This past March I attended the TESOL 2017 conference in Seattle. While there, I sat in on many sessions, focusing mainly on vocabulary, reading comprehension, and practical activities for the classroom. One of the best research-focused sessions that I went to was by Scott Douglas from the University of British Columbia. He was presenting on the lexical needs of University bound ESL students in order to be successful with the reading and writing demands of their studies. I found this session to be eye opening and very engaging because I had never before thought about vocabulary in terms of word families needed or the fact that the vocabulary needs for reading may differ from the vocabulary needs for writing. Below I give a brief summary of the main points of his presentation. If you find it interesting and want to learn a bit more or discuss it further, I will be presenting the information at the Winter 2018 PED as well as adding the full reference list from the presentation to this post.

As we are all aware, students need to learn a lot of vocabulary to be successful at the University level in the U.S. (and I am sure other countries), and the words that they need to learn are not static; they change depending on a variety of things. Therefore, students need to be aware of whole word families as well as the many different meanings one word can have.

A typical college bound 18-year-old in the U.S has around 18,000 word families at their disposal (Nation, 2001) and they learn +/- 5,000 more during their undergraduate studies (Zechmeister et al., 1995). While this is a daunting number of word families, fortunately, ESL students do not have to learn this many to be successful in their own studies. This is because of the Lexical Frequency Principle, which basically means that some words are used more often than others, so students should focus on those higher frequency words first.

The General Service List (GSL) and the Academic Word List (AWL) are both word family lists that help teachers and students focus on the word families that are used most often in English. Together they make up the first 2,570 word families that students should learn/are taught. Also, together they make up around 86% of the words in an average academic text. 86% sounds like a god portion of a text, right? However, to be successful with reading comprehension, without getting frustrated and discouraged, one needs knowledge of around 98% of the text (Hu and Nation, 2000; Nation, 2001). This is for fully independent reading without the aid of an instructor and students would need to know around 8,500 word families. With a good instructor and some classroom help students still need to know around 95% of the text for good comprehension to occur, which is around 4,500 word families. To break this down further the following bullet list shows how often a student would need to look up a word in the dictionary at the varying word family levels:

  • 2,570 Word Families (The Struggle Level)
    • Encounter an unfamiliar word ≈ 1 in 7 times (86%)
  • 4,000 – 5,000 Word Families (The Instructional Level)
    • Encounter an unfamiliar word ≈ 1 in 20 times (95%)
  • 8,000 – 9,000 Word Families (The Independent Level)
    • Encounter an unfamiliar word ≈ 1 in 50 times (98%)

(Douglas, 2013)

Now let’s look briefly at vocabulary thresholds for writing. Knowledge of vocabulary is important for writing because it has been shown that low rated writing is usually partnered with simple vocabulary. How often students need to look for a word and how many ways a student knows how to write about the same information directly impacts their writing scores. With the GSL and the AWL students will have 94% of the vocabulary needed for a well written academic essay. This is lower than the reading threshold which may be why students at INTO are often struggling more with their reading than their writing scores. The following bulleted list shows the levels for how often a student would need to stop writing to look up a word in the dictionary while completing an academic assignment:

  • 2,000 Word Families (Struggle Level)
    • Stop writing ≈ 1 in 8 times to search for a word (88%)
  • 3,200 Word Families (Instructional Level)
    • Stop writing ≈ 1 in 20 times to search for a word (95%)
  • 5,300 Word Families (Independent Level)
    • Stop writing ≈ 1 in 50 times to search for a word (98%)

(Douglas, 2013)

The chart below summarizes the thresholds together (as cited in Douglas, 2017)

Word Families Reading Writing
2,000 76% 88%
2,570 86% 94%
3,000 95%
4,000-5,000 95%
5,000 98%
8,000-9,000 98%
12,000 100% (est.)
14,000 100% (est.)

In sum, vocabulary proficiency with students can directly impact their ability to be successful in their university studies. While vocabulary is just one thread of many in overall language proficiency, it is helpful for our own instruction to be aware of students’ vocabulary needs for their future endeavors. This information can help us come up with realistic goals and practical guidelines for reaching the level of vocabulary coverage students need (Douglas, 2017). Most importantly, teachers should focus on the automatization of the word families below the Struggle Level thresholds in order to help free up students’ cognitive space and help them engage in the lessons, whether the task is reading or writing.

Full Reference list from TESOL 2017 presentation:

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One thought on “ESL Vocabulary Thresholds that Support University Student Success: What I Learned at TESOL 2017

  1. Thank you for the information, Haley! The Academic English vocabulary list was generated from the most frequently used items on the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which were then cross-referenced with the CEFR.


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