Working with wordlists

Our first guest post of the new year is by Julie Moore, who inspired many members with her talk on corpus tools at the 2015 PCE in Manchester. Here, Julie looks at the dangers and delights of wordlists.

The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.

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The wonders (and worries!) of wordlists

by Julie Moore




Estimates of how many words there are in English range from around a quarter of a million to just over a million, depending on what you count as a word. However you look at it, that’s a lot of words, and deciding what vocabulary to teach and when can seem like a daunting task. So it’s not surprising that many writers and those planning coursebooks turn to wordlists to help give their vocabulary syllabus a principled basis. And in an age of team writing, lists can also provide a way for everyone to keep track of what’s been covered.

Wordlists have been around for many years – one of the most longstanding in ELT is perhaps West’s General Service List, composed of 2,000 of the most useful words for learners, published in 1953.  With the advent of corpus research, using language databases to analyse how words are actually used, a number of new lists – based largely on evidence of frequency – have appeared. I don’t plan to give an exhaustive list, but some you might be familiar with include the Oxford 3000™ (Oxford University Press), English Vocabulary Profile (Cambridge English) and the Academic Word List (Averil Coxhead).

As a corpus researcher myself, I’m a big fan of using evidence as a basis for deciding what we focus on – but I do get incredibly frustrated by some of the attitudes I encounter to using wordlists. So in this post, I’ll look at a couple of key points to bear in mind when using wordlists. 

Understanding your list

If you’re using data of any kind, it’s essential to know something about how it was compiled and what it sets out to show. Different wordlists are compiled in different ways and with different objectives, and whilst you don’t necessarily need to know all the nitty gritty details, you do need to know the basics in order to decide whether and how to use a particular list. By just following a wordlist blindly, you’re liable to fall into all kinds of traps. Let me give a couple of examples.

English Vocabulary Profile is a great resource developed by Cambridge English using data from student writing and made up of words graded according to the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) levels. So, for example, say is labelled as A1 or beginner, comment as B1 or pre-intermediate, and so on. This makes it a fabulous resource for both teachers and materials writers* in helping them to decide which words to focus on at which level. What many people fail to realise though is that the EVP levels indicate which words students already know and use at each level. ‘Rather than providing a syllabus of the vocabulary that learners should know, the EVP project verifies what they do know at each level’ (EVP website). So B1 students are typically already using the word comment. That means that if you’re writing a B1 book, you probably won’t want to include it as new vocabulary to learn. Instead, you might want to pick out words from the level above, or even two levels above if your focus is on receptive skills.

Conversely, the Academic Word List is based on published academic texts, so it reflects the language of expert academic writers (and editors!) rather than the average undergraduate essay. Of course that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a useful resource, but if you’re working with EAP students on writing skills, you might want to focus on the more frequent AWL words (it’s conveniently divided into sublists by frequency), as well as a healthy chunk of more general vocabulary.

In either case, understanding just a bit about the nature of the list will help you make use of it in a way that’s appropriate for your context. 

Understanding how vocabulary works

We all know that learning vocabulary isn’t as simple as ticking words off lists, don’t we? So it drives me round the bend every time an editor tells me I can’t use a word in a vocabulary activity because ‘it’s already been covered in a previous unit/level’! Yes, of course I understand that students and teachers don’t want to see the same old vocabulary cropping up again and again; they want to feel like they’re moving forward and learning new stuff. And yes, you can revisit and recycle language more subtly without having to make it the lesson focus every time. But sometimes there’s a strong case for repetition and as writers, I think, occasionally we just have to stand our ground.

One reason for justifiable repetition is that English is a highly polysemous language; look on almost any page in a dictionary and you’ll find numerous words with multiple senses (not to mention associated phrases, idioms and phrasal verbs). Most wordlists, with the notable exception of EVP, don’t take different senses and uses of a word into account. What appears on the list is just a string of letters (a lemma), plus perhaps the part of speech. Because a student is familiar with the word table as a piece of furniture, for example, doesn’t mean that they’ll know a table can also be information written in rows and columns. We need to treat the two as quite separate vocabulary items. So just because you included the former sense in a practice exercise at A1 and ticked it off your wordlist, doesn’t mean you can’t introduce the latter sense at say, B1.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticising particular wordlists and I’m certainly not saying don’t use them; I think they’re a wonderful tool when used with care and a bit of common sense. They do all have their quirks and shortcomings though, so just think before you merrily start ticking off words!

