TD: teaching vocabulary – beyond the top 2,000 words

Picture of the Wordled text of this post
I’ve recently written about the importance of corpora to vocabulary learning – specifically, the value of word frequency lists, like those provided by the British National Corpus. By focussing in class on the 2,000 word families which occur most frequently in English texts, at least with beginning to intermediate-level students, a teacher can enable their class to understand more of English language texts than they would otherwise, simply because words from the top 2,000 word families are likely to occur more often in them than other words.

To give you an idea of how useful word frequency lists can be to language learners and their teachers, Marcella Hsueh-chao and Paul Nation (2000) found 84.3% of all words used in their samples of English conversation came from the first 1,000 word families of the General Service List (GSL), with a further 6% coming from the second 1,000 word families from that list; while 82.3% and 71.4% of all words from their samples of fiction and academic texts came from the top 1,000 word families in the GSL. Clearly, there is value in prioritising the learning of these words in class.

However, teaching by such frequency lists will not usually be enough for adequate, unaided comprehension of a spoken or written text, and it will not always be appropriate. Defining “adequate comprehension” as equivalent to achieving 12 out of 14 (or 86%) on multiple-choice and cued written comprehension tests, Hsueh-chao and Nation found that test subjects needed to understand, on average, about 98% of the words they encountered in a text in order to achieve this score (Hsueh-chao and Nation, 2000). Yet, in their sample of spoken English conversation, 9.7% of words used fell outside the words on the GSL, while 9.3% of the words in their collection of novels for younger readers, 10.9% of the words in their fiction texts and 13.9% of words in their sample of academic texts were not in the GSL or the Academic Word List. From my own experiments with the VocabProfile program, between 10% and 15% of words from the BBC news site usually fall outside these frequency lists as well.

The moral so far might be to focus on the most common words of English with lower levels, and broaden one’s focus with higher level language classes (say, upper-intermediate and above). However, as I mentioned in my last post on teaching vocabulary, these lists may well have to be adapted with lower-level classes where these are geared towards a specific purpose (such as business English or English for hotel staff), rather than towards general understanding. Furthermore, there seems a strong connection between wanting to learn and successfully learning, so it seems that personalised lessons based around the students’ interests should affect what words are learnt, when they are learnt and in what context. Finally, word frequency lists represent the average (first) language speaker, and therefore nobody in particular: we are all idiosyncratic users of our own language to some extent, with our own small variations on the lists uncovered by the BNC and others, as well as our own favourite idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs. Whilst the GSL and other such lists are clearly important, I suggest it is also important that language learners come to find their own voice in their second language, and therefore that vocabulary acquisition should take into account learners’ values and intents, as well as the general utility of the words they encounter. Due to their commonality, many word families from the GSL will naturally occur in most English texts, whether spoken or written, and so in much classroom language as well; so, while we should simplify texts using tools like VocabProfile as and when necessary (particularly with lower-level learners) we should not feel constrained to teach only those word families from lists such as the GSL – as long as we focus mainly on those words with most beginning to intermediate-level students.

Here are two kinds of activity which focus on uncovering vocabulary the learners are already using in their first language, and which they find especially interesting or useful. The first comes from my brother Owen, who is also a TEFL teacher, and the second is something I used with a beginner-level student I had, who was very interested in music and wanted to be able to talk about it in English. There are many more such lessons on this site under the tag “vocabulary”.

One approach: translation

This activity would work well either in one-to-one classes, or with small groups of students who are all learning English for the same, specific purpose. It aims to uncover the second-language vocabulary the learners need for a particular kind of text by focussing on the words they already use to produce it in their first language.

  • Choose a text-type which your learners are proficient at using in their first language, and which they would like to be able to use in English. This could be a stock email they often send, a typical work-related phone call, a conversation about who will win the local football league, and so on.
  • Ask your learners to recall the last time they wrote or spoke about this in their first language, then ask them to write what they remember writing, or their conversation, only this time in English. Ask them to write not only the words they used (they’re welcome to invent what they can’t remember), but also their thoughts as they were speaking or writing, again in English.
  • You might want to allow about twenty minutes for this writing task; and circulate and help with language as your students are writing their texts. It would also be a good idea to provide first- to second-language translation dictionaries for this task.
  • When they’ve finished, you could ask your learners to read their English texts aloud; and ask listening students to help correct any errors they hear.

