Updated Jan 24, 2000

Some possible uses and misuses of these lists.

First a bit of theory and perspective.

Clearly there is some return for learning the most frequent words of a language first as these are the words which learners will meet often. The problem is how does one start to learn / teach these words.

There are two main ways - direct and indirect. Direct learning is the conscious intentional study of the words one by one in a decontextualized setting such as from a list or on slips of paper / word cards. Indirect exposure to these words would come from simplified or graded reading or listening or some way where the focus is on the message rather then the words - that is new words are met by accident in a sense. The contextual method of exposure to new words would hope the learner would notice the words in context unintentionally and learn the new word. Thus meeting a new word is a product of the focus on the message.

The obvious problem for beginning learners is that in order for them to guess new words successfully from context they need huge visual or auditory support and/or they need to know about 98% of the words around it. Recent research has shown that 2 words in 100 can be unknown for a learner to successfully and reliably guess the meaning of new words from context. Many beginning learners would be very lucky to be near this level. I would suggest that beginners are exposed to texts that are well beyond the 98% known word level. Successful guessing from context is not so likely unless enough other support is given and the learner has learned how to guess from context well.

Therefore I suggest beginning learners should learn the first 1000 words decontextually as one cannot do or say very much without words especially at the beginning stages. It needs to be balanced with huge amounts of supplementary simplified reading and simplified listening to cement these words into meaningful contexts. This supplement will increase word access speed, recall and recognition of words from the vocabulary networks in the brain and lessen the load on memory leaving space for other things. If a learner can recognize words fast and efficiently it is then possible to move to the recognition of sets of words (which convey a meaning rather than are isolated words). This means the learner is working with ideas (a set of words) rather then be dependant on words, she thus understands and remembers more. Without the development of enormous practice and fluency exercises the moving from the word to the idea level will come only slowly.

When these primary and most important words are well known (and any that are directly relevant to the learners need) the teacher can then start to focus on guessing from context exercises which then take over as the PRIMARY vocabulary building activity. Guessing from context before then may not be of help to the learner as I mentioned above. Guessing from context needs huge amounts of work not just a lesson here or there. It must be done often, thoroughly and well.

Some uses of the lists.

1 As a learner reference.

One obvious use of these list would be as a reference for the student. If she meets a new word she can look at the list to see if the newly discovered word is on her list and thus see if it is 'worth' learning now or spending time on it later. Many learner dictionaries now provide frequency data for that reason too.

2 As a teacher resource.

A teacher can also see if a word is worth teaching now. Clearly subjective impression is going to be valuable here as well.

3 As a word list for writing graded or simplified readers.

A writer can use these lists to check against when writing basal or graded readers.

4 To learn from - list learning and decontextualized learning.
I would like to spend some time discussing the ins and outs of this in some detail. It's an important and often misunderstood area.

Some words about decontextualized learning (e.g. Learning from lists or from cards.

List learning and decontextualized learning has a connotation for being tiresome, slow and downright unhelpful for language learners. An oft heard argument is that language learners should learn their vocabulary in context, with its collocates and associates and so on. This is certainly valid - words do need to be learned in context. However it is not the whole argument.

An important concept to understand about decontextualized learning is that when you learn a word in a decontextualized way you are only STARTING TO LEARN IT. It is the first part of learning a word or phrase. At this stage usually you have only enough knowledge to recognize the word or produce it in isolation in very predictable situations. The building up of connotations, collocations, associations and so on can be helped by context and specific vocabulary activities. This is the next stage. It is here that context from reading / listening and so on can be of enormous benefit.

Decontextualized learning is efficient.

Research has shown that learning words out of context is fast and efficient especially when used with mnemonic techniques. Average learners can 'learn' 30 to 40 words per hour. Good learners much more. It may sound unbelievable but the research is there and there is a solid body of evidence to support this view. Even the proponents of learning from context concede the superiority of direct intentional study. But a better / worse dichotomy misses the point. Decontextualized learning is useful for fast initial learning, while learning from context expands, extends, deepens and broadens the initial stage.

More benefits come to more decontextualized learning is done.

