Discover why we should focus on teaching the most frequent words in English in this article by Scott Thornbury, author of Natural Grammar.
I was on my way back from work one day when I came to a place I had never been before. It was not really a house – more like a place for people who have no home.
An old man came out and said: "Come in". I went in. There were some people and a few children there. They looked at me. "Why have you been so long?" one of them said. I didn't know what to say so I left. One of the children came after me. "Stop", she said, "you should first give each of us three things." "What kind of things?" I said. "You still don't see, do you?" she said. "We are very old, and we have been here many years now. We are not children at all. We are the little people..."
(to be continued)
Not a great story, I admit, but did you find it easy to understand? You should have. Every word in that story is in the top 200 most frequent words in English. Many of the words – like the, you, of, I, and – are in the top 20. Notice that a lot of these words are what are called function words – that is, they have no real dictionary meaning but instead they have a grammatical function. Typical function words are of, do, been, a, and so. Most of the top 200 words in English are in fact function words. But there are also a number of content words – that is, words that carry lexical information, such as the very common nouns day, place, people, way, and the high-frequency verbs said, went, know, see, and stop.
The reason these words are frequent is not accidental. For a start, the high-frequency words express extremely common meanings, such as existence (be, was), possibility (would, may, perhaps), movement (go, came, stop), quantity (many, few, some), time (then, now, day, years), location (house, place, in, at, there) and identity (you, they, people, us).
Also, these common words combine with other words to form high-frequency 'chunks'. Many of the most common idioms in English are formed around at least one high-frequency word. Here are some of the most common idiomatic chunks in spoken English, according to a recent study. (Words that are in the top 200 most frequent words are underlined): kind of, sort of, of course, in terms of, in fact, deal with, at all, as well, make sure, go through, first of all.
The capacity to draw on a memorized 'bank' of such chunks is an important factor in achieving spoken fluency. High-frequency words express high-frequency meanings, and they form the core of high-frequency chunks. They also provide coverage of a lot of text: more than 50% of all the words in any given text will be in the top 200 words of the language.
The educational thinker Caleb Gattegno believed that these high-frequency words were so important that they were worth giving special emphasis as soon as possible. The basis for his 'Silent Way' was the manipulation of just these most frequent words. He believed that they would provide the learner with the feel for the language, without which their future learning would be difficult. The problem with these words is that, both as learners and teachers, we tend to overlook them. We focus on the meaningful words in a text, but don't pay attention to 'the little words'. Like the little people, we take them for granted. Here are some ways of paying them a bit more respect: