VLSs used by ESL students in one local university in Malaysia. The study discovered some difficulties students face in learning the second language due to insufficient vocabulary knowledge. An open-ended interview was conducted with the students, and the findings revealed that most of the research participants were not aware of the VLSs mentioned in the study. The researcher suggested few strategies such as learning a word through reading, using a monolingual dictionary and various English language media, and using the words learned in their daily conversation.

In conclusion, most of the second language learners lacked awareness of VLSs that they had been using in vocabulary learning, either direct or indirect situations.


This study used qualitative methodology and involved three phases. First, this study will investigate the type of vocabulary learning strategies used by TESL teacher trainees. Second, the study will use semi-structured interviews and face-to-face interviews, and online observations as the primary means of data collection. Third, this study focuses on the perspectives of the TESL teacher trainees on their VLSs using an online learning management system as their primary platform and how their vocabulary learning is improved by using an online learning management system in language learning. The purpose of the research question for this study is to investigate the types of vocabulary learning strategies among TESL teacher learners. The research participants posted their structured interview responses in the learning management system and the data were analysed based on Gu and Johnson’s categorization of VLSs. It continues with the analysis of data and the sharing of data through the search for explanatory patterns, the analysis of events as they evolve over time, cross-site and cross-case analysis (Yin, 2009).

Purposive sampling was used in this study because the researcher found that this sampling was appropriate for the specific needs of the qualitative study (Cohen et al., 2011). Purposive sampling techniques are widely used in qualitative studies and can be defined as selecting units, for example, individuals, groups of individuals, institutions) based on specific purposes related to answering the questions of a research study (Certini et al., 2014). Therefore, it was appropriate for the study because it was a group of TESL teacher trainees from the same class, academic year, and age. In addition, they were taking the same courses, were selected and qualified students, and had gone through the standard processes and procedures for their ITEs admission. 

There were some limitations in conducting this study to which the participants were exposed. Most of them had an internet connection to use their learning management system while they were in their dormitories, and some of them recorded their voice to respond to the structured interviews. Then the voices were transcribed and returned to them for member checking purposes.


The findings of the data were based on the structured- interviews conducted with the research participants. There were five questions in the structured interview for the research participants to answer, and they were allowed to record their answers and sent them using a voice recorder and through email. The questions were:

1. How do you acquire vocabulary in your second language?

2. Do you have any strategies to recall the vocabulary?

3. How does the vocabulary you learn help you in your studies?

4. To what extent do you think the vocabulary will help you in teaching in the future?

5. Can you give some suggestions for vocabulary learning strategies?


Data was collected and analysed using the Atlas to program and implement thematic analysis (Boyatziz, 1998). Data from the research participants’ structured interviews and the researcher’s observations from the field notes were analysed. The data were transcribed, read, coded, and recorded based on the themes. The results were organized based on Gu and Johnson’s (1996) and Schmitt’s (1996) categorization of VLSs. Since this is a part of a more extensive research study, this paper will focus only on the research participants’ responses from the structured interviews, which is one of the essential data of the study.

Types of Vocabulary Learning Strategies

Metacognitive Strategies

Second language learners use metacognitive strategies to manage their vocabulary learning, including planning, monitoring, and evaluating (Halilah et al., 2014). Metacognitive strategies are categorized into selective attention, self-initiation, guessing strategies, dictionary strategies, and note-taking strategies (Mokhtar, 2009). Most of the research participants had metacognitive strategies in their vocabulary learning. One of the excerpts from the structured interviews below illustrates the metacognitive strategy used by research participant 1:

If I find any words that are interesting for me, I’ll tend to remember it. And sometimes, I might use it in my writing or when I communicate with other people (participant 1).

