A pretty accurate portrayal of how I view vocabulary (and vocabulary development) for language learning...
Our recent #ELTChat session looked at the issue of vocabulary, and how we can help learners activate and use it.
One of the comments that came up, and one I agreed with (as did several other coursebook-associated people, come to think of it), was that ELT coursebooks present too much vocabulary too quickly, often in list-like format, without enough in the way of recycling and review.
True enough, perhaps. But in a follow up comment I pointed out that publishers and coursebook writers are actually put under a lot of pressure to ensure their books present as much vocabulary as possible. Coursebook series are often judged according to this criteria, and this in turn can have an effect on adoptions and sales.
Let me give you a real-life example of this...
A couple of years ago, while I was still based in Korea, a local "ELT celebrity" (with his own show on television and, at the time, a new chain of schools he'd decided to associate himself with) contacted me via a conference call, in which his "assistants" were also included (but never actually contributed to), to make some "friendly enquiries" about my coursebook series Boost!.
You see, this celebrity was considering including the series in their curriculum... And it was made abundantly clear that the celebrity thought I should feel honoured and privileged to even be considered (and I was, just as in any other situation anywhere else a school or teacher was considering using my books), as well as open to a sort of pedagogic grilling in front of his staff.
"So, well then. How many words are there in the series?" he asked me. The first question.
I paused. Was this guy serious?
"Well, how long is a piece of string, really..." I replied, attempting to laugh as part of what I assumed was a friendly and humorous opening exchange.
"No, I'm serious. How many words are there across the strands and levels? The more the better, of course!"
Okay, I'll be serious too. "As many as it took."
"What do you mean?"
"Basically, the series has as many words as it needs... to deliver 48 theme and skill-based units over 4 levels in each strand, divided into linked-up BICS and CALP-oriented units. But of course, as with any printed material, it's just a starting point."
"So, basically you don't know." It wasn't a question. And there was a gloating edge to it -- the sort that had me visualising him rolling his eyes knowingly to his assistants beside the phone.
"Okay," he continued. "Which grades in the U.S. school system do your words correlate to? And how many words in each grade?"
I was genuinely surprised. "There is a national list of words by school grade in the United States? And you have it? And this is your basis for a curriculum in an EFL context like Korea?"
A pause. Then a vaguely mumbling, vaguely jokey follow up that I couldn't quite understand.
I can't really recall where the conversation went after that. I wasn't all that interested. I know it did finish up fairly soon afterwards.
Beyond the number of words and how they correlated to U.S. school grades, this so-called celebrity ELTer didn't appear to have any other majorly important criteria for selecting his coursebooks.
And I know he wasn't/isn't the only one.
So, easy as it is to bash coursebooks based on another easy target shortcoming (in this case vocabulary), I can't help but remind myself that coursebook content and design is "informed" by a lot of teachers who don't get involved in things like #ELTChat or the ELT blogosphere.
Professional educators will tell you that it's probably better to have a more limited amount of high frequency and highly useful vocabulary in course material that can then be recycled and reviewed.
Elsewhere, teachers (and even "celebrity teachers"!) are making decisions about coursebooks based on how much vocabulary is included in them -- with more being a better indicator of whether a series is likely to be adopted.
Overall sales figures for coursebooks tend to indicate (to me) that when it comes to vocabulary, this is another example of an industry (not a profession) doing it to itself (as Radiohead like to put it).