Which words should we teach?

Nathaneil recently corrected my Avancemos word count (thanks!) and this raised the question, which words should we be teaching in a foreign-language classroom?  As I’ve said before, we should be aiming at teaching appr.250 words/year, and over four years 1,000 words.

There are a couple of answers to this question.

a)  According to Stephen Krashen, we should be teaching whatever interests the students.  Input that is comprehensible, compelling (and can be repeated zillions oftimes) is the holy grail of foreign language teaching.

b)  We should be teaching the most-frequently-used words in our target language.

Paul Nation (2006) has compiled a Spanish frequency list.  You can see onlne versions for Spanish, French and other languages here.  Here’s some info that totally shocked me.

1.  85% of all the words spoken in any language are about 1,000 words.  I.e., if you looked at speech– from people, films, radio, etc– in any language, 85% of the words used would be the same 1,000 words.   The other 15% of words are used much less frequently.

2.  In Spanish, the 100 most-used words include verbs in four tenses.  In the top 200 most-used words, there are verbs in FIVE verb tenses plus the subjunctive mood.

3.  In Spanish, the only numbers in the top 100 are one and two, and the only greeting/goodbye is “hello.”  “Goodbye” is at # 315!

4. Top 200 words include no colours, weather expressions, days of the week, food items, months or sports.

Here are some word-frequency rankings from Davies’ A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish (2006). Words are translated to English.  The numbers in brackets indicate the rank of how often the word is used.  The higher the #, the less frequently the word is used.

  • Animals: (780) horse, (4,945) elephant
  • Body: (150) hand, (2,407) ear
  • Clothing: (1,710) suit, (4,427) t-shirt
  • Colors: (250) white, (8225) orange
  • Days: (1,121) Sunday, (3490) Tuesday
  • Family: (166) son, (5,071) niece
  • Food: (787) meat, (7602) carrot
  • Months: (1,244) August, (2,574) September
  • Sports: (2,513) soccer, (28,388) hockey
  • Weather: (989) heat, (5493) breeze

So…what should we teach?  The evidence is pretty clear:  frequently-used vocab.

How weird are textbooks?  Well, you’ll spend a few days (as a beginner) learning hellos and goodbyes.  You’ll almost certainly spend some time on numbers, weather, clothing, family etc units..even though none of these are in the top 200!  Avancemos spends Unit 1 on time, numbers, hellos and goodbyes, and introductions.  OK, ok.  We do need to know these…but, seriously, how boring is it to spend 2-3 days on this.  “Hello” is not interesting.  “Hello, my name is Sharkeisha, and I want to buy 39 pitbulls for my birthday” is interesting, especially when it’s part of a story.  And when it’s part of a story, we focus on the meaning– who is Sharkeisha? will she get her pitbulls? will her party be fun?– and we effortlessly pick up “hello” (once we know what it means) as part of background to a story.

I remember when I was a traditional, “communicative” teacher and I dutifully made games and “activities” to teach these things.  I had to, because they are little-used and boring.  Now, with T.P.R.S., I just throw them randomly into stories as background, and I can focus kids on the things we most use, and keep them interested by using stories with real chaarcters and problems (and humor).

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