Topic vs. Frequency in Vocabulary Learning

Teachers and learners of languages, I am looking for your input in the topic vs. frequency debate. Almost all textbooks and coursebooks introduce vocabulary in chapter topics or themes such as food, clothing, transportation, etc.  These related words are often used to fill in the slots of functional phrases, which a lot of current books are based on thanks to the  popularity of the communicative approach. For example, one of the chapters in the French textbook that I use in my class combines the functions of offering, accepting and refusing with the topic of drinks. So students are expected to memorize the question Voulez-vous boire un/e ____ ? and the vocabulary list is full of nouns such as un verre de lait, une tasse de thé, un coca, un chocolat chaud, etc. (The conjugation of vouloir is not actually taught in this or any preceding chapters.)

The problems with presenting vocabulary like this, however, is that it goes against vocabulary acquisition research. Many researchers have argued that grouping vocabulary into topics (and therefore semantic sets) actually hinders acquisition and confuses the students more. The topics tend to represent concrete concepts as well and can easily be illustrated in the chapters with pictures or photographs – which consequently leaves out abstract ideas. Plus words grouped according to topic mean that the words are not grouped according to frequency, which is the most important criterion for selecting vocabulary to teach/learn first.  Of course, frequency is not the only criterion, but it should be the starting point for vocabulary selection.

Learn opposites together = forever confused

If frequency is supported by research and topic is not, then why do all textbooks teach vocabulary based on topic? Is it because it easier to write textbooks in this way? Is it easier for the instructor to teach in this way? Is it considered less boring and more engaging for students to learn in this manner even if it goes against vocabulary acquisition research?

I’ve heard arguments that students should learn vocabulary in topics so they can talk about them right away, but that doesn’t make sense if the students don’t even have the basic vocabulary needed to construct sentences. Even if you learn all the articles of clothing, what exactly can you say about them? How can you have conversations about clothes if all you know if a list of nouns? In my class’s textbook, students learn to say Je porte un/e ___ and then some adjectives to describe the clothes. I really don’t see how that is going to help them communicate in the real world.

It seems to me that it’s more of a classroom vs. real world debate. We want students to be able to use the language as soon as possible, even if that means teaching things that will only ever be used inside the classroom. But isn’t it our job as educators to prepare students as much as possible for the future when they will leave our classrooms? Or are we simply just trying to make sure they don’t fall asleep in class?

I’ m not saying that students should just learn the 2,000 most frequent words of a language in sequential order. That would be rather boring and frustrating. But there is a much better way of presenting vocabulary – the most frequent words among a few topics presented in story format, for example – that textbook authors keep resisting. And I want to know why! Is it because the textbook publishing industry does not want to change and try something new (for fear of losing money)? Is it because too many people think it’s more logical to learn vocabulary in semantic sets regardless of what research says? Personally I feel it is much more logical to learn the words that you are most likely to encounter, i.e. the most frequent words. Even if there are problems with frequency – such as, what texts were used in the corpus to generate the frequency data? – it is actually supported by research, and that is what is most important to me.

How many first year French students do you think really need to learn the words arc-boutant (flying buttress) or fluocompacte (energy-saving) but not tel (such), également (also), soit (either…or), mener (to lead), appartenir (to belong to), atteindre (to reach), entier (whole), moindre (least), or intérêt (interest)? These are all words that are not taught in the active vocabulary lists of ANY of the 12 first year textbooks that I am analyzing and they are all ranked among the top 500 most frequent words in French.

So what do you think?

  • August

    As someone who took several years of French in (American) high school and college, I’ve retained next to none of the random, useless vocabulary I learned in those classes. What I did keep was only what I used frequently. What I used frequently often ended up not being what I learned in the classes (such as the aforementioned ‘least’, ‘such’, also’, etc.) at all. I can safely say I’ve never once so much as had the chance to tell someone my shirt is purple, much less -needed- to know how to do so… And I strongly wish educators had taken the more useful approach you mentioned. I wouldn’t have the experience to say for sure, but it certainly sounds like it would have been helpful above and beyond ‘I have an apple’ or ‘the train is green’.

    Add in that as someone who enjoys picking at languages when bored, I know for certain that if I actually have an opportunity to use certain new words or phrases in various contexts, I’ll comprehend a wider variety of concepts and individual words after the fact. I’m no expert, but I feel that it’s one thing to skim a chapter and be able to remember for an hour how to fill in the blank on a morning quiz…. but it’s entirely different to talk to a fluent speaker two years later and understand what they’re trying to communicate.

