10 – Learn the Top Words First

All Words Are Not Equal

We use some words many times every day. We call these “high frequency words.” We use other words maybe a few times a day. We call these “mid-frequency” words. And we use other words maybe once a month. We call these “low-frequency” words.

These are non-scientific examples, used only to show the idea of frequency. We actually measure word frequency with numbers and statistics. Words have rankings. Nation (2013) says that the top 2,000 words rank as high frequency words. The next 2001 to 9,000 rank as mid-frequency words. The rest are low frequency words.

Vocabulary and Frequency

For example, the word “present” is a high-frequency word. It’s ranked about the 500th most common word in English. Waring (2007) says this. If you read about 4,000 words, you will meet “present” one time. If you read about 40,000 words, you will meet “present” about 10 times. The word “sergeant” is a mid-frequency word. If you read about 47,000 words, you will meet “sergeant” one time. If you read about 473,000 words, you will meet “sergeant” about 10 times. The word “relativity” is a low-frequency word. If you read about 620,000 words, you will meet “relativity” one time. And to meet “relativity” 10 times, you need to read about 6,330,000 words.

Word Ranking Meet It 1 Time Meet It 10 Times
Present 500th 4,000 40,000
Sergeant 3,000th 47,000 473,000
Relativity 10,000th 620,000 6,330,000

Adapted from Waring (2007).

At first look, we may think that this data is just trivia. But it is actually practical. The data says, “We need high-frequency words first.” If we learn language as a child or by reading, we will probably acquire the top words first. Why? It’s because these words occur the most. But in language classes, teachers and texts might teach many mid-frequency or low frequency words first. And this will be a problem for learners because high frequency words are the foundation of vocabulary.

If learners study the top words first, they experience the cost/benefit principle (Nation, 2013). That is, they get the biggest benefit from learning the top words first. It’s like a discount sale at a store. But learners pay with effort and time. For high frequency words, learners get the biggest benefit for their time and effort. This means teachers need to know if students have acquired the top words (1-2000). We can use vocabulary levels tests to find out. (For example, see www.lextutor.ca/tests.)

Vocabulary Coverage

Let’s say that our students know the top 2,000 words. Then their vocabulary will cover 80% of the words in basically every text. This is good, but they need about 98% coverage to understand a text without a dictionary. So what should they do? If they want to do academic study, Nation (2013) suggests they learn the Academic Word List (AWL). This list has 570 words that are common in many kinds of academic texts. If students know the top 2,000 and the 570 from the AWL, then their vocabulary will cover 90% of an academic text.

The top 2,000 give 80% coverage. And the AWL gives another 10% jump. After this, students will have to take a lot of time to learn mid-frequency and low frequency words. But now we come to the big question. How can our students learn vocabulary? We can give three basic answers. (1) They can acquire vocabulary by communicating in English in the real world. Talk with friends. Watch movies. Communicate on social media. Live or study abroad. (2) They can read a lot. (3) They can study vocabulary with word cards or software. In what follows, let’s look at reading and vocabulary study.

How to Acquire Vocabulary

Learners can acquire a lot of vocabulary by reading. For native speakers, we know that reading a lot makes the biggest difference for vocabulary size. Reading is more important for vocabulary size than speaking and listening. Big readers know more vocabulary than people who do not read.

Second language learners can also acquire vocabulary by reading alone. But there is a condition. They have to read a lot. Let’s say a student knows the top 2,000 words. And he wants to learn 2,001 to 3,000. Nation (2015) says that he needs to read 300,000 words. And the texts need to be graded at the 3,000 word level. At a reading speed of 150 words per minute, this student will need to read for about 33 hours. Then, he will meet each word in the 2001 to 3,000 range about ten times. And generally, if he meets and understands each word about ten times, he will remember them.

Besides reading a lot, students can study vocabulary cards. For example, they can look at the AWL list, and make word cards for the words they do not know. They put the word on one side of the card and the translation on the other. For good results, they can study the word cards using spacing, retrieval, and interleaving. And ideally, these students will use these words in communication and meet them as they do extensive reading.

Words + ER RFS

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.