Today, I asked a group of 18-year-old students to take the online Vocabulary Levels Test to measure their vocabulary size. I did this for two reasons: a) out of curiosity and b) because I assumed that the results may help me better understand my students’ abilities. As for the latter, the jury is still out.
To give my students a bit of background, I explained that the words on the test are not randomly chosen; each item represents itself, the members of its word family, and 99 other word families which are roughly equivalent in terms of difficulty and word family size. I noted that words such as work, worker, worked, and working are all considered to be members of the same family. So by testing 140 words, we can roughly estimate how many unique word families are known, up to a maximum of 14,000 word families.
There are 140 questions on the test, which took my students about 30 minutes. Each word on the test is presented in a sentence which does not give any clues to the meaning. I had done the test myself and I can attest to the fact that if you don’t know a word, you will rarely guess its meaning from the given definitions. Nevertheless, I repeatedly encouraged the students to avoid guessing and I urged them to click the I don’t know option if they had no idea what the word meant.
My students’ vocabulary sizes ranged from 3,600 to 12,700. I had predicted such a wide range of results and there were practically no surprises for me; those students who I consider exceptionally proficient in English (C1 level) got the highest scores and those who struggle in class scored the lowest. This, as it seems, to a great extent demonstrates that students with a large vocabulary size are successful learners and students with a somewhat limited vocabulary face problems when learning English. Do the low-scoring students have trouble learning/acquiring vocabulary because of their lower aptitude for learning languages, which then results in them struggling to acquire other aspects of the language, such as grammar? In other words, what’s the cause and what’s the effect?
Personal conclusions and philosophy aside, I interpreted the scores carefully. Since the test is only designed to measure the written receptive vocabulary knowledge, the scores are obviously not an indication of how well someone can use a particular word in their language production or in listening comprehension. My students may recognize the word erythrocyte when they see it (not because they learned it as an L2 item but because they know it from their biology lessons) but they may not be able to pronounce it correctly. Also, knowing (or not knowing) a particular word on the test is not necessarily indicative of whether they know the other 99 words. Theoretically, a student may know all the word families from a specific frequency band but the one that is on the test.
One way or the other, according to the results, even the lowest-scoring student in this particular group is likely to be able to a) do well in conversational listening (Van Zeeland, 2010), b) engage in basic daily conversation (Adolphs and Schmitt, 2003) and c) watch and largely understand movies and television programs (Webb and Rodgers, 2009). As for reading, according to Nation (2006), 8,000–9,000 word families are necessary to be able to read widely. This is a goal worth pursuing at the moment.
Adolphs, S., & Schmitt, N. (2003). Lexical coverage of spoken discourse. Applied Linguistics, 24(4), 425–38.
Nation, I. S. P. (2006). How large a vocabulary is needed for reading and listening? The
Canadian Modern Language Review, 63, 59–82.
Van Zeeland, H. (2010). Lexical coverage and L2 listening comprehension: How much does vocabulary knowledge contribute to understanding spoken language? (Unpublished MA dissertation), University of Nottingham.
Webb, S., & Rodgers, M. P. H. (2009). The lexical coverage of movies. Applied Linguistics, 30, 407–42.