The first post in this series talked about how important it is for academic-bound adult second language students to learn vocabulary quickly.
The problem is that, even though our students need to know many words, they have very little time to learn them.
Let’s talk for a second about how many words academic students might need.
In the field of vocabulary research, it’s fairly well-accepted that a native speaking child has 5000 of the most common words in English if she enters kindergarten ready to learn to read. After that, schools work to teach the less common words, so that the average college-bound high school graduate has a vocabulary of about 17,000 words. He’s learned these over a lifetime of reading and listening. Intermediate second language learners tend to have about 1500.
Traditionally, teachers of native speakers have believed that learning vocabulary in context, over time, as native speakers do, is the “best way.”
The research says that, in order to reach this level, native speakers have gained 1000 words a year. To pick up this much vocabulary in context, each year, they need to read 1,000,000,000 words. That’s about 1700 pages or about 20 average-sized novels. This is the origin of the many programs that promote reading in public school systems.
Have you ever asked your students how many English books they’ve read?
My graduate students typically say they’ve read two to four books and a number of papers in their fields of study.
As we said, intermediate students have about 1500 word vocabularies. When I worked at the intensive English program attached to the University of Idaho, I instituted vocabulary tests for my students. The average student who arrived at my intensive English program at a level 1 would test with less than 1000, a low-intermediate level student would test showing a vocabulary between 1000-1500 words. (I’ll post more about the efficacy and utility of these tests later in the series.) The problem is clear:
Adult second language learners don’t have time to learn 17,000 words, and they certainly can’t learn them incidentally, through reading and listening.
So, what does this mean to your students? What do they need? The solution is obvious: Students need direct learning of the most useful words.
It certainly sounds simple, but what, exactly, is direct learning and what are the most useful words?
In the next post in this series, I’ll make a case for the importance of direct teaching of vocabulary over direct teaching of grammar.