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Teaching Vocabulary

By: Linda Diamond, Linda Gutlohn





Consider some excellent lesson models for teaching vocabulary, explaining idioms,
fostering word consciousness, instruction for English Language Learners, and
mnemonic strategies.
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Linking the Language: A Cross-Disciplinary Vocabulary Approach
Vocabulary is the knowledge of words and word meanings. As Steven Stahl (2005)
puts it, "Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only
implies a definition, but also implies how that word fits into the world."
Vocabulary knowledge is not something that can ever be fully mastered; it is
something that expands and deepens over the course of a lifetime. Instruction in
vocabulary involves far more than looking up words in a dictionary and using the
words in a sentence. Vocabulary is acquired incidentally through indirect exposure
to words and intentionally through explicit instruction in specific words and word-
learning strategies. According to Michael Graves (2000), there are four
components of an effective vocabulary program:
1. wide or extensive independent reading to expand word knowledge
2. instruction in specific words to enhance comprehension of texts containing
those words
3. instruction in independent word-learning strategies, and
4. word consciousness and word-play activities to motivate and enhance
learning

Components of vocabulary instruction
The National Reading Panel (2000) concluded that there is no single research-
based method for teaching vocabulary. From its analysis, the panel recommended
using a variety of direct and indirect methods of vocabulary instruction.

Intentional vocabulary teaching
Specific Word Instruction
Selecting Words to Teach
Rich and Robust Instruction

Word-Learning Strategies
Dictionary Use
Morphemic Analysis
Cognate Awareness (ELL)
Contextual Analysis
According to the National Reading Panel (2000), explicit instruction of vocabulary
is highly effective. To develop vocabulary intentionally, students should be
explicitly taught both specific words and word-learning strategies. To deepen
students' knowledge of word meanings, specific word instruction should be robust
(Beck et al., 2002). Seeing vocabulary in rich contexts provided by authentic texts,
rather than in isolated vocabulary drills, produces robust vocabulary learning
(National Reading Panel, 2000). Such instruction often does not begin with a
definition, for the ability to give a definition is often the result of knowing what the
word means. Rich and robust vocabulary instruction goes beyond definitional
knowledge; it gets students actively engaged in using and thinking about word
meanings and in creating relationships among words.
Research shows that there are more words to be learned than can be directly taught
in even the most ambitious program of vocabulary instruction. Explicit instruction
in word-learning strategies gives students tools for independently determining the
meanings of unfamiliar words that have not been explicitly introduced in class.
Since students encounter so many unfamiliar words in their reading, any help
provided by such strategies can be useful.
Word-learning strategies include dictionary use, morphemic analysis, and
contextual analysis. For ELLs whose language shares cognates with English,
cognate awareness is also an important strategy. Dictionary use teaches students
about multiple word meanings, as well as the importance of choosing the
appropriate definition to fit the particular context. Morphemic analysis is the
process of deriving a word's meaning by analyzing its meaningful parts, or
morphemes. Such word parts include root words, prefixes, and suffixes. Contextual
analysis involves inferring the meaning of an unfamiliar word by scrutinizing the
text surrounding it. Instruction in contextual analysis generally involves teaching
students to employ both generic and specific types of context clues.
Fostering word consciousness
A more general way to help students develop vocabulary is by fostering word
consciousness, an awareness of and interest in words. Word consciousness is not
an isolated component of vocabulary instruction; it needs to be taken into account
each and every day (Scott and Nagy, 2004). It can be developed at all times and in
several ways: through encouraging adept diction, through word play, and through
research on word origins or histories. According to Graves (2000), "If we can get
students interested in playing with words and language, then we are at least
halfway to the goal of creating the sort of word-conscious students who will make
words a lifetime interest."

Multiple exposures in multiple contexts
One principle of effective vocabulary learning is to provide multiple exposures to a
word's meaning. There is great improvement in vocabulary when students
encounter vocabulary words often (National Reading Panel, 2000). According to
Stahl (2005), students probably have to see a word more than once to place it
firmly in their long-term memories. "This does not mean mere repetition or drill of
the word," but seeing the word in different and multiple contexts. In other words, it
is important that vocabulary instruction provide students with opportunities to
encounter words repeatedly and in more than one context.

Restructuring of vocabulary tasks
Findings of the National Reading Panel
Intentional instruction of vocabulary items is required for specific texts.
Repetition and multiple exposures to vocabulary items are important.
Learning in rich contexts is valuable for vocabulary learning. Vocabulary
tasks should be restructured as necessary.
Vocabulary learning should entail active engagement in learning tasks.
Computer technology can be used effectively to help teach vocabulary.
Vocabulary can be acquired through incidental learning. How vocabulary is
assessed and evaluated can have differential effects on instruction.
Dependence on a single vocabulary instructional method will not result in
optimal learning.
It is often assumed that when students do not learn new vocabulary words, they
simply need to practice the words some more. Research has shown, however, that
it is often the case that students simply do not understand the instructional task
involved (National Reading Panel, 2000). Rather than focus only on the words
themselves, teachers should be certain that students fully understand the
instructional tasks (Schwartz and Raphael, 1985). The restructuring of learning
materials or strategies in various ways often can lead to increased vocabulary
acquisition, especially for low-achieving or at-risk students (National Reading
Panel, 2000). According to Kamil (2004), "once students know what is expected of
them in a vocabulary task, they often learn rapidly."