    • Using words in various contexts (and simply having the opportunity to repeat them) is very beneficial for acquisition, but since the textbooks limit the topic to one chapter and never repeat the information, you only get one chance to learn it and use it within that specific topic. There are so many things in these textbooks that I had never used in my 5 years in France or 10 years as a French speaker EXCEPT in a language class when I first learning French…

  • All very good points. I learned French in school and I started Spanish on my own. My primary resources for Spanish were Michel Thomas along with Madrigal’s Magical Key to Spanish – both which focus on presenting the overall structure of the language quickly and easily as well as some high-frequency vocabulary and cognate patterns. While my vocabulary is small what I have gives me a high level of comprehension. The biggest advantage I’ve found is that it’s highly-motivating as knowing the overall structure allows me to read much more easily (it’s easier to look up some random basic nouns than it is to look up prepositions or an irregular verb conjugated in a tense I don’t even know) and I can make out some stuff in native audio.

    Another beef I have is that the topics are so boring. There are usually the chapters for “At the airport” “At the train station” “At the hotel” “At the restaurant” “At the store” “At the museum/theatre/coliseum” “At home” “At school” etc. One of the first things I remember learning (after hi, how are you, my name is, etc) was how to order steak. It just seems to send the message to students that the language is just used to talk about mundane subjects and for short interactions with service employees for some imaginary vacation. Things that promote actual discussions and debates, being able to express opinions, etc take so long to get to because things like the subjunctive is too advanced and isn’t taught for several years/semesters (Even with my meager Spanish I tested into 4th semester and beyond at the university level because I know subjunctive). They can’t do stories because all the mix of past tenses (as well as the others) are too advanced. We didn’t even learn past tense in French until my second year in high school. The textbooks that I saw as a French assistant tried to incorporate storytelling by introducing recurring characters but they still didn’t break away from this model and so the storytelling was pretty pathetic. Another one of my first Spanish resources (the first actually) was Easy Spanish Reader and though it wasn’t the most exciting of books I was really psyched to be reading in Spanish from the beginning which motivated me to follow through on my courses. Materials like this one desperately need to be incorporated into language curriculum.

    • I know what you mean about the topics. A lot of the books claim that they include topics that students want or need to know but I’m wondering how the authors determined that. Did they even ask the students?? Honestly, I just feel like they include as much vocabulary as possible for each topic just for the sake of ‘completing’ the topic and they include certain topics because every other textbook out there includes the same ones…

      The focus on being a tourist or studying abroad never really encouraged me much either. I figured I would just stay in the US and talk to immigrants or French students there, and knowing how to order food in a restaurant wasn’t exactly going to help me out with that. i just wanted to learn how to understand people and have a normal conversation.

      The progression of grammar is also so frustrating!! Every book teaches what is simple and easy to learn, not what is frequent or useful. That’s why they start with present tense, and slowly go to the past tense, then future, then finally subjunctive even though subjunctive conjugations can be quite frequent in languages (like Spanish). And even though they say the focus is on the functions and “related” vocabulary, it really is on the grammar – that is what ultimately determines the sequencing of the entire book.

      • It’s frustrating how the standard textbook structure progresses so slowly as it puts reading out of the student’s grasp for so long when I’m sure anyone would say that extensive reading does wonders for vocabulary and absorbing grammatical structures. I was beating my head against the wall with relative pronouns trying to understand them through drills when I found that reading made them seem so natural. If a student can read then instead of just doing a chapter on hobbies which is nothing but a vocabulary list they can read about their hobbies on Wikipedia or something in the target language (or a simplified reader – it’d be nice if there were a simplified Wikipedia for all languages, not just English) and then present it to the class/a partner or write about it. Which in turn teaches the students to take their language learning into their own hands and to find the stuff they need/want to understand.

        • Yes, there is a lot of research in support of extensive reading/listening for vocabulary acquisition. Textbooks definitely do not offer enough.

          Letting students learn what they want definitely helps (and is definitely more motivating), but I think the main reason why textbooks/schools don’t allow it is that it makes assessment much harder. Every student must take and pass the same exams so that means they all have to learn exactly the same things. Yet another way in which current FL education is not in line with research!

  • Laura

    When I was studying for the TCF, I used the CLE International “Vocabulaire Progressif” and I really liked its themed layout. That said, it wasn’t just lists of vocabulary. For example, one chapter is “Les mouvements, les gestes et les postures. First there are examples of ways you can talk about moving your body, then postures, then “chocs”, then hand gestures. It combines the specific vocabulary being taught in the chapter with vocabulary that will probably be frequently encountered with the new words (so body parts, prepositions, motion verbs, etc). It also gives some basic grammar guidelines for using the vocabulary: verbe d’action réflexif; verbe + partie du corps; verbe se mettre + posture

    My favorite aspect of the workbook however, is that it often gives several synonyms or a similar but different way to express the same idea. My main stumbling block for comprehension when I arrived in France was that I had learned only one way to say things in class, and then people were using different words or expressions to communicate the same idea, but I was lost. The first time I learned that you could say “Ça t’a plu?” instead of “Tu l’as aimé?” was huge. This would mean teaching “redundant” vocabulary and reducing the variety of topics students can talk about, but might help them understand more varied conversations about those topics.

