Number one for English language teachers

How to write vocabulary activities: Key

Key to Task 1: Word frequency and Task 2: Collocations.

Task 1: Word frequency

1. The seven words that are in the top 3,000 are: best friend, colleague, cousin, daughter, grandfather, neighbour, son. The three words that some databases list in the top 3,000, and some don’t: aunt, pet, uncle. The six words that are not included in the top 3,000: classmate, mother-in-law, nephew, niece, roommate, son-in-law.

It’s interesting to note the differences between the different dictionaries / corpora. We need to remember that frequency counts are not ‘hard facts’: they are only guidelines.

I included the low-frequency words when I wrote this material for three reasons. Firstly, it seemed to me to be appropriate to challenge the students a little. At this level, one can expect students to know the highest-frequency words like daughter, son, mother, father. The in-law and -mate suffices are useful, because they are generative. Secondly, I included nephew and niece because I wanted the list to be more ‘complete’. Finally, and most importantly for me, I wanted to include extra items to make the practice activity which follows more interesting.

2. The least common verbs in this list are see off and drop off. I included these for two reasons. Firstly, the vocabulary work follows on from some work on a text in which the target items occur. Of course, I could have rewritten the text to include different items, but these two fitted the topic of the text most naturally. Secondly, I needed to illustrate three different types of phrasal verb (intransitive, separable and inseparable). See off and drop off worked well in the context and were also further examples that I needed of separable verbs. As is often the case, I wrote the text and the vocabulary exercise at the same time. I wrote a rough draft of both, and then modified both so that they worked together.

3. You need to know your students’ own language pretty well in order to predict the level at which they will understand particular words. A tool like English Profile may give us some sort of broad international guidelines, but says little or nothing about particular classes, especially if they are monolingual.

Many of the words in this list are cognates with words in Romance languages (although deceive is a false friend), so even though content, for example, is very low-frequency as a verb, it’s not hard to guess what it means if you have a similar word in your own language. Similarly, one could expect all students, of whatever language background, at this level to know the word danger, so it’s not too hard to make an intelligent guess at the meaning of endanger.

The highest-frequency words in the list are destroy, express and remind. Next, in order of frequency, come adapt and distinguish. The others do not feature in the top 3,000 lists.

My interest in writing this exercise was less on these particular items than on the generative feature of reflexivity in English.

Task 2: Collocations

The easiest way to find high-frequency collocations is to type ‘collocations + TARGET WORD’ into a search engine. This will take you to a variety of sites which have already sorted the corpus data. For the word thing, you will be able to generate a list of examples similar to those below. It will be up to you to select those that you consider most useful to the students who will be using the material you write.

What’s that thing over there?
Don’t say a thing.
I have a bath first thing in the morning.
You poor thing!
It was the best thing that has ever happened.
I didn’t read the whole thing.
The main thing is that we arrive early.
I didn’t understand a damn thing.
I want to do the right thing.
Do you think he’s the real thing?
The parks are one of the great things about London.
I bought a few things at the shops.
How are things going?

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