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English vocabulary

Key developments in the teaching of English vocabulary during the mid 20th century



Vocabulary Selection Criteria

1960s-1970s approaches to vocabulary selection in English language teaching emphasized the following criteria:

  1. Frequency of use

  2. Which style/register? Speech or writing?

  3. Difficulty - appropriateness to level, learnability & teachability, memory load.

  4. Pedagogic value in terms of the use of the vocabulary items in delivering a structurally based syllabus: for example, volume 1 of Geoffrey Broughton's
    Success With English course [Penguin Books 1968], widely used in the late 1960s and early 1970s, introduced words such as "plane", "wing", "tail", "monkey" in the early stages, because they were easy for the artist to illustrate unambiguously and also facilitated the course's structural gradation when they were recycled. They were certainly not the most relevant or functional vocabulary items to present to most learners using semantic criteria.

By the 1980s, functional load or communicative need became a key criteria for vocabulary selection. By this time, syllabus guidelines were being developed by The Council of Europe. See Waystage 1990: (pre-intermediate level) and Threshold 1990 (intermediate level) syllabus specification, by J.A. Van Ek and J.L.M. Trim (originally published by Pergamon Press in 1979/1980; revised and corrected edition Cambridge University Press 1998). For more finely tuned specifications, better used for reference than as the basis of a working document, see:

Communicative Syllabus Design: A Sociolinguistic Model for Designing the Content of Purpose-Specific Language Programmes (Cambridge University Press 1981).

Course books based on 'the communicative approach' began to appear in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It would be a pretence to say that coursebook writers had not catered for learners' needs and language in use before. However, the 1980s saw the appearance of a few coursebooks which claimed to be "lexical" in their approach in a communicative sense. Not all succeeded. Some of these "lexically-based" coursebooks clearly lacked the structural thread which most learners and teachers required, and were never able to compete with the structurally based market leaders of the time such as Streamline English Departures [Oxford 1979].

The Collins Cobuild Project - Looking Up in Lexical Computing (Collins Cobuild dictionaries) - using large corpuses of authentic texts (both spoken and written) - provided excellent offshoots in terms of dictionaries and reference books (e.g. dictionaries of phrasal verbs). However, coursebooks offered as offshoots from this project enjoyed a limited shelf life.

Refusing 'to adapt texts to classroom use' on the basis of a narrow definition of 'authenticity'

The low popularity of course materials abandoning control of structure and vocabulary could be explained by the course designer's shortsightedness in defining authenticity. See Robert O'Neill's third proposition in Dogmas & Delusions in current EFL Methodology [May 1999]

The danger of lexical computing projects using authentic texts from all walks of life lies in the list of lexical items which is returned as the most frequent and therefore the most useful. You can end up with a very generalized bag of useful words, which are not especially useful in meeting the needs of language learners from non English backgrounds studying at the elementary level in UK cities or holiday resorts.

Setting difficulty-level (beginners and elementary)

The intuition of teachers working with these learners, informed by direct knowledge of the social spheres determining their immediate language needs (basic survival!), probably offers a better means of vocabulary selection, especially at lower levels of proficiency where vocabulary control is needed.

A teacher's attempt to simplify so that a beginner can have a chance of understanding can also be considered an authentic use of language in its own right. Both pedagogical and street environments can be included in the definition of what is authentic.

Setting 'priorities according to needs' (higher levels)

It is often stated that texts should be more authentic as learners progress to higher levels. However, English has an enormous vocabulary and contains several times the number of lexical items that any native speaker will manage to learn in their lifetime. Prioritising remains important in the selection of lesson content for more proficient second language learners. Many a poorly planned English lesson has been justified on the basis that learners are being given a chance to experience authentic materials.

A truly communicative language course will consider the learners' language needs. A language corpus containing entries from 'all walks of life' will not return the best list of lexical items to offer learners embarking on higher education in academic institutions, jobs in hospital wards or work in a UK dockyard. More recently, those involved in computational linguistics have categorized corpus data so that syllabus and lesson planners can focus vocabulary selection on particular occupational and social fields. There are now several concordancers (some available on Internet web sites) which allow users to target categories of corpus data which come closest to meeting their needs.


Material on this site to improve survival vocabulary at beginners and elementary level:

i. a graded reader for beginners


Materials on this site for higher level learners in need of more vocabulary for discussion of a wide range of topics:

ii. 28 crosswords and vocabulary themes for discussion classes at higher levels


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