Word frequency

What are the most frequently used words in English? And could we do without them?

Goals

  • Consider the usefulness of corpora in learning about word frequency.
  • Identify the most frequently used words in English.
  • Experiment with removing the most frequently used English words from conversation or writing. 
  • Analyse the uses and characteristics of the most frequently used English words.

Lesson Plan

The teacher explains that today, we will look at the most frequently used words in English. How do we know which words are used most frequently? The best way is to use a corpus, a sample of real language in use. For this lesson, we refer to the British National Corpus (BNC). Word frequency lists for the BNC can be found here.

First, ask students to make a list of what they think might be the 10 most frequently used words in English. Next, have them think about the kinds of words they’ve come up with in their lists. Ask the following questions:

  • How did you choose these words? 
  • What leads you to believe that these are the most common words?
  • What word classes are represented?
  • What do these words have in common?

The Activity page appears in the menu entitled 'This Unit' in the upper right corner of this page. The Activity page can be displayed on a projector or smart board, and it can also be printed and distributed. The first slide in the Activity page presents the 10 most commonly used words in English.

  • Did anyone guess all ten? 
  • Did anyone guess eight out of ten, or five out of ten correctly? 
  • Are there any surprises in the list?
  • What do the words have in common?

In the first task, students will need to pair up with someone else in the class and try to talk about a particular question. The catch is that they're not allowed to use any of the Top 10 words on the list. Every time they use a word, they tally a mark. Spend a few minutes on this task and see how many marks each student accumulates.

What happens if we look beyond the Top 10 words to the next ten most frequent words? What kind of words will we see? Slide 2 in the Activity page presents a follow-up activity with the 20 most frequently used English words. Ask the students the same questions as before, and then try another round of discussion, trying to avoid the top 20 words.

Additional work

Students can try identifying the top 10 or top 20 English words in any given text, underlining or crossing out the words as they find them.

  • What does removing these words do to the text?
  • How comprehensible is the remaining text? 
  • What kind of information is removed? (Hint: it is grammatical information!) 
  • What kinds of words remain? (Hint: they tend to be content words!)

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