My understanding is that "survival" words in a language like numbers and days of the week are usually taught first, even though they may have a lower frequency than certain frequency used words like "politics" or President.

What makes a word urgent or essential? Could it be that it travels in a "group" of words, some of which are essential? For instance, the word "hundred" is a less-common word in many languages, but it is found under the heading of numbers, such as "one," which is essential. Then, would the less common word "hundred" be taught in the same batch as the much more common "one?"

Is is because frequency tables are (mostly) based on written text, which differs from spoken texts? And are even "oral" frequency tables derived from movies or TV shows likely to be different from every day speech?

Or could it be that words like "politics" or "President" are found frequently, particularly in texts, because they are "international" words, even though they are less essential than "day to day" words? Which means that the introduction of the "common" words is pushed back later than the essential words?

  • It would be helpful if you could specify "priority" from whose point of view: a language learner, a teacher, a materials writer, curriculum designer? – Kevin Mark Mar 22 '17 at 14:46
  • @KevinMark: OK: Added the word "pedagogical". – Tom Au Mar 22 '17 at 15:14

There is an interesting article, Barker(2007)1 that deals with this issue. He gives 2 main factors which affect the value of learning a vocabulary word: the cost and the benefit. His approach is meant for individual learners who are selecting which words to learn. Obviously in coursebooks and so on, decisions need to be made for a more general audience, but the more specific the audience, the more personalized the vocabulary can be chosen. Vocabulary can be chosen based on cost and benefit. Here is a rough summary of what is meant by 'cost' and 'benefit':

  1. Cost

    • Familiarity: If you are familiar with the word (have seen it before, recognize the form, etc.) then it will cost less to learn, that is, it will be more easily and quickly learnt

    • Pronounceability: If you cannot pronounce the word, it will be harder to learn

    • Relatability: If you can relate the word or connect it to other words you already know, it will be easier to learn

    • Personalizability: If you can 'personalize' the word, it will be easier to learn

  2. Benefit

    • Frequency: Higher frequency vocabulary is more beneficial to learn

    • Relevance: If you have a special reason for learning the word, or it is connected to your interests / field of study / job / etc., it is more beneficial to learn

    • Immediate need: If this word is needed for immediate use, it is more beneficial. This would include some survival terms if someone is going to travel, or words related to a text / conversation topic which will be dealt with in class very soon.

1 Barker, David (2007). A personalized approach to analyzing ‘cost’ and ‘benefit’ in vocabulary selection. System, 35(4), 523-533. (Available behind a paywall).


Here is one example from Chinese;

This (traditional) character 聽, to listen, is number 285 on the frequency table. But it's a hard character, 2.2 times harder than average (using the number of strokes). So I multiplied 285 by 2.2 to get an adjusted frequency of 627.

Put another way, in teaching Chinese characters, I adjust the raw frequency for difficulty, so the easier characters are moved up the adjusted frequency list, and harder characters are moved down, thereby changing their original "priorities" (if you use raw frequency is a "first pass").

  • 2
    This is a good example, but it's just that: an example (not an answer). Please expand upon your answer and provide more depth to it. – fi12 Mar 23 '17 at 23:49
  • @fi12: Both the other answerer and I said that "difficulty" (or ease) was a factor in establishing priority (but the other person's answer was more complete). – Tom Au Mar 24 '17 at 0:16
  • It's an interesting approach, but you're using rank for usefulness, and I think it would be better to use absolute frequency. If you used the formula frequency / difficulty,that would be a good approximation of value. – gaeguri Apr 3 '17 at 6:00

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