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Finding the sweet spot: Learners’ productive knowledge of mid-frequency lexical items

Naismith, Benjamin and Juffs, Alan (2021) Finding the sweet spot: Learners’ productive knowledge of mid-frequency lexical items. Language Teaching Research.

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Research into vocabulary knowledge often differentiates between breadth (how many words a person knows) and depth (how well the words are known). Both theoretical categories are essential for understanding language learners' lexical development but how the different aspects of vocabulary knowledge interconnect has not received the same attention as each individual dimension (Haomin & Bilü, 2017), especially in terms of productive knowledge (Mantyla & Huhta, 2014).
This study analyzes lexis from mid-frequency lemmas in the K3-K9 frequency bands from the learner corpus PELIC (Juffs et al., 2020). Critically for learners, mastery of lexis in this frequency range is essential for achieving the English proficiency required for university study. From these mid-frequency items, a dataset of 7,554 tokens were collected from word families with multiple derivations and manually annotated. The findings showed high rates of collocational and derivational accuracy for the forms learners opted to use. However, compared to expert speaker texts in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA; Davies, 2008-), learners overused the verb forms and underused the noun forms of these lexical items. These patterns provide evidence of the interplay between breadth and depth in learners’ productive vocabulary usage, suggesting that increased lexical depth will naturally lead to greater lexical breadth and vice versa. Pedagogical implications reaffirm the importance of developing learners’ explicit morphological awareness (Ishikawa, 2019) and collocational accuracy (Crossley et al., 2015). Suggestions for mid-frequency lexical items to prioritize in language learning are also provided, with a view to helping learners achieve academic readiness.


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Item Type: Article
Status: Published
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Naismith, Benjaminbnaismith@pitt.eduBEN250000-0001-8347-3142
Centers: Other Centers, Institutes, Offices, or Units > English language Institute
Date: 16 June 2021
Date Type: Publication
Journal or Publication Title: Language Teaching Research
Publisher: Sage Journals
DOI or Unique Handle: 10.1177/13621688211020412
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Linguistics
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: collocation, derivation, learner corpus, lexical breadth, lexical depth, lexical knowledge, vocabulary knowledge
Official URL:
Funders: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, National Science Foundation
Projects: PELIC
Article Type: Research Article
Date Deposited: 28 Jun 2021 14:50
Last Modified: 28 Jun 2021 14:50


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