Incidental vocabulary learning
The scientific research on vocabulary instruction reveals that most vocabulary is
acquired incidentally through indirect exposure to words. Students can acquire
vocabulary incidentally by engaging in rich oral-language experiences at home and
at school, listening to books read aloud to them, and reading widely on their own.
Reading volume is very important in terms of long-term vocabulary development
(Cunningham and Stanovich, 1998). Kamil and Hiebert (2005) reason that
extensive reading gives students repeated or multiple exposures to words and is
also one of the means by which students see vocabulary in rich contexts.
Cunningham (2005) recommends providing structured read-aloud and discussion
sessions and extending independent reading experiences outside school hours to
encourage vocabulary growth in students.

Instruction for English language learners (ELLs)
An increasing number of students come from homes in which English is not the
primary language. From 1979 to 2003, the number of students who spoke English
with difficulty increased by 124 percent (National Center for Education Statistics,
2005). In 2003, students who spoke English with difficulty represented
approximately 5 percent of the school populationup from 3 percent in 1979.
Not surprisingly, vocabulary development is especially important for English-
language learners (ELLs). Poor vocabulary is a serious issue for these students
(Calderon et al., 2005). ELLs who have deficits in their vocabulary are less able to
comprehend text at grade level than their English-only (EO) peers (August et al.,
2005). Findings indicate that research-based strategies used with EO students are
also effective with ELLs, although the strategies must be adapted to strengths and
needs of ELLs (Calderon et al., 2005).
Diane August and her colleagues (2005) suggest several strategies that appear to be
especially valuable for building the vocabularies of ELLs. These strategies include
taking advantage of students' first language if the language shares cognates with
English, teaching the meaning of basic words, and providing sufficient review and
reinforcement. Because English and Spanish share a large number of cognate pairs,
the first instructional strategy is especially useful for Spanish-speaking ELLs.
These students can draw on their cognate knowledge as a means of figuring out
unfamiliar words in English. A second instructional strategy for ELLs is learning
the meanings of basic wordswords that most EO students already know. Basic
words can be found on lists, such as the Dale-Chall List (Chall and Dale, 1995). A
third instructional strategy that ELLs particularly benefit from is review and
reinforcement. These methods include read-alouds, teacher-directed activities,
listening to audiotapes, activities to extend word use outside of the classroom, and
parent involvement.

Strategies for ELLs:
Take advantage of students' first language
Teach the meaning of basic words
Review and reinforcement
Lesson model for: Word consciousness
Benchmarks
ability to interpret literal and figurative meanings of idioms
ability to research origins of idioms
Grade level
Kindergarten and above
Grouping
whole class
small group or pairs
Materials
small plastic toy horses
drawing paper
crayons or markers
dictionaries
Animal idioms
An idiom is a phrase or expression in which the entire meaning is different from
the usual meanings of the individual words within it. Idioms are fun to work with
because they are part of everyday vocabulary. Students enjoy working with
figurative meanings, as well as imagining possible literal meanings for the
expressions. They also enjoy finding out about the origins of idiomatic
expressions, some of which are very old. Introducing idioms by topic can make
them easier for students to remember. This sample lesson model focuses on
introducing idioms that make use of animals or animal comparisons.

