How Many Words

James Coady coady at OHIOU.EDU
Fri Nov 19 16:15:39 UTC 1999

The following is excerpted from chapter 14 in Second Language Vocabulary
Acquisition, 1997, edited
by J. Coady and T. Huckin  Cambridge U. Press.

Lexicon Size Research

                 There is also a significant disagreement in the literature
over the total amount of vocabulary known by a university educated native
speaker, i.e. the target of English for academic purposes.  These arguments
are important because they tend to be a major determinant of a given
teacher's philosophy about vocabulary instruction.  For example, if one
believes that educated university native speakers tend to know 50,000 to
100,000 words, then it is seems useless to try to teach a tiny subset of
that amount.  On the other hand, if one believes that university students
tend to know about 16,000 base words, then teaching a thousand or so words
does not seem like such a bad idea.

                 For example, Nagy et Anderson (1984) estimated that there
are 85,533 word families in printed school English (grades 3-9).  They
counted as one word family semantically and morphologically related words
such as enthusiast, enthusiasts, and enthusiasm.

                 In contrast, Goulden, Nation, & Read (1990) estimate that
an average native speaker English speaking university student has a
vocabulary of 17,000 word families (a base-form and its derived forms)

                 D'Anna, Zechmeister, & Hall (1991) based their study upon
the Oxford American Dictionary (OAD) from which they eliminated proper
names, archaic words, technical terms, etc. in order to form a corpus of
what they call functionally important words.  They then asked their
subjects to choose from a five-point scale how well they felt they knew a
sample of almost 200 words from the OAD.  They then extrapolated from these
results and concluded that the average number of different words known by a
university student is 16,785.  Some further issues were explored in two
follow-up studies, Zechmeister, D'Anna, Hall, Hall, & Smith (1993) and
Zechmeister, Chronis, Cull, D'Anna, & Healy (1995).  For example, in the
latter study the subjects were given multiple choice tests to determine how
accurate their self-rating was.  They found that subjects typically
overestimated their knowledge, particularly when there were difficult
distracters.  Moreover, they again extrapolated from their data that junior
high students knew fewer words (9,684) than freshmen college students (16,
679) than older adults (21,252).

                 Meara (chapter 2, this volume) discusses how difficult it
is to carry out effective research on measuring the size of the lexicon and
proposes the use of some standardized vocabulary tests which he has
developed.  They are simple to administer and remarkably sensitive to
knowledge across a range of different frequency bands or a range of
different specialist areas of lexis.  Further he argues that as the lexicon
grows, organization becomes a more significant factor than size.  He
therefore proposes a standardized measure of the relative organization of
the lexicon.  Finally, he feels that both measures together can be a method
of assessing overall lexical competence.

Graduate Chair          Phone:  (740) 593-4566
Department of Linguistics       Fax:  (740) 593-2967
Ohio University
Athens, OH  45701               E-mail: coady at
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