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Word Knowledge in the Elementary School

by Edward L. Thorndike - 1921

Consider these simple questions: How many English words should the ordinary boy or girl know the meanings of at the end of Grade 8? Which words should all or nearly all pupils know at that stage? In what grades and in what connections should they be learned? If gifted and experienced teachers, supervisors, and authors of courses of study were to give answers to these questions, the answers would vary enormously. Nobody, in fact, knows the answers with even roughly approximate correctness. Nor is our condition better if we free the questions from the ambiguity of "ordinary boy or girl" and specify any particular child or type of child. The answers would still vary widely, and all of them might well be wrong. Nor is our condition better if we describe fully what else the pupil is to know and assign, say, 8.375 Per cent of his time and energy to this particular feature of his education. We still cannot answer with any surety.

Consider these simple questions: How many English words should the ordinary boy or girl know the meanings of at the end of Grade 8? Which words should all or nearly all pupils know at that stage? In what grades and in what connections should they be learned? If gifted and experienced teachers, supervisors, and authors of courses of study were to give answers to these questions, the answers would vary enormously. Nobody, in fact, knows the answers with even roughly approximate correctness. Nor is our condition better if we free the questions from the ambiguity of "ordinary boy or girl" and specify any particular child or type of child. The answers would still vary widely, and all of them might well be wrong. Nor is our condition better if we describe fully what else the pupil is to know and assign, say, 8.375 Per cent of his time and energy to this particular feature of his education. We still cannot answer with any surety.

These questions, though concerned with details, and less inspiring than broad questions about health, morality, or citizenship, are important, as indeed all competent workers in the science of education will now admit.

It appears that one notable cause of our inability to answer them correctly is our lack of knowledge of the frequency of occurrence of words in the talk our pupil and graduate will or should hear, and the books, articles, letters, and the like, which he will or should read. Just as word counts of such material as the pupil may need to write are instructive in the pedagogy of spelling, so word counts of such material as the pupil may need to understand will be instructive in the pedagogy of reading, and indeed of all the school subjects which are presented with the aid of language.

So for about ten years I have made such counts as I could. They are as follows:



1. Every word in Chapters 10 to 19 (and a few pages more) of Black Beauty, one of the most popular books if not the most popular book for children about nine years of age. About 11,500 words in all. Credits given as follows:1 to 4 occurrences, 1; 5 to 9, 2; 10 to 19, 3; 20 to 29, 4; 30 to 49, 5; 50 or over, 6. That is, if a word occurred once, twice, three times, or four times in these chapters of Black Beauty, it was given a credit of i; if it occurred from 5 to 9 times, it was given a credit of 2, etc.1

2. Every word in Chapters 1, 2 and 3 (and 14 lines of Chapter 4) of Little Women. About 13,000 words in all. Credits: As in No. 1.

3. Every word in Chapters 1 to 5 and part of 6 of Treasure Island. About 13,000 words in all. Credits: As in No. 1.

4. Every word in Scrooge's Christmas, a selection from The Christmas Carol as reprinted in a school reader. About 8,000 words in all. Credits: As in No. 1.

5. Every word in Irving's Sleepy Hollow. About 13,000 words in all. Credits: As in No. 1.

6. Every word in one issue of the Youth's Companion, omitting advertisements and fine print. About 25,000 words in all. Credits: 1 to 4 occurrences, 1; 5 to 9, 2; 10 to 19, 3; 20 to 29, 4; 30 or over, 5.

7. Every word in the fifty-six selections found by Hosic to be the commonest features of school readers.2 About 27,000 words in all. These were divided into two halves, referred to hereafter as Hosic A and Hosic B. Credits for Hosic A were: 1 to 4 occurrences, 1; 5 to 9, 2; 10 to 19, 3; 20 to 29, 4; 30 or over, 5. Credits for Hosic B were the same.