Explanation
Tell students that an idiom is an expression that cannot be fully understood by the
meanings of the individual words that are contained within it. The meaning of the
whole idiom has little, often nothing, to do with the meanings of the words taken
one by one. Point out to students that idioms are often used in writing or speech to
make expression more colorful and that some of the most colorful English idioms
make use of animals or animal comparisons. Explain that many idioms have
interesting origins that may not make literal sense to us today, but made perfectly
good sense during the times in which they were coined.
Tell students that the expression "to hold your horses" is an idiom. Demonstrate its
literal meaning by holding a bunch of small plastic toy horses in your hand. Tell
students that when someone tells you "to hold your horses" it would be silly to
think that they wanted you to hold a bunch of horses in your hand. The whole
expression "to hold your horses" actually means "to slow down, wait a minute, or
be more patient." For example, if you were impatiently waiting for your sister to
get off the phone, your sister might say to you, "Hold your horses. I'll be off the
phone in a minute!"
Tell students that "to be raining cats and dogs" is another idiom. Ask students
whether, if someone said it's "raining cats and dogs," they would expect to look up
and see animals falling from the sky. Then explain to them that "raining cats and
dogs" is used to describe when it's raining really heavily or really hard. Ask
volunteers to describe a time they remember when it was "raining cats and dogs."
Ask students to draw pictures of the literal meaning of either "to hold your horses"
or "to be raining cats and dogs." Then have them take turns showing their
illustration and using the idiom correctly in a context sentence.
Collaborative practice
Tell students that they are going to work together in groups to make a drawing of
an animal idiom's literal meaning and then act out its real, or figurative, meaning.
They will see if the drawings and skits they make provide enough information for
their classmates to figure out what the idiom really means. To begin, select a group
of three students to demonstrate the activity. Tell this group that their idiom is "to
let the cat out of the bag" and that this idiom means "to give away a secret."
Divide the group tasks as follows: One student will draw the idiom the way it
would look if it meant literally what it said: by drawing a sketch of a cat leaping
out of a paper bag. This student labels the drawing with the idiom, "to let the cat
out of the bag." The other two students develop a brief skit about the figurative
meaning of the idiom: "to give away a secret." For example, they could develop a
simple scene where someone finds out about a surprise birthday party, because a
brother or sister gives it away beforehand. The last line could be: "You let the cat
out of the bag."
When the group is finished, have them show the idiom's literal meaning in the
drawing, and then act out its figurative meaning in the skit. Have the group
challenge their classmates to guess the idiom's figurative, or intended, meaning and
then correctly use the idiom in a sentence: Nancy let the cat out of the bag when
she told Nick about the surprise birthday party. When the whole class has
understood how this activity works, assign a different animal idiom, with its
figurative meaning, to other groups of students. Each group then works out its plan
for making the drawing and acting out the skit. Have the groups take turns
demonstrating their idioms to the class, so the class can guess the idiom's figurative
meaning and use it in a sentence.
Animal idioms
to have ants in your pants
to take the bull by the horns
to let the cat out of the bag
to have the cat get your tongue
to be raining cats and dogs
the straw that broke the camel's
back
to have a cow
to wait until the cows come
home
to be in the doghouse
to be in a fine kettle of fish
to seem a little fishy
to live high on the hog
to look a gift horse in the mouth
to eat like a horse
to hear it straight from the horse's
mouth
to hold your horses
to put the cart before the horse
to change horses in midstream
to let sleeping dogs lie
English-language learner: Learning about idioms can be particularly helpful for
ELLs because the gap between the literal meaning of individual words and the
intended meaning of the expression often causes trouble in translation.
Lesson model for: Word-meaning recall
Benchmark
ability to remember word meanings
Grade level
Grade 3 and above
Grouping
whole class
small group or pairs
individual
Sample texts
"Alaska Adventure" (Resources)
"Studying the Sky" (Resources)
Keyword method
Mnemonic strategies are systematic procedures for enhancing memory. The word
mnemonic comes from Mnemosyne, the name of Greek goddess of memory. The
keyword method, a mnemonic strategy, has been shown to be effective with
students who have learning difficulties and those who are at risk for educational
failure. According to the National Reading Panel, the keyword method may lead to
significant improvement in students' recall of new vocabulary words. This sample
lesson model targets two contextualized vocabulary words. The same model can be
adapted and used to enhance recall of vocabulary words in any commercial reading
program.
Direct Explanation
Explain to students that you are going to show them how to use the keyword
method, a useful strategy for remembering the meanings of vocabulary words. Tell
them you are going to model the strategy twice, using the words archipelago and
lunar.

Teach/Model
Define the target word
Read aloud the following sentence from "Alaska Adventure."
The Aleutian archipelago stretches for more than a thousand miles.
Then tell students that an archipelago is "a group of islands."
Think of a keyword for the target word
Say: To help me remember the meaning of the word archipelago, a group of
islands, I am going to think of another word, called a "keyword." The
keyword is a word that sounds like archipelagoand also is a word that can be
easily pictured. My keyword for archipelago is pelican. Pelican sounds like
archipelago and is the name of a water bird with a very large bill.
Link the keyword with the meaning of the target word
Explain to students that the next step is to create an image of the keyword
pelican and the meaning of the target word archipelago interacting in some
way. Tell them it is important that the keyword and the meaning actually
interact and are not simply presented in the same picture. On the board,
sketch a picture of a pelican flying over a group of small islands.
Say: Look at the picture of the pelican flying over the group of islands.
Ask: Pelican is the keyword for what word? (archipelago)
Say: Yes, archipelago. To recall the meaning of the word archipelago,
imagine a pelican flying over a group of small islands.
Recall the meaning of the target word
Tell students that when they see or hear the word archipelago, they should
first think of its keyword and then try to remember the picture of the
keyword and the meaning interacting.
Ask: What is the keyword for archipelago? (pelican) In the sketch, where
was the pelican flying? (over a group of islands)
Say: Right, over a group of islands.
Ask: So what does archipelago mean? (a group of islands)
English Language-Learners: Point out to Spanish-speaking ELLs that
archipelago and archiplago are cognates.
Lesson model for: Contextual analysis
Benchmarks
ability to recognize types of semantic context clues
ability to use context clues to infer word meanings

