Published 27th March 2018

vocab for EFL learners

If you have ever learned or tried to learn a foreign language you will probably remember trying to learn lists and lists of vocabulary items. Flashcards, sticky notes, parrot learning – there are many ways students try to learn vocabulary and rightly so. Vocabulary is an essential part of any language, but the amount of words in a language can leave even the most motivated learner on the verge of throwing in the towel.

This is where the concept of core vocabulary comes in.

What is core vocabulary?

Core vocabulary is an idea which has been around for ages. Before digital corpora, teams of researchers would look through print corpora and compile lists of words which they thought were the most useful for learners of English. The common number for a list of core vocabulary is 2 000; in other words, there are actually 2,000 word families that learners should know in order to be able to communicate to a high level in English.

How are the core vocabulary chosen?

Frequency is the first criterion; words which are used more often are more useful than words which are not used very often.

However, if a word does not have a high frequency but it is important because it is a unique word which does not have a satisfactory equivalent, it was also included.

Another criterion is simplicity, in that these words are usually used to define other words.

Then, superordinateness must be considered. A word which is a category word is much more useful than a more specific item of that category i.e. tree versus oak.

Core words have clear opposites i.e. happy and sad versus giggle.

Core words have a high number of collocates i.e. start a fight/a career/a rumour versus begin.

Core words combine with other morphemes to create a wide range of new words.

Core words are neutral, in that they are not highly emotive or culture-specific i.e. car versus tuk-tuk.

Finally, core words are found in a range of contexts and are not just specific to one situation.

Where can you find core vocabulary lists?

There are a few sources of core vocabulary floating around. Bear in mind that each one may differ slightly because they are the product of a team of people making decisions on which words to include. There shouldn’t be too many discrepancies considering that they are all claiming to describe the core vocabulary of the language but they may differ here and there.

The Oxford 3000 is one such list and it can be found as a dictionary or an app.

What can we do with core vocabulary lists?

This is the tricky part. Knowing which are the most useful couple of thousand words in a language is a good step in the right direction, but learners still need to learn these words. As a teacher you can use these lists to ensure you are teaching appropriate and useful language in your lessons. This is especially true if you are teaching lower levels as you don’t want to waste time teaching infrequent or uncommon vocabulary. Then, you can make your students aware of these lists so that they can utilise them in their studying as well.