Vocab tip: F is for Frequency

Target high frequency words to boost your vocabulary learning.

Learning vocabulary can often feel demotivating as there  are just so many words in the English language. How do you know which ones to learn?

You could aim to learn all the words in the English language but as English has over  80-100,000 word families that is something even native speakers wouldn’t attempt! Alternatively you could try to learn as many words as a typical native speaker. The best estimate is that a well educated native speaker knows something like 20,000 word families, having learned a thousand a year up to the age of 20. This might be achievable but would take you a long time.

Luckily academic researchers have found a third way. They’ve done this by looking at how much vocabulary you need to know in order to do certain things e.g. read a newspaper or watch a movie. Research by Paul Nation, the vocabulary learning expert, suggests that you need to know 98% of the words in a text in order to be able to understand it without having to use a dictionary. To be able to do this you need to know the most frequently used:

  • 8-9000  words to understand a fictional novel
  • 8-9000 words to understand a newspaper
  • 7000 words to understand a children’s movie (e.g. Shrek)
  • 6-7000 to understand conversational English
  • 5000 words to understand books for younger readers e.g. Alice in Wonderland
  • 3000 to understand a graded reader (a book simplified for language learners)

Other researchers agree that knowledge of 98% of the words would be best but suggest that 95% may be sufficient, with occasional help from a dictionary. This would reduces the number of words required to understand a conversation to between 2-3000 word families and a novel to between 4-5000 words.

So, based on the research what goals should you set yourself in order to keep motivated?:

  1. Target high frequency words – these words will  jump start your vocabulary and  learning them should be one of your most urgent tasks.  In the case of English, for example, 3000 words cover almost 90% of the words you’ll encounter.
  2. Specialise – after you learn 3-4000 high frequency words move on to learning vocabulary that is specific to your field of interest e.g. use the Academic Word List if you are a student or focus on football words if you love watching soccer games. This specialisation will help you understand texts in your field faster.
  3. Gradually add in mid-frequency words – these are key to using vocabulary outside your specialism and research suggests that reading alone does not expose you to these words sufficiently to ensure you remember them. A motivating way of setting goals for the mid-frequency words in the 4-9000 range for English might be to break them into five bands of 1000 and have a BIG celebration when you break through each band!

More A-Z of vocabulary tips.

The size of the words in the image at the top of this page are based on the relative frequency of words in this post based on word frequency data from COCA.

A reassessment of frequency and vocabulary size in L2 vocabulary teaching. Norbert Schmitt  & Diane Schmitt (2012)

Lexical Coverage in L1 and L2 Listening Comprehension: The Same or Different from Reading Comprehension? Hilde van Zeeland* and Norbert Schmitt* (2012)

Lexical threshold revisited: Lexical text coverage, learners’ vocabulary size and reading comprehension. Laufer and Ravenhorst-Kalovski (2010)

How large a vocabulary is needed for reading and listening? Paul Nation (2006)

What vocabulary size is needed to read unsimplified texts for pleasure? Hirsh & Nation (1992)

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