Trends in Vocabulary Instruction: Frequency Lists Rise in Popularity

What words do students need to learn? This question has been around as long as there have been langauge teachers and langauge classes. In my conversations with ESL teachers at community colleges and university IEPs, I have been hearing more and more interest in frequency lists to help answer the question of what words to teach.

What is a frequency List?
A frequency list presents the words that are used frequently in a given context. These are generated from large, principled databases called copora (sing. corpus). Corpora allow researchers to identify words, phrases, grammatical forms, etc., which are used by particular people in particular contexts. This is important because what is common usage in an academic textbook is not the same as what is common in a restaurant conversation.

Why the Rise in Popularity?
With a lot of linguistic research, it takes some time before real-world applications are apparent. With frequency lists, however, there is immediate application. Instructors can see which aspects of the English language are more prevalent in different registers and can make more informed decisions about their courses.

What are the Most Popular Frequency Lists?
Most Common Words in English–Most publishers and a few other websites have a list of the most common words across all registers. The top words in these lists tend to be function words like the or of. No one list has, so far, become the most definitive “most common” list.

The General Service List (West, 1953; revised by Bauman and Culligan, 1995) is a list of the 2000 words of most “general service” to learners of English. The GSL is not the most frequent 2000 words, but rather words that were considered to be the most valuable. This means that frequency was taken into account, but not only frequency in its creation.

The Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000) is a list of the most generally “academic” words in English. Coxhead analyzed college textbooks across a range of disciplines, deleted GSL words, and then selected only those words with the most usefulness in multiple academic subjects. Thus, the AWL is not a list of general English, nor is it a list of content terminology. Rather, it is a generally applicable list of academic English.

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One Response to Trends in Vocabulary Instruction: Frequency Lists Rise in Popularity

  1. One of the best sites for anyone interested in word lists and vocabulary profiling is Tom Cobb’s Lextutor site at – a fantastic resource. Also, word lists and corpus-informed approaches go hand in hand, so Mark Davies’ interface to the BNC, COCA and TIME corpora is worth getting to know at If you’re not that keen on statistics and KWIC output, then make a WORDLE at

    There is a tendency in the EFL/ESL world to treat word lists according to the ‘conventional’ terms of reference, i.e., a ‘general service list’ separate and distinct from an ‘academic word list’ as in the West (1953) and Coxhead (2000) example above. For a full discussion of this point, and the justification for concluding that such a distinction is of questionable merit and the subsequent pedagogical implications, see:

    Hancioglu, N., Neufeld, S., & Eldridge, J. (2008). Through the looking glass and into the land of lexico-grammar. English for Specific Purposes 27/4, 459-479 doi:10.1016/j.esp.2008.08.001

    There are many ‘myths’ about vocabulary learning and development that most of us have swallowed hook, line and sinker–one of them being that word lists are bad. In fact, it is the way many students use word lists that is not good. Keith Folse does an excellent job in debunking this myth, along with seven others in his book. Another good read:

    Folse, K. (2004). Vocabulary myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

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