8. Every word in ten primers or first readers (for this material in its original form, I am indebted to Mr. C. N. Smith and the teachers who aided him). As a very rough estimate, we may take 80,000 words. Credits: 1 to 4 occurrences, 1i; 5 to 9, 2; 10 to 19, 3; 20 to 29, 4; 30 to 39, 5; 40 to 49, 6; 50 or over, or fewer if present in all 10 books, 7.

9. Every word in ten second readers (for this material in its original form I am indebted to the University of Iowa and E. T. Hooch). About 150,000 words in all. Credits: Same as for No. 8.

10. Every word in ten third readers (for the material in its original form I am indebted to the University of Iowa and W. S. Miller). 283,000 words in all. Credits: 1 to 4 occurrences, 1; 5 to 9, 2; 10 to 19, 3; 20 to 29, 4; 30 to 39, 5; 40 to 74, 6; 75 or over, or fewer if present in all 10 books, 7.

11. Every word in Book One of the Thorndike Arithmetics, edition of 1917. About 32,000 words in all. Credits: 1 to 4 occurrences, 1; 5 to 9, 2; 10 or over, 4.

12. Every word in Book One of the original edition of the Young and Jackson Arithmetics. About 35,000 words in all. Credits: 1 to 4 occurrences, 1; 5 to 9, 2; 10 to 19, 3; 20 to 29, 4; 30 or over, 5.

13. Every word in Brigham and McFarlane, Essentials of Geography, First Book, first edition, pages 26 to 256. About 83,000 words in all. Credits: As for No. 12.

14. Every word in Straubenmuller, A Home Geography of New York City. About 37,000 words in all. Credits: As for No. 12.

15. Every word in Thwaites and Kendal, History of the United States, edition of 1914, pages 26-100 inclusive. About 25,000 words in all. Credits: As for No. 12.

16. Every word in Forman, History of the United States, pages 101,102,121, 122, etc., to the end. About 17,000 words in all. Credits: As for No. 12.

17. Every word in the first 25 pages of each of five standard First Books in Geography. About 40,000 words in all. Credits: 1 to 4 occurrences, 1; 5 to 9, 2; 10 to 29, 3; 30 to 49, 4; 50 or over, 5.

18. Every word in the first 25 pages of each of three text-books in United States History. About 20,000 words in all. Credits: As in No. 12.

19. The vocabularies of ten books on Elementary French. Credits: A credit of 1 for a word found in 1 or 2 of the ten; 2 for a word found in 3 or 4 of the ten; 3 for a word found in 5 or 6 of the ten; 4 for a word found in 7 or 8 of the ten; 5 for a word found in 9 or 10 of the ten.

20. The vocabularies of ten books on Elementary German. Credits: As in No. 19.

21. The vocabularies of five books on Elementary Spanish. Credits: o for a word found in only one of the five; 2 for a word found in 2 of the 5; 3 for a word found in 3 of the 5; 4 for a word found in 4 of the 5; and 5 for a word found in all.3


22. Strong, Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. About 900,000 words in all. Credits: 1 to 4 occurrences, 1; 5 to 9, 2; 10 occurrences up to a column-full,4 3; a column-full but not two columns-full, 4; two columns or over, 5.

23. John Bartlett, Concordance to the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare. (The supplementary concordance to the poems was not used.) About 925,000 words in all. Credits: 3 to 9 occurrences, 1; 10 occurrences up to a column-full, 2; a column-full but not two columns-full, 3; two columns or more, 4.

24. Lane Cooper, Concordance to Wordsworth. About 400,000 words. Credits: As for No. 23.

25. Baker, Concordance to Tennyson's Poetical and Dramatic Works, Part II, on the Dramatic Works. About 120,000 words. Credits: As for No. 23.

26. Baker, Concordance to Tennyson's Poetical and Dramatic Works, Part I, on the Poetical Works. About 200,000 words. Credits: As for No. 23.

