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activity - intro to vocabulary profiling

This version was saved 13 years, 9 months ago View current version     Page history
Saved by Steve Neufeld
on October 5, 2010 at 11:07:25 am

The colour of words - vocabulary profiling




After doing this activity you will be able to

  1. describe the nature of lexis and common words in English 
  2. test your own awareness of word frequency
  3. create a vocabulary profile of a text to see which words are more common
  4. analyze the vocabulary and identify key lexis that are most likely to benefit the students' long-term language development.



  1. It should take you about 60 minutes to complete this task.


Task format

  1. Primarily individual tasks.




Prerequisite Activity


Before doing this activity, you should have completed the Introduction to Data-driven Learning activity.




Here are the contents of this session.  You can click to visit the different activities, or simply scroll down.



Commonly used words in English


Task 1:  How many of the surrounding words does a student need to know to guess an unknown word?


Most teachers have been indoctrinated to believe that the only way to teach vocabulary is in context.

  • The trouble with that argument is that you need to know the context before you can learn from it, i.e.,  you need to know quite a few words before you can learn more words.


Researchers in applied linguistics have shown exactly how many surrounding words that the reader needs to know to have a reasonable chance at guessing the unknown word.

  • As teachers, we shouldn't expect our students to magically guess an unknown word unless they know enough of the surrounding words.


How many words out of ten must a student know to guess one unknown word? 

  • Take the poll on the left, and then watch the slidecast on the right to find out more about the context dilemma and the challenges student face when dealing with authentic texts.






DISCUSSION POINTS:  Post your answers to: http://blog.metu.edu.tr/steve/2010/10/04/the-context-paradox/ 

  • How often have seen students fail to guess the meaning of an unknown word?  Does it happen to you? 
  • Do your coursebooks include lots of 'guess the meaning from context' activities?  What strategies do they advocate?  Is the "9 out of 10" rule in guessing from context observed?
  • To what extent would it be good for teachers to develop their sense of word frequency in terms of teaching?



Task 2:  How many words does a student need to know in order to recognize nine out of ten words in any English text?


It is perhaps a surprising fact that around 45% of every English text is made up of words from a pool of about 125 words. 
  • These are often referred to as function words: prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, adverbs, interjections, determiners, and articles.


What is a more intriguing fact is that there is a set of commonly used words beyond these 'function words' that accounts for 90 out of 100 words in a text. 

  • Obviously, knowing these words is a high priority for anyone learning English.


How many words do you think a learner needs to know to be able to recognize 90 out of 100 words in any English text? 

  • Take the poll on the left, and then watch the slidecast on the right to find out more about the nature of lexis and the commonly used words in English.








DISCUSSION POINTS: Post your answers at http://blog.metu.edu.tr/steve/2010/10/04/common-words/  

  • How can knowing the most commonly used words help in teaching English?
  • Is it necessary to teach the common words--they are common, so won't students just learn them naturally?
  • Should we explicitly focus on learning vocabulary? How effective is decontentextualized teaching of vocabulary?
  • To what extent are word lists useful in learning vocabulary?  Aren't dictionaries good enough?





NOTE:  If you are interested in this area, a must read is Keith Folse's book on Vocabulary Myths in teaching English.


Task 3:  How good is your knowledge of word frequency?


Every moment in the classroom we are faced with decisions about which vocabulary to focus our students' attention on.  Obviously, we need to know not just whether the word is going to be useful to spend time learning, but also whether our students are at the point where they can assimilate the new vocabulary. 

  • The latter is a skill that we as teachers develop through long years of experience, and are able to adapt according to the level and ability of our students. 
  • The former, however, is intuitive.  It is dependent on our own in-built awareness of the nature of lexis.  In order to make good decisions about the usefulness of a word, it is important to know how common the word is used in English.  If we spend too much time focusing our students' attention on words that are seldom used then they will not develop fluency in using the most common words.


How good is you intuition about how common a word is? 

  • Watch the video on the right to show you how the test works, and then try it out for yourself at Lextutor's Frequency Trainer
  • See whether you can correctly identify all the word frequencies in three or fewer attempts.




DISCUSSION POINTS: Post your answers to http://blog.metu.edu.tr/steve/2010/10/04/word-frequency/  


  • Who would score better results in such a test - a native speaker or a non-native speaker? Why?
  • Were you surprised by the frequency levels of some words?  Would word frequency vary according to the type of English, e.g., American versus British English?
  • To what extent would it be good for teachers to develop their sense of word frequency in terms of teaching?



Task 3:  KWL


  1. Take a moment to jot down some notes in your blog -- keep the post DRAFT at the moment:
    • What do you already know about the nature of lexis in English texts?
    • What more do you want to know more about lexis and word frequency?
    • At the end of the next activity, you'll return to your blog post and add what you have learned from the activity.




Using Lextutor's Vocabulary Profiler


Follow the sets of instructions to start you on a corpus-informed approach to teaching lexis.


What colour is space? Light? Lexis?



Task 1:  Watch this slidecast and then discuss the following questions.


A prism shows us the colour of light. Vocabulary Profilers let us see the colour of words. The Hubble telescope lets us see the colour of space.





DISCUSSION POINTS:  Post your answers to http://blog.metu.edu.tr/steve/2010/10/04/colour-of-words/ 

  • In what way is a vocabulary profiler like a "prism" for lexis?
  • Do you think that the same word will always have the same colour (same frequency of use) in different genres?




Step 2.


Task 1:  Creating a vocabulary profile


Let's take a look at one of the tools in Tom Cobb's Lextutor site:  the Vocabulary Profiler.


Watch the video and then try your hand at using the same text from the reading A suitable boy.







  • How could you use a vocabulary profiler as a teacher?
  • Is it possible to get students as learners to use a vocabulary profiler?  What tasks would you give to them?
  • To what extent is a word cloud generated from http://wordle.net the same as a vocabulary profile from http://lextutor.ca?  What are the key differences.  When would you use a word cloud, and when would you use a vocabulary profile?



Step 3.


Task 1:  Analyzing and using the profile




  • How ...?
  • Is ...?
  • To what extent ...? 



Taking data-driven learning beyond word lists


Task 1:  What is XXXX?





  • How ...?
  • Is ...?
  • To what extent ...?

Follow up:  Over to you


How could you use vocabulary profiling in teaching?


  1. Open up your draft post in your blog for KWL
    • Consider some of the new techniques and approaches you learned in vocabulary profiling and the ways you could use these in teaching. 
    • Add to your draft KWL post what you have learned from the activity.
    • Focus on applying this in teaching English and practical ideas for you to try with students.
  2. Publish your post and TAG it with 'KWL' and the category "CTE319" and "vocabulary profiling".
    • When you get a chance, have a look at the posts in your colleagues' blogs.




Want to learn more about the colour of words?



More about using frequency lists to learn words




Creative Commons License
This work by Kristina Smith & Steve Neufeld is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at kristinaweb20.pbworks.com


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