ELT teachers shouldn’t prefer blondes!
I recently asked a colleague, which word was more frequent arise or blonde and perhaps some of you have been drawn to this post by the same question on Twitter. The immediate answer from my colleague was blonde. They were wrong! There is some evidence to suggest that my colleague – and perhaps you – are not alone: teachers (and students) are not very good at recognising frequency of words (see McCrostie 2007).
Examples you can think of, rather than frequency
One of the reasons for this – particularly in the heat of the classroom where teachers may be under time pressure – can be found in Daniel Kahnamen’s book Thinking, fast and slow. Kahneman’s work focuses on the limits of intuition, quick thought and expertise. He highlights a number of ‘heuristic’ biases associated with ‘quick’ thought and one of these is a so-called availability bias. This is when people under- or overestimate the frequency of an event or thing, because rather than step back and compare events rationally using a variety of tools, people replace the issue with an ‘availabilty heuristic’, which is the ease with which examples come to mind. For example, because we may remember more examples of say terrorist incidents compared to the electrocutions – terrorist attacks being much more widely reported than people electrocuting themselves – people may greatly overestimate the risk of death or injury from a terrorist attack compared the same risk from electrocution.
Language Teachers’ availabilty bias
This is an issue for teachers (and students) because availability or ease of recall will often be connected to categories, pictures in our minds, vivid ideas, personal experiences etc. and perhaps with words that are spoken more than those which are read or written. As a result, we are likely to overestimate the frequency that we see or hear words like blonde, pear, ski, microwave, french, crowded, purple, jumper, beard or sociable and underestimate the frequency of words such as mood, economy, provide, policy, arise, adequate, data, deposit, discipline, extent, grant. All the first set are over the level of top 5000 most frequent words according the Macmillan Advanced Dictionary (pear, ski, sociable and French (!) are not even in the top 7500); all the second set are in the top 2500 most common.
As an example of this bias you might try thinking of how many blonde people you can think of compared to things that are adequate. A second related issue for teachers and students is that when we come to think of examples, the ease with which we can think of the example is likely to also be an influence.
Basic grammar and more complex examples and priming
Words such as those in the first group can be exemplified with the most basic representative structure of English:
It’s a pear.
I like skiing.
I have a jumper.
A lot of the words in the second set often require either additional information or more complex sentence structure that go beyond this basic sentence pattern. This is not just problematic in terms of choosing words over others with greater frequency, it also means we tend to fail in providing a better range of true collocations and grammar, which students need above these ‘representations’ of usage.
Finally, some of these words in the first set may also be more available to teachers of English and Language learners because of another psychological phenomena, that we have been primed by our previous teaching and learning to expect most of these words at lower levels in lexical sets on appearance or food etc. We assume that this is a legitimate choice without thinking. See future blog postings on lexical sets.
Getting better at frequency and giving examples
We can get better at recognising frequent words. One way is to test yourself on guessing frequency. That’s part of what we will do in other postings in this category. You can also test yourself on the website which goes with the McCrostie article above. However, simply knowing frequency is only part of the issue. Teaching less frequent words can be of use at times. It may be difficult to avoid teaching at least some nationalities such as French when this is the first kind of conversation many foreign speakers will have. Furthermore, if we can give good examples, then this often makes the teaching and time spent worthwhile because it will often involve using a lot of more frequent language. It is the combination of low frequency and single word lists which we would see as inefficient. So, unlike the compleat lexical tutor website above, our aim would be to think not only which is more frequent but also how it might be used.
Arise the blonde!
So as an example, let’s take blonde and arise. Why is arise more common, and potentially more useful. Secondly how could we make better use of the less frequent blonde.
Here are some possible examples for arise.
If any problems arise, or you need help, please call. You have my mobile.
If anything arises while your staying, just email me. I check it regularly.
I don’t think we need any help now, but we can always ask, if the need arises.
I think I have enough information. I can always call you, if the need arises.
It is easy to imagine a variety of situations and contexts for these sentences. You might not want to teach them to an Elementary class, because of the complexity, but there’s no reason it couldn’t appear in a text. And we might teach it productively at Pre-int or Int. Have you seen it taught?
As for blonde, when might we actually say it? It is clearly rare for us to describe people in the way we do in EFL classes (He’s tall. He has long blonde hair and a beard. He wears jeans and brown shoes, etc.). Could we at least show some alternative patterns:
Who’s the blonde man? I haven’t seen him before.
My Dad’s got blonde hair like me.
These are not really more challenging sentences that descriptions (especially if translated). However, I think these sentences are open to being changed and personalised in more interesting ways than a description such as she’s blonde. You might also imagine a fuller conversation around the sentences. They have, I think, more communicative value. Any other examples?