How Many Words Should ESL Students Learn?

How many words?

The answer is not simple. Before answering that question, we need to ask ‘what is a word?’

Word Families

Consider the verb fly. That is one word. But that one word has many slight variations, like flies, flying, flew and even the noun flyer. So with one verb we can add four related words – and create a word family.

A word family is a group of related words, like fly and flies. When talking about the number of words that ESL students need to learn, professional reports sometimes count word families or just words, so it’s important to understand the difference.

Number of Word Families

Let’s next look at the scope of language knowledge among native speakers. According to Dr. Sebastian Wren, an expert in expert reading and literacy, the number of word families known by a typical American depends on several socio-economic factors. These include education, age and the amount of time spent reading per day. A regular reader spends about one hour per day reading.

Dr. Wren suggests these numbers:

  • Low education and not a regular reader: 5,000 to 10,000 word families;
  • University education, white-collar job and regular reader: 15,000 – 20,000 word families;
  • Advanced university degree, professional, reads 2-4 hours a day: 25,000 to 30,000 word families.

Number of English Words

How many words (not word families) are in the English language? Some people say the English language has about one million words. Does every native speaker know all of those words? No way. The total includes scientific terms and phrases that most people would never use or read.

Another Opinion

Dr. Sebastian’s work seems to focus on reading skills. But what about speaking skills? Do ESL students need to know 5,000 to 10,000 word families to speak smartly?

Maybe not. Some sources suggest these ranges:

  • 800 – 1000 words (not word families) is enough to have a basic conversation;
  • 2000 words to survive the day in an English setting;
  • 8000 words to have an intelligent conversation with a European.


This post started with a question. How many words do ESL students need to learn? Here is the quick answer.

  • 1000 to 2000 high frequency words for basic conversations and everyday texts;
  • 8000 words for advanced conversations;
  • 10,000 to 20,000 word families (excluding phrases and expressions) to read at a university level.

I hope that gives you a good answer and a few reasons to continue your learning.


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The image in this post comes from Christoffer Undisclosed and its use complies with the owner’s creative commons licensing terms.