Friday, April 20, 2012

English vocabulary

Key developments in the teaching of English vocabulary during the mid 20th century

  • 1944 TWB The Teacher's Word Book of 30,000 words by Edward L. Thorndike and Irving Lodge containing lists of the most frequent words in written English.
    There are two semantic counts one by Thorndike & Lodge and another of the 570 commonest words by Lorge.
  • 1953 GSL A General Service List of English Words by Michael West Part 1 contains 20,000 words (those ocurring at least once per million words). Frequency is indicated on a scale of 1 to 5
  • 1960 BSV A Basic Sight-Vocabulary by Dolch 220 words had considerable influence in the teaching of reading at elementary level in the USA:
    The basic words in Dolch's list are: a about after again all always am an and any are around as ask at ate away be because been before best better big black blue both bring brown but buy by call came can carry clean cold come could cut did do does done don't down draw drink eat eight every fall far fast find first five fly for found four from full funny gave get give go goes going good got green grow had has have he help her here him his hold hot how hurt I if in into is it its jump just keep kind know laugh let light like liitle live long look made make many may me much must my myself never new no not now of off old on once one only open or our out over own pick play please pretty pull put ran read red ride right round run said saw say see seven shall she show sing six sleep small so some soon start stop take tell ten thank that the their them then there these they think this those three to today together too try two under up upon us use very walk want warm was wash we well went were what when where which white who why will wish with work would write yellow yes you your

    Sight words are words whose meaning the reader grasps so rapidly that they "do not seem to come between him and meaning at all". They are so common in reading matter that all children should know them instantly by sight.

    "Basic" because it includes the service words that are used in writing whatever the subject: conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, auxiliary verbs and some regular verbs. No nouns are included.

    Dolch considers that nouns are in a different category because each relates to a special subject matter. N.B. Wilga Rivers observes that L1 readers lean heavily on content words (nouns etc) to provide meaning. L2 readers can't draw on them so rapidly.
  • 1965 L.A. Hill's 5 lists: 500 750 1000 1500 2075 headword vocabularies used by OUP authors. 3000 or even 5000 word vocabularies are insufficient for fluent reading of all kinds of texts. Knowledge of the most widely used words will serve as a basis for intelligent guessing or inferencing when learners encounter unfamiliar content words.
  • 1968 The Longman Structural Readers Handbook containing 2340 words. Note that 10,000 words are needed to read & understand an English novel, looking up a maximum of 4 to 5 words per page.
  • 1974 Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English uses a defining vocabulary of 2100 words. These are the words used in formulating the dictionary definitions in order to make them comprehensible to learners from non English language backgrounds.
  • 1974 Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary of Current English containing 61,000 words
  • 1980 Roland Hindmarsh's Cambridge English Lexicon: words are graded for difficulty on a scale of 1 to 7. Words within the 1-5 bands are needed for candidates taking the Cambridge First Certificate in English examination. Words in bands 6 - 7 are also needed for candidates taking the Cambridge Proficiency in English examination.

Vocabulary Selection Criteria

1960s-1970s approaches to vocabulary selection in English language teaching empahsized the following criteria:
  1. Frequency of use
  2. Which style/register? Speech or writing?
  3. Difficulty - appropriateness to level, Learnability & Teachability, Memory Load.
  4. Pedagogic value in terms of the use of the vocabulary items in delivering a structurally based syllabus: for example, volume 1 of Geoffrey Broughton's "Success With English" coursebook [Penguin Books 1968], widely used in the late 1960s and early 1970s, introduced words such as "plane", "wing", "tail", "monkey" in the early stages, because they were easy for the artist to illustrate unambiguously and also facilitated the course's structural gradation when they were recycled. They were certainly not the most relevant or functional vocabulary items to present to most learners using semantic criteria.
By the 1980s, functional load or communicative need became a key criteria for vocabulary selection. By this time, syllabus guidelines were being developed by The Council of Europe [see the updated version: Threshold Level 1990: Modern Languages - the syllabus specifications set by the Council of Europe for modern language courses at the intermediate level]. Another influential work was John Munby's Communicative Syllabus Design and works of a similar nature began to appear in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It would be a pretence to say that coursebook writers had not catered for learners' needs and language in use before. However, the 1980s saw the appearance of a few coursebooks which claimed to be "lexical" in their approach in a communicative sense.

Some of these "lexically-based" coursebooks clearly lacked the structural thread which most learners and teachers required and were never able to compete with classics such as Streamline Departures [Oxford 1979]. The Collins Cobuild project, using large corpuses of authentic texts (both spoken and written) provided excellent offshoots in terms of dictionaries and reference books (e.g. dictionaries of phrasal verbs). However, coursebooks offered as offshoots from this project enjoyed a limited shelf life.

One explanation for their lack of popularity with language learners and teachers is shortsightedness in defining authenticity. The danger of lexical computing projects using authentic texts from all walks of life lies in the list of lexical items which is returned as the most frequent and therefore the most useful. You can end up with a very generalized bag of useful words, which are not especially useful in meeting the needs of language learners from non English backgrounds studying at the elementary level in UK cities or holiday resorts.

The intuition of teachers working with these learners, informed by direct knowledge of the social spheres determining their immediate language needs (basic survival!), probably offers a better means of vocabulary control, especially at the elementary level. A teacher's attempt to simplify so that a beginner can have a chance of understanding can also be considered an authentic use of language in its own right. Both pedagogical and street environments can be included in the definition of what is authentic.

It is often stated that texts should be more authentic as learners progress to higher levels. However, English has an enormous vocabulary and contains far several times the number of lexical items that any native speaker will manage to learn in their lifetime. So even when second language learners are more proficient, we should be careful not to turn our concordancers on language data from all walks of life in selecting lexical content for their courses. Many a stupid act has been committed in course and lesson planning on the basis that learners are being given a chance to experience authentic materials.

A truly communicative language course will consider the learners' language needs. Generalized findings representing all walks of life will not return the best list of lexical items to offer learners embarking on higher education in academic institutions, jobs in hospital wards or work in a UK dockyard. More recently, those involved in computational linguistics have categorized corpus data so that syllabus and lesson planners can focus vocabulary selection on particular occupational and social fields. There are now several concordancers (some available on Internet web sites) which allow users to target categories of corpus data which come closest to meeting their needs.

Material on this site to improve survival vocabulary at beginners and elementary level:

a graded reader for beginners

Materials on this site for higher level learners in need of more vocabulary for discussion of a wide range of topics:

28 crosswords and vocabulary themes for discussion classes at higher levels


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