Vocabulary Resources for Material Writers
From The Materials Writers Newsletter
The Newsletter of the Materials Writers' National Special Interest Group
of the Japan Association of Language Teachers
Vol. IV, No. 3, October 1996
Enterprise Training Group
Material written for ESL students needs to use somewhat simplified
vocabulary and structure if it is to be accessible to lower and intermediate
level students. In terms of vocabulary, a writer can try to "keep it simple"
while writing, but a more rigorous approach is to compare a text with a list
of words prepared for this purpose. A variety of lists of words are
available, as well as different ways to use them. In this article, I will
briefly list and describe some lists. I'll also discuss a program that will
analyze a text and give some links for further exploration of this topic on
the internet. Links to sites mentioned are given in the "Web Links" section
at the end of this article.
Teaching and Learning Vocabulary (Nation 1990) contains a good
general discussion of this topic. Nation doesn't hesitate to quantify the issue.
His model of an ideal vocabulary teaching sequence starts with the most
frequent 2,000 words, which he calls general service vocabulary. Everybody
needs to know these words; they make up about 87% of an average
written text. After this point, general frequency becomes less useful as a
guide to what words to teach. Students are better off studying a list of
words specific to their field of interest or need, if one can be found. For
the student aiming at English-language higher education, Nation's 800 word
University Word List is appropriate. After this, the remaining vocabulary of
English is of too little frequency to merit direct study. Skills such as
analyzing word parts, context guessing, etc. can be taught.
The number of different words used will depend on the level of the text. Writers
of material for ESL learners also have to decide which words to use, or, in a
larger sense, to which population of words should they restrict themselves. Here
a list becomes necessary. Many have been developed over the years. The
following remain relevant.
The General Service List
The General Service List (GSL)(West 1953) is the specific list of 2,000
words that Nation refers to when he writes about the "first 2,000 words."
It's based on written texts, it's old, and it's not in frequency order, though
frequency numbers are given. The source of the frequency information is even
earlier than the publication date, being derived from Thorndike and Lorge (1944).
But the list was not compiled based on frequency alone. It was created to be
an ideal vocabulary for ESL students to start out with. Through the 1970s, a
lot of material, particularly graded readers, was based on this list. Even today,
much of this material is sold and used. The GSL is out of print, and somewhat
out of favor. The list is available as a component of the Vocabprofile program
described below and, in a slightly different form, on this web page.
Thorndike and Lorge
The Teacher's Word Book of 30,000 Words (Thorndike and Lorge, 1944) was
created as a resource for elementary and high school teachers in the United
States. It is still frequently cited, though computer-produced corpora have largely replaced it as an authority on the frequency of words. For example, it's the
source of the words above the 2,000 word level in the vocabulary test in
Nation (1990). It's old, it's based on a compilation of pre-WW2, non-computerized
word counts totaling about 18 million written words. As published, it's not in
frequency order, but frequency ranks are given for each word.
The University Word List
The University Word List (UWL)(in Nation, 1990) is a list of academic
vocabulary composed of about 800 words. It's designed for students who plan
to study in an English-language college or university. Essentially, it's the
most common 800 words in academic texts, excluding the 2,000 words of the
GSL. This list is structurally linked to the GSL. A student who studies the
GSL, followed by the UWL, will find no repetition of words. The
list is divided into 11 parts. Part one has the greatest frequency and
range, part 2 next, etc. This list is also a component of the Vocabprofile
The Brown Corpus
The Brown Corpus (Francis and Kucera, 1982) is the earliest computerized study
of English vocabulary. It is an analysis of 1 million words published in the
United States in 1961. It's also kind of old, but it's more consistent in it's
definition of "word" (as a lemma) than the earlier lists. The 1982 publication,
which includes both alphabetical and frequency order lists of the words, is a
very useful resource.
The LOB Corpus
The LOB Corpus (Hofland and Johansson, 1982) is a study of 1 million words
of British text published in 1961. It was designed to be a British
counterpart to the Brown corpus.
