Interference When Learning Semantically Related Words (A Bibliography)

This morning I wrote a first post stating one of the reasons I believe learning semantically related items is of limited usefulness, at least early on in the learning process.  There was a bit of interest in that post with the first part of my reasoning being  called into question.  But, it may be a couple of days before I can write the follow up post, and I didn’t want to let the discussion sit for that long.

So, I decided to put together a bibliographical post for those interested that would serve two purposes.  One it will keep the issues in the first post alive perhaps until I can write a follow up.  And second, it is needless to say that I lack credentials on this subject to a certain degree.  My dissertation research has been in Applied Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew.  As an interdisciplinary researcher, I run the risk of being an expert in neither area and knowing just enough about each to be dangerous.  So, I thought I would refer readers to the studies by the credentialed applied linguists first.  Then, I’ll weigh in with my two cents in a couple of days (I’ve placed myself under a bit of a personal deadline with regard to my fourth chapter of my thesis).

Against this background, the second reason I believe learning semantically related words together is of limited usefulness is based on research on interference.  When dealing with the concept of interference one must at least deal with the idea that learning semantically related items together may actually be detrimental to learners.  I believe that is what the studies below suggest.  There is some research in the field of Psychology that suggests learning semantically related items together may be beneficial.  However, this research primarily deals with the learning of lists of words in a subject’s native language, which is not the same as pairing form and meaning in vocabulary learning.  These studies may even represent where the practice originated in vocabulary materials; however, the more recent studies focused specifically on vocabulary learning appear to call the practice into question.

I have arranged the bibliographical items by publication date and will almost certainly update the list tomorrow when I arrive in my office (or maybe after a staff meeting).  I’m sure there is a pertinent article by Laufer I am forgetting as well as maybe 1-3 others.


Higa, M. (1963). Interference effects of intralist word relationships in verbal learning. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 2, 170-175.

Underwood, B., Ekstrand, B., & Keppel, G. (1965). An analysis of intralist similarity in verbal learning with experiments on conceptual similarity. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 4, 447 – 462. *

Kintsch, W. & Kintsch, E. (1969). Interlingual interference and memory processes. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 8, 16 – 19. *

Tinkham, T. (1993). The effect of semantic clustering on the learning of second language vocabulary. System, 21(3), 371-380.

Laufer, B. (1997). What’s in a word that makes it hard or easy. In Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy, N. Schmitt and M. McCarthy (ed.), 140-155. *

Tinkham, T. (1997). The effects of semantic and thematic clustering on the learning of second language vocabulary. Second Language Research, 13(2), 136-183.

Waring, M. (1997). The negative effects of learning words in semantic sets: A replication. System, 25, 261-274.

Nation, P. (2000).  Learning vocabulary in lexical sets: dangers and guidelines.  TESOL Journal, 9(2), 6-10.

Finkbeiner, M. & Nicol, J. (2003). Semantic category effects in second language word learning. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 369-383.

Papathanasiou, E. (2009). An investigation of two ways of presenting vocabulary. ELT Journal, 63(4), 313-322. *

* Represents articles added after the original post

Postscript – Here are also a Dissertation and MA thesis that may touch on this topic. I have not read them, but Laufer (see above) cites them:

Balhouq, S. (1976). The place of lexis in foreign language acquisition. University of Sheffield: Unpublished MA thesis. (According to Laufer, in this study learners of Arab learners of English had trouble with semantically related words dealing with family relations.  This may have also had to do with cultural factors).

Stock, R. (1976). Some factors affecting the acquisition of foreign language lexicon in the classroom. University of Illinois: Unpublished PhD thesis. (Part of this study notes that learners have trouble confusing semantically related words like the two different colors of blue, i.e. kachol/tchelet).


  • I’m glad to see that Mike Aubrey interacted with you on the original post. I think he has some valid concerns. I am going to follow your advice and wait to see what you say in your next post before making any substantial comments. Thank you for providing your bibliography so we can try to follow your focus.

    • The articles in this bibliography would present the bulk of my concern coming from the other side. As I see it, what the research suggests is that if you have a student learn the words for “mouth” and “nose” together it does not help them remember the words for “mouth” and “nose” as much as it makes it more likely that a person will mix up the words for mouth and nose. That is why many of these researchers may refer to the learning of words in lexical sets as an “assumption” that needs to be abandoned, or at least seriously called into question. I don’t necessarily go that far since I do think semantic associations can be helpful later in the learning process. I just think that in light of this research it is a little iffy to use semantic associations as a governing principle like some approaches do.