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 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 lexicoblog.blogspot.co.uk. You can find out more about her writing and other activities on her website: www.juleswords.co.uk.