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Using word lists ... why they are important and tips on how to use them

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There are many word lists for general and academic English study. This page gives information on why word lists are important, then presents ideas about how to use word lists.


There is a companion page in this section which gives a detailed overview of the many different word lists available for academic English study.


Why are word lists important?

One reason word lists are important is they enable learners to narrow the focus of what to study. English is estimated to have around 1 million words, with around 170,000 words in current use. The average native speaker knows between 20,000 and 35,000 words. These are daunting totals for learners of English. However, some words are more frequent than others. The most common 10 words in English account for around 25% of language use (this figure is similar across all languages). The most frequent 100 words account for around 50%, while the most frequent 2000 words cover approximately 80% of words in texts. Word lists therefore provide students with an efficient way to focus on the vocabulary they need in order to understand or produce texts.


Word lists are also important since they provide a clear starting point. Learners often know they need to improve their vocabulary, but do not know where to begin, while teachers may not focus on vocabulary except in an incidental (i.e. accidental) way, for example when difficult words are encountered in a text. Word lists enable students and teachers to decide which words in a text deserve particular attention, such as academic words, as well as providing them with a list that can be worked through systematically.


Word lists also provide a clear end point. By knowing which words should be studied during a period of time (a week, a month, or an entire course), it is possible to set vocabulary learning goals and measure vocabulary growth.


Academic word lists are important since academic words may be new and challenging for students, but may not be taught by subject teachers. This is in contrast to technical words, which, because of their importance and specialist nature, are likely to be explained by teachers. Academic vocabulary is usually defined as words which are used more frequently in academic than in non-academic English texts, and without word lists learners may be unsure of precisely which words are used more commonly in academic English.


Word lists are also important for teachers, since they enable them to analyse and modify texts for classroom use, and to design suitable courses.


In short, word lists allow students and teachers to:

  • narrow the focus of what vocabulary to study;
  • know where to start studying;
  • know what the end point is;
  • set vocabulary learning goals;
  • assess vocabulary knowledge and growth;
  • identify important words which may not be taught.

In addition, word lists allow teachers to:

  • analyse texts;
  • modify texts for classroom use;
  • design courses.

How can word lists be used?

Word lists are most often used by teachers when designing courses or creating lessons. However, students studying independently also have many options available for using lists to improve their vocabulary knowledge.


Word lists are often big, daunting lists, containing hundreds or thousands of words. One tip for using word lists is to break them down into more manageable lists. Some lists are presented in this way, for example the AWL (Academic Word List), which is divided into 10 lists (called sublists) of 60 words each (30 for the final list). Many other lists are not divided into sublists; however, if the lists are ranked by frequency, students or teachers can divide up the lists themselves, for example by creating a certain number of equal sized sublists (e.g. 10 sublists), or dividing the list into sublists of equal size (e.g. 50 words in each). It is always best to start studying the most frequent words first, since these are the one which will be encountered most often.


If the list will be used to assess learning, it is important to ensure that it is fully covered, and there are two approaches to this. The first and simplest is the series approach, which involves going through the list systematically, e.g. learning all words in sublist 1 of the AWL before moving on to sublist 2. The second approach is the field approach, which involves learning words from the list as they occur in reading or listening texts. The second approach is more suited to teachers, who can modify texts to ensure there is complete coverage of the list in a course of study. Students, however, could also use the field approach, for example by keeping a record of which words they have encountered in a text, though at a certain point, they would have to switch to a series approach to ensure they learn the remaining words, since the number of new words from the list which occur in new texts will steadily decrease to zero or almost zero. For example, if you have learned 569 words in the AWL, you may need to read dozens of texts before encountering the final word, which would not be an efficient use of time.


