Teaching vocabulary words to ESL students.

Teaching vocabulary to ESL students is similar to teaching to Low-Level native speakers. I call it the Swiss-cheese phenomenon. There is cheese there, I can see the piece of cheese; but it clearly has a lot of holes in it and I am not exactly sure where they all are.

Good reading comprehension theory indicates that part and partial of developing  good readers is the feedback that is either from the outside (teacher) or from the inside (student) that is monitoring that which is know or not known.

Seven Strategies to Teach Students Text Comprehension, By: C.R. Adler – Reading Rockets.

1. Monitoring comprehension

Students who are good at monitoring their comprehension know when they understand what they read and when they do not. They have strategies to “fix” problems in their understanding as the problems arise. Research shows that instruction, even in the early grades, can help students become better at monitoring their comprehension.

Comprehension monitoring instruction teaches students to:

  • Be aware of what they do understand
  • Identify what they do not understand
  • Use appropriate strategies to resolve problems in comprehension

(Dealing with Asian students can be very difficult in this regard as it is really important for them to ‘not be wrong.’ Students will say absolutely nothing rather than risk saying it or doing it incorrectly. Losing face in class in front of classmates is also a problem. This is a problem with any low-level students who have such a track record of failure that they will consciously mask everything ‘they don’t know’ rather than admit there is something they do not understand. This is an indicator of how little confidence they have in themselves.)

Therefore, if I am dealing with students who have low self-esteem, low levels of confidence in their academic abilities; who feel the constant need to defend themselves and what they don’t know,  we simply do not have a situation that is ripe for a whole lot of ‘self-monitoring.’ In fact, let me just play with my cell-phone here and forget about even thinking about this subject. (An example of avoidance behavior.)


Okay, so I am dealing with a big hunk of Swiss cheese and I have to start building up from the bottom and filling in those holes. I start with a simple story or fable and I have a short (four) list of words that I have pulled from the story. What are these words? They would be words that students may or may not know already but do have to understand to fully understand the reading. I write the words on the board and ask the students if they know the words. Many students know what an ‘ass’ is. Regardless of the fact that some students know what the word is, I draw a picture of an ‘ass’ (donkey) on the board and explain what it is. What I want from this class is 100% understanding of the meaning of the word ‘ass’.  I don’t stop beating on this subject until I am fairly convinced that every single student understands the meaning of that word.

So, the title of the story is The Ass in the Lion’s Skin. I am fairly confident that the students already know what a lion is so I don’t spend a lot of time on that. Plus, the picture with the story shows the ‘lion skin’ and the video that they will watch also shows the donkey wearing the lion’s skin.

Now how about ‘fox’? My experience in working with Korean students is that they are pretty familiar with the word ‘fox’  so I don’t spend a lot of time on that either. How about the words: fable, triumph and bray? How important are these words? I have definitions of the words before the story. I write these words on the board and explain what they mean to be sure they don’t get in the way of the students’ comprehending the story.

However; afterwards, what will I test them on? I will test them on the word ‘ass’ and its meaning, because my feeling is that clear understanding of that word is essential to understanding English properly. How many times do we call someone “An Ass!” or use phrases such as “And he was killed by the jaw of an ass.” So on. What words are essential to an understanding of Basic English? To my thinking a word like ‘ass’ is essential.


WORDS  (no more than four words at one time.)


Fable or Tale – a very short story often told with a ‘lesson’ at the end

Ass – Donkey

Triumph – great success

Bray – the Donkey’s laugh


The Ass in the Lions Skin (the title – teacher can ask students “What do you think this means?”



Stamp from Greece (the picture shows all three main characters in the story: the ass, the fox and the lion’s skin.)

SStfrom Greece


One day, an Ass found a Lion’s skin left in the forest by a hunter, and wishing to amuse himself and to feel powerful, put it on, scaring all the animals he met on his way. He was very proud of himself and felt like a real king. But in his delight, he opened his mouth and brayed in triumph.
The moment he heard the Ass’s voice, a Fox who was running frightened as well, stopped suddenly and began to laugh. Approaching the Ass, he exclaimed:
“You could have fooled me, too, had I not heard your bray.”