Grade level
Grade 4 and above
Prerequisite
Context Clues
Grouping
whole class
small group or pairs
individual
Teaching chart
Types of Helpful Context Clues (Resources)

Materials
copies of Types of Helpful

Context clues chart
transparencies
blue, red, and green overhead transparency markers

Introducing types of context clues
Instruction in specific types of context clues is an effective approach for teaching
students to use context to infer word meanings. Baumann and his colleagues
recommend teaching five types of context clues: definition, synonym, antonym,
example, and general. This sample lesson model can be adapted and used to
enhance contextual analysis instruction in any commercial reading program.
Direct explanation
Tell students that they can sometimes use context clues to figure out the meaning
of an unfamiliar word they come across in their reading. Remind them that context
clues are the words, phrases, and sentences surrounding an unfamiliar word that
can give hints or clues to its meaning. Caution students that although these clues
can prove to be helpful, they can sometimes be misleading.
Teach/Model
Definition context clues
Give students copies of the Types of Helpful Context Clues chart. Briefly go over
the chart, identifying the types of context clues and discussing the example for
each one. Tell students that they should refer to the chart as they learn more about
the five different types of context clues.
Explain to students that in a definition clue the author provides the reader with the
specific definition, or meaning, of a word right in the sentence. Point out that
words such as are, is, means, and refers to can signal that a definition clue may
follow. Then print the following sentences on a transparency:
A conga is a barrel-shaped drum.
At night your can see constellations, or groups of stars, in the sky.
Read aloud the first sentence.
Say: I'm going to look for a context clue to help me understand the meaning of the
word conga.
Underline conga in blue.
Say: In the sentence, I see the word is. The word is can signal a definition context
clue.
Underline is in red.
Say: The phrase a barrel-shaped drum follows the word is.
Underline the context clue in green.
Say: A conga is a barrel-shaped drum. The author has given a definition context
clue.
For more vocabulary lesson plans, purchase CORE's Vocabulary Handbook
For more information about vocabulary, browse the articles, multimedia, and other
resources in this special section: Topics A-Z: Vocabulary.
References
Diamond, L. & Gutlohn, L. (2006). Vocabulary Handbook.Consortium on Reading
Excellence, Inc. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without permission
from the publisher.

Reprints
For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.
Tags: Curriculum and Instruction | Vocabulary
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Table
of
Contents
1
Lessons from the Corpus
How many words are there and how many do we
need to teach?
1
What can a corpus tell us about vocabulary?
2
Frequency
4
Differences in speaking and writing
4
Contexts of use
5
Collocation
5
Grammatical patterns
6
Strategic vocabulary
8
Teaching strategic vocabulary: Fundamentals for
a syllabus
14
2
Lessons for the Classroom
What do we need to teach about vocabulary?
18
How can we help learners learn vocabulary?
19
3
Concluding Remarks
26
4
Appendices

Top 200 spoken words
27
Further reading
28
References
1
Lessons from the Corpus
How
many
words
are
there
and
how
many
do
we
need
to
teach?
Its almost impossible to say exactly how many words there are in English.
The Global Language Monitor, which tracks language trends, especially in the
media, has counted up to almost a million at 988,968.
Websters Third New
International Dictionary, Unabridged,
together with its 1993 Addenda Section,
includes around 470,000 entries.
Counting words is a complicated business. For a start, what do we
mean by a word? Look at these members of the word family RUN:
run, runs,
running, ran, runner,
and
runners.
Should we count these as one word or
six? How do we count different uses of the same word? For example, is the verb
run
the same in
run a marathon
as in
run a company
? Is it the same as the noun
a run
? How do we deal with idiomatic uses like
run out of gas, feel run down,
or
a run of bad luck
? And, of course, new words are being added to the language
all the time; the Internet especially has given us lots of new words like
podcast,
netizen,
and
blog,
as well as new meanings such as
surf
as in
surf the web.
Despite such difficulties, researchers have tried to estimate how many
words native speakers know in order to assess the number of words learners
need to learn. Estimates for native speakers vary between 12,000 and 20,000
depending on their level of education. One estimate is that a native speaker
university graduate knows about 20,000 word families (Goulden, Nation, and
Read, 1990), not including phrases and expressions. Current learners diction
-
aries such as the
Cambridge Dictionary of American English
include more than
40,000 frequently used words and phrases
.
.
. This huge number of items
presents a challenge that would be impossible for most English language learn
-
ers, and even for many native speakers.
Fortunately, it is possible to get along in English with fewer than
20,000 words. Another way of deciding the number of words learners need is
to count how many different words are used in an average spoken or written
text. Because some high-frequency words are repeated, it is said that learners
can understand a large proportion of texts with a relatively small vocabulary. So,
for example, learners who know the most frequent 2,000 words should be able
to understand almost 80 percent of the words in an average text, and a knowl
-
edge of 5,000 words increases learners understanding to 88.7 percent (Francis
and Kucera 1982). For spoken language, the news is even better since about
1,800 words make up over 80 percent of the spoken corpus (McCarthy 2004;

