Teaching Vocabulary

by F Haseeb

Question: Which words should be taught at three levels i.e. elementary, intermediate and advanced? Are there any rules for this?

Answer: There are no strict rules for this, but there are some general guidelines. For many people this will be more or less taken care of by the coursebook. If you don't have a coursebook, then you could use a word list of the most commonly used words in English. You could also add an specialist words that your students may need or be especially interested in.

The English language has a large number of words, and there are no certain answers to how many; only approximations. The Webster's New International dictionary has 114,000 word families. Names are not included in this count. Most native speakers know about 20,000 word families - see Learning Vocabulary in Another Language (Cambridge Applied Linguistics). The usual recommendation made by researchers is that the most common 2,000 words are taught. Many graded readers are based on these kinds of lists.

The classic of these lists is Michael West's 'General Service List.' There are also more modern word counts, but they tend to be similar. I think that it's important to focus on these words, as they are so common.

After this you have more specialized vocabulary, which may be very useful in specific situations. However, unless your students are going to be in these situations a lot, it may not be worth teaching them. Specialized vocabularies include academic vocabulary, which many students need. The University of Wellington has a lot of resources if you're more interested in vocabulary teaching. There are also tests to check the level of your students' vocabulary.

There is another, easier, way to do this - which is what most people do. That is to rely on published coursebooks and graded readers. If you choose well - and use books which have themselves followed word lists for the most frequent words, then you should be alright.

In general I avoid obscure words, unless they are of particular interest to my students. If your students have particular interests, then I think it's fine to teach them some of the more specialized vocabulary they want. Not forgetting the most frequent words - of course.

If you teach children, then there are some sets of vocabulary which always seem to interest them: animals, toys and food are just a few.

If you mix commonsense with some research on the most frequent words, then I think you can't go wrong.

Read more on vocabulary in these articles:


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