Metacognitive strategies are also involved when second language learners know which words are essential for them to learn and can identify the meaning of the words to remember them well. For example, some of the research participants could sense the words they could guess and which words they could not guess.

n reading, when I come across with any words that I don’t know, I read the sentence around the words and try to figure out the meaning of the contexts…. I usually try to use of some unfamiliar words or jargon words that I know and apply them in my essay (participant 2).

From the results, the researcher discovered that some of the participants focused on the words they thought were important to use either in essay writing or in their assigned communicative tasks. In addition, some of them took the initiative to remember well some of the phrases they had learned in class. This can be illustrated in the following excerpt:

I love to watch tv’s, read novels, play games, and also I try to use the word in my everyday communication. It helps a lot as I can use it in my writing and also when I’m presenting as the words is already in my mind. It assists me a lot. When I’m teaching I need to use vocabs to help my students learn English language. Try to use second language words every day in your speech, try to read, watch and do things that involves the use of English language (participant 3).

Metacognitive strategies are the most common strategies used by second language learners in vocabulary learning. The strategies are sometimes used directly or indirectly by them.

Guessing Strategies

Guessing strategy is one of the cognitive strategies, grouped with a dictionary and note-taking strategies.  Bastanfar and Hashemi (2010) found that second language learners can get help from context, structural knowledge of the language, and reference material in addition to the strategy of guessing words.

The findings from the structured interviews conducted discovered that guessing strategies are considered the popular strategies mainly in the EFL context. Subon (2013) has mainly discovered in his study that the students’ preferences in vocabulary learning strategies were using guessing strategy followed by perception and encoding by using the taxonomy of Gu & Johnson (1996) and Fan (2003). One of the research participants pointed out in her structured- interview about guessing strategy as below.

I read the sentence around the words and try to figure out the meaning of the contexts. Then I check the guess using the dictionary or with peers (participant 2).

Participant 2 emphasized that she read the sentence before and after the words to guess the meaning before looking in a dictionary or with her friends. Then, she used the dictionary and her classmates to make sure she understood the words she learned. Participant 5 took the initiative and used the subtitles of the cartoons to guess the meaning of the words she learned.

I would use their interest to teach vocabulary by using cartoons with voices in the mother tongue language but make use of subtitles as it helps. I would make them read the subtitle compared to frankly listening to it in Malay (participant 5).

Guessing the meaning of the new words was closely related to determination strategies when second language learners discovered the meaning of words without outside help but through context, linguistic knowledge, and references.

Dictionary Strategies

Most of the results from the previous studies are quite similar, which state that the dictionary strategy is the preferred strategy of EFL students all over the world when they search the meaning of words for the first time (Al-Bidawi, 2018). Furthermore, Mokhtar (2009) emphasized that dictionary strategy is one of the metacognitive strategies and becomes the elementary strategy for beginners of second language learners.

If there are any words that the learner does not understand, use a dictionary. Make dictionary as one of their best friends (participant 1).

Participant 1 believed that by looking up words in the dictionary, she had a better understanding of how to use them frequently and safely without using them in the wrong contexts. One of the participants used a dictionary when searching for the meaning and asked her friends and teacher for the correct pronunciation. She may not be able to read and understand the phonetic symbols of the words in the dictionary.

Firstly, I acquired my vocabulary skills by listening to English songs and reading books, magazines, novels and many more. When I listened to songs, I will listen to the pronunciation by the singer too. After that, if there are words that I did not know, I will use the dictionary and look for the meaning. I used the same method when I read books or magazines. First, I will try to understand the story or the context in the articles. If there are words that I do not understand, I will search for the meaning using the dictionary. I will also ask for the correct pronunciation of the word from my friends or my English teacher (participant 7). 

The dictionary strategy seems to be a compulsory strategy used mainly by second language learners who are either monolingual or bilingual since they were educated in primary school, secondary school, and even at the tertiary level.

