The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, April 23, 2018

IATEFL2018: Vocabulary lists: snog, marry, avoid?

At the recent IATEFL conference in Brighton, I gave a talk as part of the MaWSIG showcase about the way wordlists are used (and misused), especially in writing ELT materials and some of the issues that writers need to be aware of.

Below is an overview of my key points and also links to some of the references and tools I mentioned. I've embedded links in the post, but also repeated them all at the end, so if you came to the talk and just want the links, feel free to scroll down.

What do I mean by a wordlist?
My talk was about the kind of standardized wordlists that have been put together according to some criteria (typically frequency and usefulness for learners) and then published with the aim of being used as a basis for deciding which vocabulary to prioritize in teaching. There are loads of wordlists out there, but I mentioned just a few of the most well-known:
Specialist lists: Academic Word List (AWL), Academic Vocabulary List (AVL), New AWL, discipline specific lists (e.g. for Engineering, Medicine, etc.)
Vocabulary level tools: These approach the task from a slightly different perspective. Instead of providing a limited list of target vocab, they instead classify items from a learner's dictionary according to the level at which learners are most likely to start using/need each item. I'm especially familiar with English Vocabulary Profile, EVP (from Cambridge) and there's also the Global Scale of English, GSE, vocab tool (from Pearson). Both online tools allow you to look up an item and check its suggested level based on the CEFR scale (A1, A2, B1 etc.)

Why are wordlists popular?
Given the huge variety of English vocabulary, it's not surprising that anything that gives teachers and materials writers a starting point and a guide to which items might be most useful to teach first is popular. Wordlists provide a principled basis for planning a vocab syllabus, backing up our intuitions about which words are most frequent and saving us from reinventing the wheel by having to research the frequency of each word as we go along. For publishers, they also help to ensure a consistent approach to vocab across a coursebook series, across different titles or between a group of writers all working on the same project; they provide a single lexical hymn-sheet for everyone to sing from, if you like.

Why you need to understand your list:
Whilst wordlists have an obvious appeal, especially for writers, I think it's really important to understand any list you plan to use before you get started. Understanding how a list was put together, what the aims of the list compilers were, what criteria they used to select items and what data they used is vital. To take the academic wordlist (AWL) as an example:

  • It aims to identify general academic vocab, so it excludes items that only appear in specific disciplines, such as science or medicine, and focuses on words common across a range of disciplines. So if you're teaching ESP/ESAP, you'll need to supplement it with relevant subject-specific vocab.
  • It's based on data from published academic writing, not from student writing. That means it provides a good guide to the vocab students might need to know receptively (i.e. for reading), which might not necessarily be quite the same as what they need productively, for their own writing. See Durrant (2016) for an interesting look at what proportion of an academic wordlist student writers actually need.
  • The AWL excludes items on the GSL based on the premise that EAP students will have already 'learnt' this core general vocabulary. That doesn't, however, take into account any gaps in students' general vocab knowledge or that many of those general words are absolutely vital for academic writing and are often used in a way that might not be entirely predictable and students might not have already encountered. That's not necessarily a criticism of the list (you've got to draw the line somewhere), but it does mean that as a writer, you might want to include some of that off-list vocab in your syllabus.

And it's not just the AWL this applies to, all wordlists have their own quirks and limitations and unless you understand what these are, you're not going to get the best out of the list or understand what gaps you might need to fill. See the links at the bottom of this post for some places you can learn more about different lists.

User beware:

Issue 1: The nature of English
One issue with trying to chivvy words into a nice, neat list is that English is a messy beast and words are slippery little suckers! 

Multiple meanings: English is a highly polysemous language, that is, many words have multiple meanings. For example, a table can be a piece of furniture (very much an elementary word) or it can be a graphic representation of data in rows and columns (definitely a less frequent sense). Most lists don't differentiate between senses, leaving the user to guess which sense is the core one that should be taught and whether they should stretch to other senses or not. Lists such as EVP and GSE do give levels for different senses (so EVP has table=furniture as A1 and table=chart as B1), but if you put your text through a text-checking tool such as Text Inspector or VocabKitchen, it'll show the level for the basic, most frequent sense only. So in the phrase "the data in the table above", table would be highlighted as A1.

What is a word: Most lists deal in lemmas, that is a single part of speech and its associated inflections (so speak, speaks, spoke, spoken, speaking is one lemma). Some lists, such as the AWL, take the word family as their basic unit, that takes in all the words from a single root, including different parts of speech and prefixes (develop, development, developing, developmental, underdeveloped, etc.). This makes sense in an EAP context where being able to switch between parts of speech is a key skill for student writers, but deciding which members of a word family to focus on also requires a bit of common sense. You might, for example, decide to skip disestablishment as part of the establish word family!

