Learning Content & Research-Based Teaching

Student Project Showcase

Frequency Effects in Second Language Word Learning

by Lucija Katić and Maja Spasojević (University of Rijeka)

The effect of frequency on word production in a person’s second language (L2) is a very interesting topic in the field of L2 acquisition. That is why, in our study, we wanted to see if university students of English Language and Literature would produce words more quickly if these words were more frequent in the language, that is, more common in everyday speech. Previous research in this domain only focused on L2 learners who did not study English at a university level. By testing university students of English, we wanted to see if their everyday contact with English would positively affect their recognition of low-frequency words. 

We started our research by formulating two research questions:

  1. Does word frequency have a greater effect on learning nouns or on learning verbs in the L2?
  2. Do L2 learners remember/produce high-frequency words more efficiently than low-frequency words?

Then we moved on to formulate our hypotheses. We based them on previous research that we read before conducting our own. The hypotheses were the following: 

  1. Frequency has approximately the same effect on learning nouns and verbs in the L2.
  2. L2 learners remember/produce high-frequency words more efficiently than low-frequency words.


When it comes to the implementation of our study, our initial plan was to have 40 participants,  who would be split into four groups. To take part in our research,  participants had to complete a questionnaire in Google Forms. In the questionnaire, participants were first told what our research is about, why we are conducting it and how long it takes to participate in it. Then they were told that they will remain anonymous throughout the study and that they could withdraw from it at any point if they wished without any consequences. 

A total of 36 participants took part in the study. They were all students of English language and literature at the University of Rijeka, Croatia. All of them spoke Croatian as their mother tongue. 

To test the influence of word frequency on word learning, we decided to split our participants into four groups. Based on the texts they read, the first group had to write five high-frequency nouns (sun, game, people, time, computer), the second group five high-frequency verbs (will, give, looks, was, come), the third group five low-frequency nouns (medicine, institutions, bioengineering, agriculture and laboratory) and the fourth group had to write five low-frequency verbs (interweave, abide, reminisce, forsake and exude). After the participants had completed the first part of the questionnaire, which comprised a background questionnaire and an English proficiency test, they were presented with a text. Participants in different groups received different texts. After reading the text, participants were given five sentences, with one blank in each. They were instructed to fill in the blanks with the words mentioned in the texts.

The data analysis showed that Group 1 and Group 2 participants, comprising 13 and 7 participants respectively, and exposed to high-frequency nouns and verbs respectively, remembered/produced most of the words with ease. Contrary to our expectations, Group 3 participants (n=7), who read low-frequency nouns, did not struggle with remembering/producing the words; only two participants struggled to remember the words ‘bioengineering’ and ‘laboratory’. Group 4 participants (n=9), exposed to low-frequency verbs, struggled a bit to remember/produce the words, but much less than expected. The only word that everyone remembered was ‘abide’.    


Based on our results, we have concluded that our first hypothesis, stating that frequency has approximately the same effect on learning nouns and as on learning verbs in the L2, was on the right track. Participants in our study performed equally well on high-frequency nouns and high-frequency verbs. Our second hypothesis, predicting that L2 learners remember/produce high-frequency words more efficiently than low-frequency words, was somewhat confirmed: there was no big difference between remembering high- and low-frequency words, so we could not conclude with confidence that L2 learners remember/produce high-frequency words more efficiently than low-frequency words. 


Our study seems to suggest that there is little to no difference in the way people remember high and low-frequency words. However, this could be the case due to a relatively low number of participants and the fact that all our participants were very proficient in English. There is more research to be done to explore this topic, ideally with a larger number of participants and a broader range of participants’ proficiency levels. 

Maja Spasojević

I’m a graduate student of English Language and Literature and Education Studies in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Rijeka, Croatia. In 2021, I  completed my BA thesis on the marriage plot in two Victorian novels. My interests include teaching methods, family pedagogy and youth work. In my free time, I enjoy attending pub quizzes, going out with friends and listening to music.