Frequency Lessons #2: What Really Matters?

Thought experiment, and neat discussion item for Defartment Meetingz, or Headz or Adminz who don’t understand why Textbookz are the devil in disguise. 

First, read the following lists.  These are English equivalents of Spanish words from Wiktionary.com’s frequency list. If you are using this with colleagues, don’t at first tell them where you got the words. 

List A: welcome, together, window, comes, red

List B: went, that he be, world, shit, that she had gone out

First, you could think about what these lists have in common, how they differ, etc. 

Second, anwer this question: which words will be the most useful for students in the real world?

The obvious answer is List A. After all, we always “welcome” people, kids need to know words for classroom stuff like “windows,” we set the tone for classes by working peacefully “together,” and common sense suggests that “comes” and colours such as “red” are super-important. 

The List B words are, obviously, either less immediately useful or “advanced” (ie textbook level 4 or 5) grammar. 

Now here’s the surprise for us and our colleagues: the List B words are all in the 200 most-used Spanish words, while none of the List A words are in the 1000 most-used Spanish words.

What I got from this was, first, that what is obvious isn’t necessarily true, and second that a sequenced plan of instruction (eg from “simple” to “complex” grammar) would majorly short-change students for their real-world Spanish experiences. 

The textbook, or the doddering grammarian (or even the smiley new school grammarian with their apps, feedback gadgetry, evidence of learning portfolios, self-reflections bla bla bla) will see language acquisition as a set of skills that we master one rule set or vocab set at a time, starting with simplest and going to “more complex.” However, what people need to actually function in México or Spain is, well, high-frequency vocabulary, as much of it as possible. Why is this? Two simple reasons. 

First, high-freq vocab is what one hears most. Knowing it means getting the functional basics and feeling good because you can understand lots. If you easily understand lots of the target language, you can function even if– as is always the case– you can’t speak as much as you understand. When I’m in Mexico and I can’t say blablabla, I can gesture, point, use other words etc. Never yet had a problem with getting my point across, but I’m always wishing I understood more. 

Second, high-freq vocab builds the “acquistional platform.” When our students are finally in a Spanish or Mandarin environment, knowing high-freq vocab reduces the processing load for new input. If students already know a high-frequency sentence such as I wanted that he had been nicer (in Spanish quería que estuviera/fuera más amable), it will be much easier to figure out what I wanted that she had been more engaging means, because we only have to really focus on the word engaging

This is the acquisition platform: when we have the basics (high-freq words and grammar) wired in, it gets steadily easier to pick up new words. 

Anyway…be curious to see what ppl and their colleagues think of this. OH WAIT I FORGOT THE DEVIL 😈. Textbooks. Well the basic prob with texts here is that they don’t even close to introduce words along frequency lines, as I have noted elsewhere

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6 comments

  1. Excellent thoughts. Last year was my first year teaching. The textbooks did not arrive at my school until January. By that time I had organized my teaching (although not TPRS), but I did use a lot of CI and had my students listening to and practicing common expressions. When the textbooks arrived I browsed through them and thought that it would not cut it. I simply had them on the shelves and used them only when I had to have a sub. Since I don’t trust subs to use MY materials, I simply left them a written activity based on readings from the book.

  2. The question that should be asked is what difference (statistically) is there between word no. 50 and word no. 500. Rankings on a list are relative, not absolute. We should not be slaves to a list any more than to a vocab-laden textbook.

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