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Teaching vocabulary to L2 learners
by Kendall Peet
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Productive language

As a general rule of thumb, teachers need to ask themselves, when selecting vocabulary to focus on in class, “Is this vocabulary of practical use to the students?” which is to say, “Can the students use this vocabulary in their everyday lives?” If the answer is yes, then more than likely this vocabulary can be classified as productive vocabulary. Alternatively, you could follow the advice of Beglar and Hunt, who advise starting with the GSL (General Service List), which lists the 2000 most frequently used words in the English language; (3) which is, consequently, the same number of words that native speakers use in their daily conversation. (4) A sound knowledge of the word families in the GSL will, therefore, provide an excellent platform from which to achieve oral fluency and at the same time will enable the learners to understand nine out of ten words in most written texts. (5) This last point is extremely important when viewed in the light of comments made by Liu and Nation, who indicate that a 95% coverage of any given text is required if students are to guess new words from context.(6) It is vital, therefore, in the interests of learner autonomy, that students acquire what Thornbury refers to as the core vocabulary. (7)

Analysing Text Using Computer Technology

The quickest way to work out which vocabulary in a given text is in the 0-1000 and 1001-2000 frequency range is to cut and paste a given text into one of the many text analysing programs available on the internet. These programs dissect the text into word frequency groups, which you can then use in class, according to the level and needs of your class. Below are two websites that you can use for this purpose:

Alternatively, you can download a program called Range from Paul Nation’s Victoria University webpage. However, this program requires time getting used and so if you are not computer savvy, I would recommend that you use the websites listed above.

Vocabulary for Specific Purposes

In addition to the core vocabulary, teachers may also need to take into account the special needs of learners. This is especially true for teachers teaching an ESP class, where the learners, who may be lawyers, doctors, accountants, or any other group learning English for a specific job or purpose, have special vocabulary needs. In the same way teachers also need to consider the differing general needs of the learners in a specific country. There would, for example, appear to be little point teaching snow specific lexical items, such as black run, waxing or edging skis, bindings, moguls, or t-bar to businessmen in Dubai who have little interest in skiing. There would, however, be good reason to teach words relating to trade and financial transactions, such as import and export, contract, terms and conditions, and current rate of exchange. Therefore, in deciding which vocabulary to focus on in class, teachers must first look to the needs of their students before turning to the GSL or other such lists to be used in combination with select word families and lexical groups.

3. The GSL was first formulated by West in 1953 and has since been revised by Nation. It is available both in order of frequency and alphabetically. It is also possible to find frequency words lists in other sizes such as 500, 1000, 3000, etc. This list are readily available on the internet. Just type in “English words”, and “vocabulary list.”
4. Beglar, D. & Hunt, A. January, 1998.
5. Thornbury, S. 2002. p. 21
6. Liu and Nation. 1985.
7. Thornbury, S. 2002. It is of interest to note that the most frequent 100 words in English make up almost 50 percent of most texts.

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