Why do T.P.R.S. teachers limit vocabulary?

The other day I saw a French resource from Madame Fifi publications.  Resource #61 from “French Chat Boosters” called “Je me brosse les dents.”  This is a vocab package all about reflexive verbs and daily routines (I get up, I wash, I sit down for breakfast, etc).  My guess is there’s about 450 words and expressions on this sheet.  The teacher using it told me that these are add-ons the kids can use to make more detail about their daily routine writing, conversations, etc.  All the verbs etc are given in present tense first person.

T.P.R.S. teachers look at stuff like this and say “no way, José!” because in TPRS we shelter (limit) vocab but not grammar.  Today’s question:  why do T.P.R.S. teachers limit vocabulary?

First, we know that the more we hear (or read) something we understand, the more likely we are to first remember what it means and then to say it.  It follows from this that if we really want to learn a vocab item– and since we have limited time in a classroom to deliver the target language– we want to provide fewer vocab items with more repetitions.  The more stuff, the less time per thing; the fewer things, the more time (per thing).

Second, we know that the brain processes about 400,000,000,000 of info per second, but we are only consciously aware of about 2,000 of those.  In other words, most mental processing is subconscious.  If this is the case, we need to address most teaching to the subconscious.  But since we can only access the subconscious via the conscious– vocab must initially pass through the “gateway” of the conscious mind (on the board, written, translated, etc)– we have to limit what goes in.  Too much “input” will overwhelm the conscious processing part of the brain, and mean that less “stuff” will get into the long-term, subconscious memory and processing.

Third, there is the frequency problem.  85% of all vocab– in any language– is 1,000 words.  Basic fluency in any language is about 700 words.  We are much better off just teaching the basics– and getting kids fluent– than we are “presenting” them with loads and loads of vocab.  My Avancemos text, for example– which “covers” Level 1 and 2 Spanish– has about 1,800 words in it.  Avancemos II (Level 3 and 4) has another about 2,000.  Why bother?  Who cares if Johnny doesn’t learn the words for “he washes his face” and “vacuum cleaner”?  Johnny sure won’t when he gets to Argentina.

Those who object that “well kids will see a lot more vocab than they will acquire, so we must “cover” more vocab” are half right.  But it’s a six-of-one vs half-a-dozen-of-the-other problem.  Sure, you could get people to recognise more vocab…but then they will have less to say because they have spent less time on the vocab they do have.  And would they recognise more vocab?  Maybe…but the less time spent on each item, the less likely people are to remember it.

Fourth, there is the interest problem.  Most traditional, communicative teaching has “themes” in “units.”  Food, shopping, daily routine, sports etc, each with its attendant grammar rules.  The problem is boredom.  How do you make discussion of one subject, in one verb tense/mood etc, interesting for 3 weeks at a time?  When was the last time you spent 10 hours discussing, say, sports, using only the passé composée and direct object pronouns?  It appears that this would become boring…and it does…so texts and teachers introduce a ton of vocab to make it more interesting.  If we have 30 sports to discuss, that’s better than 5.  But the problem is, what do you do with all this vocab?  The answer, sadly, is often just more of the same.

T.P.R.S. gets around the interest problem by doing everything together and by limiting thematic vocab.  Sure, we can ask a “food themed” story– I do– but I’ll only introduce say five high-frequency items and maybe one verb (pedir, to order/ask for).  Plus, the story will have funny (I hope) details– mine has the protagonists being served fried spiders etc by Ryan Gosling– and suspense.  Will Rochelle and Chelsea find food?  Will server Channing Tatum get their order right?  Plus, when I am done, I can always throw some food vocab into every subsequent story, the way I can throw whatever I want– as long as its comprehensible– into every story.  Next story I do, my characters will stop in at Ihop and order some fries on their way to ___ .

Which of the following is more interesting?

(a) giving kids a list of vocab, having them ask each other “do you ____?”, having them watch a video where people say/do the vocab, giving worksheets, etc, now discuss ____ and then write about ____ .  Oh and there’s a “vocab quiz to make you study and learn vocab” and a unit test at the end.  If this is a typical communicative unit, it iwll have 60 new words.

(b) asking a story where Snoop Dogg and 2-Chainz go out to eat tacos and their server is Justin Bieber, but he keeps screwing up the order because your student, Susie (who is in love with Justin Bieber) keeps distracting Justin.  The extended/embedded readings use the same vocab…but this time it’s Johnny dining at A&W and Lady Gaga is the countergirl who serves burned dinosaur burgers…BTW this story can be asked using say 8 new words and 25 the kids already know.

Which is more interesting for the kids to listen to, and act in?  Which is more likely to be remembered and acquired?  Which is lower stress?

We limit vocab– but not grammar– to make sure people really acquire the essentials.  After four years of good T.P.R.S., kids should have 1,000 or so words acquired…and be ready for France, Mexico, China, Germany, etc.



  1. “My Avancemos text, for example– which “covers” Level 1 and 2 Spanish– has about 1,800 words in it. ”
    I was wondering how you arrived at 1800 words. I use the Avancemos I. I did a count of vocab listed at the end of sections and counted 629. I then added pronouns, irregular verb forms, etc, which are listed at the bottom of that page and got the total up to 847. I counted 1218 words in the glossary. I was wondering if you have a different edition. (Mine is 2007)

  2. Hi Nathaneil–

    I just checked my Avancemos and I got about 1200 words (ie everything in the teacher edition glossary). You are right. I’ll have to edit the post.
    My contentions stand:

    a) this is a text used for Level 1 and 2 Spanish (in my District) and 1200 words– over two years– is WAY too much vocab. If you have 3-4 years to teach kids Spanish, we should be aiming at 750-1000 most-used words, so about 250-320 per year. More words = less time per word = lower retention.

    b) there’s a lot of vocab that’s not high-frequency, i.e. not in the top 1000 words or so. It is my view that we should be teaching highest-frequency vocab above all else. I don’t see thepoint in teaching low-frequency vocab.

    1. Thanks for checking Chris. I agree with your article and wanted the facts correct as this is one of our textbooks.

      In fact, I referred to your article in a note to my coordinator mentioning the 700/1000 words for fluency/85%. She said it made sense to her. The question that we must now deal with is what is most frequent.

      Bryce Hedstrom has a list of 400 which is derived from http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:Frequency_lists/Spanish1000. This list counts different verb forms as different words. It seems that this is the way the brain receive input and unconsciously draws grammatical conclusions from that data. I am wondering if other lists (viz., those from which the stats are drawn that say that we do 85% w/1000 words) count each form (querer/quería/quiere/etc) as distinct or if the lemma (querer and all its forms) count as one word.

      What really stands out is that the most frequent word in Spanish is “que.” You would not know this from textbooks. That is why Blaine’s stories are so powerful. “que” is the fourth word of his first story and that is just the beginning of his repeated employment of this most frequent word.

  3. Good question. I dunno. I think the frequency lists probably count each form of a verb as a new word. What is pretty clear is that there are, say, 800 things used more often than the word “nineteen.”

    There are a few qualifiers here:

    (a) a lot of this doesn’t really need to be “taught” in the sense of having lessons directed at it. Things like #s, pronouns, colours, dates etc can be thrown easily and repetitively into the background of stories. This will free us up to use more kid-generated (and therefore interesting) vocab.

    (b) there’s gonna be local variations in what gets taught. I can imagine people from Edmonton wanting to know words like “snow” and “prairie” more than people from Southern California.

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