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Vocabulary - A few thoughts - Does size matter?

We live in and by and through words. Baudelaire famously said, "Life is a forest of symbols", meaning, we walk through life as we would walk through words.

Yet, though on one hand "words are mightier than the sword". On the other hand, "Actions speak louder than words". Which is it?

As a teacher, we face a similar dilemma in our classrooms. Do we teach students "words" or do we teach them "how to use words". Which is more important? How to find the right balance? Ah, the tension of it all! And to wit, "Words - do they really matter?". Doesn't a lot else count and that past the first few thousand words, we get little pay off?

I've always found it fascinating how so many parents that I meet, want their children to have a large vocabulary. It is like a rooster and his comb. There is a strong belief that if you have a large vocabulary, the world is yours -- all other kinds of problems are solved. You'll make more money, you'll climb up the social ladder, you'll be healthier, you'll have more friends, life is your oyster. Have a small vocabulary and you are a midget of the verbal world. Neglected and a circus oddity.

But is this true? And what does vocabulary size say for us teachers and our own practices? Let me know what you think.

I'm off on this diatribe and mental exercise after reading this morning's New York Time's, On Language column about vocabulary size. Also, after asking my students (teachers) about how many words they think a basically fluent second language speaker probably knows and getting answers no where near the mark!

IN short -- here's how the levels match up with vocabulary size for EFL (not ESL) students.

Level and Vocabulary Size

A1
<1500
A2
1500 - 2500
B1
2750 - 3250
B2
3250 - 3750
C1
3750 - 4500
C2
4500 - 5000



** But it takes getting to the magical 7-8,000 word level to really be advanced and fluent. Some studies have suggested that for studying in an English university where academic language is needed -- we are looking at a vocabulary size of 12-13,000 words


I'll begin by stating my own position. Probably different than all those lexicographers and vocab. specialists. I THINK VOCABULARY IS OVERRATED. I'm a big one for process and quality. How you say something is much more important than the words you use. Further, the majority of people on this planet DON"T have the vocabulary of Shakespeare or Eminem. And the goal being "communication", does size really matter?

The growth of research into vocabulary frequency and corpus (here's a good place to start) has truly been phenomenal. We now have an idea of word frequency in many settings. (Jonathan Harris' Word Count for the internet is also very handy). But I think many researchers and teachers have become too enamored by words (and being a poet I know their ability to hypnotize, ensnare, enchant and woo). Here in Korea, I find too many students memorizing long lists of vocabulary in search of a holy grail. (given by teachers who also believe in this holy grail).

I've also witnessed the return of the lexical syllabus, books with sneaky agendas for "growing vocabularies". Seems even the internet can be accused of promoting the view that vocabulary size = fluency. So many powerful sites dedicated just to learning vocabulary (many times out of context - here's my list of bookmarks for some browsing).

Given all this - I still prefer a student with good communication skills and only 1,000 words of vocabulary over a student with a 5,000+ vocabulary that speaks choppily and with no "style".

So my tips for the teachers in the trenches.

1. don't focus on vocabulary size. Focus on meaningful production.
2. when learning words (as all beginners must), students should concentrate on verbs. They are the flypaper to which the flies (nouns) stick.
3. teach any vocabulary in context. Not randomly (like with a word search or a list). Teach it with a dialogue or by talking about a situation or using it for a real communicative act.
4. A word is not a word is not a word. Meaning, don't teach just one definition. Use the same words in different contexts and environments. Knowing "x" number of words does not do anyone any good if they only think of a word as one thing. It isn't. A word can mean many things, it collocates and is truly a camelion. Teach your students to appreciate this.

This video - though dated, is fascinating. What is a word. I'll leave things at that.....nothing is certain in our field and I enjoy this marvelous feature of language!

PS. you might also try this test of the most frequent 100 words of English. Here's my presentation of them all (use with your students)

PPS. If you want to test your student's vocabulary size - you can't go wrong with Paul Nation's short tests. Also, see THIS DISCUSSION for many vocab. teaching resources including this Vocab size test - to find where your students rank (Korean version in the previous link).

Views: 12

Tags: Paul_Nation, corpus, nation, tests, vocabulary, words

Comment by Cristina Milos on March 16, 2010 at 2:35pm
David, stop thinking like me! I cannot add much since we do have similar ways of teaching :P (and teaching beliefs!)
Comment by Cristina Milos on March 16, 2010 at 2:38pm
Ha ha ha! Loved the pre- -suf (ix) dilemma!

Supporter
Comment by ddeubel on March 17, 2010 at 12:00am
Cristina,

Great minds think alike LOL! You could write some blog posts under my name, how about it? :) I'll try to think of something to comment on that might "get your goat" (meaning, rumple your feathers, raise some hairs - annoy you.....).

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