2
Teaching Vocabulary
OKeeffe, McCarthy, and Carter 2007). While learning up to 5,000 words is
still a challenge, it represents a much more achievable learning goal for most
learners than 20,000 words.
So far there are two lessons to be learned from all of this. First, it
seems important to identify what the most frequent 2,000 to 5,000 vocabu
-
lary items are and to give them priority in teaching. Second, students need to
become self sufficient learners. It is unlikely that teachers can cover in class the
huge number of vocabulary items that students will need to use or understand,
so it is equally important to help students with
how
to learn vocabulary as well
as with
what
to learn.
What
can
a
corpus
tell
us
about
vocabulary?
What
is
a
corpus?
A corpus is basically a collection of texts which is stored in a computer. The
texts can be written or spoken language. Written texts like newspapers and
magazines can be entered into the computer from a scanner, a CD, or the
Internet. Spoken texts, like conversations, are recorded and then the recordings
are transcribed; that is, they are written down word for word, so that the texts
of these conversations can be fed into the computer database. It is then possible
to analyze the language in the corpus with corpus software tools to see how
people really speak or write. [For more information, see Michael McCarthys
booklet
Touchstone: from Corpus to Course Book
(2004) in this series.]
What
kind
of
corpus
do
we
need
to
use?
A large corpus is often divided into sections, or subcorpora, which contain dif
-
ferent types of English. For example, there are subcorpora of different varieties
such as North American English and British English, or different types of lan
-
guage like conversation, newspapers, business English, and academic English.
To use a corpus in designing a syllabus, the first thing to decide is what kind
of English we want to base our material on, because different corpora will give
us different words and often different uses of words to teach. For example, the
speaker feels is new information for the listener, as in Example

Lessons from the Corpus
Example 1
Someone describes his relationship with his neighbors to
a
stranger:
You
see
I have neighbors that Im good friends with, as far as
neighbor-wise.
So our choice of corpus may affect which words we will include in our
materials and which meanings of those words we will teach. For most students
in general English courses, the priority is speaking, so for these students it
makes sense to base much of the syllabus on a spoken corpus. Many students
also have to write in English, especially for examinations, so again it makes sense
to look at a corpus that includes the kinds of texts students will have to write.
Most of the examples in this booklet are taken from conversations found in the
North American spoken corpus, which is part of the
Cambridge International
Corpus
(referred to as the Corpus hereafter).
So what can we learn from the Corpus about vocabulary? Essentially
it can tell us about:
J
Frequency:
Which words and expressions are most frequent and
which are rare
J
Differences
in
speaking
and
writing:
Which vocabulary is more
often spoken and which is more often written
J
Contexts
of
use:
The situations in which people use certain
vocabulary
J
Collocation:
Which words are often used together
J
Grammatical
patterns:
How words and grammar combine to
form patterns
J
Strategic
use
of
vocabulary:
Which words and expressions are
used to organize and manage discourse
Corpus tools help us analyze the huge amount of data in the Corpus,
which can consist of millions of words. But in addition to providing the more
statistical kinds of information (a
quantitative
analysis), the Corpus also gives
us access to hundreds of texts which we can read in order to observe how
people use vocabulary in context a
qualitative
analysis. For example, it is pos
-
sible to see what kinds of vocabulary people use to talk about a topic like music
or celebrities, or how they repeat words, or avoid repeating words by using
synonyms. The Corpus, however, cannot tell us exactly what to teach or how to
teach, and it has nothing to tell us with respect to how students learn best. It
cannot replace the expertise of teachers, or of students themselves, on how best
to teach and learn vocabulary. It is
a
tool. It is not the
only
too

