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Applied Linguistics Review

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Vocabulary size revisited: the link between vocabulary size and academic achievement

James Milton / Jeanine Treffers-Daller
Published Online: 2013-03-28 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2013-0007


Many researchers have tried to assess the number of words adults know. A general conclusion which emerges from such studies is that vocabularies of English monolingual adults are very large with considerable variation. This variation is important given that the vocabulary size of schoolchildren in the early years of school is thought to materially affect subsequent educational attainment. The data is difficult to interpret, however, because of the different methodologies which researchers use. The study in this paper uses the frequency-based vocabulary size test from Goulden et al (1990) and investigates the vocabulary knowledge of undergraduates in three British universities. The results suggest that monolingual speaker vocabulary sizes may be much smaller than is generally thought with far less variation than is usually reported. An average figure of about 10,000 English word families emerges for entrants to university. This figure suggests that many students must struggle with the comprehension of university level texts.

Keywords: vocabulary size; vocabulary knowledge; vocabulary tests; second language learning

About the article

James Milton

James Milton is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Swansea University UK. A long-term interest in measuring lexical breadth and establishing normative data for learning and progress has led to extensive publications including Modelling and Assessing Vocabulary Knowledge (CUP 2007) and Measuring Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition (Multilingual Matters 2009).

Jeanine Treffers-Daller

Jeanine Treffers-Daller is Professor of Second Language Education at the Institute of Education at the University of Reading. Her main research interests lie in the field of second language learning and bilingualism. Much of her work focuses on vocabulary use among British learners of French, Turkish-German bilinguals in Germany and Turkey and French-Dutch bilinguals in Brussels. She also published widely on Language Contact and Bilingualism, including code-switching, borrowing and transfer.

Published Online: 2013-03-28

Published in Print: 2013-03-29

Citation Information: Applied Linguistics Review, Volume 4, Issue 1, Pages 151–172, ISSN (Online) 1868-6311, ISSN (Print) 1868-6303, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2013-0007.

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