Vocabulary – Does Size Matter?

We live in and by and through words. Baudelaire famously said, “Life is a forest of symbols”, meaning, we walk through life as we would walk through words.

Yet, though on one hand “words are mightier than the sword”. On the other hand, “Actions speak louder than words”. Which is it?

As a teacher, we face a similar dilemma in our classrooms. Do we teach students “words” or do we teach them “how to use words”. Which is more important? How to find the right balance? Ah, the tension of it all! And to wit, “Words – do they really matter?”. Doesn’t a lot else count and that past the first few thousand words, we get little pay off?

I’ve always found it fascinating how so many parents that I meet, want their children to have a large vocabulary. It is like a rooster and his comb. There is a strong belief that if you have a large vocabulary, the world is yours — all other kinds of problems are solved. You’ll make more money, you’ll climb up the social ladder, you’ll be healthier, you’ll have more friends, life is your oyster. Have a small vocabulary and you are a midget of the verbal world. Neglected and a circus oddity.

But is this true? And what does vocabulary size say for us teachers and our own practices? Let me know what you think.

I’m off on this diatribe and mental exercise after reading this morning’s New York Time’s, On Language column about vocabulary size. Also, after asking my students (teachers) about how many words they think a basically fluent second language speaker probably knows and getting answers no where near the mark!

IN short — here’s how the levels match up with vocabulary size for EFL (not ESL) students.

Level and Vocabulary Size


1500 – 2500

2750 – 3250

3250 – 3750

3750 – 4500

4500 – 5000

** But it takes getting to the magical 7-8,000 word level to really be advanced and fluent. Some studies have suggested that for studying in an English university where academic language is needed — we are looking at a vocabulary size of 12-13,000 words

I’ll begin by stating my own position. Probably different than all those lexicographers and vocab. specialists. I THINK VOCABULARY IS OVERRATED. I’m a big one for process and quality. How you say something is much more important than the words you use. Further, the majority of people on this planet DON”T have the vocabulary of Shakespeare or Eminem. And the goal being “communication”, does size really matter?

The growth of research into vocabulary frequency and corpus (here’s a good place to start) has truly been phenomenal. We now have an idea of word frequency in many settings. (Jonathan Harris’ Word Count for the internet is also very handy). But I think many researchers and teachers have become too enamored by words (and being a poet I know their ability to hypnotize, ensnare, enchant and woo). Here in Korea, I find too many students memorizing long lists of vocabulary in search of a holy grail. (given by teachers who also believe in this holy grail).

I’ve also witnessed the return of the lexical syllabus, books with sneaky agendas for “growing vocabularies”. Seems even the internet can be accused of promoting the view that vocabulary size = fluency. So many powerful sites dedicated just to learning vocabulary (many times out of context – here’s my list of bookmarks for some browsing).

Given all this – I still prefer a student with good communication skills and only 1,000 words of vocabulary over a student with a 5,000+ vocabulary that speaks choppily and with no “style”.

So my tips for the teachers in the trenches.

1. don’t focus on vocabulary size. Focus on meaningful production.

2. when learning words (as all beginners must), students should concentrate on verbs. They are the flypaper to which the flies (nouns) stick.

3. teach any vocabulary in context. Not randomly (like with a word search or a list). Teach it with a dialogue or by talking about a situation or using it for a real communicative act.

4. A word is not a word is not a word. Meaning, don’t teach just one definition. Use the same words in different contexts and environments. Knowing “x” number of words does not do anyone any good if they only think of a word as one thing. It isn’t. A word can mean many things, it collocates and is truly a camelion. Teach your students to appreciate this.

This video – though dated, is fascinating. What is a word. I’ll leave things at that…..nothing is certain in our field and I enjoy this marvelous feature of language!

PS. you might also try this test of the most frequent 100 words of English. Here’s my presentation of them all (use with your students)

PPS. If you want to test your student’s vocabulary size – you can’t go wrong with Paul Nation’s short tests. Also, see THIS DISCUSSION for many vocab. teaching resources including this Vocab size test – to find where your students rank (Korean version in the previous link).

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10 Responses

  1. I’m with you on this one, Dave.

    I could show you 1,000 different tools in a workshop and have you memorize the name and appearance of each one, but I wouldn’t be betting my money in any hurry that you could then fix my car…

    I thought the original line went “the pen is mightier than the sword” (not “words”), and if so, I think it correlates with the idea of action – expressing something. If I’ve got the original quote right, then the doctoring to “words are mightier than the sword” might be a fitting example of how communication has been sabotaged to create a focus on constituent parts, rather like trees over a forest.