Teaching Vocabulary
Less
ons from the Corpus
Lesso
ns for the Classroom
Jeanne McCarten
cambridge
university
press
Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, So Paulo
Cambridge University Press
32 Avenue of the Americas, New York,
NY
10013-2473, USA
www.cambridge.org
Cambridge University Press 2007
This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.
First published 2007
Printed in the United States of America
isbn
-1
3
978-
0-521-94325-3
paperback
Book layout services:
Page Designs International
Table
of
Contents
1
Lessons from the Corpus
How many words are there and how many do we
need to teach?
1
What can a corpus tell us about vocabulary?
2
Frequency
4
Differences in speaking and writing
4
Contexts of use
5
Collocation
5
Grammatical patterns
6
Strategic vocabulary
8
Teaching strategic vocabulary: Fundamentals for
a syllabus
14
2
Lessons for the Classroom
What do we need to teach about vocabulary?
18
How can we help learners learn vocabulary?
19
3
Concluding Remarks
26
4
Appendices
Top 200 spoken words
27
Further reading
28
References
28
Lessons from the Corpus
1
1
1
Lessons
from
the
Corpus
How
many
words
are
there
and
how
many
do
we
need
to
teach?
Its almost impossible to say exactly how many words there are in English.
The Global Language Monitor, which tracks language trends, especially in the
media, has counted up to almost a million at 988,968.
Websters Third New
International Dictionary, Unabridged,
together with its 1993 Addenda Section,
includes around 470,000 entries.
Counting words is a complicated business. For a start, what do we
mean by a word? Look at these members of the word family RUN:
run, runs,
running, ran, runner,
and
runners.
Should we count these as one word or
six? How do we count different uses of the same word? For example, is the verb
run
the same in
run a marathon
as in
run a company
? Is it the same as the noun
a run
? How do we deal with idiomatic uses like
run out of gas, feel run down,
or
a run of bad luck
? And, of course, new words are being added to the language
all the time; the Internet especially has given us lots of new words like
podcast,
netizen,
and
blog,
as well as new meanings such as
surf
as in
surf the web.
Despite such difficulties, researchers have tried to estimate how many
words native speakers know in order to assess the number of words learners
need to learn. Estimates for native speakers vary between 12,000 and 20,000
depending on their level of education. One estimate is that a native speaker
university graduate knows about 20,000 word families (Goulden, Nation, and
Read, 1990), not including phrases and expressions. Current learners diction
-
aries such as the
Cambridge Dictionary of American English
include more than
40,000 frequently used words and phrases
.
.
. This huge number of items
presents a challenge that would be impossible for most English language learn
ers, and even for many native speakers.
Fortunately, it is possible to get along in English with fewer than
20,000 words. Another way of deciding the number of words learners need is
to count how many different words are used in an average spoken or written
text. Because some high-frequency words are repeated, it is said that learners
can understand a large proportion of texts with a relatively small vocabulary. So,
for example, learners who know the most frequent 2,000 words should be able
to understand almost 80 percent of the words in an average text, and a knowl
-
edge of 5,000 words increases learners understanding to 88.7 percent (Francis
and Kucera 1982). For spoken language, the news is even better since about
1,800 words make up over 80 percent of the spoken corpus (McCarthy 2004;
2
Teaching Vocabulary
OKeeffe, McCarthy, and Carter 2007). While learning up to 5,000 words is
still a challenge, it represents a much more achievable learning goal for most
learners than 20,000 words.
So far there are two lessons to be learned from all of this. First, it
seems important to identify what the most frequent 2,000 to 5,000 vocabu
-
lary items are and to give them priority in teaching. Second, students need to
become self sufficient learners. It is unlikely that teachers can cover in class the
huge number of vocabulary items that students will need to use or understand,
so it is equally important to help students with
how
to learn vocabulary as well
as with
what
to learn.
What
can
a
corpus
tell
us
about
vocabulary?
What
is
a
corpus?
A corpus is basically a collection of texts which is stored in a computer. The
texts can be written or spoken language. Written texts like newspapers and
magazines can be entered into the computer from a scanner, a CD, or the
Internet. Spoken texts, like conversations, are recorded and then the recordings
are transcribed; that is, they are written down word for word, so that the texts
of these conversations can be fed into the computer database. It is then possible
to analyze the language in the corpus with corpus software tools to see how
people really speak or write. [For more information, see Michael McCarthys
booklet
Touchstone: from Corpus to Course Book
(2004) in this series.]
What
kind
of
corpus
do
we
need
to
use?
A large corpus is often divided into sections, or subcorpora, which contain dif
-
ferent types of English. For example, there are subcorpora of different varieties
such as North American English and British English, or different types of lan
-
guage like conversation, newspapers, business English, and academic English.
To use a corpus in designing a syllabus, the first thing to decide is what kind
of English we want to base our material on, because different corpora will give
us different words and often different uses of words to teach. For example, the
word
nice
is in the top fifteen words in conversation, but it is rare in written
academic English, occurring mainly in quotations of speech from literature
or interviews. Another example is the word
see,
which has the same frequency
in conversation and written academic English, but different uses. In academic
English,
see
is mostly used to refer the reader to other books and articles, as
in
see McCarthy, 2004
the way it was used at the end of the last paragraph.
In conversation,
see
has a greater variety of uses including the expression
I see,
which means I understand, and
See
and
You see,
which introduce what the
speaker feels is new information for the listener, as in Example 1.
Lessons from the Corpus
Example 1
Someone describes his relationship with his neighbors to
A stranger:
You see
I have neighbors that Im good friends with, as far as
neighbor-wise.
So our choice of corpus may affect which words we will include in our
materials and which meanings of those words we will teach. For most students
in general English courses, the priority is speaking, so for these students it
makes sense to base much of the syllabus on a spoken corpus. Many students
also have to write in English, especially for examinations, so again it makes sense
to look at a corpus that includes the kinds of texts students will have to write.
Most of the examples in this booklet are taken from conversations found in the
North American spoken corpus, which is part of the
Cambridge International
Corpus
(referred to as the Corpus hereafter).
So what can we learn from the Corpus about vocabulary? Essentially
it can tell us about:
J
Frequency:
Which words and expressions are most frequent and
which are rare
J
Differences
in
speaking
and
writing:
Which vocabulary is more
often spoken and which is more often written
J
Contexts
of
use:
The situations in which people use certain
vocabulary
J
Collocation:
Which words are often used together
J
Grammatical
patterns:
How words and grammar combine to
form patterns
J
Strategic
use
of
vocabulary:
Which words and expressions are
used to organize and manage discourse
Corpus tools help us analyze the huge amount of data in the Corpus,
which can consist of millions of words. But in addition to providing the more
statistical kinds of information (a
quantitative
analysis), the Corpus also gives
us access to hundreds of texts which we can read in order to observe how
people use vocabulary in context a
qualitative
analysis. For example, it is pos
-
sible to see what kinds of vocabulary people use to talk about a topic like music
or celebrities, or how they repeat words, or avoid repeating words by using
synonyms. The Corpus, however, cannot tell us exactly what to teach or how to
teach, and it has nothing to tell us with respect to how students learn best. It
cannot replace the expertise of teachers, or of students themselves, on how best
to teach and learn vocabulary. It is
a
tool. It is not the
only
tool.

