Tag: ELT TEFL TESOL Vocabulary Vocabulary lists word lists Julie Moore iatefl2018

Vocabulary lists: snog, marry, avoid? – A summary

I recently wrote a post for ELT Research Bites summarising a research article on ‘Is There a Core General Vocabulary? Introducing the New General Service List’, which introduced a new vocabulary list that, the authors propose, can inform vocabulary instruction in ELT. I thought undersdanding how such lists are put together would help teachers and writers make better decisions on how to use such vocabulary lists in their classrooms or materials. And so I was attracted to Julie Moore’s talk at IATEFL in Brighton, entitled “Vocabulary lists: snog, marry, avoid?” to see if my thinking was in line with others who are more knowledgeable than me in such things! Let me tell you more about what Julie said… 

To start, we got a useful reminder of what vocabulary lists are: published, standrdised lists of words, phrases or chunks, based on a certain frequency criteria and usually intened for use with students. Examples Julie gave included the GSL, Oxford 3000, and the Phrasal Verbs List. Some lists are more specialised, e.g. the AWL, and others take a slightly different approach in that they try to group vocabualary items into levels at which language learners can be expected to learn them (e.g. English Vocabulary Profile, GSE). 

Why are vocabulary lists useful? 

Julie explained that the items on the lists are selected based on certain principles (which depend on the list) and can thus form a principled basis for devising vocabulary teaching syllabi. For those of us working with the language, she said, they can be a useful tool for confirming our inuitions about the frequency of words and, in ELT, their level appropriacy. They mean we don’t have to start from scratch every time we wish to compose a vocabulary teaching syllabus or material, for example using corpora or other souces to collate data about words’ frequency before we select items for inclusion. Also in this context, if different people are working on different parts of a material or syllabus, for example, using a vocbulary list to guide the language used and presented can help maintain consistency across the parts. 


Not understanding the concept of vocabulary lists or the selection criteria and data used to compile them can make using them frustrating or even downright misleading! There are some key issues that can make compiling such vocabulary lists, and then working with them, problematic. Julie mentioned a few, such as decisions on what items to count for frequency (words, lemmas, chunks, word families?) and which sense of a polyseme to use for selection or level-categorisation. In Julie’s words, the nature of the English language is “messy” and contains numerous obstacles for anyone attempting to represent it in as straightforward a form as a list! As teachers, we also know that the progression of language learning is messy, too: it’s a non-linear porocess, including learning words for active and/or receptive use, which will therefore be difficult to tame into a list! Especially regarding lists like the GSE or EVP as ‘levelling tools’, Julie reminded us (though who could forget?) about differences between learners, for example their main language, which will also affect how easy they find certain vocabulary items – and which these lists cannot possibly take into account! 


Julie’s call to arms echoes my own sentiments: Do not blindly believe everything a vocabulary list seems to show you! They can be very helpful, if the right list is used wisely and for the right purpose! Vocabulary lists are one tool of many at our disposal when we need to make decisions on what to include in our syllabi, teaching or materials, alongside things such as dictionaries and our knowledge of the target learners. And the different lists were composed through different selection methodologies, from different data, and with different aims, making them more appropriate for certain purposes than others. So whether you ultimately decide to snog, marry or avoid the next handsome vocabulary list you meet, take your time to get to know it first!