Chunks: Most frequency-based wordlists tend to focus on individual words, simply because even the most common phrases or formulaic expressions (at least, in the first place, etc.) just don't make it in on frequency criteria alone. However, language chunks make up somewhere between 30-50% of any text, so they're clearly a really important part of vocabulary learning. This has two implications for writers (and teachers); firstly, you may want to supplement your wordlist with some useful chunks (such as those on the phrasal expressions list or just collocations to go with your key words) and again, you need to take chunks into account if you're using text-checkers - the chunk 'in the first place' will be shown as a sequence of A1 single words rather than being recognized as a fixed expression (ranked as B2 on EVP).

Issue 2: The nature of language learning
Similarly, language learning is a messy, non-linear sort of process, that isn't as simple as ticking words off a list and declaring them 'learnt'. Wordlists make it all too easy to fall into this trap though. Many's the time I've been told by an editor that I can't include a word in a vocab activity because it's already been 'covered' at a previous level ... and as Dorothy Zemach put it so brilliantly in her plenary "We can't have a student see a word twice!". Most research agrees that vocab learning requires repeated exposures to a word. Of course, I understand where my editors are coming from and there are other ways of recycling vocabulary without having to have the same words pop up as the vocab focus time and again, but it's still an important factor to bear in mind.

There's also the issue of whether a word is going to be most useful for a student at any particular stage for receptive purposes (i.e. we just want them to recognize and understand it when they comes across it) or whether we expect them to be able to use it productively. A lot of words will start off in a student's receptive vocab and then gradually shift into their productive repertoire. Some words will get stuck in reception even though we'd like them to move on. And others can quite happily stay as receptive only ... I know plenty of words that I understand but will probably never feel the need to use. Again, understanding whether a list is suggesting words for receptive or productive use at a particular level is vital. So, EVP, for example, aims to describe vocab that students are using productively at certain levels (based in large part on what students are writing in Cambridge exams). So if a word is labelled B1, then B1 students are already confident enough to use it in their exam writing. That means they probably became familiar with it receptively quite some time before. And if I want to include a word in a reading text in a B1 book, as receptive vocab, choosing an item marked as B2 will be entirely appropriate.

Issue 3: The nature of learners
Finally, learners don't form the single homogenous audience that universal wordlists suggest they might be with an equal number and range of vocab learning gaps to be filled.

L1 plays an important role in vocab learning, with learners from L1s that share a history with English (Romance languages, Greek, Germanic languages) having a head start when it comes to certain words because they're close cognates in their first language. For example, a word like diurnal may seem 'difficult', but if you're an Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese or Romanian student of animal behaviour, you'll probably recognize it right away. Whereas your German-speaking peer will probably have to look it up to find it's translation (tagaktiv).

Age, interests, location and language needs will also play a role in exactly which vocab items are relevant to any given student. Yes, they'll probably all find a common core useful, but they'll want words to describe the things that are important or helpful to them and their context too. When I was learning French at school, I wanted to know all the cool, teenage slang, nowadays I'd be more likely to want vocab to describe my garden. Anyone using English in an ESP context is likely to need apparently low-frequency, specialist terms, sometimes quite early on in the language learning process.

Language level makes a difference too. Whilst most linguists agree on a common core of the more frequent couple of thousand words or so which might sustain a learner up to, say, intermediate level, beyond that, frequency statistics become less reliable and less useful. As you start to investigate lower frequency words, the range of similar-frequency items suddenly explodes and exactly which words you choose to teach will inevitably have to be guided more by usefulness for particular groups of learners than by simple frequency, making wordlists a much less reliable guide for higher level learners.

Wordlists: snog, marry, avoid?
So, if wordlists are so flawed, should we be bothering with them at all? Well, personally, I'm not going to be dumping them just yet because they are still undoubtedly an incredibly useful tool. But they're just that, a tool, to be used like any other reference resource we might turn to, as just one part of the mix, with full knowledge of their idiosyncratic quirks, taking into account all the factors I've mentioned here and always applying a solid dose of common sense.


These are the most useful links I've found for each list. Most give the background to the list and the list itself.
General Service List (West, 1953)
New GSL (Browne, et. al, 2013)
Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000)
Academic Vocabulary List  (Gardner & Davies, 2013)
New AWL (2013)
Phrasal Expressions List (Martinez &Schmitt, 2012) 
Phrasal Verbs List (Garnier & Schmitt, 2015) 
Global Scale of English vocab tool (Pearson) - for background to the vocab tool, click on Developing the GSE Vocabulary on the Research & Expertise page 
See also Mura Nava's excellent list of wordlists for many more lists and links, including many of the specialist ESP lists. 

Text analysis tools:
Text Inspector - a paid tool with several analysis options (including EVP and AWL)
VocabKitchen - a free tool with CEFR and AWL options
Lextutor - a free tool with several analysis options, but not the most user-friendly interface  

Other references:

Durrant, P. (2016) To what extent is the Academic Vocabulary List relevant to university student writing? English for Specific Purposes 43
Working with wordlists - a blog post I wrote for the MaWSIG blog a couple of years ago

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