4
Teaching Vocabulary

times more frequent in academic texts than in conversation. Looking at such
differences, we can see whether to present vocabulary items like these in a writ
-
ten or spoken context.
Contexts
of
use
The Corpus includes information about speakers and situations in which con
-
versations take place. It is possible to see, for example, whether an item of
vocabulary is used by everyone in all kinds of situations, or mostly by people
who know each other very well, or mostly in more polite situations with strang
-
ers or work colleagues, etc. Information like this from the Corpus enables us to
present vocabulary appropriately and to point out to students examples of more
formal usage such as
Goodbye
vs.
Bye
and, perhaps more importantly, very infor
-
mal usage such as using the word
like
for reporting speech (
I was like Hey!
) or
the expression
and stuff
(
We have a lot of parties and stuff
).
Collocation
The term
collocation
generally refers to the way in which two or more words
are typically used together. For example, we talk about
heavy rain
but not
heavy
sun,
or we say that we
make
or
come to a decision,
but we dont
do a decision.
So,
heavy rain
and
make a decision
are often referred to as
collocations
and we say
that
heavy
collocates
with
rain,
or that
heavy
and
rain
are
collocates
of each
other. With collocation software we can search for all the collocates of a particu
-
lar word, that is, all the words that are used most frequently with that word and
especially those with a higher than anticipated frequency.
This is particularly useful for finding the collocates of verbs like
have,
get, make,
and
do,
which are often referred to as
delexical verbs.
These are verbs
which dont have a (lexical) meaning of their own, but take their meaning from
the words that they collocate or are used with. For example, the verb
make
has
a different meaning in each of the expressions
make a cake, make a decision,
and
make fun of,
so it is sensible to teach verbs like these in expressions, as col
-
locations, instead of trying to identify and distinguish basic meanings, which is
difficult and, in many cases, almost impossible.
Figure 1 shows some of the most frequent collocates of the words
make
and
do.
They include words that come immediately after the word (
make
sure
) and words that come two or more words after it (
make
a
difference
,
make
a huge
mistake
).
MAKE:
sure, difference, sense, decision, mistakes, decisions,
money, judgments, mistake, reservations, copies, effort
DO:
anything, something, things, job, well, nothing, work,
whatever, aerobics, gardening, stuff, homework, laundry
Figure
1:
Collocates of the words
make
and
do.


Lessons from the Corpus
However, when we look at the phrases
Would you mind
and
Do you
mind
in the Corpus, we find that two of these patterns stand out as being
more frequent. Figure 3 includes a representative selection of examples of these
phrases from the Corpus. Each phrase is shown in a
concordance
. A concor
-
dance is a screen display of a word or phrase as it is used by many different
speakers in the Corpus. The word or phrase we are interested in is shown in
the middle of the screen, highlighted in some way, with the rest of the text if
any
before and after it. So, in Figure 3, each line is someone speaking and
using the phrase
Would you mind
or
Do you mind.
Would
you
mind
taking
that
day?
Would
you
mind?
bus
driver
said

Would
you
mind
taking
the
seat
by
the
window
because
he
Would
you
mind
seeing
if
Nick
wants
cake
Joel?
Would
you
mind
.
.
.
Would
you
mind
talking
to
us
just
for
a
minute?
Would
you
mind?
Would
you
mind?
the
person
says

Would
you
mind
signing
this
form?
And
I
was
like

Would
you
mind
driving
us
to
Norris?
Would
you
mind
me
asking
what
kind
of
dog
is
this?
Would
you
mind
answering
a
couple
of
questions
real
qui
Do
you
mind
if
I
grab
this?
Do
you
mind
if
I
go
get
a
drink
first?
Shes
like

Do
you
mind?

