Several months ago, I wrote about using Netflix to learn English. I use the same method to learn Korean. I suggested this method to a former student and told her to contact me if she had any questions. She recently contacted me with some questions about some vocabulary she’d encountered.

When beginning this Netflix method, this former student asked me for show suggestions. Being a teenage girl, I thought Gilmore Girls would be a good show for her. The show is all about a teenage girl and her relationship with her single mom. It also fits my criteria of not being a comedy or using too much jargon (i.e., courtroom or medical drama). 

She’s been watching the show for a few months now. She only manages to watch about 15 minutes a week. But she spends over an hour on each segment because she watches it four times, as per my instructions. But after watching a particular episode, she contacted me with several vocabulary questions. Even though she’d tried to look up words in online dictionaries, she was still struggling. 

A picture of a 5x5 cube representing that understanding English can be difficult, sometimes too difficult

Did I make a mistake? Was my recommendation too difficult?

After I answered her questions, I decided to take a closer look at the episode. I downloaded the script and scanned it for phrases that may give an EFL learner difficulty. There were more than I expected.

Last month, I explained why learning more words rarely improves your comprehension ability. This post is a practical exploration in support of that post.

But there aren’t any difficult vocabulary words—a child could understand this!

To get a feel for the difficulty level of the script, I wanted to determine the reading level. This is a script—it’s spoken dialogue (with some stage directions). Most of the sentences are short, and for the most part, the script uses simple vocabulary. 

A picture of a young girl easily reading a book

I used a site called Readability Formulas, which analyzes sample texts. Using various algorithms, it returns several different readability statistics. 

The script was 7,993 words (including stage directions), but this tool only analyzes 3,000 words. It truncates the text after 3,000 and ignores the remaining text. To ensure the stats were accurate, I tested the first 3,000 words and the last 3,000 words of the script. Here are the results:

A chart of readability statistics for an episode of Gilmore Girls showing the text is at a fourth to fifth grade level

The summary for both sections was:

Readability Consensus Based on (7) readability formulas, we have scored your text:
Grade Level: 4
Reading Level: easy to read
Reader’s Age: 8-9 yrs. old (Fourth and Fifth graders)

It appears I made a decent recommendation—so what was the problem?

Though likely not 100% accurate, these stats give us an idea of the difficulty of the text. The results indicate that it is not an overly difficult text, as it’s rated for 4th and 5th graders. 

The former student I helped is an 8th grader, but also an EFL student. Thus, her comprehension and vocabulary size isn’t on par with a native English speaker of the same age.

But text rated for a fourth/fifth grader should be approachable. As I scanned the script, I didn’t see too many difficult words. But I did see examples of word usage and phrases that might cause confusion.

A picture of a young woman looking confused and slightly annoyed, fed up

I’ve always told students to learn vocabulary in context. Don’t write down single words. Write down a short phrase including that word. Often, the phrase will be a ‘standard phrase’—the group of words will be used together regularly. Dictionaries don’t always give us the definitions for these phrases—but if you look hard, they often do.

I decided to list a number (not all) of these problematic phrases and look them up online. I used three popular dictionaries designed for young learners or ESL/EFL students. I also included my ‘go-to’ resource for idioms.

Using English dictionaries is better than translation tools, but they can be tricky

I recommend that students use dictionaries like these first. With practice, students can learn how to find the explanations they need. Since native English speakers write these dictionaries, they are accurate. Korean-English dictionaries and online translation services are hit-and-miss—at best. 

A picture of a young female reading the compact Oxford English Dictionary

Keep in mind, the definitions I’ve provided were not the first ones that showed up. Sometimes, the entry includes the definition of the phrase. In other cases, a little digging is necessary. This is why you need to teach students how to use English dictionaries. It can be very challenging for an ESL/EFL student to know which definition is correct for the context.

It’s also difficult to know if you should search for the “main” word and look for common phrases further down the page. Or should you search for the entire phrase? How do you know which word in the phrase to lookup? These are yet further challenges language learners face. 

Best strategy to improve conversation comprehension? Focus on the most frequently used words.

I also checked the words to see how frequently they are used. To do this, I referred to the Top 2000 Vocabulary Words. According to the website:

The words in the list below are the most frequently used 2265 words in Spoken English. The words were selected by analyzing more than 250,000 words from hundreds of conversations. The only words to make it into the list were those that were also found in the BNC top 3,000, The COCA 5,000, and the Longman 3,000.

Again, this is not 100% accurate, but this is a blog post, and these tools provide us with a rough idea. That’s all I’m going for here. I’m using data to back up my point in a previous post. I’m not looking to meet standards for publishing in an academic journal. 

