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On this site, we already have a question about learning related words together (or not) as an autonomous learner using a spaced repetition system. At the time of writing, that question does not have an answer.

However, the question of learning related words together is also relevant to classroom teaching. One of my teachers of Chinese once said that he avoid teaching many related words together because, in his experience, it caused more confusion between these words then when they naturally occur in the teaching materials. However, what does research have to say on this topic? Is teaching related words together beneficial or not? I am looking for answers based on several studies; a single study is not enough to go on.

  • Are you referring to collocations? – AML Oct 19 '18 at 23:25
  • @AML I mean words that are semantically related. – AModHasNoName Oct 20 '18 at 15:16
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Paul Nation, author of Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, has written about this issue in his article Learning Vocabulary in Lexical Sets: Dangers and Guidelines (.pdf). Here are the first two sentences of the article:

This article examines research on learning related vocabulary, such as lexical sets, opposites and synonyms, together. This research shows that learning related words at the same time makes learning them more difficult.

Nation's article includes a full set of references to the research studies he investigated.

Another linguist who has reviewed the research in this field is Keith Folse. The following extract is from his article Myths about Teaching and Learning Second Language Vocabulary: What Recent Research Says (.pdf)

Myth 3: Vocabulary Should be Presented in Semantic Sets

Research does not tell us what the best way to organize new vocabulary is, but it certainly speaks to what a bad way is: The commonly used organization of words into semantic groups is not a good technique. In fact, it actually confuses learners and can hinder vocabulary retention. Organization by semantic sets continues, however, because it is much easier for textbook writers and teachers to present vocabulary in semantic sets such as family members, animals, or days of the week than design creative vignettes to accommodate all of the words in a vocabulary list. The bottom line, though, is that research shows that learners remember vocabulary more easily when the vocabulary is presented in thematic sets such as a trip to the beach or my cousin's birthday party.

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    Yes. Anecdotally, it's much easier to learn a scenario with a mix of domains like, "My niece and I went to the beach by bus. The sand was white and the water was blue. It was hot. We saw a crab. I told her that my father loved that beach." versus memorizing a list of colors, animals, family members, etc. – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Oct 14 '18 at 13:40

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