[Paul Nation. Japan: Compass Publishing, 2009. p. 195. ¥1,922. ISBN: 978-1-599-66402-6.]
4000 Essential English Words is a 6 volume series of textbooks that focus on vocabulary from the word frequency list. Each textbook has 30 units that fit easily into two 15-class university semesters. Units feature 20 words each, selected not exclusively from but closely following both the Academic Word List (AWL) and the General Word List. Starting with definitions and examples of the chosen 20 vocabulary words, this is followed by two pages of multiple choice style questions designed to have students recycle and reuse learned vocabulary. Each six-page unit finishes with a short story based upon the featured vocabulary. In addition, the book has online material, including downloadable audio recordings and online video clips for supplementary practice.
Perhaps while considering this book it is important to pause and talk about the importance of vocabulary and the role vocabulary places in the successful English language student. Research evaluating student ability to comprehend text found that only at 98% text coverage of unknown words “most learners [are able] to gain adequate comprehension” (Nation, 2006, p. 61).
Nation uses the idea of meaning-focused input to teach the 20 new vocabulary words presented at the beginning of each chapter. Meaning-focused input involves attention to new vocabulary, followed by a thoughtful process of repeated attention with examples that are all simple and readily understood, and occur in multiple settings (Nation, 2007, p. 6).
Nation uses stories in the style of Graded Readers (GRs) to enable students to learn vocabulary in a story setting. Stories are such an integral part of language learning and “research shows that most people increase their vocabulary by reading” (Laufer, Meara, & Nation, 2005, p. 4). Also the use of stories lends real world authenticity to the textbook.
Traditionally, textbooks that focus on vocabulary as part of their curricula, have tended to organize units according to themes (e.g., cars, sports, cooking, etc.), while Nation centers units on stories. 4000 Essential English Words uses GR, while the more traditional textbook avoids any storytelling, and their instruction of vocabulary stays safely within the confines of traditional rote language learning.
In criticism of 4000 Essential English Words, it might be worth noting that there is a certain forced aspect to the narrative. Some of the comprehension questions are awkward. Take this question on page 124, which asks students to choose the correct definition of reflect. The textbook offers 4 options, and two of the answers fit squarely into the definition of reflect.
- to tell someone what to do
- to think about something
- to damage something very badly
- to send back an image
Vocabulary in the GR stories is likewise clumsy at times. Consider this passage on page 60: “The little girl started to cry… Finally the emotion was gone.” Instead of “finally the emotion was gone” a more natural expression could have been used to suggest that the girl collected herself and was ready to move on. The stories in this book are full of phrases that are just slightly off-kilter, which is understandable considering the nature of the writing process. Vocabulary is the destination while the story is just the vehicle.
Another possible criticism would be the quality of stories presented in the book. ‘The Starfish’ on page 60 is just a rehashing of the “can’t save all the starfish but can save this one” starfish story. Other stories are based on tales from mythology (the First Peacock, p. 66) or loosely based on fairytales (The Best Prince, p. 48). Although adequate, the stories lack well-crafted storylines and use of phrasing that native English speakers have come to expect in their literature.
Another aspect of 4000 Essential English Words that might be difficult for in-class use is the lack of speaking activities. However, in the case of a trial of 3 classes of 30 university-level students, the textbook provided well-designed homework material. Each chapter has a readily understandable layout that is simple enough for students to comprehend, engage with, and enjoy.
In summary, 4000 Essential English Words is a textbook that focuses on vocabulary acquisition. In the market of vocabulary textbooks it is less formal than others and lacks the rigidity of traditional vocabulary textbooks. The lack of speaking exercises may prove to be a negative for some instructors, but the book proved ideal as homework to supplement an ESL class.
Laufer, B., Meara, P., & Nation, I. S. P. (2005). Ten best ideas for teaching vocabulary. The Language Teacher, 29(7), 3-6..
Nation, I.S.P. (2006). How large a vocabulary is needed for reading and listening? The Canadian Modern Language Review, 63(1), 59-82.
Nation, I.S.P. (2007). The four strands. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1(1), 3-6.