Do some words matter more or the frequency fallacy? | IATEFL 2018 summary

IATEFL 2018 Brighton Leo Selivan.png

In this talk, Leo Selivan challenged the conventional approach of choosing what vocabulary to teach using frequency lists. He suggested that frequency has become so ubiquitous that it’s now included in dictionary entries and that we use these frequency lists for a number of reasons:

  • To grade and select vocabulary
  • 80% of English text consists of high frequency words
  • Frequency lists are used for defining vocabularies in learner dictionaries (core)
  • To counter the teacher’s intuition which may be wrong. For example, we overestimate the frequency of ‘blond’ and underestimate ‘arise’

The most frequently used words tend to be function or grammar words and it’s commonly believed that we can “learn 2000 words and then it’s all plain sailing.”

Leo argues that frequency is not the same as usefulness and analyses this through several areas of lexis.

Polysemy is a word with multiple meanings such as ‘aid’ (come to my aid, foreign aid, hearing aid). Words that have polysemous relationships can be close or distant in meaning. In the following examples, rough is closer relative to run which is more distant.

(1a) He runs 10 miles every day

(1b) She runs a restaurant

(2a) His hands were rough from hard work

(2b) I’ve had a rough day today

Leo asked the attendees to translate several words into another language that they are familiar with:  accident, (to) join, condition, to gain, business (I realised that I don’t know how to say condition in Hindi and I had to look it up in a dictionary). The actual learning from this activity is that the translation depends on the meaning we want: have an accident vs. by accident, join the club vs. join the army etc. This might in fact be an interesting activity for the multilingual classroom.

He then contrasted two schools of thought – Charles Rhul’s On Monosemy establishes the first one where there is a core primary meaning and all other words are seen as derived. The other school of thought which he subscribes to is embodied by John Sinclair’s Corpus Concordance Collocation which holds the view that meaning is established by collocation and that to truly understand what a word means, you have to look at co-text (e.g., by accident). Therefore he argues that advice focusing on meaning before looking at collocation is ‘dubious’.

Word families 

With some words, it’s easy to find other members of the word family because they follow specific patterns for example the suffix -ment in development and improvement signal nouns. However, this is not as obvious in other words such as the following:

name – namely

price – priceless

fish – fishy

parent – parenthood

It’s entirely possible that learners encounter the derivative form before the base form for instance, suddenly before sudden, crazy before craze, reveal before revelation, computer before compute and conventional before convene.


Some words which are low frequency have a greater likelihood of being taught because of the context in which they may be used.

  • Classroom language: verb, vocabulary
  • Cultural terms: candle, mosque
  • Conceptual difficulty: admit, issue
  • Ease of learning: guitar, basketball
  • Elementary school needs: porridge, knight, wand
  • Personal use: brunch, sociable

I’m not sure what he said with respect to conceptual difficulty – perhaps he was contrasting it with ease of learning – that we are more likely to teach words with a lower frequency if they are easier to learn. Apropos personal use, these two examples are from Leo’s own personal repertoire. He was trying to suggest that learners might find low frequency words useful because of their personalities and preferences.

Phraseological argument 

With multi-part verbs such as ‘the plane took off’ and ‘stand by your friend’ and non-compositional chunks such as ‘take place’, meaning can’t be understood from individual elements. Some items need to be learnt as chunks for example ‘at your disposal’ and ‘to some extent’. The PHRASE and PHaVE lists are apparently two new lists designed to address this.

Lexical availability 

Called disponibilité in French, this refers to words that easily spring to mind when presented with a prompt. So if you’re asked to come up with words related to travelling, many of the words that you may generate are lexically available but probably low frequency such as luggage.

The bottom line is that frequency doesn’t translate to usefulness and vocabulary acquisition is incremental and non-linear. You can download his handout with the meta-language he uses from this link.

Language-focused teacher development | Belta webinar summary

February’s Belta webinar was facilitated by Andrew Walkley who spoke about language-focused teacheAndrew Walkley Beltar development. Andrew runs an organization called the Lexical Lab that trains teachers to use the lexical approach. He spent the first two-thirds of the webinar building a case for why we need to prepare teachers for dealing with lexis and wrapped up by talking about vocabulary exercises for exploiting language more effectively.


