A changing language
The Oxford ELT Dictionaries team has relaunched its core word list, the Oxford 3000, billed as ‘the most important words to learn in English’, 14 years on from its initial launch in 2005.
So let’s start with a brainstorm: what has changed in the last 14 years? Jot down any words or phrases that occur to you. Here are some images to get you started.
- the smoking ban
- social media
- more extreme weather
- stricter airport security
- online shopping
I’m sure you can think of more.
The items in blue are all now headwords in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online but were not included in the seventh edition of the dictionary, published in 2005. These words, things, and concepts either did not exist or barely existed at that time.
The influence of smartphones and social media can also be clearly seen in the revised Oxford 3000. Words new to the list in the area of media and technology include app, blog, download, edit, scan, and update – which all existed in 2005 but have become much more central to our lives and communication since then.
The two criteria we used to determine which words should be included in the revised Oxford 3000 were frequency and relevance. Frequency was measured in the 2-billion-word Oxford English Corpus. Relevance was determined by measuring frequency in a specially created corpus of ELT Secondary and Adult coursebooks. This enabled us to capture those words – such as cafe and T-shirt – that occur frequently in teaching texts and are familiar to learners from a low level but are not among the most frequent words in a general corpus.
Focus on topics
One result of this increased focus on the texts that learners are actually using to study English is an increase in vocabulary connected with topics that are popular in ELT courses and exams, including sports (athlete, basketball, champion, skiing, stadium, tennis, and more), culture (celebrity, classical, creative, gallery, historic, portrait, sculpture, venue), film and TV (cartoon, detective, episode, genre, script, setting) and travel and transport (airline, crew, destination, tourism).
Overall, about 200 words are new to the list. Typically, they are more concrete, lower-level words than the words they have displaced. All the texts in the coursebook corpus are from courses that have been carefully graded against the CEFR. This has made it possible for us to analyse the profile of different vocabulary items across the different CEFR levels and to assign a level to each word. The levels are for guidance only – it is impossible to be definitive about the level of any individual word. Different learners may well encounter the same word at different levels. But broadly speaking, the level assigned represents the level at which we would expect most learners to recognize and understand the word if they read it or hear it spoken – even if they do not yet use it in their own writing or speaking.
The most important words to learn in English
In the revised Oxford 3000, 900 words have been graded at A1 level, 800 at A2, 700 at B1, and 600 B2. This tapering profile is deliberate because this is intended as a core vocabulary, not a complete vocabulary. The more learners progress, the more they will want to supplement this core vocabulary with items that are off-list. It is impossible to prescribe what this additional vocabulary should be: it will vary according to the needs and interests of each individual learner. The core list, on the other hand, provides a firm foundation for all learners, whatever their learning context. To learn more about what is important in a core vocabulary, see Julie Moore’s blog here.
To see the full, revised Oxford 3000 visit www.oxford3000.com. Here you will also find the brand new Oxford 5000 – an extension of the list for advanced level learners, including 2,000 more words at B2-C1 level. Also available is the new Oxford Phrase List – 750 common phrases including idioms, phrasal verbs, collocations, and prepositional phrases, graded from A1 to C1.
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Diana Lea taught English to learners and trainee teachers in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the UK before joining Oxford University Press in 1994, where she works in the English Language Teaching Division on dictionaries and other vocabulary resources for learners of English. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English. Most recently she has been working on Oxford Learner’s Word Lists and preparing the tenth edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, to be published in January 2020.