Research highlights the importance of vocabulary knowledge for second language (L2) learners in reading (Haynes & Baker, 1993; Huckin & Bloch, 1993), speaking (Hincks, 2003; Joe, 1998), in listening (Elley, 1989; Ellis, 1994), in writing (Hinkel, 2001; Laufer & Nation, 1995; Lee, 2003; Leki & Carson, 1994; Walters & Wolf, 1996) and academic success (Hazenberg & Hulstun 1996). Schmitt (2000) notes that L2 students need approximately 2,000 words to maintain conversations, 3,000 word families to read authentic texts, and as many as 10,000 words to comprehend challenging academic texts.
So far, though no research has ever established the direction of causality between vocabulary knowledge and language proficiency without any doubt, the importance of vocabulary knowledge should not be underestimated.
The number of words that a student needs to know does not depend on the judgment of any individuals. This is a widely studied topic in Applied Linguistics.
For a typical local student, the two best indicators are the no. of words known by a local university freshman and the no. of different words that appears in the textbooks of the secondary curriculum.
It has been estimated that there is a minimal 10,000 word Note threshold-level requirement of vocabulary that students need to know before starting tertiary study (Hazenberg & Hulstun 1996; Evans, Hoare, O’Halloran & Walker 2001).
In 1994, the UGC commissioned a 2-year project known as LEAP (Learning Experience, Attitude and Proficiency) to investigate the English proficiency of 1st year university students in Hong Kong. From the data of the study (LittleWood and Liu 1996), it was found that students of all proficiency levels, except English speaking undergraduates, are likely to struggle with many unfamiliar words while reading general, non-academic texts, since they all scored less than the minimum 65% at the 5,000-word level Vocabulary Level Test (Nation 1990). Students who obtained Grades D and E in the HKASLE are likely to struggle with reading university as well as general, non-academic texts, since they scored below 65% at all 3,000-word, 5,000-word and University Word List Level. (Nation 1990)
Similar finding was also observed by Fan (2001). She also found that the students’ English grade in HKALE showed a very clear positive relationship with their vocabulary test scores.
There were over 10,000 different head words in the textbooks of the Hong Kong secondary curriculum that a student would encounter in his / her study, let alone those appearing in extracurricular reading. Most of these words were the content words from different academic subjects, about 2000 per subject, other than those from the English subject (Evans, Hoare, O’Halloran & Walker 2001).
In two family visits to two Form 1 academic lower achievers, I discovered that they encountered about 60 unknown words in every school day from their textbooks. For a school year with about 170 actual teaching days, they will each experience about 10,200 unknown encounters of word in their textbooks alone. Although the number of different words in these 10,200 unknown encounters remains unknown, such a sheer number of unknown encounters is not beneficial to their learning.
In an interview with a Form 2 repeater, the vocabulary load of the student was estimated to be about 100 unknown words a day using the same textbook material used with the two Form 1 low achievers. However, his problem is even greater than the two Form 1 students as he should get the advantage of having studied the textbook material the year before.
A function “Test Your Vocabulary Size” was devised on www.vocablearning.com to estimate the vocabulary size of the F7 students in 2009. The number ranged from 3,600 – 18,000 head words. The test results were quite consistent among multiple tests done by the same student.
Note : Different researches use different definitions for a word, to make the numbers reconcile with each other, it is assumed that 1 word family represents 2 head words in a dictionary.