I recently asked a couple of colleagues which word they thought was more frequent – arise or blonde. Almost immediately, the answer blonde came back. However, despite the confidence of the response, according to the British National Corpus (BNC) and various dictionaries, my colleagues were wrong! Arise is in fact nine times more frequent than blonde in the BNC. There is some evidence to suggest that my colleagues are not alone. Teachers (and students) are not very good at recognising frequency of words (see McCrostie 2007).
Examples you can think of, rather than frequency
One of the reasons for this – particularly in the heat of the classroom where teachers may be under time pressure- can be found in Daniel Kahnamen’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s work focuses on the limits of intuition, quick thought and expertise. He highlights a number of heuristic biases associated with ‘quick’ thought and one of these is a so-called availability bias. This occurs when people underestimate or overestimate the frequency of an event or thing because rather than step back and compare events rationally using a variety of tools, people replace the issue with an ‘availabilty heuristic.’ This is the ease with which examples come to mind. For example, because we may remember more examples of, say, terrorist incidents than of accidental deaths caused by electrocutions (terrorist attacks being much more widely reported in the media than people electrocuting themselves), people may greatly overestimate the risk of death or injury from a terrorist attack and not realise there’s a similar (low) risk of electrocution.
Language teachers’ availability bias
This is an issue for teachers (and students) because availability or ease of recall will often be connected to categories, pictures in our minds, vivid ideas, personal experiences, etc. – and also perhaps with words that are spoken more than those which are read or written. As a result, we are likely to overestimate the frequency that we see or hear words like blonde, pear, ski, microwave, French, crowded, purple, jumper, beard or sociable . . . and to underestimate the frequency of words such as mood, economy, provide, policy, arise, adequate, data, deposit, discipline, extent, grant. All the first set are over the level of top 5000 most frequent words, according the Macmillan Advanced Dictionary (pear, ski, sociable and French (!) are not even in the top 7500), whereas all the words in the second set are among the 2500 most common.
As an example of this bias, you might try thinking of how many blonde people you can think of compared to things that are adequate. A second related issue for teachers and students is that when we come to think of examples, the ease with which we can think of the example is likely to also be an influence.
Basic grammar and more complex examples and priming
Words such as those in the first group above can be exemplified with the most basic representative structure of English:
It’s a pear.
I like skiing.
I have a jumper.
A lot of the words in the second set often require either additional information or more complex sentence structure that go beyond this basic sentence pattern. This is not just problematic in terms of choosing words over others with greater frequency, but it also means we tend to fail in providing a better range of true collocations and grammar that students need above these ‘representations’ of usage.
Finally, some of the words in the first set may also be more available to teachers of English and to language learners because of another psychological phenomena: we may well have been primed by our previous teaching and learning to expect most of these words at lower levels in lexical sets on appearance, food, etc. We assume that this is a legitimate choice without thinking. This is a theme we will follow up in future blog posts on lexical sets.
Getting better at frequency and giving examples
However, there is hope! We can get better at recognising frequent words. One way is to test yourself on guessing frequency for example through the website which goes with the McCrostie article above. However, simply knowing frequency is only part of the issue. Teaching less frequent words can be of use at times. It may be difficult to avoid teaching at least some nationalities such as French when they may well be needed for one of the first kinds of conversation many foreign speakers will have. Furthermore, if we can give good examples, this often makes the teaching and time spent worthwhile because it will often involve using a lot of more frequent language. It is the combination of low frequency and single word lists which we would see as inefficient. So, unlike the lexical tutor website linked in above, our aim would be to get teachers to think not only about which words are more frequent, but also about how they might be used.
Arise the blonde!
So, as a final example here, let’s return to blonde and arise. Why is arise more common, and potentially more useful? Secondly, how could we make better use of the less frequent word blonde?
Here are some possible examples.
If any problems arise, or you need help, please call. You have my mobile.
If anything arises while you’re staying, just email me. I check pretty regularly.
I don’t think we need any help now, but we can always ask if the need arises.
I think I have enough information. I can always call you if the need arises.
It is easy to imagine a variety of situations and contexts for these sentences. You might not want to teach them to an Elementary class because of their complexity, but there’s no reason they couldn’t appear in a text. And we might then teach it productively at Pre-Intermediate or Intermediate.
Have you ever seen it taught – or taught it yourself?
And what examples of how the word blonde is most frequently used can you think of?
Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin Books Ltd.
Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (2007) 2nd. edition Macmillan ELT
McCrostie, J. (2007) Examining Learner Vocabulary Notebooks. ELT Journal 61 (3): 246-255
nice to see an updated version of the blonde article 🙂
using http://www.wordandphrase.info we could also point out to students that arise is a very common verb in the academic register whilst blonde appears a lot in the fiction register both as an adjective and noun
one could also try to pick out examples/patterns of blonde from various registers to use as example sentences from wordandphrase.info, or use collocates as examples e.g. example sentences of ‘blonde hair’ as top collocate?
teachers could also be on lookout for interesting research on frequency for example top 150 most frequent phrasal verbs and their most common meanings – http://phave-dictionary.englishup.me/ (there is a phave trainer as well – http://phave-dictionary.englishup.me/phave-trainer.html)
Hi Mura –
Thanks for the links above. Interesting ones and good to
explore. I have to say, though, I find http://www.wordandphrase.info slightly less user-friendly than http://phrasesinenglish.org/searchBNC.html
Whichever way you do thjings, though, it’s obviously always helpful to check as much as you can about the way certain items are used, especially when teaching higher level students with whom the need to show perhaps lesser known usages and patterns is greater.
My problem with showing things like ‘blonde hair’, by the way, is that even though the meaning is easy to tackle and the collocation is a strong one, there’s not enough there to really give students any sense of how or when they may wish to talk about blonde hair. I think we then need to expand out and think about what I guess you could call the collocations of the collocations – or common co-text. In essence, this means thinking about – and searching for – really typical ways in which you might say / hear these two words in action. BLONDE HAIR together as one chunk is almost always used in literary description of the “a tall, fair, calm lady with a high forehead and BLONDE HAIR, her features regular, smooth and serene, not beautiful, but possessed of such a quality of gentleness and repose” variety!
When you split the words up and explore usage, though, I think you get more useful, reusable sentences like: She’s dyed her hair blonde . . . or . . . I’m naturally blonde, but I dyed my hair black a couple of years ago as an experiment – and liked it so much I’ve kept it this way ever since.
These examples have the added advantages of containing more grammar too, and being explicitly linked to situations most students can readily identify with.
To test your knowledge of high frequency words try the Red Words Game on macmillandictionary.com – had fun with my FCE sts yesterday – they said this was just the weirdest game!
Interesting idea to try it with students. I have to say, I think we both envisage it more as a tool for teachers to train themselves top think more about frequency, rather than as a classroom resource. In the end, the more aware the teacher is of what lexis is high frequency – and what isn’t – the more they can make informed judgements about what they decide to give to their students . . . or, of course, which classroom material they decide to use with their classes.
I think one of the interesting things about testing yourself – and we both do this a lot when we’re writing coursebooks – is that when you’re wrong, you have to ask yourself why, and this encourages thinking about when and how words are used, which is the real essence of a teacher’s language development.
http://www.macmillandictionary.com/red-word-game/ – the full link!
Thanks for the link. We’ve used this game before with teachers. As mentioned in the article, the key for us is not just the doing of the game to become more sensitive to frequency but to reflect on why words are frequent, their varied contexts etc.
[…] beard, blonde and arise occur at a similar frequency in the British National Corpus (BNC) in the spoken component and in […]