It’s been a while since I started this series, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working in this area. In fact, this week I’ve presented a two day workshop on this topic to educators at the University of Delhi. They needed a valid, reliable, feasible proficiency indicator so we spent two days discussing the considerable merits of frequency-based vocabulary tests.
To recap the series so far, Post 1 talked about the need for academic-bound adult second language students to learn vocabulary quickly. Post 2 discussed the relative vocabulary sizes of native speaking children and second language adults, and in Post 3, we discussed how much more effective teaching vocabulary is than teaching grammar.
So, if secondary English users need to gain vocabulary efficiently, how many words do they really need?
There are many estimates in the research that suggest ideal numbers for student vocabulary. Obviously, more is better, but, personally, I feel that estimates are sometimes inflated by vague, somewhat moralistic, feelings about what a “good student” or an “educated person” should have. Some estimates say 5000-7000 or even more, 10,000 and up – numbers that are out of reach for many second language learners. I think a more realistic way to judge what’s needed is to test what functioning students actually have.
There are a couple of international studies that I discuss in my presentations that show students entering colleges in Asia and the Middle East with fewer than 1500. This is about the level of an intermediate user and is not enough to comprehend academic texts.
However, in my experience testing my international graduate students who are, generally, succeeding in a U.S. institution and are preparing to write Masters or PhD dissertations, I’ve found them working with vocabularies that test around 3000.
Btw, none of these numbers represents a measurement of the actual size of an individual’s vocabulary. Determining the actual size is notoriously difficult. I always tell my workshop participants that researchers still haven’t even agreed on the size of Shakespeare’s vocabulary. Yet, they’ve had plenty of time and it’s all written down.
The numbers refer to a score on a frequency-based vocabulary test – the type we were discussing this week in Delhi.
Much more can be learned in one of my workshops, but, in short, you can test a sample of vocabulary at different frequency ranges and get a good idea of the range of a student’s vocabulary. For example, if we test thirty words that fall within the 1000 most frequent words of the English language, a perfect score tells us that the student has a good grasp of most of the words within the first 1000 most common words.
You can find the GSL and examples of tests for the first two frequency levels of vocabulary in this handout that I’ve shared with some of my workshop participants.
Students who can answer correctly at the 2000 level will generally have mastered the first 1000 as well. Students who can identify thirty words that will not appear in a frequency-based list until we get to the 9000-10,000 most common words will have a good grasp of the 10,000 words that come before that.
Again, this is not a count of the individual’s vocabulary. An actual count would be higher because we assume that a person who knows the word “dog,” for instance, would also know the word, “dogs,” but we don’t count the words as two different words in a frequency-based list.
In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about which 3000 those successful students are using.