Fine clothes may disguise a fool, but silly words will give him away. (What does this mean? The top students in class will understand the moral. The lower students will remember the vocabulary and the story line which is okay too.)

Perry Index 188 – Library of Congress – Internet 2013




ESL Vocabulary Acquisition: Target and Approach

Andreea Cervatiuc
University of Calgary (Calgary, Canada)

A widely accepted distinction related to vocabulary knowledge refers to lexical “receptive knowledge”, which involves the ability to understand a word while listening or reading, versus “productive knowledge”, the ability to use a word in speaking or writing (Nation, 2001, p. 25). As a rule of thumb, the receptive vocabulary is at least twice the size of the productive vocabulary.


The Receptive Vocabulary Size of Adult Native English Speakers

Researchers are beginning to reach a consensus regarding the average receptive vocabulary size of native English speakers. A fairly recent study by Zechmeister, Chronis, Cull, D’Anna and Healy (1995) indicates that the receptive size of a college-educated native English speaker is about 17,000 word families, about 40% more than first year college students, who know about 12,000 word families. A word family consists of a base word and its inflected forms and derivations (Nation, 2001, p. 8).

A recent study (Cervatiuc, 2007) suggests that the average receptive vocabulary size of highly proficient university-educated non-native English speakers ranges between 13,500 and 20,000 base words, being comparable to that of university-educated English native speakers (Table 1).

A vocabulary acquisition rate of 2650 base words per year would allow adult learners of English as a second language to achieve a native-like vocabulary size of 17,200 base words in 6.49 years. This rate may not be representative of the average English as a second language learner, since the participants in Milton and Meara (1995) were top students and exceptional learners, but it suggests that acquisition of a native-like vocabulary size in a second language as an adult learner is an achievable goal.

By knowing the 2000 most frequent word families of English, readers can understand approximately 80% of the words in any text. Therefore, the goal of an English learner should be to acquire these 2000 word families first, since this relatively small number of words is recycled in any piece of writing and ensures the basis for reading comprehension.
However, knowing only the 2000 most frequent word families or 80% of the words in a written text gives a second language learner only a general idea of what is being said in a text, without ensuring deep reading comprehension. A much better reading comprehension power is ensured if a reader knows the meanings of at least 90% of the words in a text.


Teachers of English as a second language and curriculum developers may want to consider creating teaching materials and designing units in accordance with word frequency lists and concordances in order to approach vocabulary instruction in a principled and systematic way that is informed by research findings.



These numbers are all pretty impressive and theoretically should make us all feel a lot better that basic English vocabulary is, at least, attainable. However; reviewing the numbers given of 2,650 new words per year that the high level English student can learn; this breaks down to almost 7.5 new words per day, every day of the year. The consensus of most ESL teachers here is that students can learn a maximum of five words per day and no more.

These figures are addressing the abilities of high-level students who are either college or university educated. There are exactly three high-level universities in Korea and all the ‘best’ students go to those schools. I do not know the total number of students attending these schools in any given year. However; everyone else goes to lower-level schools and that represents a lot of students. So, I think it is reasonable to assume that we will need to recalibrate our expectations as to what students can reasonable be expected to attain.

So, if we are all in agreement that students should learn the 2,000 most common words in English, how do we go about teaching those words? As discussed in my last blog, Ken Wilson in the Smart Choice series of books starts with an essential grammar lesson and then builds an entire chapter around the grammar lesson to include themes, vocabulary, pair-practice work, listening, reading and writing exercises. Do we start with a word list and then build a story around the word list? Is this going to make any sense? Are we going to come up with artificial and strained reading materials that are nearly nonsensical in their format and delivery?


In his recent talk at the Kotesol Conference in Daegu, South Korea, Dr. Browne covered the topic of learning new words for the ESL and EFL learning and that learning needs to occur ‘in context.’


Webinar Charles Browne

Webinar: “The Importance of High Frequency Vocabulary to Language Learning” from the Gofluent site.