27. Neve, Concordance to the Poetical Works of William Cowper. About 200,000 words. Credits: As for No. 23.

28. Abbott, Concordance to Pope (this covers only a part of Pope's poetical works). About 90,000 words. Credits: As for No. 23.

29. Bradshaw, Concordance to the Poetical Works of John Milton. About 130,000 words. Credits: As for No. 23.

30. Bartlett, Familiar Quotations, 10th edition, pages 42-62, 201-220, 301-320, 401-420, 501-520, 601-620, 701-720, 801-820, 901-920 and 1001-1020; footnotes and all save the quotations themselves being omitted. About 32,000 words in all. Credits: 1 to 4 occurrences, 1; 5 to 9, 2; 10 to 19, 3; 20 to 29, 4; 30 or over, 5.


31. The United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. About 8,000 words in all. Credits: 1 to 4 occurrences, 1; 5 to 9, 2; 10 to 19, 3; 20 or more, 4. The words of Common List A5 were not counted but each was given a credit of 4. This same procedure was followed in Nos. 32 to 36 inclusive. Credits for today, too, two, until and us were also assigned by estimate in Nos. 31 to 36, as: 1,2, 3, 2 and 1 respectively.

32. Farmer, A New Book of Cookery, pages 1, 11, 21, 31, etc. About 4,000 words in all. Credits: As in No. 31.

33. Allington, Practical Sewing and Dressmaking, pages 1, 11, 21, 31, etc. About 6,000 words in all. Credits: As in No. 31.

34. Garden and Farm Almanac for 1914, pages 7, 9, 11, 18, 19 to 32; 88 to 120; 132, 145 to 151 and 156 (but with a few omissions of notes, statistics, etc.). About 17,000 words in all. Credits: As in No. 31.

35. Five pages containing the United States postal regulations in popular form. About 1,700 words in all. Credits: As in No. 31.

36. The first ten questions and answers in each of thirty-one trade tests chosen from those published by the Committee on Classification of Personnel in the Army. About 5,000 words in all. Credits: As in No. 31.

37. The first word of each entry in the indexes of three large mail-order catalogues. The fullest index was taken as a basis. Credits: A credit of I was given if the word was in this fullest index only. If it was also in one other, a credit of 2 was given. If it was in all three, a credit of 3 was given.


38. The 44,000 words of the Eldridge count from a Buffalo paper. Eldridge did not include proper names or numerals. Credits: 1 to 4 occurrences, 1; 5 to 9, 2; 10 to 19, 3; 20 to 29,4; 30 to 49, 5; 50 to 99, 6; 100 to 999, 7; 1000 or over, 8. For numerals and proper names, credit same as in No. 39.

39. Selections from the newspaper of an eastern city, The Examiner-New Era of Lancaster, Pa., taken from six issues spread over the year 1920 and taken at random from page 1, col. 1; page 1, col. 2; etc. About 40,000 words in all. Credits: 1 to 4 occurrences, 1; 5 to 9, 2; 10 to 19, 3; 20 to 29, 4; 30 or over, 5. The words of Common List A were not counted but given each a credit of 5. Today, too, two, until, and us were assigned credits of 1, 2, 3, 2, and 3, respectively.


40. The Cook-O'Shea list of frequencies derived from a count of 200,000 words of private correspondence was used. Credits: 2 to 9 occurrences, 1; 10 to 19, 2; 20 to 39, 3; 40 or over in their List III, 4; 40 to 49 in their Lists I and II, 4; 50 to 99 in Lists I and II, 5; too and over in List II, 100 to 299 in List I, 6; 300 to 999 in List I, 7; 1000 to 1999 in List I, 8; 2000 and over in List I, 9.

41. The Anderson list6 of frequencies derived from students' counts of over 360,000 words in business and private correspondence was used. He reports the results for only 3087 words, occurring with a total frequency of 5 or more, and occurring in at least three of the six groups into which he divided his material (Professional, Business, Domestic, Miscellaneous, Personal and Farmers'). Credits: 5 to 19, 2; 20 to 49, 3; 50 to 99, 4; 100 to 499, 5; 500 to 999, 6; 1000 or over, 7.