In language-rich responsive approaches such as task-based learning and dogme, the T is expected to recognize, produce and help Ss notice language based on what she observes and hears. The T needs to be skilled in offering Ss examples of the target language or word or lexical structure that’s being discussed. Andrew questioned Ts’ ability to do this on the spur in an instructionally sound way. He refered to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow where the author discusses two types of thinking, one of which is a fast, in the moment, spontaneous sort of thinking. This is in fact a normal cognitive process but instead of thinking clearly, we often replace logical thoughts with heuristics – biases – generalized ideas about something.  Andrew connected this with language teaching through an exercise where he asked us to reorder the following words by frequency from most frequent to least:

ambitious / fun / serious / hard-working

arise / supermarket / store / blonde

banana / controversy / Christian / criticism

paramedic / contend / headline / whereby

after he / in terms of / singer / by the time

He then asked us to write an example (a sentence) for the following words and structures:

ambitious / beard / Christian / past continuous / whereby / arise / criticism / in terms of

Interestingly, beard, blonde and arise occur at a similar frequency in the British National Corpus (BNC) in the spoken component and in the the corpus as a whole – arise comes out on top.

after the (219) serious (122) in terms of (99) arise (96) store (93) Christian (68) fun (52) criticism (47) by the time (37) controversy (21) whereby (20) after he (19) singer (18) supermarket (17) ambitious (16) headline (16) contend (9) beard (9) banana (6) hard-working (2) paramedic (1)

Thinking Fast and SlowSo, we tend to misjudge frequency and according to Andrew we also place these words in examples that don’t reflect real use of language such as “He has a beard” and “She is a Christian”. The latter apparently only occurs once in the entire BNC. Linking back to Kahneman’s ideas, it’s difficult to think of truly meaningful examples on the spur. We place words like beard, blonde and supermarket higher up because we can think of examples more readily than arise. Andrew suggested that if we think of contexts where arise appears such as academic texts and business discussions – there are several more possible contexts than banana or beard. Authentic use of criticism might involve an example such as “The government has faced a lot of criticism concerning its education policy”. Therefore, actual use of these words involve sentences that are far more complex than the ones that readily come to us.

Andrew stated that there are three reasons underpinning this.

  • Availability bias: when we think of a doctor, we imagine a man in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck. The examples that we provide to Ss are of a certain nature because they come quicker to mind. When we define words, we put them into the frames of ‘x is y’ or ‘x does y’ which may not reflect the real nature of the word.
  • Representational bias: we tend to exemplify words using the most basic representative structures such as “she’s blonde”.
  • Priming: When we think of the past continuous, we think of examples such as “I was having a bath when the phone rang (was doing, this happened)” because of what we’ve learnt before and what we’ve seen in course books in typical contexts – we fail to use the wider context that could be used.

Andrew pointed out that sometimes, when we are trying to hear what Ss say in order to correct them, we are primed to hear basic and typical grammar that we’ve taught before. This is problematic in terms of responsive methodologies and can pose an enormous cognitive load for any teacher who is trying to follow TBL or Dogme (and perhaps one of the reasons Ts are apprehensive about these approaches). Language focus in teacher-training courses such as the Celta is on word phrases and tenses, not on lexis, and certainty not on how lexis and grammar work together. We have word forms and we slot stuff in, which again does not reflect real language use. Andrew also added that course book writers have themselves been similarly primed.


Andrew recommended adding these elements to teacher training and development to address this challenge:

Reflect lexical nature of language

Planning focus on lexis

Observation focusing on responsiveness and new language – not necessarily aims

T development on noticing and exploiting language

in vocab/grammar exercises

in reading/texts

in what Ss say

Andrew didn’t spend too much time on frequency training but he suggested some resources:

For exploiting vocabulary exercises, he suggested the following:

Single word exercises

Think of collocations to give/elicit

Questions to ask vocab

Collocation exercises

Collocates of the collocations

Examples sentences/dialogues

Stories based on one or more collocation

Whole sentence exercises

Think of before/after sentences (when? why? who to?)

Notice grammar or re-usable chunks

Notice other useful vocab

So, an example of a single word exercise from a course book might look like:

rebuild / reconstruct / remake / re-erect

reconsider/ recontemplate/ rethink/ re-examine

recopy / redraft / reword /rewrite

Where Ss are asked to cross out the re word that doesn’t exist in each set and then find more re words. Andrew talked about exploiting this exercise from a lexical perspective by getting Ss to think about what collocations they could create out of these words. Is reconsider the same as rethink or re-examine? Can we use these words in the same types of collocations etc.?  Andrew ran out of time but guidance on exploiting exercises is available on his site.

