How many new words do I need to learn? This is a question often asked by ESL learners. To answer this question, we first need to agree on the definition of a new word. Do you regard “clear” “clearer”, and “clearly” as one word or three words? If we treat them as one word, we are talking about word families. Words have families. If we know one member of the family, we can recognize the rest of the family. When we talk about new words, let’s just talk about word families.
Do you know how many word families are there in a dictionary? About 55,000. How many word families does an ordinary native speaker know? About 20,000. How many words does a five-year old child know? Between 4,000 to 5,000.
We know some words are used more frequently than other words. As an ESL learner, we should learn the most frequently used words first. Do you know which word is the most frequently used word in English? According to the General Service list by Michael West, it is “the“, the second most frequently used word is “be“, the third is “of“, the fourth is “and“, the fifth is “a“. The Dolch list contains 220 most frequently used words. A good ESL textbook always introduces the most frequently used words first. -Ron Lee