Online strategies

Nowadays, most students who have access to digital technology use it extensively to learn second language vocabulary. They can easily search for the meaning of the words with the help of an online strategy. The function of the online dictionary seems to be similar to the actual dictionary, but the second language learners can hear the pronunciation of the words they want to learn, know the classes of the words, and the usage of the words in the context of the words the sentences. It can be illustrated in the excerpt below.

And then, when reading, there will be words that I don’t know, and I never came across to so I would google it or look in the dictionary (participant 5)

For example, one participant in the study, Participant 2, claimed that she practised Google Engine Search as one of her strategies to enrich her vocabulary. She believed that this strategy was more applicable in the 21st Century Learning age.

These help us to remember new words well. Next, in this twenty first century we also can look for any method that is interesting and worth to try on the internet. We can try to google any method that is suggested by the well-known people in academic field to enrich our vocab (participant 2).

Online learning strategies are no longer foreign to today’s educational system. However, most second-language learners rely entirely on the internet to get the information they need quickly. The Google translation application provided by the Google search engine and other online applications on the internet provides second language learners with a comprehensive platform for effective vocabulary acquisition.

Note taking Strategies

Note taking is a common practice in EFL classrooms, especially for second language learners, either in the classroom or outside the classroom. Good second language learners tend to take notes on words they have come across directly or indirectly through their reading. For example, participant 7 used the word “list” to describe how she wrote down the new words she learned. Likewise, Participant 4 has made a habit of writing down the words she has learned in her little book and, above all, of keeping journals of the words she has learned in her free time. These activities had described how she was so thoughtful about using this note-taking strategy when learning new words.

In the small book, I can write the new words or unfamiliar words including the meanings. As the small book I can bring it anywhere, I can learn the vocabulary while waiting the lectures to enter the class, during my free time or even in car. Writing a journal also can help me in vocabulary. If I practice writing my journals everyday by using many kinds of vocabulary, it will help me to improve my knowledge and boost up my vocabulary (participant 4).

Similarly, Participant 5 dictated the vocabulary she encountered in her reading activities during her free hour onto the sheet of paper before searching their meanings in the dictionary and used them in her communication with her parents and peers.

So, during my leisure time or when I don’t know what to do, I would read. And then, when reading, there will be words that I don’t know, and I never came across to so I would google it or look in the dictionary. Then, I would write it on a piece of paper and try to use it in my daily conversations whether with my family or friends or whoever I’m talking to in social media using the words I learnt (participant 5).

Although some research participants used their initiatives to acquire their vocabulary, Participant 7 used the word “list” to describe how she wrote down the new words she was forcibly learning each day.

We are ‘forced’ to learn new words every day and build sentences using the words found in any books or reading materials that day. If I don’t have the time to search for the words, I will list them in a piece of paper and search for them afterwards (participant 7).

From the above excerpts, it can be concluded that vocabulary note taking strategies depend on individual’s vocabulary learning strategies and daily practices and routines.

Memory Strategies: Rehearsal

Goudar (2019) classifies that word lists and repetition as examples of practise strategies. Repetition in using words, either in writing or in communicating with others, becomes one of the essential strategies in recalling words in context. Furthermore, frequently used words or learning vocabulary makes second learners feel more confident to use them effectively.

The reason why the learner should use new vocabulary as frequent as they can is to help them to remember the words for future usage.

In addition, Participant 4 showed her agreement by stating that keeping personal journals may expand one’s vocabulary knowledge and increase her vocabulary, as stated in the two excerpts.

If I practice writing my journals everyday by using many kinds of vocabulary, it will help me to improve my knowledge and boost up my vocabulary (participant 4).

One of the strategies I know is to present new words frequently and repeatedly in the input. This is because the more frequently language learners are exposed to unfamiliar vocabulary, the more likely they are to remember the words (participant 4).

Memory Strategies: Encoding

Bastanfar and Hashemi (2010) defined encoding strategies as strategies that involve association, imagery, visual, auditory, semantic, and contextual coding and word structure. By using strategies that ensure effective recall, second language learners are encouraged to practice encoding strategies, especially in linking the new words they have learned by developing mental images before they begin to associate them effectively when they need to be remembered.

