IATEFL 2018 Herdon & Dilger: Lexical sets are history

IATEFL 2018 Conference Reports

IATEFL 2018 Conference Reports

Tim Herdon and Andrew Dilger (OUP)

Lexical sets are history: insights from vocabulary research

To celebrate the launch of How Vocabulary is Learned (Webb, & Nation, OUP, 2017), Tim Herdon and Andrew Dilger, editors at OUP, presented some findings in the field of vocabulary research that are directly relevant to classroom practice.

This is my (slightly grumpy) first tweet from the workshop. Why start a well-informed, entertaining and highly practical workshop with something that almost sounded like an apology for its research focus?

Vocabulary Size

How to estimate your vocabulary size

1. Count how many of the 50 words in the table you know.
2. Multiply by 500 to get your approximate vocabulary size.
The vocabulary size of Native Speakers (NSs) is approximately:

- Pre-literate children: 3,000 – 4,000
- Ten-year-olds: 8,000 – 9,000
- Educated adults: 15,000 – 20,000

The presenters made the point that multiple encounters are necessary for vocabulary acquisition and growth and there simply aren’t enough classroom hours to teach our learners all the vocabulary they need. They illustrated this with a mathematical example, shown in the slide below. The typical situation for EFL learners with 3-4 hours of English class a week might be to learn 15-25 words per week. At this rate, it would take them 15-30 years to acquire the vocabulary size of an educated adult (15,000 – 20,000 words).

We therefore need to encourage learner autonomy in order to maximise learners’ exposure. Vocabulary can be learnt by paying deliberate attention, or by repeated exposure.

Autonomous vocabulary learning

The presenters describe the Matthew Effect: a kind of ‘virtuous cycle’, or the idea that success breeds success. Learners who successfully implement vocabulary learning strategies are encouraged to learn even more, and so on successively. Possible strategies for autonomous vocabulary learning are suggested in the following slide.
The Matthew Effect

Commonly-held assumptions

The workshop also challenged some of the commonly-held assumptions about vocabulary learning:

Quick assumption check 1

In the following slide, which group of words would be easier to learn?

The answer is B, because these vocabulary items are more frequent. However, most vocabulary is presented in teaching materials as lexical sets. Research suggests that this is more cognitively demanding, as it is harder to separate words with a similar meaning, and vocabulary should be presented in context.

Quick assumption check 2


The two groups of words are both presented in lexical sets, but which would be easier to memorise?

                        A                                    B

                   apple                                 apple
                  orange                               banana
                   peach                                melon

The answer is B, because these words are visually distinct. In group A, the words are all items that resemble each other in size, colour and category, etc.

Quick assumption check 3

Here are two groups of unrelated words, that are an equal level of (in)frequency. Which of these would be easier to remember?

                        A                                   B
                    abhor                               lick
                   boulder                            mourn
                    crave                              pawn
                     sob                                  reef

The answer in this case is A, because all the words in this group have a high frequency synonym, which makes it easier to ‘store’ the item in the memory:

abhor - hate
boulder – rock
crave – want
sob - cry

The presenters suggest the following criteria for assessing the effectiveness of a vocabulary learning technique.

And they recommend the following activities:

In conclusion, the key points made in this workshop to maximise learners’ vocabulary acquisition and growth:


  1. Sad indeed that they should need to preface the talk with a justification for the research focus, but we can but hope that a continual drip, drip of reminders will convert those who feel research should 'be left to researchers'. Thanks for these write-ups - very interesting and useful. :)

    1. Totally agree. These summaries are meant to be objective, but I couldn't resist that observation - there's almost a need to be apologetic for the use of the R word.
      Thanks for the positive feedback.


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