The Cambridge English Lexicon
The Cambridge English Lexicon (CEL) (Hindmarsh, 1980) is a list of 4470
words, prepared with reference to the GSL, Thorndike and Lorge, Brown, other
sources, and the author's experience as an ESL teacher and material
developer. Each item is graded from 1 to 5. The most useful aspect of the
list is that the different meanings of the words are also graded on the same
scale. Only the CEL and the GSL give separate information on the different
meanings of common words (though, of course, dictionaries do also). The GSL
gives actual frequency numbers for the different meanings, but the age of
the data and the fact that it was gathered by hand may make the CEL a
more reliable source for an indication of the relative importance to students of
different meanings of words. The grading in the CEL is not based solely on
These days, much is heard about corpora from dictionary
publishers, who all boast about the enormous corpora that their learner
dictionaries are based on. The British publishers are particularly
enthusiastic about this, using either the CoBuild corpus or the British
National Corpus (BNC) as a source of lexicographic information. Both of
these corpora contain more than 100 million words. Limited access to them is
possible through the internet, see the links on the Collocations Homepage
listed below. Depending on your purpose, it may be more useful to access
these corpora in pre-digested form through the dictionaries based on them. A
lemmatized frequency list of the BNC has been prepared by Adam Kilgarriff
and is available for FTP.
Vocabprofile is a freeware program for PCs that will compare a given text
with any properly formatted list. Three lists can be done at a time. The
output will report what percent of the words in the text are on each of the
lists. It will also print the text with the words marked to indicate which
list they are on, or if they aren't on a list. Vocabprofile is available for
FTP at the URL below. The three lists that come with the program are the
first 1,000 words of the GSL, the second 1,000 words of the GSL and the UWL.
None of these resources is ideal. Thorndike and Lorge and the GSL are old, old
enough that the English of today surely differs significantly. However, the
core vocabulary of English changes more slowly, so at the frequency level of
the first 2,000 words this may be less of a problem. The GSL offers some
advantages as a standard. It was specifically designed as a teaching vocabulary
list. It has a long history of use, both in teaching materials and in second
language acquisition research. A program to compare it with a given text is
readily available. Of the lists above, only the CEL was also compiled for the
purpose of facilitating the creation of teaching materials. It's more modern
than the GSL, but appears to have had less impact. It is not conveniently
available for computerized text comparison.
The Brown Corpus, the LOB Corpus and the lemmatized list from the BNC are
useful because they give the lists in frequency order. This allows a
population of words to be defined much more precisely, and individual words
to be compared with each other. But these lists were prepared for linguistic
research, not teachers. They're lists of lemmas, which means that words are
listed more than once if they can act as more than one part of speech. Some
derived forms are also considered as separate lemmas, such as comparative
and superlative forms of adjectives. These factors affect both the frequency
rankings of words and the number of words that appear on a list. In other
words, a list of 1,000 words taken from the GSL or CEL would contain more
than 1,000 lemmas. These corpus-based lists need substantial adjustment to
make them appropriate as vocabulary standards. These adjustments have
already been made to the GSL and CEL.
An author of EFL material has many vocabulary options available. I hope this
discussion of resources is useful and that the bibliography and the internet
sites below will be helpful in finding the items that will serve your
Links to sites mentioned
Links to his lemmatized, frequency order version of the BNC are here.
Here you can find Vocabprofile as well as links to other programs.
Francis, W.N. and Kucera, H. (1982).Frequency Analysis of English Usage. Houghton Mifflin, Boston
Hindmarsh, R. (1980). Cambridge English Lexicon. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Hofland, K. and Johansson, S. (1982). Word Frequencies in British and American English. NAVF, Bergen
Nation, I.S.P. (1990). Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Newbury House, New York
Thorndike, E.L. and Lorge, I. (1944). The teacher's Word Book of 30,000 Words. Teachers College, Columbia University, New York
West, M. (1953). A General Service List of English Words. Longman, London
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