Why You Should Abandon Vocab Lists

Recently a colleague of mine noticed that I don’t teach using vocab lists, and asked me to explain why. I’ve thrown them away for a number of reasons.

Vocab Lists Discriminate

First, I noticed a discriminatory trend that my students of color and boys were disproportionately doing worse on vocab quizzes. As teachers, we could always blame the student. They should care more. They should study more. But that doesn’t get us or them anywhere. I think in the long run, this is harder for the teacher even for selfish reasons. The students do worse, and get frustrated, and are then harder to manage and motivate. Success breeds success (and easier classes to manage!). I feel like we have to be leaders and adapt to find solutions that work for a wider range of kids.

The Research

It just so happens that the research also backs up not using vocab lists as well. I’ve got to go back and skim through either Dr. Krashen’s “The Power of Reading” or Bill VanPatten’s “While We’re On The Topic” to find the source, but learning vocabulary in context is much more efficient than learning them in lists: the study I’ve got the quote from states,

“It takes 17 exposures in context and 70 exposures out of context (which a vocab list certainly is) to learn a new word.”

That’s on average. We all know that the higher emotional impact of a word, the more likely students will permanently acquire it. The only chance on creating an emotional connection with material is through compelling contexts.


There’s a million other reasons to abandon vocab lists. Most importantly, I think that vocab lists move teachers away from personalizing the conversation to the interests of students in the classroom. One starts to structure classroom activities in order to cover the vocab list rather than basing instruction on what the students are interested in, which leads to boring instruction!

Advanced Text Format

Text format is immensely important in language development. Any time spent studying lists is time not spent comprehending more complex text formats: sentences, paragraphs, and whole narratives. Vocab in context is more instructional because it contains important repetitions of the all-important glue words: a, the, some, many, very, of, for, to, from, at, that, because, so, then, next, also, first, second, next, finally, since, when, therefore, etc… You don’t get any of that with vocab lists study.

You also don’t get any grammar or syntactical improvement in vocab lists. You don’t get conjugation experience, or noun-adjective agreement, or word order, or punctuation, etc.

It doesn’t improve students’ processing speed or pronunciation.

Thematic lists are also inefficient because many (sometimes most) of the words on any given thematic list aren’t high frequency. Take a food vocab list for example. The words about eating in general are high frequency: to eat, to drink, the drink, the food, to go, the meal, the restaurant, and then all kinds of descriptions like big, small, delicious, bad, good, I like, favorite, etc. But any specific food or drink is way, way down the list of high frequency. My guess would be that most actual food items or utensils don’t even rank in the top 1000. So, why give a food vocab list. Just spend a few classes talking about kids’ favorite restaurants.

Game Changers

I think the solution is to focus less on vocab lists and more on conversation formats like student interviews, or PictureTalk, or MovieTalk, or CultureTalk, or CalendarTalk, or Storylistening, or Story Co-Creation, or whatever.

If you need to cover thematic units in your teaching situation, one practical solution to move away from structuring curriculum by vocab lists is to organize shared units by Can Do Statements and/or driving questions. This is hardly a groundbreaking statement. ACTFL has been directing curriculum in this manner for decades. Yet on the local level, the vast majority of shared curricula is still organized by vocab lists and bullet points of grammar concepts. Can Do statements lend themselves much better to personalizing the conversation to the students’ interests and making sure students are experiencing advanced text types (vocab in context) rather than in isolation.

Here’s an example of my county’s level 1 curriculum that no longer mandates vocab lists or specific grammar concepts. It’s such a huge step forward in making WL instruction actually based on research!

Here’s a link of driving questions that I put together for my county’s Thematic Units awhile ago.

Another less popular but I think more ideal solution is to adopt Mike Peto’s suggested High Frequency Curriculum. The structure of vocabulary in this language programs is through a spiral analogy, not the pie chart structure of thematic units that are separate entityies It begins by focusing on the highest frequency words, and spirals outwards as you follow interesting conversations rather than thematic units. I think this is revolutionary because it focuses WL pedagogy on what really matters: on delivering to students compelling, comprehensible input. It focuses on leveraging teacher and student interests so class can be as interesting as possible, rather than mandating a uniform experience in every class. A uniform experience isn’t actually necessary due to the nature of language usage itself. Communication is vastly dominated by High Frequency Vocabulary. High Frequency studies have determined that just the top 300 words make up 65% of all written communication. Over the course of a 2 or 3 or 4 year school language program, students will learn the high frequency because they are high frequency. It doesn’t actually matter if the teacher focuses on sports, or pop culture, or MovieTalks Gran Hotel or El Internado for 4 months. In agregate, if words don’t come up, it’s because they aren’t as important. What a freeing insight!

So, people, get out there and be game-changers!

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