Vocabulary Frequency and why it Matters
Dec 9, 2010 English Language Learning (ELL) 2950 Views
Vocabulary frequency is how frequently a word occurs in spoken and written English. It is important because words, which occur more frequently, are more useful to know than words, which occur less frequently. This simple intuitive idea is very often overlooked in teaching and in material design.
In order to understand a text, written or spoken, it is necessary to have an adequate vocabulary. Vocabulary knowledge is the most important thing for comprehension of a text. Grammar is also important but students can make pretty good guesses at the grammatical relationships of words if they understand the vocabulary. In order to have adequate vocabulary to comprehend a text scholars estimate it is necessary to know between 95-98% of the running words in a text. The percent of words a student knows in a text is known as vocabulary coverage. Words with a high frequency will help students get an adequate vocabulary coverage of a variety of texts more than words which occur less frequently
We know intuitively that a word like dog occurs more frequently in English than a word like eviscerate. Now we have done research on corpera of written and spoken English, which can confirm our intuitions and give us information on the most frequent words of English. As it turns out about 7 percent of the words in all English discourse are the word “the”. The first most frequent 100 words represent around 50 percent of English and include many function words like “to” and “and”. The most frequent 1000 words make up a whopping 75 percent of the words in English discourse. The words that are from 7000 to 8000th most frequent by contrast make up less than 1% of the words in English.
If you are asking how can my student learn these wonderful high frequency words than there are a couple of options. The first is to learn them from the General Service List or GSL as it’s often referred to. This list is available online for free and can be found with a simple google search. Students can learn the most frequently occurring words they don’t know through flashcards. The second option is to use graded readers. Graded readers are books, which are designed to use the most frequently occurring fundamental vocabulary of English. This will help supply a context for the words students learn through word cards. If used appropriately, learning from the GSL and graded readers can complement each other well. The word cards help students to learn new words and to advance to more difficult graded readers, and the graded readers help provide context and practice for the new words which student learn.
In terms of classroom teaching it is important for teachers to use their intuition about new vocabulary as it comes up in the class. If the word is obviously very rare than the teacher should skip over it or spend only minimal time on the word. Students also can be directed to think about the frequency of new words they meet and consider learning rare words later and focusing on frequent words they don’t know.