When teaching vocabulary, there is a often a temptation to provide our learners with lists of high frequency words. While providing them with a list of decontextualised language items and expecting them to produce accurate sentences is as sensible as trying to write a symphony on a detuned guitar, I have certainly done it and, alongside other input, it can be useful.
One way to consider the impact of high frequency word lists on our learners’ language production is to try to convey complex ideas using the constraints of the thousand most commonly occurring words in English. The most famous example of this is Randall Monroe’s Web comic ‘Up Goer Five‘. In case you didn’t guess, the title itself is an explanation of the Saturn V rocket, constrained to the top thousand high frequency words in English. Now Monroe has released ‘Thing Explainer‘ more restricted science gibber jabber, available this time in dead tree form, as well as in epub format. Not only is it a bit of light entertainment, but it also reminds us of the challenges of a limited vocabulary.
Oh, by the way, according to a text editor inspired by Up Goer Five, the following words from the first paragraph alone would not be available: TEACHING, VOCABULARY, TEMPTATION, PROVIDE, LEARNERS, LISTS, FREQUENCY, PROVIDING, LIST, DECONTEXTUALISED, LANGUAGE, ITEMS, PRODUCE, ACCURATE, SENTENCES, SENSIBLE, SYMPHONY, DETUNED, GUITAR, CERTAINLY, ALONGSIDE, INPUT, USEFUL, IMPACT, FREQUENCY, LISTS,LEARNERS’, LANGUAGE, PRODUCTION, CONVEY, COMPLEX, CONSTRAINTS, THOUSAND, COMMONLY, OCCURRING, ENGLISH