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English vocabulary in the secondary classroom. Arthur McNeill The Chinese University of Hong Kong. How can ‘vocabulary skills’ lead to vocabulary growth?. A new English vocabulary curriculum for HK schools. EDB/CUHK collaborative project. Growing interest in students’ vocabulary.

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English vocabulary in the secondary classroom

English vocabulary in the secondary classroom

Arthur McNeill

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Growing interest in students vocabulary
Growing interest in students’ vocabulary

  • Recent evidence of inadequate vocabulary of HK university entrants.

  • Most 2004 entrants to CUHK knew between 2000 and 3000 English words only.

  • International research suggests that students need at least 5000 words to cope with university study in English.

Strong support for setting and raising lexical targets
Strong support for setting (and raising) lexical targets

  • New EDB collaborative project with CUHK to develop a vocabulary syllabus for schools.

  • To strengthen the vocabulary components of the NSS curriculum.

  • Proposed vocabulary targets set for each KS.

Vocabulary now occupies a more important position in assessment
Vocabulary now occupies a more important position in assessment

  • Latest IELTS performance band descriptors for Writing and Speaking have identified Vocabulary as one of the four ‘strands’.

  • Will standards-related assessment in HK follow the same direction?

How is english vocabulary acquired during secondary education
How is English vocabulary acquired during secondary education?

  • Native English speaking students acquire about 3000 words per year at secondary school.

  • Hong Kong secondary pupils acquire about 300 words per year.

Curriculum guides stress the importance of vocabulary
Curriculum guides stress the importance of vocabulary education?

  • Synonyms

  • Antonyms

  • Collocation

  • Register

  • Idiom

  • Formulaic language

  • ALL recommended in official curriculum guidelines

Quality yes quantity no
Quality education?, YES. Quantity, NO.

  • Curriculum guidelines stop short of identifying lexical targets.

  • Main concerns about inadequate vocabulary come from the tertiary sector.

  • Students enter university with around 3000 English words, which is inadequate for successful study.

Vocabulary as output

Vocabulary as Output education?

Lexical Richness

What is lexical richness
What is lexical richness? education?

  • Quality of vocabulary content of learner output

  • Difficult to define

  • Different approaches to defining LR are provoking heated debate among scholars (see references on handout)

Does lexical richness matter
Does lexical richness matter? education?

  • Judges are influenced by lexical content, even when they are not asked to focus on vocabulary.

  • High correlations between lexical richness and other measures of second language proficiency.

Issues in lr debate
Issues in LR debate education?

  • Assumptions about “lexical coverage”

  • The most frequent 2000 words of English account for about 80% of most texts, so low L2 vocabulary targets were set for learners

Indicators of lexical richness
Indicators of lexical richness words)

  • amount of “low frequency” words in the text

  • type/token ratio

  • range of vocabulary

  • command of different semantic fields

What vocabulary skills are involved
What vocabulary skills are involved? words)

  • avoiding repetition of words (e.g. by lexical and pronominal substitution)

  • knowing how to combine words (e.g. collocation; compounding)

Features of hong kong student writing
Features of Hong Kong student writing words)

  • Repetition of key words (need for lexical substitution

  • The under-use of superordination

  • The need for lexical enrichment (adjectives and adverbs)

What vocabulary skills help learners with lexical richness
What vocabulary skills help learners with lexical richness? words)

  • Synonymy

  • Giving definitions

  • Knowing the name of the superordinate

  • Knowing the name of the member (e.g. “item”, “piece”, “article”, etc.)

  • Using metaphor (e.g. using known words in a metaphorical sense)

Text written by a local 16 year old under exam conditions
Text written by a local 16-year old under exam conditions words)

Many students strive for academic exellency, but what is the motivation behind their hardwork? In this essay, I am going to explore the different aspects of learning, and analyse the pros and cons of each motivating factor.

The hunger for knowledge and wisdom can motivate students to learn. They hope to widen their horizons through reading, watching educational programs, travelling and other ways. To them, the world is a fascinating place, full of wonders and mysteries to unravel. Their love of learning motivates them to seek knowledge in all areas, from science and mathematics to arts.

Teaching implications
Teaching implications words)

  • Encourage self-management of vocabulary learning by students

  • Websites which offer frequency-based words in mini-contexts can provide some short-cuts to incidental (random) vocabulary growth.

  • Process writing can develop awareness of lexical richness.

