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Vocabulary Size: Is Bigger Better?

Published: April 26, 2017

Publishers of ESL curricula have long touted the size of their comparative vocabulary lists, implying "bigger is better". To bolster the perception of program quality, the goal becomes "how many words can we teach?". But there’s little connection between size of vocabulary lists and fluency in the language.

Consider this: a student can learn thousands of English words and still be unable to verbally express a complete thought!

Focusing on vocabulary more than fluency results in much learning and little communicative ability. Memorizing and reciting vocabulary lists gives only the illusion of making progress in the language.

Let’s remember the goal is proficiency. The focus should not be on how many words the student can learn, but on how she can most effectively understand and utilize the words for actual communication. This is a dramatically different way of looking at the role of vocabulary in language development!

The Role of Vocabulary in a Language Program

To become proficient in any language, several areas of learning are required. The most important is the development of the ways in which language is used to accomplish verbal tasks. When it comes to communicative ability, one must always think "function first."

We need vocabulary in order to accomplish a language function, and vocabulary ultimately determines the level of maturity (or proficiency) with which a person can speak. So how does vocabulary fit into a successful curriculum? Ideally, vocabulary will be:

  1. Focused and progressive – vocabulary prioritized according to importance and frequency of use
  2. Fully integrated – vocabulary reinforced in every classroom activity, song, chant, poem and story
  3. Computer-controlled – each word tracked from comprehension to reading and writing to ensure sufficient exposure to assure learning
  4. Systematically reviewed – words deliberately reviewed in onward lessons, ensuring retention (the most important words experienced tens of thousands of times)
  5. Carefully selected – vocabulary chosen from the language functions vital to communication

Focus on Communication Rather than Memorizing Vocabulary Lists

Building communicative ability with fewer words lays the foundation for basic fluency, incremental growth, and eventual proficiency. When the communicative patterns are established, vocabulary is easily and naturally added with more experience in the language.

So, is bigger better when it comes to vocabulary? Yes, but it will come at the right time in support of the real goal, which is fluency. Vocabulary might get the award for best supporting actor, but the star of the show is the strategic framework of language patterns needed for fluency.

To learn more about how GrapeSEED can give students the opportunity to use many words for a lifetime of excellence in the English language, Contact us!

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