*Note that although English Vocabulary Profile is freely available online, it has clear conditions of use that you need to check before you start using it, especially if you’re writing commercial materials.


Julie Moore is a freelance writer based in Bristol, UK. Her background is in ELT dictionaries and vocabulary is still her first love. Nowadays she works on all kinds of ELT materials, including co-authoring Oxford EAP C1 (Oxford University Press). She tweets as @lexicojules and blogs at You can find out more about her writing and other activities on her website:

14 thoughts on “Working with wordlists

  1. A particularly good point there about polysemy. This makes it quite tricky to have lists of words that have been ‘done’ at previous levels, and, in my experience, certainly needs more attention when creating documents of words covered at each level of a course.

  2. Another brilliant post Julie! Informative as ever…

    I couldn’t agree more about the need for repetition and recycling of vocab items.

    I remember the conversation we had (that you mention on your website), which you say prompted this post! I was working on ‘How to Write ESOL Materials’ and thinking about how inadequate wordlists are for teachers and writers who want to to create resources for ESOL learners – especially low level learners, who need the language immediately in order to get on with their lives. For anyone who’s interested in this topic from an ESOL angle, I discuss wordlists and suggest alternative approaches to selecting target vocabulary in the book.

    And congratulations to Rachael on the latest addition to the series!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kathryn and for the conversation that got me thinking about this in the first place 🙂

      As you say, one-size-fits-all approaches don’t work in any area of language teaching, including vocab. Wordlists can provide a very general starting point, but you always have to consider the needs of individual learners, whether they’re ESOL students who have immediate day-to-day needs or ESP students working in a very specific context.

    1. Thanks, Mura.

      I didn’t include lots of wordlists in my post so as not to detract from my main point. Your list is really helpful though.

      I’d add the Academic Keyword List by Paquot & Granger which is quite a favourite of mine. Unlike the AWL, it takes into account frequent (top 2000) words which also have key uses in academic writing. This makes it, I think, especially helpful for EAP students. Available here:

      Then there’s also the Academic Collocation List from Pearson, which I’ve never used myself, but I’m sure could be a useful reference if you don’t have direct access to a good academic corpus.


  3. Great post, Julie, and hats off for managing to stay so concise on a topic that could potentially spiral off all over the place.

    As a writer, I’ve been depressed to see the rise and rise of Cambridge’s Vocabulary profile as an arbiter of disputes. It’s obviously an interesting resource, but only tells us what students produced – not what they were able to process receptively – in response to specific questions in Cambridge exams. Obviously, there’d be plenty more language they may have been able to produce had the questions been different and a vast array of other language they’d be aware of to at least degree receptively.

    I’d like to be generous and say that the CVP has been put to purposes it was never intended for, but feel the way it’s started presenting itself is increasingly problematic. The fact that the strap line on its website now says THE CEFR FOR ENGLISH makes me want to bash my head against the wall. It’s arrogant over-reach of the most hubristic kind.

    1. Thanks for joining in the discussion, Hugh.

      I think any wordlist that becomes popular suffers much the same problems, whether it’s actively promoted like EVP or just takes off like the AWL. It gets used in ways it was never intended and by people who haven’t fully understood how it was created – and thus aren’t aware of its shortcomings.

      I think it has to be down to writers (and editors) to make sure they’re properly informed and use wordlists for what they are – a tool, not the be all and end all of vocabulary.

  4. Dear Julie

    Thank you for your great post. You may remember my talk on IATEFL last year dealing with vocabulary lists as a learning tool, or more accurately, my deconstruction of that common practice. In a way that makes us partners in crime.
    You deal with wordlists as a central core in material development. A lot of us have been criticising how syllabuses are dominated by grammar and the grammar mcnugggets as coined by Scott Thornbury. What seems to be happening now is that these vocabulary lists have navigated themselves comfortably next to the grammar core.
    As you have marked, there’s much more to words, than what we find in the lists; collocations, colligations … so I fully agree when you say “sometimes there’s a strong case for repetition”. I consider “sometimes” as an understatement.

    1. Hi Bruno,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that we need to treat wordlists with caution, but I think we have to be careful not to demonize them. They’re just a tool that writers can use as part of the process of creating a vocab syllabus. In the same way that you wouldn’t say we shouldn’t use dictionaries.