Useful websites
Useful websites words)

  • Tom Cobb (University of Quebec at Montreal):


  • Paul Nation (University of Wellington):


  • Some articles, references, wordlists:


Topic strand paradigmatic
Topic Strand (paradigmatic) words)

  • Deliberate organization of words into hierarchies.

  • Develops associative networks.

  • Encourages efficient vocabulary learning.

Encourage the development of associations
Encourage the development of associations words)

  • Paradigms are fixed (but ‘open’)

  • Other associations are more personal (e.g. accoustic, visual, ‘linkword’)

Assumptions about paradigmatic arrangement
Assumptions about paradigmatic arrangement words)

  • Allows for efficient vocabulary growth because the system is ‘open’ and allows for additions

  • Associated with Receptive vocabulary knowledge in particular

  • Retrieval of words operates through the “cohort” principle

Syntagmatic arrangement
Syntagmatic arrangement words)

Topic: transport

Car – drive – fast – wet – road

Brakes – skid – collide - accident

Assumptions about syntagmatic arrangement
Assumptions about syntagmatic arrangement words)

  • Associated with Productive vocabulary because it is based on the words which tend to occur together in sentences.

  • The associations are based on collocations rather than semantic categories

Word associations in l1 and l2
Word Associations in L1 and L2 words)

  • Same or different?

Associates with king

QUEEN 44 0.45 words)

KONG 18 0.19

CROWN 4 0.04

PIN 3 0.03

CHARLES 2 0.02

COLE 2 0.02

GEORGE 2 0.02

MAKER 2 0.02

THRONE 2 0.02

BEE 1 0.01

CARD 1 0.01

CARDS 1 0.01

CASTLE 1 0.01

CHAIR 1 0.01

CHESS 1 0.01

CHRIST 1 0.01

COUNTRY 1 0.01

CROSS 1 0.01

DAY 1 0.01

JUDGE 1 0.01

LOUIS 1 0.01

ME 1 0.01


ORDER 1 0.01

ROAD 1 0.01

SIZE 1 0.01

SNOW 1 0.01

Associates with “king”

Associations with boy

GIRL 78 0.78 words)

CHILD 2 0.02

FRIEND 2 0.02

MAN 2 0.02

SCOUT 2 0.02

YOUTH 2 0.02

BARRY 1 0.01


CAP 1 0.01

HEN 1 0.01

HOOD 1 0.01

MALE 1 0.01


SCHOOL 1 0.01

SHIP 1 0.01

SON 1 0.01

VIGOUR 1 0.01

YOUNG 1 0.01

Associations with “boy”

Associations with car

WHEEL 9 0.09 words)

DRIVER 5 0.05

BUS 4 0.04

DRIVE 4 0.04

LORRY 4 0.04

MORRIS 4 0.04

PARK 4 0.04

PETROL 3 0.03

RED 3 0.03

TRAFFIC 3 0.03

VEHICLE 3 0.03

AUSTIN 2 0.02

AUTO 2 0.02

BIKE 2 0.02

CRASH 2 0.02

ENGINE 2 0.02

MOTOR 2 0.02

RIDE 2 0.02

TRIP 2 0.02

VAN 2 0.02

WASH 2 0.02

ANTIQUE 1 0.01

BICYCLE 1 0.01

BLUE 1 0.01

Associations with “car”

Associations with table

CHAIR 36 0.36 words)

CLOTH 13 0.13

TOP 9 0.09

TENNIS 5 0.05

MAT 4 0.04

BOOK 3 0.03

FOOD 3 0.03

FLAT 2 0.02

LAMP 2 0.02

SALT 2 0.02

BASE 1 0.01

BROWN 1 0.01

CHAIRS 1 0.01

DINNER 1 0.01

EAT 1 0.01

EATING 1 0.01

FAT 1 0.01

KNIFE 1 0.01

Associations with “table”

Associations for

FOOD 15 0.16 words)


MEAL 6 0.06

YELLOW 6 0.06

CHINK 4 0.04

EYES 4 0.04

LAUNDRY 4 0.04

MAO 4 0.04

RED 3 0.03

WHITE 3 0.03



MAN 2 0.02


PEOPLE 2 0.02

CHINA 1 0.01

CHINKS 1 0.01

CHOP-SUEY 1 0.01

CHOPS 1 0.01

CHOW 1 0.01

COMMIE 1 0.01


CURRY 1 0.01

JUNK 1 0.01


LANTERN 1 0.01

Associations for “?”

