The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Vocabulary for Designing Textbooks


Submitted by Italo, The University of Queensland, Australia

How you know what vocabulary should be taught when designing your textbooks. How do you decide which words are appropriate for some levels and which aren’t?

Dr. Richards responds:

Textbooks writers usually consult any of a number of word lists that group words according to level and frequency. (Paul Nation’s vocabulary level’s test is a useful reference here). Increasingly reference is also made to corpus studies of word frequency.

In discussing knowledge of words, an important distinction is usually made between a person’s active, or productive, vocabulary and their passive, or receptive, vocabulary, since our passive vocabulary is generally much larger than our active vocabulary. In spoken English, for example, native speakers may use a relatively small number of words in daily conversation – as few as 1,500 different words – though they recognize far more words than they use. For passive vocabulary knowledge, researchers suggest that knowing a minimum vocabulary of 3,000 word families (which equals some 5,000 words) is required to enable a person to understand a high percentage of words on an average page of a text, and that 5,000 word families (some 8,000 words) is required to be able to read for pleasure. Twice as many words may be needed to read first-year university materials. It is also important to distinguish between knowledge of content words (those that carry the main meaning of sentences, such as nouns, main verbs, adverbs, adjectives and question words, e.g. why, when, what), demonstratives (this, that, these, those) and function words (those that express grammatical relationships, such as articles, prepositions, auxiliaries, pronouns, conjunctions and relative pronouns). There is a small, finite list of function words in English, but a very large set of content words. When people expand their vocabulary knowledge, they add to their knowledge of content words.

O’Keeffe et al. (2007: 37–47) suggest that based on their research on the frequency of items in spoken English, a basic or core spoken English vocabulary for second language learners contains several different categories of words:

  • Modal items: These describe degrees of certainty or necessity and include modal verbs, such as can, must, should, may, etc.; lexical modals, such as look, seem, sound; and adverbs, such as probably, definitely and apparently.
  • Delexical verbs: These are words with little lexical content but high frequency, such as do, make, take, get, and their collocations with nouns, prepositional phrases and particles.
  • Stance words: These communicate the speaker’s attitude towards something and include words such as just, whatever, actually, really, basically, clearly, honestly and
  • Discourse markers: These are words that are used to organize talk and monitor its 
progress, such as you know, I mean, right, well, good and
  • Basic nouns: These are nouns referring to common activities, events, situations, places and people, such as person, problem, trouble, birthday; days of the week; family members; and colours.
  • General deictics: These are words that relate the speaker to the world in terms of time and space, such as here, there, now, then and
  • Basic adjectives: These are words that communicate everyday positive and negative evaluations of situations, people, events and things, such as lovely, nice, horrible, brilliant, terrible and
  • Basic adverbs: These are adverbs of high frequency referring to time, frequency and habituality, such as today, tomorrow, always, usually, suddenly and
  • Basic verbs for actions and events: These are verbs describing everyday activities, such as give, leave, feel, put and
  • Some of these types of words are not found in vocabulary lists for ESL/ELT learners because such lists have often been based on frequency counts of written language, rather than spoken English 
Beyond the core vocabulary, O’Keeffe et al. (2007: 48–9) suggest the following targets for vocabulary learning: 
A receptive vocabulary of some 5,000 to 6,000 words would appear to be a good threshold at which to consider learners at the top of the intermediate level and ready to take on an advanced programme. Such a programme would ideally have the following aims:
    • To increase the receptive vocabulary size to enable comprehension targets above 90% (e.g. up to 95%) for typical texts to be reached.
    • To expose the learner to a range of vocabulary at frequency levels beyond the first 5,000– 6,000 word band, but which is not so rare or obscure as to be of little practical use.
    • To inculcate the kinds of knowledge required for using words at this level, given their often highly specific lexical meanings and connotations.
    • To train awareness, skills and strategies that will help the learner become an independent vocabulary learner, and one who can continue the task for as long as he or she desires.

For further information see the chapter on vocabulary in my book Key Issues In Language Teaching (Cambridge University Press 2015) and also:

  • Nation, I. S. P. (2001) Learning Vocabulary in a Second Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • O’Keeffe, A., McCarthy, M. and Carter, R. (2007) From Corpus to Classroom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Evaluation, Use, and Adaptation


Submitted by Mohamed Bakkas, Rabat, Morocco

What’s the difference between textbook evaluation, textbook use and textbook adaptation?

Dr. Richards responds:

Evaluation refers to the process by which a textbook is reviewed and assessed according to a set of criteria. There are a number of check-lists that have been developed for this purpose.