      As for recycling and investigating vocab in more depth, I think keeping a list of vocab that’s been highlighted in materials can actually be used to enhance this process, especially across levels or in projects with several writers. If you note down when vocab is first highlighted, then you can use that same list to make sure it’s effectively recycled and reinvestigated. You don’t necessarily have to make that process explicit though – you might explicitly highlight ‘new words’ the first time they crop up, but then revisit them more subtly in later lessons/units/activities. And how much you revisit vocab will depend on the nature of the particular item; how high frequency it is, whether it’s a relatively straightforward concrete noun or a highly polysemous key verb, etc.

      It all comes back to a bit of common sense and not following any one ‘method’ blindly.

  5. Thank you for an interesting post and useful links in the comments. I particularly liked how you concisely summed up my own ambivalent feelings about word lists in Understanding how vocabulary works.

    I am not a coursebook writer and probably never will be because it would certainly drive me mad to hear “it’s already been covered”! With a dire lack of repetition and recycling of vocab being one of the major drawbacks of ELT coursebooks, I can’t believe somebody would actually say that! I don’t know what kind of students the editor(s) who said that have been dealing with – my students certainly like to see same lexical items cropping up again and again, and fondly refer to them as “old friends”. We even do an activity every so often where students share how many “old friends” they have come across in the past week.


    1. Hi Leo,

      Yes, I’m definitely with you on recycling and as you say, if it’s presented and explained well, there’s no reason why students should be put off by it.

      I expect the pressure to have a clear vocab syllabus that keeps presenting ‘new’ words (from unit to unit and level to level) probably comes from those higher up; ministries of education, school directors, etc. And as they’re often that ones that make decisions about which books to buy, that puts pressure on publishers to have nice wordlists (at the start/end of each unit or at the back of the book) that seem to keep feeding in new vocab.

      I think (hope!) that most coursebook writers get around that by recycling vocab more subtly. They do include items again and again in input (reading or listening texts) and in activities, but just without flagging it up as ‘new/target vocab’. As Rachael said above though, I think this could often be tracked better/more systematically, especially where teams of writers are working together.


  6. Thanks, Julie, for a very interesting and thoughtful post on this topic. I agree with your words of caution about using ‘wordlists’. I have some responsibility for the English Vocabulary Profile (which was developed by Cambridge University Press, through the heroic research work of Annette Capel). We’ve always been very careful to say it’s not a prescriptive list; it’s a useful tool with objective information about what students around the world have typically mastered in terms of ‘word meanings’ (re your polysemy comment) by the time they have successfully passed a Cambridge exam at that level. CUP editors will use the resource to identify language that may need additional support in a task. But there are so many factors at play in materials writing (for example, if there’s an illustration of a particular word, or if it’s a cognate in the L1 of the target students), that it’s impossible to be mechanical about using the EVP as an author or editor.

    There’s an interesting comment about whether vocabulary labelled B1 in the EVP should be in a B1 course. This partly links to Lexical Leo’s point about the need for active recycling, but it’s also a question of what a ‘B1 book’ means. Does it mean a course for someone who wants to get to B1 level, or for someone who is already at B1 and wants to get to B2? Or do B1 coursebooks have to have enough flexibility to accommodate both types of student, as most groups of learners contain a range of levels? I think editors/authors will need to address that question first, before deciding how to make best use of a resource like EVP.

    If you want more information on how the EVP was developed (including the range of sources used beyond Cambridge English exams), as well as see the new English Grammar Profile, please visit .

    1. Thanks very much for contributing to the discussion, Ben. I think it’s really important that people understand more about how resources like EVP have been developed and what their intention is. Unfortunately, although there’s plenty of information on your website, a lot of people don’t bother to read it properly!

      You make a really good point about what we mean by a ‘B1 book’. There are so many variables in language learners that it’s very difficult to pin these things down. We need to take into account the expectations of the learner and their learning environment, different learner backgrounds (esp. when we’re talking about adults), the difference between their active and passive knowledge, learners with jagged profiles, mixed ability groups … As coursebook writers, we can only ever approximate a useful mid-ground (which is where EVP is helpful in giving us a starting point), but build in enough flexibility for teachers to adapt to their specific students and circumstances.

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