Patterns of l1 and l2 word association
Patterns of L1 and L2 word association words)

  • In L1, HF words tend to have close and stable associations, which suggests that large vocabularies are stored in well organised networks.

  • In L2, words tend to be less systematically organised, at least at lower levels of L2 proficiency

Collocation strand syntagmatic
Collocation Strand (syntagmatic) words)

  • Word combinations are the key to productive use of English.

  • Focus on multi-word units.

  • Collocations:

    “Go shopping” “have a shower” “play football”

  • Multi-word units:

    “See you later” “Have a good trip!”

The generic textbook sentence
The words)“generic” textbook sentence

“In our town there is a library, a hospital, a swimming pool, a health centre, a cinema, a police station, a railway station and a bus station.”


Lexical substitution piano
Lexical substitution: “ piano” words)

“I had learnt piano for five years. My mother encouraged me to take piano examinations until I was ten. Sometimes I was tired of touching the piano… After a bad experience, I never learned piano any more. I do not dare to play the piano even now.”

Too many pianos
Too many pianos? words)

“I had learnt piano for five years. My mother encouraged me to take _____examinations until I was ten. Sometimes I was tired of touching the _____… After a bad experience, I never learned _____ any more. I do not dare to play the _____ even now.”

Too many pianos1
Too many pianos? words)

“I had learnt piano for five years. My mother encouraged me to take Grade 3 examinations until I was ten. Sometimes I was tired of touching the keyboard… After a bad experience, I never learned the instrument any more. I do not dare to play the horriblething even now.”

Lexical expansion of a first draft
Lexical expansion of a first draft words)

“Every Sunday we visit the (adj.) home of my (adj.) grandparents. They live in an (adj.) apartment in a (adj.) housing estate in Shatin. My grandmother (adv.) cooks lunch. After lunch we walk (adv.) in the park.”

Words and families
Words and Families words)






How exactly shall we count the target items?

Words and families1
Words and Families words)








Words and families2
Words and Families words)




Products of the three sources
Products of the three sources words)







Guiding principles
Guiding Principles words)

  • Frequency

  • Family (system of word formation)

  • Relevance to learners (now and later)

  • Usefulness

  • Combinability (collocations)

  • Word class distribution

  • Hyperordinates

Established wordlists
Established wordlists words)

  • The General Service List (West 1953)

  • The Teachers’ Word Book of 30,000 Words (Thorndike & Lorge 1944)

  • The American Heritage Word Frequency Book (Carol, Davies & Richman 1971)

  • Academic Wordlist (Coxhead 2000)

Established corpora
Established Corpora words)

  • The Brown (Francis and Kucera 1982)

  • LOB


  • The Bank of English

  • BBC corpus


  • British National Corpus (BNC)

What is the BNC? words)

The British National Corpus (BNC) is a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent a wide cross-section of British English from the latter part of the 20th century, both spoken and written.

Bnc 90 written text
BNC (90% Written Text) words)

The written part of the BNC (90%) includes, for example, extracts from regional and national newspapers, specialist periodicals and journals for all ages and interests, academic books and popular fiction, published and unpublished letters and memoranda, school and university essays, among many other kinds of text.

Bnc 10 spoken text
BNC (10% Spoken Text) words)

The spoken part (10%) includes a large amount of unscripted informal conversation, recorded by volunteers selected from different age, region and social classes in a demographically balanced way, together with spoken language collected in all kinds of different contexts, ranging from formal business or government meetings to radio shows and phone-ins.

What sort of corpus is the BNC? words)

Monolingual: It deals with modern British English, not other languages used in Britain. However non-British English and foreign language words do occur in the corpus.

Synchronic: It covers British English of the late twentieth century, rather than the historical development which produced it.

General: It includes many different styles and varieties, and is not limited to any particular subject field, genre or register. In particular, it contains examples of both spoken and written language.

Sample: For written sources, samples of 45,000 words are taken from various parts of single-author texts. Shorter texts up to a maximum of 45,000 words, or multi-author texts such as magazines and newspapers, are included in full. Sampling allows for a wider coverage of texts within the 100 million limit, and avoids over-representing idiosyncratic texts.

Introduction to the decision making task

Introduction to the words)Decision-Making Task

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