Do
you
mind
if
I
put
some
makeup
on
real
quick?
Do
you
mind?
Do
you
mind
if
I
uh
take
the
um
apple
juice
in
the
car?
Do
you
mind
if
I
take
these
pretzels?
Do
you
mind?
Do
you
mind
if
I
take
a
picture
of
your
chocolates?
Do
you
mind
us
taping
it?
Do
you
mind
if
theres
like
white?
Do
you
mind
if
I
put
the
thing
on
there?
Figure

:
Concordances of
Would you mind
and
Do you
mind
from the Cambridge International Corpus, North
American Conversation.
In some cases these phrases are used on their own as questions with no
text following. Where the speaker continues, notice that
Do you mind
is mostly
used in the expression
Do you mind if I
to ask permission to do something.
However,
Would you mind
is mostly used as
Would you mind + .
ing
to ask
other people to do something. Notice also the more complex patterns with an
8
Teaching Vocabulary
object (
Would you mind
me
asking
.
.
.
and
Do you mind
us
taping
) are also
much less frequent. So we can make students lives a little easier and teach the
frequent patterns first, leaving the complex structures until a later level.
The
vocabulary
of
grammar
In addition to seeing the grammar of individual words the grammar of vocab
-
ulary we can also learn about the vocabulary used with certain grammar
structures the
vocabulary
of
grammar
. For example, the Corpus can tell us
the most frequent verbs used in the past continuous structure
was .
.
.
ing.
The
top ten are
going, thinking, talking, doing, saying, trying, telling, wondering,
looking, working.
Notice that five of these verbs describe saying and thinking. In
addition, 12 percent of the uses of
was going to
are in the phrases
was going to
say
or
was going to ask,
and 28 percent of the uses of
was trying
are with similar
verbs of saying and thinking. So it seems that these verbs are an important part
of the vocabulary of this structure. [See Carter and McCarthy (1995), which
describes this as one aspect of the grammar of speech.] Shouldnt we then teach
this vocabulary with this structure if we want students to learn the kind of usage
they will hear from expert users and native speakers?
Strategic
vocabulary
Teachers are familiar with the kinds of words and expressions that writers use
strategically to organize written texts, from simple conjunctions like
and
and
however,
which organize ideas within and across sentences, and adverbs such
as
first, secondly,
etc., which list ideas within a paragraph or text, to expressions
such as
in conclusion,
which signal that the text is about to end. Written texts are
easy to find in newspapers, books, on the Internet, etc., as models for teaching
or our own writing. But what is the strategic vocabulary that speakers use to
organize and manage conversations, and how can we find it? To help us answer
these questions, we need a corpus so we can analyze many different conversa
-
tions. We can start by looking again at frequency lists to identify and analyze the
kind of strategic vocabulary speakers use.
In addition to looking at single words, we can ask the Corpus to give us
frequency lists of phrases vocabulary items that contain more than one word,
sometimes called chunks, lexical bundles, or clusters [see McCarthy and
Carter (2002); OKeeffe, McCarthy, and Carter (2007)]. These lists contain
fragments, or bits of language that dont have a meaning as expressions in
their own right, such as
in the, and I,
and
of the.
However, we can remove these
to find expressions that do have their own meaning, as in Figure 4.

Lessons from the Corpus
9
No.
of
words
in
phrase
Examples
two
you know, I mean, I guess, or something
three
a little bit, and all that
four
or something like that, and things like that
five
you know what I mean, as a matter of fact
six
it was nice talking to you; and all that
kind of stuff
seven+ words
a lot of it has to do (with)
Figure
4:
Expressions from frequency lists in the
Cambridge International Corpus, North American
Conversation.
Some of these expressions are much more frequent than the every
-
day, basic, single words that we would expect to teach at an elementary level.
Chunks such as
I mean, I dont know,
and
or something
are more frequent than
words like
woman, six,
and
black.
This suggests we need to take chunks seriously
as vocabulary items to teach in a basic course.
Finding
a
vocabulary
of
conversation
When we look at the most frequent words and phrases in conversation, we find
many items that conversation shares with the written language, such as gram
-
matical words (articles, pronouns, prepositions, etc.), common everyday nouns,
verbs, adjectives, and adverbs (
people, money;
go, see;
different, interesting ;
still,
usually
), and modal items (
can, should, maybe, probably
). As we saw earlier, some
of these may be far more frequent in conversation than in writing (e.g.,
prob
-
ably
) or have different uses (e.g.,
see
).
In addition to these grammatical and common everyday words and
phrases, we also find items that distinguish the spoken language from the
written, items that reflect the interactive nature of conversation and that give
conversation its distinctive character. We can perhaps best describe these as a
vocabulary
of
conversation
rather than merely as vocabulary
in
conversa
-
tion. Below are examples of the types of this vocabulary with extracts from the
Corpus to show how people have actually used them. Note that some of the
frequent expressions have several uses and fall into more than one category.
Discourse markers
A
discourse
marker
is a word or phrase that organizes or manages the dis
course in some way. In this case the type of discourse is conversation. Some of