Dr. Browne indicates in his talk that there is a shift that has occurred in the fields of teaching ESL and EFL (English as a Second Language and English as a Foreign Language.) That shift has been away from primarily grammar instruction to teaching vocabulary and reading. Vocabulary and reading top grammar, speaking, listening or situational settings as being more effective and more instructional for teaching language. His opinions are based on the research of Dr. Paul Nation, professor at University of Wellington, New Zealand and his book, Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Dr. Nation is a known and very well respected expert in this field.

Dr. Brown indicates that a person who knows the 2,000 most commonly used words will be reading at the 85% comprehension level.  A person who knows 5,000 of the most commonly used words will be reading at the 95% comprehension level. A person can ‘sort of’ get by at the 85% level but is not really reading with comprehension until they are at the 95% comprehension level, or, in other words, understanding 95% of the words on the page.

The problems in Korea, Japan and other Asian countries are that the schools ‘teach to the test’ for college entrance exam tests and teach a lot of words the students don’t really need to be able to read. The student needs to know the first 5,000 most frequent words to be able to read most text and instead they are studying ‘low frequency words’ (words not commonly used) in order to past their college exams. Thereafter; they get into college and can neither read nor speak English in a comprehensible fashion.

The solution to many of these problems is to provide students with ‘comprehensible input’ which means text which they can understand. Most publishers print ‘leveled readers’ for preK-6th with productions of fairy tales and such that have accompanying worksheets, cd’s, etc. However; by the time students are in middle school, regardless of their true reading ability, they don’t want to read little kid books. So, the quest is then on for books and text they can read and want to read.

Paul Nation developed an online computer program that has a cut and paste feature that allows the teacher to paste in a section of text from whatever text he or she chooses and then get an analysis of the vocabulary words.

The analysis is broken down into 1-1000 most common words (K-1), 1001 to 2000 most common words (K-2); then, academic words and words simply off all lists.

http://www.lextutor.ca/cgi-bin/vp/eng/output.pl is the site. I cut and pasted a copy of The Ass and The Lion’s Skin onto the site. The word groupings are printed out in colors to match the levels.

According to the site, The Ass is 78% in the K1 group, 9.3% in the K2 group, 4% in the academic group and 8% in the off limit word group. My work with my students tells me that most of them can read at the K1 level. Therefore, I can leave the story exactly as it is and have students read it that way or I can choose to either eliminate or change some of the more difficult words.

In the past, I have done both. Current copies of literature which have been purposely designed for either the beginning reader or the English learner can be fabulously expensive. All the books are heavily protected by copyright so I am left with copies and editions of stories and tales that are quite old and have to be modified significantly for a low-level reading ability.

At any rate, these changes and developments in the evolving fields of linguistics can have a tremendous amount of impact in the class room working with low-level learners, ESL students and regular students too. I welcome these changes and in particular salute the slow march away from the grammar-heavy class rooms that I have seen so much of here in Korea. Really, when I have pulled out one more grammar lesson, the rolled eyes and sighs of my students speak in volumes and say “Just kill me now!” Just kidding. These students are just drowning in never ending grammar lessons and very few teachers, (including Western teachers) seem to notice there is even a problem.

I am pushing my students to go see Western movies with the Korean subtitles. However; after going over this research for the second time, (I saw Dr. Browne speak,) it is obvious that I need to review the literature that I am recommending to students before saying to them “Oh, you can do this!” I need to check out my book referrals to see whether they are within the K1-K2 levels, and thereby, actually accessible to my students.







Cervatiiuc, Andreea. (2014). ESL Vocabulary Acquisition: Target and Approach. Web. Retrieved from http://iteslj.org/Articles/Cervatiuc-VocabularyAcquisition.html

Browne, Dr. Charles, Prof of Applied Linguistics. Webinar: The Importance of High Frequency Vocabulary to Language Learning. (2014). Retrieved from Web. http://www.gofluent.com/web/it/webinar-charles-browne.

Nation, Paul. Web VP –Web (2014). Retrieved from http://www.lextutor.ca/cgi-bin/vp/eng/output.pl.