Then I would write it down on a piece of paper and try to use it in my daily conversations, whether with family or friends or whoever I am talking to on social media, using the words I learned. Sometimes that helps, but most of the time I forget, so I read more and more books. I also like to watch movies and series, mostly in English and Korean. Sometimes there are words I do not know, so I stop and rewind to hear what exactly the words say, and look up the words in the dictionary or try to match them with the subtitle. It helps you focus more on what they are saying instead of reading the subtitle, because you do not really learn anything that way (participant 5).

Participant 7 also used different encoding strategies and recalled, among others, the words that are spelled similarly in one of her suggested activities. Thus, by studying the spelling of words, the research participant effectively recovered new words in the sentences and paragraphs created (Aravind & Rajasekaran, 2018).

Singing also helps in promoting correct pronunciation in English words, especially words that are similar in spelling or same spelling, but different pronunciations based on how it is used, like the word ‘read’ (participant 7).

Listening Strategies

Data collected from the structured interviews showed that the research participant preferred to listen to songs and daily routine activities as strategies to acquire vocabulary. The findings depict how VLs are closely related to the interests of the research participants in watching movies and listening to English songs. 

I also think English songs help me a lot in requiring my vocab because of the usage of simple yet meaningful words in the lyrics. Well, I can say that I’m quite good in remembering lyrics and yes, English songs do help a lot (participant 1).

Watching movies and listening to songs in that language will also help the learner to be more accustomed to a lot of vocabulary that the actor or the singers used (participant 1).

I hate reading but I love watching and listening. So, I would like to choose the method of watching and listening to acquire my vocabulary. I can find new words or unfamiliar words while watching and listening to the English movies and songs. In this way, I can know the meaning of the words and I also can use the new words or unfamiliar words that I never used before in my writing and speaking (participant 4).

Elzubier (2016) referred to this listening strategy as the subliminal strategy used by most second language learners in acquiring their vocabulary. Therefore, most cognitive theorists believe that the listening strategy is a helpful strategy for beginning second language learners to acquire basic vocabulary before using it in reading, speaking, and writing.

Activation Strategies

Gu and Johnson (1996) defined activation strategies by which second language learners can use the newly learned words in different contexts. Unfortunately, activation strategy is one of the least used strategies by second language learners in acquiring vocabulary (Mokhtar et al., 2010). Nevertheless, the structured interview results show that Participants 6 and 7 intend to use the activation strategy in their future teaching.

The vocabulary helped me a lot with my studies as I am going to be an English teacher in the future. I need to acquire vocabulary skills in order to teach my future pupils. I also must be able to speak English fluently as it will make my teaching easy in the future and I will be able to teach the correct pronunciation to them (participant 7).

If I have larger vocabulary, then I can teach more things to my students using simpler words that are more suitable for them so that they can understand my teaching better (participant 6).

Both participants believe that the activation strategy is essential for improving vocabulary for themselves and their future students. Furthermore, this shows that they will use the newly acquired vocabulary in the actual contexts of language learning.


Vocabulary learning is an essential element in second language learning, both in production and comprehension, either directly or indirectly, through various strategies. Most of the VLSs presented in this paper are considered general strategies, but they were implemented in specific ways based on individual ability and interest in their use. Most of the study participants used the same vocabulary learning strategies that they had used from an early age until they entered adult education. This is because most of them felt confident and secure in using these strategies and felt that they were successfully able to acquire the vocabulary without the help of others.

Moreover, the teacher trainees hope that they will be able to use some VLs more systematically and with the help of appropriate instructions that they can apply during their teaching in schools. They should be familiarised with different strategies for learning vocabulary, and at the same time, curriculum designers should design more strategies for learning vocabulary that students can explore, especially with the help of textbooks.


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