Six critical questions about word frequency

Is it time to ask some questions about frequency?

If you have been to a conference or read magazines or journals about English Language Teaching recently you cannot fail to have seen or read something about the most frequent words in English. Since the arrival of large corpuses of language (one of the first major ones being the Collins Cobuild Corpus) we now have access to vast amounts of data about how people actually use English. Dictionary and grammar books are constantly updating now to reflect this information. And teachers are being encouraged to follow this trend and prioritise their teaching accordingly. Probably where it is having most effect is in the world of materials writing. There are, however, some things that have had me wonder a bit about this latest “frequency fashion”. Here are six critical questions I’ve been pondering about it.

1. Are the most frequent words really the most useful? I can see the logic in this statement, but when I see the list of the top six words for example my first thought is…so what? As a teacher, this doesn’t shout “must go into class and tell them” because I don’t think it will be that useful. 

2. Is the teacher’s intuition wrong when it comes to frequency? I’ve heard the argument about teachers’ intuition when it comes to frequency – that it’s unreliable. A cynic could say that this conveniently justifies experts and corpuses and so on. Again, I agree in part but the “here be monsters” tone of this statement makes me think of the whole issue of false friends. I think we sometimes focus so much on linguistic false friends (a minority of words) that we are blind to the “real friends” which, especially if your students speak a Latinate language, are far more numerous. Returning to the original question, a teacher’s intuition is, I suspect, far more often correct than incorrect when it comes to frequency (there have been some studies that confirm this, in fact it could be correct up to 80% of the time). Use your intuition, which is more frequent: Hello or Salutations?

3. Whose frequency is being used? A lot depends on which corpus you are going to use. One dictionary I have lists “lovely” as one of the most frequent words but it certainly isn’t for me or millions of other North Americans. Same problem if you’re a British teacher in Asia using a North American book based on American corpus information. And this is only at a macro level of British/American English. Whose English was recorded for the corpus? Mostly educated people? Middle-class people? Urban dwellers? Men? Women?

4. Whose frequency is being used? (2). Instep and heel aren’t that frequent for most people, but they are for the shoemakers I taught in a small town in Spain who needed English for a trade fair. I couldn’t find a corpus for this, so I had to fall back on the old unreliable intuition of myself and my students of what was most useful.

5. What if some words in a set are more frequent than others? Did you know that Monday and Friday are more frequent than Thursday and Wednesday? Does that mean you only teach two days of the week first (the most frequent) and leave the others for later since they are less used? Of course not. Well, I wouldn’t anyway.

6. What about taboo words? Lots of the frequency lists I’ve seen in books tend to be a bit coy about swear words. How frequent is fuck or shit? I was at a talk once where a list of frequent expressions was presented as a big deal that should govern our teaching more but the speaker mentioned that he had omitted swear words “so as not to offend sensitivities”. Well, that’s a pedagogical decision and if we are making such decisions about taboo words then we can about others.

So, my feeling is that frequency lists provide interesting information (to some) and help give a clearer picture of how English is being used and how it is changing. This is important for dictionaries and grammar books, and published teaching materials that want to reflect language in the way it is used. But I also believe that the teacher and students are still the best judges of what is useful for their particular context. That is, this information needs to be mediated like everything else that filters down from linguistics to the language classroom. The frequency fashion isn’t likely to go away, but don’t let it blind you to good teaching!

Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 3:49 pm  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You have very well put some questions (that some other colleagues and I have asked ourselves)on teaching frequency words…Same thing, say, goes for discourse patterns…what’s the use of teaching them if the students do not have the appropriate linguistic tools or basic reading strategies/skills to do so…I believe whichever approach, trend, theory related to ELT just shed light on which way sort of go in the language classroom…All this will work or not or will have to be adapted depending on where you teach, who you teach, resources available and so forth.

    • Well said Miguel, thanks very much for the comment!

  2. Hi Lindsay,
    it’s been awhile and I’ve taken some time off from my blog due to my hectic schedule but felt tempted to put my two cents in so here it goes.

    I believe corpora had a major influence on vocabulary and grammar materials and syllabuses. In the area of grammar, it created a focus on patterns of grammar that emerge from words, as opposed to the other way around.

    In addition to using computer software to tell us the order of single-word frequencies, we can also ask it to order combinations, or chunks, of words. For example, we can ask for all of the two-word (you know, I mean), three-word (on the way), four-word (know what I mean), five-word (you know what I mean), or six-word (at the end of the day) chunk lists. These give us very important information for vocabulary teaching.

    Thus, Corpus can also tell us about collocation patterns, or how words are used regularly with other words not to mention the use of DDL.

    • You are quite right that it is useful in creating vocabulary and grammar materials that represent better how the language is used – even though there are still some potential problems with it as I alluded to in my list. I like your point about it creating a focus on patterns of grammar that emerge from words.

  3. Good points

    Can I suggest the recent English Collocations in Use and Academic English in Use books as great examples of the strengths and weaknesses of taking the word frequency thing too far?

    TEFLtastic blog-

  4. Excellent questions that illuminate the limits and flaws of the latest textbook fad.

  5. Hi ya Lindsay,

    You know I’m 100% behind on you on this one. They’re a useful resource for textbook and materials writers – I’ve used the red stars thing on the Macmillan CD when preparing a large A2 dialogue script and had a set agenda.

    They’re good to show students how to work with a dictionary, good as an observing words, but teaching them… nah.

    Points 3 and 4 – exactly. Exactly. 😉

    Hope you had fun in Tripoli!

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