How many words is 1700 words?

It is proposed that in GCSE, students will be expected to learn 1700 words at Higher Tier. How does that compare? Well, it is less than the 2100 words that Realschule (equivalent of Foundation Tier) students learning French in Germany (for more comparisons, see this post)

But I also wanted to compare this vocab list with O-level, because as many have pointed out, this new GCSE does have a lot in common with O-level: lots of grammar testing, a dictation and less (if any) spontaneous output. So bought I.C. Thimann’s “A French Vocabulary for Ordinary Level “, published 1965. It wasn’t a comprehensive list, as this one in the new GCSE will be, nor was it endorsed by the Government as a full reflection of the curriculum. So we don’t know whether it correlates to what teachers taught. But it should serve as a decent indication.

O-level versus GCSE

Before we go much further it’s worth looking at some evidence from Milton (2008) which compared O-level learners with GCSE learners: are we as proficient in MFL today at the upper levels of attainment as we were in the days of O-level?

Milton tested the vocabulary of 21 individuals who had studied O-level French between 25 and 45 years earlier, but who had not continued learning French in any way since then (even in evening classes). They had scored a mix of Grades 1 (the top grade) to Grade 9, which was the greatest degree of failure possible. He compared them with the best 24 students from a cohort of 449 GCSE students in 2006, so the cohorts should be comparable. This is important because we know that O-level was a qualification only tackled by the brightest students (although by the mid 1980s there were more students taking O-levels in MFLs than there are taking GCSE today – and vastly more than than take GCSE at Higher Tier).

This is what he found:

Milton 2008: French vocabulary breadth among learners in the British school and university system: comparing
knowledge over time, French Language Studies 18 (2008), 333-348

A few things are interesting. Firstly, the ‘minimum’ scores are relatively similar – in other words the lowest-scoring participants in each test had roughly the same vocab size – but we must remember that 20-40 years had elapsed for the O-level learners. Secondly, the maximum scores are wildly different. This means that students who studied O-level 20-40 years prior were considerably more proficient than the best higher Tier linguists at GCSE in the year of the study. Today’s highest attaining Higher Tier linguists are presumably no less able and talented than the best students at O-level were, and arguably the curriculum should allow them to make the same degree of progress. But it appears not to. GCSE Higher is a considerable downgrade from O-level. Today’s learners end up being considerably less proficient than in pre-GCSE times.

I should also be clear that this is not a blog about single word teaching versus chunks. I merely using target vocabulary size as an indicator of proficiency. Vocabulary size is, after all, the best indicator of proficiency (Staehr 2008) . How you embed that vocab and encourage its uptake is a different issue. But one thing is certain: the more words you know overall, the better your proficiency in a language.

The purpose of this vocab book

The next interesting thing to look at is the preface to the 1965 vocab handbook. I’ve scanned it in for you at the bottom of this blog. It shows us a few things:

  • the preoccupation for picking the “right” words for learning is not at all new. This concern has been there for a good 50 years.
  • the vocab handbook is not intended to be exhaustive, unlike the new GCSE vocab list. It deliberately excludes “very common” words and words that it expects students to have come across in grammar lessons – such as pronouns and common irregular verbs. So we can assume that the total number of words contained in this book is an understatement of the learning envisaged. It excludes “easily ‘guessable’ items” such as exact cognates – position, importance etc. Again, this is the opposite to what is being proposed in the new GCSE list. I think that the list is an understatement of the learning expected by anything between 300 and 1000 words, having done some quick counting, but I haven’t included these in my totals below.
  • there was already an oral exam in O-level French in1965, as well as translation and composition
  • the author recommends that the words in this book be learned over three years or so – roughly one list per week (there are about 150 lists). That equates to about 5 school years if we assume no learning in the holidays. In the 1960s this was, apparently, deemed reasonable alongside other French “preparation” (i.e. homework).

My analysis and results

I wanted to know how the new GCSE – from a Government famed for rigour in education and promoting knowledge-rich approaches – compares with the old O-level. So I analysed the vocab in the 1965 book and compared it to the list being proposed for the Government’s new MFL GCSE, for teaching from 2023 (1700 words, of which approximately 300 will be pre-determined grammar items, and 90% of the remainder must be words from the top 2000 in word frequency).

What this shows is:

  • Higher tier students will be given a vocab list at least 44% smaller than the vocab list for O-level – and that’s a conservative estimate.
  • This disparity is actually very similar to the difference in attainment observed by Milton: in his study, GCSE learners knew 40% fewer words than their O-level counterparts did 20-40 years post-hoc. This new proposal engineers in a continuous decline in standards.
  • The O-level list was already weighted towards high frequency words – by a considerable margin. The idea of prioritising frequency is not new.
  • BUT the O-level list has roughly 50% high frequency words and 50% low frequency words – precisely the proportions recommended by researchers such as Milton (“An effective textbook is probably going to introduce frequent andinfrequent vocabulary in roughly equal amounts2009)
  • The total number of high frequency (top 2000) words on the list from O-level and the proposed GCSE are very similar: 1200 ish each)
  • But what O-level had was 1000 (at least) additional, extra words, in the lower (beyond the top 2000) frequency bands, which related to thematic and topic words (the ones which allow us to talk about things)
  • Remember that this Thimann book is an under-estimate of what was taught (he excludes cognates, grammar words and very common words), whereas the proposed GCSE list is exhaustive for both productive and receptive purposes.

If you want to see an example exam paper from precisely the year when students might have been using this vocab book, click here.

Current GCSE vs new GCSE

It’s also worth reflecting for a second on whether this GCSE is greater or smaller in content than the current one. Well, one of the panelists who designed it has said on twitter that it represents a “substantial reduction” in content. Is this true?

NCELP have certainly compared the two and suggest that there is a decline in grammar at least. It is hard to say whether the vocabulary expectations have reduced, because the current list is illustrative and not exhaustive. The current GCSE AQA list has about 1150 headwords on it, but it excludes lots of words assumed to be learned at KS3 such as numbers, colours, places around town, family members, and so on. These would presumably add up to several hundred. Bear in mind that the the exams also include words not on the list and not necessarily assumed to be studied, to test inference and deduction skills. So in terms of vocabulary, it probably is a sizeable reduction, given that Higher Tier will contain something around 1400 headwords once you factor in the compulsory grammar listings.

This tallies with the research that has been done looking at how many words students actually ‘learn’. In Annabel David’s study (2008), the average number of words learned by Year 11 was 564, but in Milton’s (2006) study it was 852. These correspond with research that shows in UK classrooms, learners typically uptake 30%-50% of words input during a course. A figure of 800 words learned suggests input was maybe 1600-2000 words – exactly the size of the current AQA lists. If we are now going to be teaching fewer words in the new GCSE, then all the evidence suggests that students will learn fewer words, unless we think there is going to be a significant shift in the quality of teaching to make up for it. There is no reason to suggest this will be the case, unless we believe that UK teachers are ineffective, and I don’t think that’s the case. Why would it be? Why would MFL teachers be any more ineffective than any other teachers?


This new GCSE appears to be the worst of both worlds. The assessment style and teaching approach of O-level (grammar-led with translation trumping spontaneity) with the ever-lower standards of Higher Tier GCSE (which was a 40% reduction compared to O-level, for equivalent students, and which is continuing to be downgraded). This is a Government which is engineering a decline in standards.

The Preface to Thimann’s vocabulary

(Thiman, I, 1959, A French Vocabulary for Ordinary Level, London: Harrap)

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