This idea could be related back to the GSL in the following ways:

  1. With beginner and elementary-level students, the teacher could collect their texts at the end, type or copy them into VocabProfile and find synonyms for the less frequent words and expressions. The teacher could then copy the original text into a word processing program, creating a gapfill with the simplified expressions as clues. In a later lesson that week, the students could work together or alone to match the words or expressions to the gaps in the text, and to use these words as clues to find the original expressions. In subsequent lessons, the students’ texts could be revisited again (either in simplified or original forms): students could be given copies with every third word removed, or minus all articles and prepositions, and asked to recreate the text; they might be given some key words from their texts and asked to use them in a different context (such as a story, a letter, or a conversation between friends); and so on.
  2. Pre-intermediate and intermediate-level students could create their own simplified texts via VocabProfile, as long as their teacher was on-hand to help out as required: in this way, they are learning how to take charge of their own vocabulary development in English, which can be motivating in itself. Again, teacher and students should work further with the students’ simplified or original texts.

By returning to the top 2,000 word families with beginning to intermediate-level students, we are allowing them to work both with less frequent words which they or their teacher have generated, and with more frequent occurrences, so they can develop their own idiosyncratic vocabulary in English.

A couple of questions to ponder:

  • What levels of proficiency in English is the above activity best suited to? Could you use it with all learner levels?
  • How could you adapt the initial writing task above into more of a whole-class or group activity, rather than one for students working on their own?

A second approach: uncovering language through pictures

This is based on a lesson I had with a beginner student who really loved the music of Amy Winehouse (this was before she sadly died). I’ve adapted it for use with groups of students, rather than just one. Note that, while the activity mentions “music”, really this word is just a cipher which can be replaced by anything your students are especially interested in, and would like to be able to discuss in English.

Amy Winehouse pic

  1. Board a picture of Amy Winehouse (or whatever/whoever is the object of your students’ interest); and elicit some vocabulary related to the picture (draw a question mark on the board or elicit 5 things your students like about whatever is depicted).
  2. Board your students’ sentences, helping them correct any mistakes. Ask your students to take turns saying these sentences, helping and getting other students to help with pronunciation.
  3. Ask your students to close their eyes, then remove one or two words from each sentence. Ask your students to open their eyes and elicit the missing words. Ask your students to say the sentences (including the missing words) again. Repeat this activity, removing more words from the board each time, until the sentences have all gone.
  4. Nominate different students to write the sentences back on the board. This time, elicit corrections for any spelling or other errors. Then ask your students to make open questions using the sentences as prompts (e.g., if the sentence was “Amy Winehouse is my favourite singer”, the question might be “Who is your favourite singer?”). You can help your students form these questions, which should not ask for exactly the information on the board (so, if the sentence was “She lived in Camden, in London”, the question shouldn’t be “Where did Amy Winehouse live?” but rather something like “Where does/did your favourite singer live?”).
  5. Ask your students to mingle and ask each other the boarded questions. As they do so, circulate and note down their language and, perhaps, intonation patterns when asking and answering questions, all for subsequent feedback with the whole class. Alternatively, as your students are talking, board some useful sentences they said or almost said, and work through their pronunciation afterwards, perhaps also asking your students to say who they think said these sentences.
  6. If you like, you could ask your students to work in groups or pairs to use the language from their feedback in a new context – perhaps by using the boarded sentences in an interview or short story about whatever was originally depicted.

Some questions about this second activity type:

  • How could it be valuable for beginner/low-elementary level students?
  • Could it be adapted for use with higher-level students?
  • How could the vocabulary it generates be recycled?
  • How might the idea be extended or transformed into a series of lessons, or even a short course? If it does form the basis of a short course, should it be supplemented with other work, and if so what other work and how should it be supplemented?

Finally, a couple of questions about both of the activities above: how can they be used to encourage students to develop their own English-language personalities? And what would be the advantages and disadvantages of encouraging them to do so?


Hsueh-chao, Marcella and Nation, Paul, Unknown Vocabulary Density and Reading Comprehension (link to text in .pdf form), in Reading in a Foreign Language, 13(1), 2000.
Race,Phil, How does learning happen best?, on the website of the London Metropolitan University.

One thought on “TD: teaching vocabulary – beyond the top 2,000 words

  1. Simon – Thank you for sharing that long, detailed, and practical collection of vocabulary expansion activities. I share both your conviction that we need to prioritize vocabulary words – and move far beyond a core 2,000 words. Many of my high intermediate and advanced English language learners – in an elite American university – still struggle to manipulate the vocabulary that they have learned. Sometimes it’s more important to “remind” students to change nouns and verbs to adjectives and adverbs than bombard them with new words. Likewise, focusing on strengthening their working vocabulary by tailoring lessons to fit their personal interests- and requiring them to practice writing questions – often allows them to “hit beyond their weight”. Motivation, as the cliche goes, often matters most.

    Thank you, again, for sharing that long post which I just stumbled upon this evening. The article, however, remains evergreen.

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