Fine brush and freehand

Lin Liang: Birds in Bushes

Peter Yongqi Gu’s Fine Brush and Freehand (2003) has long been one of my favourite academic papers. Not only does it help me think about an important topic (vocabulary learning), it also reports on the kind of case study that I’d like to do with some of my students. I recently realized though that one of the best things about it is the name; it’s so evocative, especially compared to the names of most journal articles. It could easily have ended up called something horrible like: An examination of analytic verses holistic approaches to vocabulary acquisition by way of a case study of two Chinese students of English…


Anyway, in the paper, Gu compares the vocabulary learning styles of two successful English learners. One of them takes a very deliberate approach, noting down many vocab items from his assigned readings and carefully studying them, while the other student relies much more on reading widely for pleasure. Refreshingly enough, both approaches seem to work fine—his subjects are both top English students after all. This is somewhat liberating for me, because, as a lover of books and language, a part of me always wants to somehow make my students read for the love of reading, while another part of me worries about students who love English but aren’t so diligent about keeping vocabulary notebooks and such. But this case study suggests that both ways can lead to successful language learning and reminds me that different learners have different ways of reaching their goals so I shouldn’t try to mold them all into little models of me.

Another nice aspect of this paper is that Gu gives some details about what both learners have in common. They both study word lists for example, but they studied different words in different ways and did their best to use news words when they could, either by inventing and practicing their own sentences, using examples from the dictionary, or trying to use the words in conversation.[1]

Both students also had strategies for choosing which new words they encountered (in reading usually) they would spend the time to learn. They would ask themselves questions like,

  • Do I need this word to understand what I’m reading now?
  • Do I find the word interesting?
  • Is it an idiom or multi-word item?
  • Will it be important or useful in the future?

This last question is one that often stumps students, in my experience, and the learners in Gu’s study approached it in several different ways. They’d consider it important if it was on one of their exam-prep word lists, of course, but they’d also try to evaluate words by whether or not there were a lot of related meanings in the dictionary and by how common they judged the Chinese translation. Finally, they’d give priority to verbs over other kinds of words, possibly thinking that verbs are more broadly applicable than many nouns.

These seem like pretty good suggestions to give students who are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of English words they are faced with every day. Do you need the word right now? Is it interesting to you personally? Does it seem like it will be useful in the future based on its related meanings or how often it’s used in your language.[2]

[1] One of Gu’s points is that the Chinese practice of studying word lists can be an effective way of learning new vocabulary. I don’t doubt that there’s some truth to this, although I tend to prefer a spaced repetition approach over just going over a static list. [return]

[2] And if they want to check it against a word list. something like the AWL could be useful, at least for university students. [return]


GU, P. Y. (2003), Fine Brush and Freehand: The Vocabulary-Learning Art of Two Successful Chinese EFL Learners. TESOL Quarterly, 37: 73–104.