This was an interesting webinar that created a strong case for including a lexical focus on teacher-training. I do wish, however, that there had been more discussion around how to raise awareness of frequency. While there are tools available for frequency training, getting Ts to become habituated to using them is a persistent challenge.

Finally, here’s an insightful article by Andrew on the Belta site titled Lexical sets/Topic vocabulary.


Leo Selivan’s webinar on Quizlet | A quick summary

Leo Selivan

Leo Selivan is famous among ELT PLNs for advocating the lexical approach through his insightful and aptly named blog – Leoxicon. His webinar from IATEFL last night was on using Quizlet, an online study tool that uses flashcards and associated activities to review content. I have used Quizlet before to study for the Delta Module 1 exam and the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, a Chinese proficiency exam, but I’ve never used it for my learners.

quizlet 1Leo’s talk was essentially on using Quizlet to generate lexical practice exercises like this on words that collocate with ‘look’.  He suggested that lexical notebooks and flashcards which we encourage learners to maintain have many disadvantages including a lack of organization, teacher and student notes not being in sync, and not providing active recall and practice. Leo goes on to quote some research as the rationale for using Quizlet.

Incidental learning is not sufficient. Both contextualized and contextualized practice are needed. Treating vocabulary as an object of study rather than tools for communication is effective as a teaching method.

Laufer, B. (2005). Focus on form in second language learning. EUROSLA Yearbook, 5, 223-250

He goes on to cite that teachers/learners need

frequent encounters with new items.

breadth of vocabulary as well as depth of vocabulary

focus on the word form (e.g., adopt – adapt)

exploit L1 when advantageous

engagement with new items (attention, manipulation, time spent, being tested)

Schmitt, N. (2008). Instructed second language vocabulary learning. Language Teaching Research, 12(3), 329-363

Quizlet offers the following types of activities which go from receptive to somewhat productive, and easy to challenging.

  • Scatter – matching
  • Speller – type in words as they are spoken
  • Learn – type in words
  • Space race – type in words as definitions fly across the screen
  • Test – generates a graded quiz (open-ended, MCQ, T/F)

The workhorse of the Quizlet system is the flashcard. Interestingly, Leo avoids providing definitions on the flashcards, instead providing co-text.

Side 1: The video for Gangnam style went v_______l.

Side 2: Viral


Side 1: Why did you buy so many?  – They were _____ special offer.

Side 2: On

He explains the reason for this using conventional approaches to familiarizing Ss with a word. For example, which of the following definitions is better?

a willingness to accept an obligation and be accountable or an action or a situation.

blame for something that has happened

if you say that something that’s happened is your mistake, you take ________ for it.

Leo discourages using which he says is inappropriate for learners, instead recommending Macmillan and Cambridge Dictionaries Online. The first of these definitions is in fact from and would really not make much sense to learners. The other way we define words for learners is through synonyms. This too could be fallacy because for instance happen and occur are synonyms and yet cannot be interchangeably used in many situations. Similarly, vast’s synonyms, enormous and immense, may also end up being unfamiliar to learners.

There are nine different aspects of knowing a word:

Form: spoken, written, word parts

Meaning: form-concept, concept & referents, associations

Use: collocations, grammatical pattern, constraints on use

Nation, P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. CUP.

Course books tend to focus on the form-meaning link and teachers tend to focus mostly on meaning (70% of classroom vocab teaching segments).

much of what has passed for vocabulary teaching […] addresses only the tip of the lexical iceberg

David Singleton in Exploring the second language mental lexicon. CUP. 1999. p.227

I think I have gone a bit overboard with this summary 🙂 but hopefully you get Leo’s point about why teaching vocabulary as we normally do could be problematic. So, how does Quizlet fit into all of this? Leo suggests some tweaks to definition-based exercises which emphasize co-text (not context!), which is essential for successful vocabulary learning.

Here are his suggested alternatives. In some cases, it wasn’t clear which Quizlet feature he used to create the exercise. With some of them, it might be a good idea to explore his sets to see how he has created these exercises.

