Blog post written by Paul Nation based on an article in Language Teaching
How many words in English do you know? How many words do your students know? What words should our learners be focusing on? Do native speakers at primary and secondary school need vocabulary-focused instruction? These questions and others like them have been of concern to researchers in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies (LALS) at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand for well over thirty years. One of the results of this concern has been a range of vocabulary tests which have been made available for general use.
It may seem a straightforward job to make a vocabulary test. However, vocabulary size testing is probably the most badly researched area in the field of applied linguistics. It’s not badly researched because of a lack of research. It’s badly researched because the research has been methodologically faulty, so faulty in fact that the results of much of the research are grossly misleading.
An important first step in measuring vocabulary size is to create a substantial list of words to draw a sample from. Developments in computing and corpus linguistics have now made this much more feasible, and many of the tests reported on in this article draw upon word lists that were carefully created for the purposes of test development.
Most of the article describes the Vocabulary Size Test and its bilingual and computerised versions. Bilingual versions of the test are now available in languages such as Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, and Korean. Bilingual versions are helpful for lower proficiency learners in particular. An online version of the test has now been taken by thousands of first and second language speakers of English.
How can finding out about your students’ vocabulary size help you and your students? It can help you diagnose particular learning problems and set curriculum goals. It can also help you select materials at the right lexical level for your classes and for your students’ independent learning time. Knowing their vocabulary size can also help your students understand and set their own vocabulary learning goals.
Since the writing of the article, another test aimed at young pre-literate learners has been developed and will soon become available – the Picture Vocabulary Size Test.