The first words…


“What the F***?” I hear as I pass by a couple of talking students.  No point getting mad at kids expressing themselves, but I turn around anyway, and counter with “There are a half a million words in the most beautiful language in the world, you know.  Try using something more socially acceptable.”

Of course English isn’t the only most beautiful language in the world, but it does take the pressure off the students in question while addressing my desire for cleaner language in my classroom.

The “half a million” is also just a wild guess.  Some claim that there are over a million words in the English language, but according to other sources it contains as few as 200,000 words.  The average adult understands 40,000 of those words, but only  half of those belong to the active vocabulary of that same user.

Which leads me to the question: which words do we teach our ESL children first?  Of those tens of thousands of words, which ones do we consider most vital to our learners, most connected with their daily experience, most necessary for their ability to communicate with others?  After years of teaching English in schools, surely I would be able to find a simple answer to this question, or so I thought.

I started out by looking at the word lists I was already familiar with: the Anglia exams and the Cambridge Young Learners word lists.  I asked students at my teacher college to look at the words in these lists, and to talk about what they noticed.  In looking at these lists, my students started asking questions: for instance, why would “elephant” be considered easier than “cow”, or why would “finger” – very similar to its Dutch counterpart – be easier than “stomach”?  Why were words like tree, flower, and dirt included on the list for “nature”, but not other ones like bug, river, or bush?

What started out as a simple question soon became complex.  I started looking at other vocabulary lists, and quickly found many different lists of “basic” vocabulary for the ESL learner.  Each list had its own system for categorizing words, and each category contained different words in their “basic” word lists for ESL learners.  I soon realized that every time a list of basic words is compiled, different choices are made, resulting in a wide variety in word lists.  Clearly I will be busy with this mini-research project for some time.

So here’s my question for you, dear reader: how do you choose the words you teach your ESL learners?    Please let me know!  And I’ll be sure to work out more of my findings here as I find out more about this topic.


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