Many people believe that we have a limited brain capacity. Following this argument would lead us to say we can only store X number of new words and that the more decontextualized learning is done at one time, the less the return for each additional span of time spent learning. This is not true actually. Research has found that people start to get in a groove and learn to learn. The more decontextualized learning is done, the better the results especially if you use mnemonics or imagery techniques. That is a person may learn 40 words in the first hour, then 50 words in the second, 70 in the third. This is because the person is getting better at remembering words and mnemonics. I do not suggest that a 1000 continuous hours of study means you can learn a whole dictionary though!

Problems to avoid in decontextualized learning.


1 Don't give words in alphabetical lists when learners are learning the word receptively. This is called serial learning. As the learner is going down the list to the next one she subconsciously knows it is near the previous one alphabetically and that it differs by just a few characters and thus the learner is primed to recall it because of the previous item.

2 Don't give word in semantic sets especially to beginners. There is strong evidence that doing so will hinder learning because the learner will see the words as too similar and lave to not only learn them but learn to keep the similar words separate. This may sound odd to many teachers as associations and learning words in sets is de rigueur in our classrooms - building networks and all that. Well, the evidence suggests that for learners who have not already set up a vocabulary network in their new language for a particular vocabulary area (such as fruits, animals, thinks on a desk etc.) that starting learning these words in sets is harmful. Wait until a rudimentary network has been set up and then uses associations and add words from the semantic set then. It will avoid the above mentioned problem.

3 Don't give lists of words to learn from. When a learner learns from a list she goes down the list one by one spending time on words she does not know and wasting time on words she has already learned. Presenting words out of lists (individually) for conscious intentional study will avoid this waste of time. Of course you can give them a list of words to look up and create their own method of learning.

So how can you do it?

To avoid the above problems, present list of words to learn in a jumbled manner (not from semantic sets to beginners) or not in lists at all. Get the learner to copy them on to individual slips of paper with the English word on one side and the translation / definition / picture or whatever on the other. That way the words can be learnt receptively or productively in any order and with each word getting the attention and time it deserves. See below for an exact description.

A word of warning here. Do not think that I mean that each English word has an exact equivalent in the second language and that translation is the answer. It is one of many useful tools and can be informative especially at the beginning stages of learning each word. It must be remembered that the teacher must point out differences where they are important and communication breakdowns may happen.

A second word of warning. This system does not suit all learners nor teachers. Use it if you feel it will work. Try it yourself with a language you want to learn. Try learning 100 words and see how long it takes., was it efficient, did you remember them well, what was the rate of forgetting? Discuss with your student first how they like to learn.

An idea how to present to words - the hand held computer.

An article by Mondria and Mondria De Vries in 1994 (Efficiently Memorizing Words with the Help of Word Cards and Hand Computer: Theory and Applications. System. 22 (1): 47-57) describes a 'hand held computer' which is an efficient way to recall and study words decontextually. Basically it is like a shoe box divided into sections. Individual word cards are put into the sections. New words are put at the front.. When they are learned the are put into the section behind. When all the words are learned the learner then takes out all the words from section two and tries to remember them. If successful the card goes to section 3, if not it goes back to section 1, and so on. The clever part about this design is that the sections get deeper the further from the front. The first section is say 3 cm, the second section 4 cm the next 6 and so on. This is purposely done so that the relatively few new words near the front are learnt quickly as a set as there are not many of them. This allows the learner to look again soon at section 2 - the next words to learn/recall just at about when studies have found we start to forget. The timing is critical for repetition / meeting before the danger time for forgetting comes along. We forget most information quickly so we need to focus on it again quickly and get regular attention within a few minutes, within an hour or so, the next day, three days later and the following week. This all aids long term retention. The size of these sections and the amount of words in each section determine how long it will be until the next batch need focussing on. Read the article it is very informative.

The obvious complaint will be the time it takes to make all the cards. Well yes, but think how quickly you can learn. And many people 'have to write it down' anyway. They are transportable and you can keep a set with you for learning at all times. When you meet a new word or phrase, if you keep a set of cards in your pocket you can make a new card each time you meet a new word or phrase.

Another benefit of this system is that you can actually SEE how much you have learnt. You can measure it, set targets and so on.

If you would like to comment on what I have said please feel free to do so and I will refer you to the relevant research.

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