Why Measure Vocabulary Size?


Vocabulary size is a topic that can lead to all sorts of heated discussions, hurt feelings, unjustified pride, and never-ending debates. The reason why this is so is because having a large vocabulary size is often seen as being an enviable trait, whilst discovering that one has merely an average vocabulary size, which, by definition, most people do, leaves many people feeling that they need to reach for a dictionary and start learning some new words. So what is it about vocabulary size that makes it so important to measure? Why bother making an entire website devoted to testing vocabulary knowledge?

One of the most popular reasons is simply due to curiosity. People seem to inherently enjoy taking surveys or quizzes that will in turn tell them something about themselves that they didn’t know before. But that simple curiosity naturally leads to comparisons and then evaluations. Every year or two the media will play on this curiosity by running a story on vocabulary size. For example, the BBC ran a story ran a story in 2006 warning that the nation’s youth were at risk of degraded verbal skills. Then, in 2009, the BBC again ran another story which noted the perception among some that children today have poor vocabularies and don’t use the range of words that their parents did.

The judgements seem to be partly based on the history of measuring vocabulary size. The earliest intelligence tests were basically vocabulary tests of various sorts, usually focused on obscure or rare words. This can be seen in some of the earlier vocabulary tests which unabashedly correlate vocabulary knowledge and intelligence. When Dr. Frank H. Vizetelly’s vocabulary size test was published in Popular Science Monthly, the introduction to his test claimed “[a] greater vocabulary than [10,000 words] is unquestionably evidence of a superior eduction.” Who doesn’t want to posses a superior education?

This general perception is not simply a historical artifact which can be repackaged every few years as a feature article in the news. Good old-fashioned marketing also needs to accept some of the blame. Students of advertising know that insecurity creates an enormous potential to sell products, so publishers have never shied away from implying that your vocabulary size is a tad too small. Merriam-Webster, for example, not only publishes a well-respected dictionary, but also the Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder which will, it claims, “increase your word power”. Michael McCarthy has written a very popular series of workbooks (Vocabulary in Use) for learners of English which also benefits from this perception. And since most people will likely feel that an average vocabulary size is somehow inadequate, these sorts of books enjoy relatively high sales volumes.

Although both of the above mentioned books are very economically successful publications, there are more legitimate reasons for measuring vocabulary size and developing other tests of word knowledge. For native speakers, a vocabulary size which is below average for one’s age could be the source of reading difficulties or other problems. At very early ages, it might indicate general development issues. Early identification can lead to more effective remedial instruction.

For second or foreign language learners, vocabulary size is strongly correlated with almost every aspect of language proficiency. In the last few decades, language teachers have begun to recognise the importance of vocabulary acquisition and the profession as a whole has shifted from a predominant focus on grammar to a more balanced approach which now includes not only vocabulary, but also fluency and even motivation. A recent book by Helmut Daller, James Milton, and Jeannie Treffers-Daller (2007), Modelling and Assessing Vocabulary Knowledge, covers a wide range of issues around the validity and use of vocabulary testing which exemplifies how much weight is now being given to the topic. The techniques and tests available to measure word knowledge are still imperfect, but they are vast improvements over the vocabulary tests of the previous century.

Accurately measuring vocabulary size is not the most important or pressing issue of our time, but it is a topic that almost everyone finds interesting. This project aims to push the idea further by creating a large database of vocabulary size norms based on age, gender, native language, etc. It will serve as a platform for advancing the accuracy and precision of available vocabulary tests whilst also enabling researchers to create novel measures of word knowledge. And finally, teachers and educators will have a free tool which they can use quickly assess their student’s vocabulary abilities. By using this site to measure their students’ vocabulary knowledge, teachers can save the time it would take to mark all of the answer sheets and also help contribute their students’ data to the reference norms. Sign up for an account to see what extra features are available.

We hope you will find the vocabulary tests on this site useful and hope to bring you more in future!

If you have any comments, questions, or ideas, please contact us.
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