1. Example sentence + (definition)


It’s a bit out of town but it’s a popular ______ for wedding receptions.

(the place where an event is held)

2. Collocations (+ definition) 

_________ with a doctor

make an __________ with

I had to cancel my ___________

(formal meeting)

3. Collocations flashcards 

right/wrong… / find an … to his question / give an …

4. Collocation chains (I think this one’s done with scatter)

dish                                   traditional… /vegetarian … /side … /my favourite

5. Collocations scatter 

quizlet 2

6. Collocations – learn mode 

quizlet 3


7. Prepositions – scatter 

I’ve got a really bad cough. I’ve had it _______ days.                                                for

8. Phrase + translation 

all over the world                                                                              partout dans le monde

9. Phrase in a conversation

“———————–?” “Fine, thanks.”                                         How’s it going

(How are you? How are things?)

10 First letter clue 

They conducted a t__________ i__________ but they couldn’t find the cause of the fire.

11. First letter, last letter 

Armstrong was b_______d from cycling for life.

12. Enhanced input

I’ve ______ for a job.                                                                        applied

I ________ to three universities and was accepted by two.

Useful links:

Image attribution: Flickr | TTed SIG PCE Leo Selivan … by Mike H | CC by NC 2.0)

Verbal questions, Visual answers | An apptivity


At TEDx Gateway 2014, there was a surprise speaker named K.K. Raghavan under the business maverick category. He spoke about all sorts of things but the crux of his talk was on how new technology has zombiefied us to a certain extent and leeched us of our humanity. Among his solutions is an app called Flipsicle – a combination of Twitter and Screenshot_2014-11-30-08-26-13Instagram-like features, whose goal is to evoke empathy. I’m not so sure about the empathy bit but I quite like the app’s main function. Any user can post a question just as people often do on Twitter such as “What motivates you?”. Other users respond by posting an image either from the image libraries on their phones or by taking a fresh photo. The creators of the app have already raised $2 million in seed capital. The app was designed “as a reaction to the two knowledge systems most prevalent in the world today — expert knowledge, which Raghava says is too biased to one person’s understanding, and crowd-sourced knowledge, where the truth that prevails is the one that “survives the edit war”, essentially, “the lowest common accepted bias survives.” This got me thinking and I managed to suss out a language activity.

In lessons on functions, we focus a lot on language for sharing one’s own opinions. However, in the modern, collaborative workplace, you are frequently required to talk about your colleagues’ opinions.  For example, “Jenny feels that we should go ahead with our initial plan however Rob’s take on this is that we ought to wait for leadership approval.”  Although I like Flipsicle, I chose not to use it because it’s got a couple of bugs. The main screen scrolls really slowly and asking questions of a private group is a feature that’s available but not activated. Additionally, some of the questions that have been posted make no sense.


Come up with a list of questions that your Ss will find interesting and write them up on a slide or a flipchart. Bear in mind that you will need to set the task as homework.


Your Ss will need phones with cameras.



  • Display the slide/flipchart with the questions and ask Ss to take a picture of it/or write down the questions.
  • Tell Ss that you would like them to answer these questions for homework. As the inevitable groans start coming in, inform them that the answers must be visual. They will need to take pictures with their phone as responses to each of the questions either at work (if that’s allowed), or on their commute home or back to work the next morning.
  • Encourage them to take lots of pictures but select only one as a response for each question. Ask them to keep these identified images together in a single folder, deleting the others or shifting them into another folder. (This is to ensure that they don’t get distracted showing each other extraneous images).
  • Sample questions:
    • What motivates people to come to work?
    • What is power dressing?
    • What is the colour of success?
    • Why is it important to have friends at work?
    • What sort of a person should a mentor be?
    • What leads to a demotivated workplace?
  • NB: Ss seem to respond much more energetically to negative questions like their nightmare boss than positive ones but it’s really up to the T based on what kind of discussion she wants to facilitate.


  • Ss merrily click pictures on their phones, hopefully not causing offence to anyone.


  • You may want to start your lesson with this activity.
  • Ask Ss to navigate to the folder where they have their visual answers. Bring up the questions on the slide or flipchart. Ask Ss to spend a minute thinking about why or how each of their images answers a question i.e., what does it represent? You may need to demonstrate with one.
  • Get Ss to stand up. Announce the first question. Have Ss mingle, showing each other their visual responses and explaining what it means. After a couple of minutes, move on to the next question. Ss keep mingling, trying to talk to someone new for each of the questions. They should attempt to pair up with at least two people for each question so they hear two different perspectives in addition to their own.

