English Words | UCT English Language Centre

When it comes to language, one can never have too many words. According to BNC (British National Corpus), the English language has over 100 million words, both spoken and written. I think that I can honestly say that no native speaker will know all of the words registered in the BNC, so how many words do we need to know? Better yet, how many words do our foreign learners need? Thornbury (2002) mentions that students need approximately:

ÔÇó Between 1,000 to 2,000 high-frequency words for basic conversation and everyday texts.
ÔÇó More or less 8,000 words for advanced conversation.
ÔÇó In the region of 10,000 to 20,000-word families (excluding fixed phrases and expressions) to read at a university level.

That is a whole lot of words to learn and remember. Luckily, it is safe to say that as a teacher, I do not expect students to remember the exact meaning of 10,000 words, however, I do encourage students to make an effort to be more aware of word families. The reason for this is that when a student sees it in a text or hears it in a conversation, they should be able to guess the meaning from context rather than breaking themselves over one word they didn’t recognize. After all the primary purpose of language is communication.

Therefore students and teachers alike should encourage students from a low level to start recording vocabulary correctly. Personally, I like to use a word family table. (see Fig. 1)

DecisionTo decideDecisiveDecisivelyIndecisive

The table can be changed according to level by adding more columns, for example prefixes and suffixes, synonyms etc.

Practice: Teachers should encourage students by giving them a weekly (achievable) target of vocabulary. It can be vocabulary from a course book or vocabulary that pops up in class. If students are not aware of using a dictionary, it can make a good lesson to teach students on how to use a dictionary.

It is important to recycle vocabulary, so try to do some informal exercise where students have the opportunity to use the vocabulary at least once a week. I find that a board race or spelling Bee works, and students find it very competitive and fun.

Good luck and happy learning!

British National Corpus (BNC)
Thornbury, S. (2002), How to teach Vocabulary, Pearson and Longman

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