Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Word Frequency Lists

It has been really helpful to participate in an online book group while reading Ken Folse's book Vocabulary Myths.  I have started to get to know a few other teachers (always a plus), gotten ideas from them and the moderator, and the discussion questions motivated me to read each chapter again (sometimes several times).

I can tell that I'm in the process of learning, because every time I sit down to blog about my experience, I end up writing a long and unfinished piece!  I'm trying to relate what I've read to my current understanding and experience and there are whole subtopics out there that I really don't understand yet (how to use corpora, for example)!

Speaking of corpora, I've notices that many vocabulary resources make a statement something like this:
The 4,000 most common English words account for 80% of words in a typical text.  
This is usually followed by a recommendation that these 4,000 words be the foundation upon which learners build their vocabulary knowledge.  I don't disagree with this.  Since we can't begin to teach every word a learner needs to know, using a frequent words list can help us make choices. But statements like the above bother me.

In the chapter on using translations while learning vocabulary, Folse make the point that each meaning of a word could be thought of as a different word.  He notes that "take medicine" is not the same as "take a shower" and proposes that these expressions be taught as separate "words" (Ch. 4, p. 65):
When using translations for learning new vocabulary, learners and teachers need to remember that a word is not always a single word but rather a chunk of several words and that is what needs to be translated. (the author's italics)
As far as I can tell, the researchers who calculate word coverage don't distinguish between different semantic uses of each word. If "off" only rates a single entry on this list, then its use as a preposition may be "covered" but not all of the shades of meaning that it brings to phrasal verbs.  Modals, too, affect meaning depending on the words they travel with. And, of course, most "regular" words have more than one meaning.  Consider "brush": an implement with bristles, vegetation, an action.  Indeed, some of the most common words (make, get, and put are among the top 100) can generate a half-page or more of elaboration in a good dictionary.
thanks to Jaboney*
If most strings of characters that are counted as words have several to many meanings, then teaching one meaning for each of the 4,000 most common strings will not bring a learner anywhere near 80% "coverage".   (It occurs to me that native speakers who are learning to read probably already know the meanings of many words. Their challenge would be much smaller than that of English language learners.)

I'd like to reiterate that I think lists of common words are useful tools for both teachers and learners.  I guess what I'm concerned about is that "facts" such as the above can be very attractive to administrators looking for ways to measure success.  But when it comes to English language learners, I don't think "coverage" is so easily defined!

* image changed to one that's more clearly "free"

No comments:

Post a Comment