Whether studying words by a series or field approach, it is useful to assess knowledge of words, either formally through testing, or informally by self-assessment. This can be done before, during or after learning. If self-assessing, the following scale could be used, which would then guide further study.

tickticktick I know this word and can use it flexibly in speaking and writing
ticktick I understand this word when I see or hear it, but I'm not sure how to use
tick I have seen/heard this word before, but I'm not sure what it means
cross I do not know this word

There are various reading activities that can be used to increase knowledge of vocabulary. They include jigsaw reading (students read different parts of the same text, then share their knowledge), narrow reading (students read multiple texts on the same topic, then discuss or write about the topic) and close reading (students read and reread texts to increase knowledge and understanding). These activities are more effective for technical word lists, since if discussing a topic such as photosynthesis students will need to use relevant technical vocabulary in order to describe it; however, if discussing a text which has the target words analyse, concept and data (from AWL sublist 1), students could very well do this using other words, unless specifically directed to use them, e.g.: Summarise what you just read. Include these words in your summary: analyse, concept, data.


There are many hands-on tools that students can use to identify and study words from word lists. These include:

  • word list highlighters, such as the AWL highlighter on this site, which allows for manipulation of sublists and creation of a gapfill activity, which can be used to test vocabulary knowledge;
  • the ACL mind map creator, which provides a useful way to explore collocations of individual words in the ACL (Academic Collocation List);
  • a vocabulary profiler, which not only identifies words in different lists e.g. GSL vs. AWL, but also shows percentages of words in each.

  • The last item, a vocabulary profiler, is a useful tool for teachers, who can use it to grade texts to control the number of new or challenging words. It is also for students, who can appraise their own writing and see how many words and what type they have used. For example, since the AWL accounts for around 10% of words in academic texts, students can use a vocabulary profiler to see how close (or how far) their own writing is from this target (though it should be emphasised that this is a rough guide, and not something they should aim for by forcing AWL words into their writing).


    Unless a word is only needed for reading comprehension, it is going to be important for students to study information about the word other than its definition before they can be confident that they 'know' the word. This includes pronunciation (for comprehension while listening or use in speaking), word family information (for flexible use in writing or speaking, or recognition in reading), and information about collocations and how the word is used in a sentence, for example:

    • to have an effect on
    • to contribute to (sth)
    • to play a role in (sth)

    For words in the AWL, much of this information can be gained from the AWL finder (on this site). Often, use of a dictionary will be essential.


    It will also be important for students to use vocabulary notebooks to record important information in order to review it later and consolidate vocabulary knowledge. Notebooks could be physical or electronic. Students can return to their notebook to add more information about a word if they encounter it again. Teachers can encourage notebook use by giving tests which allow students to access their notebooks.


    In short, the following are useful ways students or teachers could use word lists:

    • break down lists into smaller lists, and focus on studying the most frequent words first;
    • ensure the list is fully covered by using a series approach (e.g. AWL sublist 1, then sublist 2);
    • ensure the list is fully covered by using a field approach, e.g. by modifying texts (teachers) or keeping a record of which words have been encountered (students);
    • test students on vocabulary knowledge (teachers) or self-assess in order to know which words to study in more detail (students);
    • use communicative reading activities (esp. for technical word lists);
    • use hands-on tools such as word list highlighters, the ACL mind map creator, or vocabulary profilers;
    • study detailed information of a word, using a dictionary or other tools;
    • keep a detailed vocabulary notebook.

    Summary

    In short, there are many reasons word lists are important, ranging from narrowing the focus of what vocabulary to study to assessing vocabulary knowledge and growth. In addition, although word lists may have a negative connotation, being linked to rote learning, there are many useful and engaging activities that both teachers and students can use to focus on appropriate target vocabulary.


    For more information on individual word lists, check out the overview of word lists page, which includes a summary of the most important general, academic, and technical word lists.


    References

    Greene, J.W. and Coxhead, A. (2015) Academic Vocabulary for Middle School Students. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Company.


    Jones, P. (2021) How to… help your IELTS students improve their vocabulary. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2021/10/08/help-ielts-students-improve-vocabulary/ (Accessed 19 October, 2021).


    Nation, I.S.P (2016) Making and Using Word Lists for Language Learning and Testing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.



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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 05 December 2021.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of EAPFoundation.com. He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.



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