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What language should we be teaching?

© GETTYAndrew Walkley and Hugh Dellar run London Language Lab, an English-language school in central London. They are also the authors of Teaching Lexically and the coursebook series Outcomes.


It is estimated that the average educated speaker knows at least 35,000 words, a figure which is obviously quite daunting for those learning English. Even the lower figure of around 10,000 words for good non-native speaker students is pretty scary – and it’s no less so for teachers, who have limited time in class and clearly can’t teach all of these words, let alone all the combinations, phrases and word grammar that form part of knowing the words. Often, the understandable response is to focus more on grammar and leave vocabulary for students to do at home. However, this sends the wrong message about what really drives language development (vocabulary) and also suggests that the words students learn can simply slot into the grammar that’s taught. Instead, vocabulary should be at the heart of any language class. Furthermore, teaching needs to reflect the complexity of vocabulary beyond single words and translations. One implication of this, for example, is that teachers may start being more critical of the vocabulary presented in materials and making alternative choices about what language to focus on.

Frequent words with their most frequent collocations
Teaching frequent words not only enables students to read and speak better, but it also means they are more likely to get the multiple encounters over time that lead to words becoming part of students’ mental lexicons. This game helps develop awareness of frequency. It is surprising how some words of very high frequency rarely – if ever – get taught at low levels, and there is also some evidence that students do not get enough mid-ranking frequent words at Intermediate level and above.

If you also teach these with their most common collocates, which you can find in many of the Macmillan Dictionary entries, you’re likely to increase the number of encounters with other individual words as well as showing usage.

Grammar words as vocabulary chunks
Words like been and went are among the most common words in English, yet are badly undertaught and recycled at low levels. If you are teaching low levels, look to teach these as part of vocabulary chunks such ‘Have you been to…’ and ‘I went to …’ .

Relevant to your students’ interests and needs
Having said this, frequency is not as simple as it looks. Frequency counts are usually based on single words and don’t account for varied meanings. So while set is incredibly common, how frequent is He won the first set 6-0? It depends a bit on whether you like tennis, obviously! Similarly, words which may be less common in general may be incredibly useful to some students. It may also be the case that you want to teach some less frequent collocations that help students fulfil an important task or immediate need.

Vocabulary within a network
One way of anticipating language students will need is to think about the language within anecdotes students might tell or within conversations they will have. Many vocabulary exercises present vocabulary in sets such as ‘crimes’. However, if students want to make use of a word like ‘get mugged’ in such a set, they may well need words and phrases such as came up to me, grabbed my bag, ran off, claimed it back on the insurance, reported it to the police, and so on – words that may not be presented in materials.

What your students actually try to say!
Finally, classes should always provide opportunities for students to try and express their thoughts, ideas and feelings. While we can make good choices about what to teach by thinking about possible conversations and stories, students will sometimes want to say things you hadn’t thought of and which may also require less frequent words. In these instances, follow the students. You may end up teaching something they want to regularly say, but this will also give value to speaking activities and show how they can lead to new learning.

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Andrew Walkley

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