Textbook use refers to how a teacher implements a textbook in his or her class, and involved collecting information on how much time was spent on particular activities, what grouping arrangements the teacher made use of, and how he or she used realia and other course components. The focus is on description rather than evaluation.

Text book adaptation refers to changes the teacher made to the book to make it more suitable to a particular class. Changes could include adding or dropping activities, changing activities, replacing topics or content etc.

For further information see my book Key Issues in Language Teaching.

New Key Issues in Language Teaching book


Submitted by Muhammad Shujaat, Saudi Arabia

When will your new book Key Issues in Language Teaching be launched?

Professor Richards Responds:

Publication of the book has been delayed due to difficulties in clearing permissions for many of the citations that occur through the text, of which there are several hundred. Some greedy publishers have been asking up to $1000 to cite a 45 word extract from a journal article, and some have not yet responded to requests to cite from sources they hold the copyright for. In many instances I have hence had to rewrite and rephrase citations due to copyright restrictions. My publisher has informed me that she has set March 22 as the deadline to clear copyright issues, and anything not clarified by that date I will have to rewrite. She is now suggesting a June 2015 publication date for the e-book and a July date for the print book. WATCH THIS SPACE!

Evaluating a Text Book


Submitted by Mehdi S, Iran

What procedures can we use to evaluate a published textbook?

Dr Richards responds:

Textbook evaluation can be divided into separate phases: pre-use (also known as pre-evaluation), during use (or in-use) and after use (or post-use).

Pre-evaluation: analysis
Most textbook evaluation schemes distinguish two essential stages that are necessary at the pre-evaluation phase: a description or analysis phase, and an interpretation or evaluation phase. In the first phase, the contents of the book have to be carefully described in terms of scope and sequence, organization, and the types of texts and exercises contained within. The analysis phase will involve identifying these kinds of information:

  • Aims and objectives of the book.
  • Level of the book.
  • Skills addressed.
  • Topics covered.
  • Situations it is intended for.
  • Target learners.
  • Time required.
  • Components.
  • Number and length of units.
  • Organization of units.

Pre-evaluation: evaluation
This stage of evaluation is more difficult since it involves subjective judgements, and these often differ from one person to another. For this reason, group evaluations are often useful. A number of checklists have been developed to assist at this stage of Pre-evaluation. However, checklists involve somewhat subjective categories and usually need to be adapted to reflect the particular book under consideration. In general, textbook evaluation addresses the following issues:

Goals: What does the book seek to achieve and how clearly are its learning outcomes identified?
Syllabus: What syllabus framework is the book based on? Is the syllabus adequate or would it need to be supplemented (e.g. through additional activities for grammar or pronunciation)?
Theoretical framework: What language-learning theory is the book based on? Does it present an informed understanding of any underlying theory?
Methodology: What methodology is the book based on? Is it pedagogically sound?
Language content: What kind of language does it contain and how authentic and relevant is the content? Is it an appropriate level of difficulty for the learners?
Other content: What topics and themes are covered and are they appropriate for the target learners?
Organization: Is the book well organized into units and lessons, and within lessons are the purposes of activities clearly identified? Do units have a coherent, consistent organization and do they gradually progress in difficulty throughout the book?
Teacher appeal: Does the book look easy to teach and is it self-contained, or would the teacher need to develop supplementary materials to use with it? Would it require special training or could it be used by teachers with limited experience, and by both native-speaker and non-native-speaker teachers?
Learner appeal: How engaging would it be for learners? How would they rate the design of the book (including the photos and illustrations), the topics and the kinds of activities included? Is the material clearly relevant to their perceived language-learning needs? Are self-study components included?
Ancilliaries: What other components does the book include, such as teacher’s book, workbook, tests, and digital and web-based support? Are all of these components published and available?
Price: Is the book affordable for the intended buyers?

When a group-evaluation process is used, all of the issues above and others specific to the teaching context can be discussed, and if several books are being considered, a consensus reached on the book that most suits teachers’ needs. The decision may not rest entirely on the book’s merits. For example, if students are known to use a certain coursebook in private high schools, the book may be rejected for use in private-language programmes that attract university students.

Evaluating during and after use
In-use evaluation focuses partially on the global needs of the institution: if testing is important, the comprehensive nature of the tests may be evaluated closely; if lab work is important, the pedagogical effectiveness and comprehensiveness of the online components may be evaluated in depth; if the school transitions students from a younger-learners programme to an adult programme, the ease of the transition from the coursebook for younger learners may be reviewed.

