Language teaching is a remarkably ancient art. So why is it that we’re still struggling to find an efficient way to learn and teach vocabulary? The most obvious answer is that while vocabulary is what we need most to express our ideas and describe the world around us, storing thousands of words in our memory is not an easy task. There is, however, another less obvious solution. Surprisingly, up until the launch of the GSE Teacher Toolkit, there wasn’t a list available to teachers to help them identify the vocabulary that learners are expected to know at different proficiency levels, based on the two combined principles of frequency and usefulness.
The GSE Vocabulary database is innovative in many ways. First, it is large; it has more than 20,000 lemmas (corresponding to about 36,000 word meanings), 80,000 collocations and 7,000 phrases. Second, it is searchable by hundreds of topics and subtopics, by grammatical category, or simply by keyword. Last but not least, it is based on word meanings, so that when words have multiple meanings, users can identify what meanings are more basic than others.
Let’s take a look at some of ways teachers can use the database to decide what vocabulary to teach their students…
By proficiency level using the GSE and the CEFR
As a teacher, you are probably interested in finding out what vocabulary is level-appropriate for your students. Let’s suppose your students’ proficiency is in the GSE range 30-35, which corresponds to A2 on the CEFR. You can search for vocabulary within this range and organise it by topic, subtopic and grammatical category, as well as download a list of collocations and sentence examples that are available for the majority of entries.
By topic and subtopic
Introducing vocabulary by topic makes it easier for students to remember what they have learnt. It is also a good teaching strategy to discuss specific subjects, present vocabulary in context, show the link between related words, and more generally, to teach vocabulary using a systematic approach.
The GSE Vocabulary has hundreds of topics and subtopics. Some words will belong to more concrete topics, e.g. “Food and drinks” (e.g. bread and milk). Others will belong to more abstract topics, e.g. “Quantity or number” (e.g. two and much). Some others will refer to what we can do with the language by means of vocabulary, such as “Ways of expressing feelings, wishes, attitudes, and opinions” (e.g. the phrase what’s the matter?). If you want to teach your students vocabulary to talk about “Work in education”, you could choose the topic “Workplace and jobs” and then select the subtopic “Education”. Your search will return words such as student, tutor, examiner, lecturer, librarian, etc. You can then continue to navigate within the topic “Workplace and jobs” and select other related topics. For example, you could select the subtopic “Work activities” and narrow down your search further to find only vocabulary to talk about “Presentations”. Your search will return words such as speaker, hand-out, go through, chart, to begin with, move on, etc. Don’t forget to apply a search filter on the GSE and the CEFR to select only the vocabulary that is appropriate to the level of proficiency of your students.
By grammatical category and other combined criteria
When teaching vocabulary you probably often pay attention to the grammatical category of words. For instance, if you are teaching vocabulary to talk about movements, you are probably interested in finding verbs that refer to movement. You could search in the topic “Movements and actions” and select two grammatical categories: “Verbs’ and ‘Phrasal verbs”. Your search will return more than 700 verbs such as run, fly, come, leave, go out, sit down, take-off, stand up, put down, go back, etc.
Let’s take another example. If you want to teach your students how to describe someone’s appearance, such as their eyes, you could search for all the adjectives in the topic “People, relationships and family”, subtopic “Appearance”, and sub-subtopic “Describing eyes”. Adjectives like blue, brown, dark, etc, would be relevant for learners at a more basic level, whereas adjectives like bloodshot (slightly red) or dusky (rather dark) would be relevant only for advanced students. You can use the GSE/CEFR slider to select vocabulary that is appropriate for your students.
Another way to search for vocabulary using the GSE Teacher Toolkit is the simple keyword search. This is very useful when you have a specific word in mind and want to find out more about its context of usage. Let’s take as an example a word with multiple meanings, such as foot. Your students’ proficiency level is GSE 51-58, CEFR B1+. You assume they are all able to understand and produce the word foot in the meaning of “the part of your body that you stand on” and you wonder whether it is time to teach them other ways and contexts in which the word can be used.
You can check the GSE Vocabulary and find out about the many different meanings of the word. For example on foot means “walking”, a foot is “a unit for measuring length”, and it can also refer to the “bottom of something”. And there are so many expressions in which the word can be used! For example, to put your foot in it means “to accidentally say something that embarrasses or upsets someone”! You notice that on foot is ranked as GSE 52 and CEFR B1+ – that is just at the level of your student. You can confidently introduce this meaning of foot to your students – whereas you will focus on more difficult meanings later on. You don’t want to overload your students with vocabulary that is too difficult for them.
Focusing on the context: sentence examples, phrases, and collocations
Vocabulary learning should take place in context. The old-fashioned way to teach vocabulary by presenting long lists of isolated words without any display of the context in which they occur has mostly disappeared. Teachers pay more and more attention to how words are used to produce meanings, and in relation to other words.
The majority of learners will be able to use the GSE Vocabulary to visualise an example sentence to help them understand how a word can be used. For instance, to help the user understand the meaning of the word prize, they can read the definition “something that is given to someone who is successful in a competition, race etc”. And they can also read an example sentence: He won a prize of £3,000.
Another important way to show how words combine with other words (based on syntactic and semantic preferences) is looking at collocations. For instance, if you search for the word ticket in the GSE Vocabulary you can find out which other words frequently combine with it. For example: buy a ticket, book a ticket and ticket office.
Last but not least, users of the GSE Vocabulary can search for more than 7,000 phrases. If you want to find out how to show surprise in English, you can search in the topic “Ways of expressing feelings, wishes, attitudes and opinions”, subtopic “Express surprise”. Your search will return words and phrases such as unbelievable, how come…?, it’s amazing, would you believe it? and believe it or not.
To summarise, the GSE Lexical Inventory represents an advance on the tools currently available for teachers who wish to teach vocabulary appropriate to their learners’ level and offers a range of flexible options that can assist in selection and contextualisation of vocabulary for teaching. The GSE values assigned to each word meaning are indicative values of when a certain word should be known receptively. It is generally accepted that receptive knowledge is more effective than productive knowledge.
You can therefore expect that a word which is known receptively by your students will gradually be known productively – provided that it has been encountered a number of times in a number of meaningful contexts. If your purpose is to help your students understand vocabulary that is appropriate at their level, then you should mainly look for word (meanings) within and below the GSE range 30-35. However, you should feel free to choose a small percentage of vocabulary above the targeted range so as to ensure the input provided to your students is coherent and authentic.
However, if your purpose is rather to help your students produce vocabulary that is appropriate at their level, then you should mainly select word (meanings) within the targeted range, preferably starting from the bottom of the range. You should think in terms of relative importance of vocabulary: words at the bottom of the range will have a higher chance of being produced by learners than words in the middle or at the top of the range (which will be less frequent or useful in language).
Please check it out and have fun!