Language focus

  • Divide Ss into groups of four and ask them to share what they heard from their peers for each question.
  • Monitor for language used to share opinions expressed by others. It might also be worthwhile to observe how Ss use discourse markers to contrast differences in opinions.
  • Board some examples of phrases such as “Jaya is of the opinion that”, “Dev feels that”, “Samir’s perspective is that” and ask Ss to think back to the expressions they used to and work as a group to add to the list. Ask groups to compare their lists, adding from each other until each group has a long list of phrases.
  • Identify patterns and move the phrases into frames and slots and ask Ss to write these down individually.

Interruptions | A meeting skills activity

Business meeting

Interruptions … it’s something most my learners struggle with and it’s a skill they require daily because no one in a corporate setting can escape attending at least one meeting a day, if not more. To complicate matters, turn taking varies across cultures. In the US, Northern Europe and Japan, interruptions are uncommon and generally considered rude. In France, Brazil and India, interruptions are more common and are sometimes seen as a sign of being engaged. I’ve also observed that some of my learners in India tend to completely shut up when they are in meetings with overseas clients and seniors, to the extent that even when they genuinely need to interrupt to clarify something or provide some information, they don’t.  Here’s an activity that addresses both these issues. For learners who sort of talk over each other, it offers statements that can help them more politely take the turn. For learners who don’t interrupt at for fear of causing offence, it provides practice with interrupting.


A deck of playing cards, whiteboard, WB markers. You’ll need to install Triptico and download the interruption spinner file – ideally you’ll need an LCD projector to project the spinner. Alternatively, you could just use an ordinary computer or a laptop.  Fair warning! Triptico unfortunately doesn’t run without internet connectivity but I’m sure you’ll be resourceful enough to find a tech free equivalent.


Divide the deck of cards according to the number of Ss but spread evenly across the same cards from the four suits . For example, if you have 16 Ss, take 2, 3, 4, 5 of Hearts; then 2, 3, 4, 5 of Diamonds and repeat across Spades and Clubs so you have 16 cards in all.  Open up Triptico and access Text Spinner under Selectors. Click on ‘Load from cloud’ and then ‘Load a text file’. Navigate to wherever you saved the interruption spinner file and you’re all set.


  • Stage 1
    • Shuffle the cards and distribute them to Ss.
    • Ask Ss to find other Ss who have the same suit as them. Allocate different corners/tables to each suit.
    • Ss work with their groups to come up with phrases that can be used to interrupt during meetings. As groups settle on a list of phrases, ask them to send up group members to write the phrases up on the WB.
    • Elicit corrections if required and add any other expressions that might be appropriate or useful. Organize language into frames and chunks if you’re lexically inclined. Alex Case over at the TEFLtastic blog has a list of expressions for turn taking.
    • Ask Ss to decide whether some expressions are more appropriate for conference calls and which ones for in-person meetings.
  • Stage 2
    • Now ask Ss to regroup. To find their new groups, they’ll need to look for Ss who have the same number as them. So 2 of hearts, 2 of spades, 2 of diamonds and 2 of clubs get together etc.
    • Assign any meeting role play or scenario that’s appropriate to the groups.
    • Bring up the interruption spinner on the LCD projector. Explain to the Ss that once they start the meeting role play, you’ll spin the interruption spinner. If it lands up at Hearts, anyone who has a Hearts card will need to interrupt using one of the phrases listed on the WB and take the turn. There are three googlies as we like to say in India – Red, Black and Random. If the spinner displays Red – anyone who has hearts or diamonds can interrupt; likewise with black. Random means anyone can interrupt (this one’s a whole heap of fun!).


  • Ask Ss which phrases were used most frequently and which ones least. What could be the reasons for this?
  • Ask Ss why interrupting might be easier in an in-person meeting (paralinguistic cues) than in telephonic one.
  • Lead a discussion about different perceptions towards interruptions across cultures and encourage Ss to talk about their discomfort if any with interrupting colleagues, clients and stakeholders in meetings.

Triptico Text Spinner

Image attribution: Meeting by John Benson | Creative Commons by 2.0