In terms of the classroom experience, however, and overall learner satisfaction, in-use evaluation focuses on how well the book functions in the classroom, and depends on monitoring the book whilst it is being used by collecting information from both teachers and students. Information collected can serve the following purposes:

  • To provide feedback on how well the book works in practice and how effectively it achieves it aims.
  • To document effective ways of using the textbook and assist other teachers in using it.
  • To keep a record of adaptations that were made to the book.

This monitoring process may involve ongoing consultation with teachers to address issues that arise as the book is being used and to resolve problems that may occur. For example:

  • Is there too much or too little material?
  • Is it at the right level for students?
  • What aspects of the book are proving least and most effective?
  • What do teachers and students like most or least about the book?

Various approaches to monitoring the use of a book are possible:

  • Observation: Classroom visits to see how teachers use the book and to find out how the book influences the quality of teaching and learning in the lesson.
  • Record of use: Documentation of what parts of the book were used or not used and what adaptations or supplements were made to the book and why.
  • Feedback sessions: Group meetings in which teachers discuss their experiences with the book.
  • Written reports: The use of reflection sheets, or other forms of written feedback (e.g. blogs and online forums), in which teachers make brief notes about what worked well and what did not work well, or give suggestions on using the book.
  • Teachers’ reviews: Written reviews by a individual or groups of teachers on their experiences with the book, and what they liked or didn’t like about it.
  • Students’ reviews: Comments from students on their experiences with the book.

Post-use evaluation serves to provide information that will help decide if the book will continue to be used for future programmes.
Detailed information from textbook-evaluation processes, often conducted over a lengthy period, is a primary source of input when publishers decide to develop new editions of textbooks. Therefore, teachers may have a profound effect on the future direction of textbooks they are currently using.


How do textbooks get developed?


submitted by Dino Mahoney, London

Could you explain how textbooks get developed?

Dr Richards Responds:

Most textbooks are written by experienced teachers in co-operation with editors and consultants who guide the writers through the process of textbook development. Teachers interested in writing textbooks are sometimes under the impression that they should first write the book and then submit it to a publisher. This may happen with authors of novels but rarely happens with educational materials.  In publishing English language teaching materials, particularly those intended for a large market, the following processes are usually involved:

  • A teacher or group of teachers develop a concept for a book, based on their perception that the book they propose has some advantages or unique features that would make it appealing to both teachers and students. They contact a publisher with their proposal.
  • Alternatively a publisher might identify the need for a new book and identify teachers or writers who might be able to write it.

Once a commitment is made to publish the book, the writers work with editors from the publishing company to develop the concept for the book project in more detail. Questions such as the following will be addressed at this stage:

  • What kind of teachers, learners and institutions is the book intended for?
  • What features are they likely to look for in the book?
  • What approach will the book be based on and what principles of teaching and learning will it reflect?
  • How many levels will be involved and at what level will the book or books start and end?
  • How will the material in the book be organized and what kind of syllabus will it be based on?
  • How many units will the book contain and how many classroom hours will be needed to teach it?
  • What ancillaries will be involved, such as teacher book, workbook, tests, audio component, video component, electronic and on-line component and who will develop these?
  • What will the format of units be and what kinds of exercises and activities will be used throughout the book?

As the answers to these questions are clarified the writer or writers will now be in a position to develop a proposal for the book or book series, a preliminary syllabus and unit format for the book and to develop some sample units. The publisher then arranges to have the sample materials reviewed by a large number of people both internally (i.e. editors) and externally (teaches and consultants). Often teachers will be brought together in focus groups to review the materials and often to try it out with their students. This review process may go on several times as different samples are drafted until the specifications for the book have been finalized. Only at this stage can writing begin in earnest. A writing schedule is developed so that the publisher can plan for the different stages in editing, design, and manufacturing that are involved in publishing a book. Development stages: writing a book involves a number of stages of development. Typical stages include:

  • first draft
  • comments on first draft from editors and consultants
  • second draft
  • further comments and revisions
  • try out of the materials or of samples of the materials
  • further revisions
  • manuscript submitted to the publisher

Once the manuscript is submitted it will be assigned to editors who will work closely with the author(s) in fine tuning the materials. The content of the book will be carefully examined to ensure that issues such as the following are addressed:

  • Are the materials comprehensible and the instructions clear?
  • Is the pacing of the material appropriate?
  • Do the materials do what they are supposed to do?
  • Is there sufficient quantity of practice material?
  • Is the book sufficiently engaging and interesting?

