In the the last post in my series on teaching vocabulary, I wrote that the graduate students I’ve tested in the U.S. appear to test around 3000 in vocabulary. We also discussed what we mean by using the number 3000 in this context.
To understand this idea, you really need a solid understanding of the idea of frequency-based vocabulary. Remember that we said that the central problem for English learners is that there are just too many words and too little time, so we said that learners need direct learning of the most useful words.
But which are the most useful? Well, one obvious answer to this is the ones that students hear and read most often – the most frequently occurring words in the language. It turns out that, even though English has a very large total vocabulary, it has a surprisingly small number of words that make up the great majority of common communication. Thus, a small number of words can provide a large amount of coverage. In frequency-based vocabulary teaching, size doesn’t matter! It’s all about coverage!
This key idea of coverage is closely tied to the principle that students need comprehensible input in order to acquire increasing amounts of language. Most of the language input during any one exposure must be understood in order for them to learn the small amount that is not understood. If they have enough vocabulary to make most of what they hear and read comprehensible, they will continually learn from the small amounts that are new in each encounter.
The most useful words provide the most coverage.
This pie represents an academic text where the first 2000 most frequent words of English, called the General Service List in vocabulary teaching, makes up about 80% of the text, the words from the Academic Word List, the 570 most common academic words, make up close to another 10%, and the rest are topical words, proper names, and other very low-frequency or uncommon words.
Coverage varies with different types of texts, of course, but the general proportions are fairly consistent, particularly for texts that learners will encounter, and, with careful study and editing, teachers can make sure that the proportions of any particular text for their students will provide the optimal amount of comprehensible input. I work with teachers in my workshops to help them learn the ways to identify these proportions in a given text and modify it if necessary to create more appropriate materials for the level of their students.
To do that, we would, of course, need to know what level of coverage the students currently have. So when trying to see how well student vocabularies provide them coverage, we typically test words in the following ranges: words that occur in the 1000 most common, 2000 most common, 3000, 5000, 10000, and, for students, words that occur most commonly in academic texts.
So, when I say my students seem to be in the “3000 range,” I mean that they appear to have mastered the first 2000 most frequent words of English as well as much of the academic vocabulary from the Academic Word List and some less frequent words, but not so many that they can show mastery of words that occur in the 5000 range.
My own experience with successful English learners functioning at the PhD level in an American university and the research at large strongly indicate that learners can function well in English academics after mastering the General Service List and the Academic Word List in addition to the words needed in their fields of study.
If this is the case, teachers are well-advised to focus their teaching and their material development in ways that help students master these words that provide the most coverage of most texts.
Much of my teacher training focuses on helping teachers understand these concepts so that they can begin to use them in creative and productive ways with their own students. If you’re interested in setting up a workshop for your teachers, get in touch.