A picture of a man pondering what's written in an academic journal

Below, I’ve presented the base words with:

  • their frequency ranking
  • the phrase they were a part of
  • definitions from all four sources
  • the sentence from the script
  • some brief commentary

I’ve listed the words based on their frequency rankings. The most frequently used words appear first.

You’re on—I’m on what?

A picture of a woman giving two thumbs up, indicating 'you're on'

Base word: on (16) you’re on

MW: used to say that you accept a bet or challenge
OX: used when you are accepting a bet
CAM: used as a way of expressing agreement to something happening
TFD: An exclamation of agreement to something that was said or that is happening, often (but not always) a challenge or a wager.

Ex.1: Coffee at Luke’s, 2 o’clock? / You’re on.
Ex 2: You’re on drugs.
Ex. 3: Five bucks says somebody ends up in a headlock. / You’re on!
Ex. 4: Well, you’re on your own.

Though three of four definitions reference accepting a bet, in Ex. 1, an invitation is being accepted. This is an intriguing example because “you’re on” appears four times in the script. But each instance has an entirely different meaning.

In Ex. 2, “you’re on drugs” means “you are under the influence of drugs.” But if you watch the episode, you’ll see it’s used in a joking way, basically like saying, “You’re crazy. You’re not making any sense.”

Ex. 3 is in line with the definitions of accepting a bet or wager.

Finally, with Ex. 4, “you’re on” is part of the longer phrase, “you’re on your own.” This means, “you have to take care of things by yourself; you won’t get any help from me.”

A picture of  a young girl, walking down a country road, representing 'you're on your own'

For reference, “you” appears as the 8th most frequently used word on the list. So we have two ubiquitous words, used as part of the same phrase. But in all four instances, the meaning is entirely different. No wonder ESL/EFL learners struggle with English!

FYI, the idioms page of thefreedictionary.com has three entries for “You’re on,” and a separate one for “you’re on your own.” But it doesn’t have an entry for “you’re on drugs.Yet it has an entry for the acronym YODAY—You’re On Drugs Aren’t You. Here’s another acronym for you—TIL (Today I Learned). 😉

A popular Korean-English dictionary defines “you’re on” as “좋았어(내기를 받아들이며 하는 말),” but nothing for “you’re on drugs.” A popular auto-translator returns “시작,” which means start. This is another possible meaning of “you’re on,” but only in a narrow context (i.e., the camera is rolling, you’re on!). “You’re on drugs” gives the literal translation 너 마약하고 있잖아, but makes no mention of the idiomatic use.

A picture of a woman with the back of her hand on her forehead, indicating she is exhausted

Phew! Hopefully, this clearly demonstrates the point I’m trying to make. The four examples consist of a total of 30 words (if we write out contractions). We can deduct nine words for “you’re on” (we only count one instance of “you are on”). 

Of the 21 different words, 15 are in the top 2,000 list. Of the other six (Luke’s, o’clock, drugs, five, bucks, headlock), only headlock and perhaps bucks may be unknown to most students. But they are not the words that are causing comprehension troubles.

Go for—I could really go for a simple explanation

Base word: go (122) go for

MW: to like or be attracted to (someone or something)
OX: to choose something
CAM: go for something: to like or admire something: / go for sth: to choose something:
TFD: 7. To opt for something; to choose some option.

Ex: I could really go for some cocoa.

A picture of a fresh cup of cocoa with chocolate in the background

All but the MW definition got this one exactly right. The MW definition doesn’t include the concept of choosing something. But remember, these were not the first definitions offered for “go.” I only found these definitions after combing through the long entry for “go.” Even then, there are six different entries for “go for” on the MW page. But the one I included was the closest match for this context.

If you watch this episode, you’ll see that the person that wants some cocoa isn’t actually going anywhere. They are going to remain where they are. They’re just saying that “the idea of drinking some cocoa sounds very appealing.”

Okay, after two examples, I’m already well over 1,500 words. Methinks this post will best serve its purpose as a two-parter. Check back next week for more examples of how simple words can cause complex problems for your comprehension!

4 thoughts on “How can I increase my vocabulary? Size doesn’t always matter!

  1. Are you basing your coaching decisions on the movie The Rookie? Giving kids Gilmore Girls for exposure to English is like throwing 98-mph fastballs at your little league team. The average script for a show that size is usually around 50 pages, while Gilmore Girls was usually around 80 – there’s a reason they talk so quickly!

    1. Sorry, don’t get The Rookie reference…never saw it.

      The goal of any language learner is to be able to understand the language as it’s naturally spoken. If you only study simplified, slowed down materials, you’ll never achieve that.

      Many of the comprehension troubles this student has are more related to culture. In a recent episode, there was a line along the lines of, “Do you need to get in your cart and buggy and get to your barn raising?” That lead to a long discussion of who the Amish are and what some of their core values are. Vocabulary wasn’t the problem with that one! 😉

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