A considerable amount of revision and fine-tuning may happen during this period as the manuscript is further developed to the publisher’s standards and specifications. If the book includes art such as illustrations and photographs, decisions about these will have to be made at this stage and specially commissioned. Design: design issues refer to the overall design and organization of the book from cover to cover and the layout of text and art in each page. An effective design is a major factor in the publication of textbooks and a successful design makes the book both appealing to teachers and students and also makes the book easier to use.

The activities described above can take a considerable amount of time to carry out before the book is published – in some cases as many as five years or longer for a major multi-level textbook series. The book is then promoted to teachers and schools and both authors and publishers hope that it will be well received and justify the investment of time and money that was involved in publishing the book or book series.

Choosing the right order of contents when organizing a book syllabus


submitted by Gonzalo Pazo, Colegio Tecnico Don Bosco, Costa Rica

I would like to ask you what the theoretical basis are when choosing the right order of contents when organizing a book syllabus.

Dr Richards Responds:

A syllabus (also called a scope and sequence plan) is a description of the contents of a course and order in which the content will be taught. Syllabus design is a core component of course design and an area that has long been the focus of discussion and debate in language teaching. It continues to arouse controversy today. The reason for this is because there is no firm consensus as to what the core components of second language proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing are as well as to the nature of the various competencies that underlie ability in language use. For example although reading and listening are often described as calling upon the development of the use of component skills or microskills that contribute to the overall ability the learner has with reading and listening, researchers do not agree as to the nature of these skills or whether they actually describe the processes learners make use of when they use language (see chapters 9 and 11). There is still controversy around such a basic question as to the importance of grammar and its role in a language syllabus. In developing a syllabus for any type of course there are hence different options as to how the course can be organized and what the units of course organization will be. Here are a few examples:

Grammar: grammar has traditionally provided the core framework of general English courses. These are usually developed around a structural syllabus – a graded sequence of grammatical items that are regarded as establishing the basic building blocks of language proficiency, particularly at the level of the sentence. Choice of grammatical items has normally been based on linguistic difficulty, frequency, and communicative need. Grammar is often also a component of writing and reading courses, since grammatical knowledge contributes to reading and writing ability. It may also be a strand in speaking courses if a focus on accuracy is addressed in the course. In contemporary applied linguistics research corpus analysis is used to determine the most frequent language forms and usages for inclusion in language courses.

Skills: Courses in the listening, speaking, reading and writing have often been built around the microskills that each skill involves. Organizing a course around skills is based on the belief that learning a complex activity such as reading fluently and with understanding involves mastery of a number of individual skills that together make up the activity. For example reading microskills include the following:

  • Recognizing the rhetorical forms of written discourse
  • Recognizing the communicative function of written texts
  • Using background knowledge to make inferences
  • Inferring links and connexions between events
  • Distinguishing between literal and implied meanings
  • Using strategies such as scanning and skimming and guessing meanings of words from context

In a reading course a focus could be on practicing individual skills and in using skills in combination.

Competencies: whereas skills-based courses focus on developing proficiency in the four macro-skills, competency-based courses focus on the skills needed to carry out real-world activities. For example in order to be able to make telephone calls in English a learner would need to be able to acquire the following “competencies”;

  • read and dial telephone numbers
  • identify oneself on the telephone and when answering and calling
  • request to speak to someone
  • respond to a request to hold
  • respond to an offer to take a message

Competency-based approaches have been widely used in developing work-related courses and courses for new arrivals.

Functions: communicative language teaching led to the development of functional syllabuses as an alternative to structural syllabuses. “Functions” are the acts of communication that are realized in conversation, such as offers, requests, suggestions, complaints, apologies, agreeing, disagreeing, accusing, denying, and so on. Functions have often been used as the basis for speaking courses in which students are taught how to carry out specific functions using strategies and language appropriate for different situations on the assumption that communicative competence involves mastering a core of communicative functions.

Critics of functional syllabuses have argued that they represent a simplistic view of communication based on the idea that there is a predictable relationship between form and function, when in fact the realization of functions (technically known as speech acts) depends on much more complex processes of negotiation and interaction between speakers. It has also been pointed out that students learning from functional materials may have considerable gaps in their grammatical competence because some important areas of grammar may not have been elicited by the functions taught in the syllabus.

Help with writing


Received from numerous individuals…

I am working on a set of teaching materials or a book for my institution and would greatly appreciate your feedback and suggestions.

Dr Richards Responds:

Unfortunately due to my own work schedule I am unable to offer a free editorial service to materials developers and prospective authors. However if you would like your materials professionally reviewed and edited I would be happy to put you in touch with a very competent professional editor, who will be able to quote you a fee for the services you require.