    • I love CLE’s Vocabulaire Progressif books too. I have them all. 🙂

  • Canedolia

    I can see the point of learning vocabulary in lexical sets if these are the situations that the students are most likely to encounter. For example, when my boyfriend speaks English, he mostly does it in a business context and uses expressions that I don’t even know, so his high frequency words would be different from mine. Perhaps it’s a question of finding the most relevant, interesting or motivating sets of words for a particular student?

    Also, a lot of high frequency words are ones like connectives and prepositions, where you often also have to know the structures in which they can be used, so learning them is almost like learning a grammar point, or they are words which mean different things in different contexts. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t be central to teaching and learning, just that they probably need to be presented in a different way to lists of nouns that can easily replace each other, such as items of clothing.

    I’m not trying to say the research is wrong here, just that I can see some arguments on the other side too!

    • You can still learn vocabulary specific to a situation, but I haven’t found any support for learning it in lexical sets. The problem is presenting a list of nouns/adjectives/verbs together that can replace each other (essentially filling in a slot.) That does nothing but hinder acquisition and confuse students in the long run, especially with antonyms.

      The research on high-frequency vocabulary is on the 2,000 most frequent words that everyone needs to know in order to communicate, and then you can bring in lower frequency words that are specific to your own needs. So if you want to learn business French, that’s fine – you can learn that specific vocabulary but you will first need the basics of French.

      Function words don’t necessarily have to be learned with grammar points, and in fact, I would suggest learning them in phrases with vocabulary as the focus. I agree with Lewis’ Lexical Approach that language is grammaticalised lexis and that words and chunks should be the focus, not grammar rules. Unfortunately almost every textbook still uses grammar points as the sequencing principle (easiest to hardest rules such as present, then past, then future, etc.)

  • Lee

    The way languages are usually taught, someone who has completed 1 year of Spanish in college can say “The house is red” (La casa es roja) but not “Do you want me to go to the store?” (¿Quieres/Quiere que vaya a la tienda?) because the second sentence uses the subjunctive. Yet which one is someone more likely to say in the real world? The second, by far. Does this make any sense?
    I think that unless someone is learning a language for specific, limited purposes, it makes sense to present all of the grammar at the outset, including all the tenses and moods, so students can start talking like normal people right away. I don’t think this will be particularly difficult as long as the students have a good teacher to guide them through. At the same time, they should start on vocabulary that relates to everyday life situations, instead of the touristy, topic by topic approach already mentioned.

    • Yes, frequency should be applied to grammar as well. The subjunctive forms are much more common in Spanish than many students realize since they’re often stuck at the end of the book. I’ve always hated the focus on easy to learn grammar rules at the expense of what is representative of real language.

  • that one guy

    I agree that frequency/usefulness should be prioritized in language learning. However, this would represent a major overhaul to “the system”, so I don’t see it changing. Most people are lazy and don’t want to think so hard about what really works, but it seems like you could be the one to help change all that. Start a revolution.

    • It does seem like an uphill battle, especially with how much power the publishing companies have over what goes into textbooks. The obvious answer to not use published textbooks and create your own materials and resources but that takes so much time and money that most universities don’t see it as feasible. Luckily U of Texas at Austin has done this for their American students learning French and German; now I’m working on doing the same for Australian students.

  • I completely agree with Jennie that the system needs to change – and I believe that the TPRS method goes along with everything she talks about. I’ve started using the storytelling with my students this year and the repetition of useful words works wonders! They are already reading short stories and communicating and it’s only been a couple of months. My textbooks are sitting unused on the shelves.

  • Aaron

    I completely agree with this post, but since you’re so critical about topic, then why does your site structure all the lessons in terms of exactly what you criticized: topic (example of your french lessons: 46. FURNITURE AND APPLIANCES, 58. SPORTS & INSTRUMENTS)?

    You also said

    “since the textbooks limit the topic to one chapter and never repeat the information, you only get one chance to learn it and use it within that specific topic”,

    but your lessons fall to a considerable extent into the same trap as well.

    Is it because you aren’t sure of an alternative? I’ve used your site for years as a supplement to learning French, so I’m thankful for that, but all the criticisms you have laid out are exactly what I felt at times when I went through your lessons, so I think this is very worth reflecting on in order to push forward better methodologies. I personally have concrete ideas of my own that I’m working on.