    The super-size-me vocabulary approach in Korea was one I always struggled to deal with, particularly as a curriculum designer. In the end, I settled for the idea of saying (through my materials for my schools): “fine, you can learn as many words as you like, so long as you actually LEARN them.” To that end, my vocab books required students to not only spell and translate words, but also indicate their part of speech and forms, write them out in a full sentence drawn from their reading materials, and then write them out in meaningful sentences of their own.

    This turned out to be pretty handy, actually. Learners and parents got the message that there was far more to a word than a written form and direct translation, and that it required application and patience to explore the word properly and see and use it in meaningful sentences.

    Suddenly, the clamour for 100 words a day died down, because – essentially – they realized it’s not actually possible to *learn* that many words a day. 10-20 per day perhaps, with some real dedication.

    [Been meaning to get on here and comment for ages – glad I took some time out from online TOEFL essay checking to do so!]


  2. ddeubel says:


    Thanks for dropping in. I understand “checking”, got me a pile of stuff to do but instead burning the midnight oil tonight.

    First off, yes, you are correct. THE PEN is mightier than the sword. I was taking liberties with language. But also, there was an embedded pun meant by my slip of the pen that was not a slip. Meaning, “pen” is a word – so in reality, it is the “word” that is mightier. Okay, enough about how many angels dance on the head of lettuce….

    Yes, isn’t it frustrating! This lexical approach to language. Especially in Korea where they seem to equate vocabulary size with language growth. I guess it will take time to change. I do think even 10 words a day is too much! I prefer words to be like candies, one is good enough and you must suck on it long and draw out the flavors (various meanings).

    As the article suggests, even in our L1, people have the mistaken sense that language is created by words, built like a brick house by words. If you work with language many years, you realize it ain’t so. Words aren’t solid, nor rectangular and are rather slippery, translucent and may I say, organic. Nothing good for house building!

    But glad you educated the parents about the need to spend time elsewhere – that’s usually the biggest challenge, rewiring the paradigms of parents and others alike. but a good teacher does this and achieves more through this, than any lesson.

    Sorry for all the metaphors in my reply. As you can sense, I’m a really semiotician. Me, Eco and T.S. Eliot in a bathtub, mid Atlantic, would have a helluva time!

    Stein said, “A rose is a rose is a rose” but really it isn’t if you think of a rose as word….


  3. Katya says:

    Thank you for the article. It was mentioned at http://twitter.com/4qlearning

  4. bob says:

    FYI: Paul Nation’s vocabulary size test is now online at http://my.vocabularysize.com

  5. Russ says:

    A large vocabulary is not important. People can succeed in the world with small vocabularies and poor reading skills. I scored nearly perfectly on the GRE writing and verbal sections and have a vocabulary in the top 0.1 percent of people in the world. My vocation? SSI nutcase. Basically, I do nothing productive.

    All people need to do is develop great social skills and focus on the requisite coursework to complete a degree program that will give them in-demand skills. Socially, grandiloquent diction is pretentious and eschewed by most everybody. Politicians, writers, academics, lawyers, and few other vocations require a large vocabulary. Everybody else needs only the specialized diction of their trade. Anything else is superfluous and dead weight.

    As a secondary English educator with an expired license, I cannot look at teenagers with a straight face and tell them high school English is important.

  6. Russ says:

    I tried to post another comment but it was rejected because of a certain four-letter word. You gotta be kidding me. Regarding the 100 words a day being impossible comment I saw, I aver that it is possible to passively learn 100 words a day. However, adding that many words per day to one’s functional vocabulary is not possible. Most vocabulary “tests” measure passive vocabulary and many are not discriminating tests. In short, they are a waste of time.

  7. Lee Ann says:

    Hello, quick question….where did you get the data from about the vocab needed for each level?
    Thank you,
    Lee Ann

  8. ddeubel says:

    That’s a pretty common scale that has been used since the 80s. Find references here – http://bfy.tw/DEaa Original research by Alexiou and I forget …

  9. Lee Ann says:

    Great, thanks. I am doing some research on this topic and I was wondering if there was something more updated. Those numbers seem very conservative to me. Many say to be fluent you need 7-8,000 words. I will keep investigating. Thanks again.

  1. December 8, 2010

    […] 4. Vocabulary. Does Size Matter? […]

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