In connection with the counts listed above, certain corrections and additions have been made where the need for them was obvious.

For example: the concordances omit altogether certain very common words like the, and, of, it. The credit for these was estimated, and usually with no risk of error, it being well above the maximum credits as stated on page 339. Sometimes the concordances give samples of a word's usage, but not complete inventories, and it is to be feared that they sometimes do this without informing the student of the fact. These cases have been treated as well as might be without elaborate study. There are doubtless errors on the part of myself and of my assistants in the counting and crediting and tabulating; but such probably act for the most part as variable errors. Where they do not, the most probable resulting error is an insufficient importance for abbreviations, and, to a less extent, for proper names. In the case of the counts from the concordances, to avoid tabulating data of no probable use in the final report, the custom was followed of not entering rare proper names. The material of the two spelling lists, and of the vocabularies of French, German, and Spanish First-Year Books, also does not include all the proper names used. One of the spelling lists includes all except those of "towns of less than 10,000 inhabitants; all strictly local publications; organizations and streets; and all family names, except those of historical characters or of men in the public eye"; the other includes only the names of the days of the week, months, and nationalities. So it may well be that on grounds of frequency alone some of the words of our last thousand or so should be displaced by names of persons and places. However, on grounds of real importance, this "error" may well have brought us nearer the truth.

The concordances, the Eldridge count, the Cook-O'Shea count, and the vocabularies rarely or never include abbreviations. Although Dr. Anderson instructed his helpers to count all abbreviations, it seems almost certain from the actual results that they did not do so. Etc., Mr., and Mrs. receive credit from him; but doz., ft., hr., in., pt., pk., St., and the like, do not. I fear, therefore, that his instructions were often disregarded. The sums of credits in the case of abbreviations in my list are thus unreliable and in general too low.

The Cook-O'Shea list does not make separate entry for words like am, are, ate, been, began, begun, is, was, and the like. I have not corrected for this because it seems undesirable to tamper with lists selected by others, even if their procedure seems indefensible. The vocabularies of the first-year foreign language books also are taken as they stand, although they omit many derived words which really are used in the body of the text. The general effect of the omissions in them and in the Cook-O'Shea list is to reduce the credit of derived forms. This is perhaps desirable.

I shall not defend the above as an especially good selection of material, though it is by no means a bad one. Some of the items were chosen partly for other reasons than the rating of words for frequency and range of occurrence. Some were chosen, notably the concordances, because of the amount of information gained per hour or dollar spent. Nor shall I defend the system of credits used above as an especially wise system of weighting frequency and range of occurrence, on the whole or within one sort of matter, such as children's literature. Indeed I am sure that I could now improve it. The general principle of weighting range as well as mere number of occurrences is sound, and the final result from the cleverest weighting would probably not be very much better than that secured here. Let us postpone further critical study of the counts until we have inspected some of the results.


First, it should be noted that a plural formed by adding 5 was not counted separately, but entered under the singular form. The same procedure was followed, except in certain cases for special reasons, with plurals where y is replaced by ies, adverbs formed from adjectives by adding ly, comparatives formed by adding er or r, superlatives formed by adding est or st, verb forms derived by adding s, ed or d,7 n, and ing, in cases where the derived form would probably be easily read and understood by the pupil when he experienced it, if he knew the primary word. Adjectives formed from proper nouns by adding n are also, as a rule, counted with the noun. For example:

days, nights, cherries counted under day, night, cherry

gladly, proudly counted under glad, proud

stronger, weakest counted under strong, weak

shows, showed, shown, showing counted under show

Russian, Bolivian counted under Russia, Bolivia

This greatly reduces the number of entries and seems desirable for our purpose. If a count is to be used as a guide to instruction in spelling, on the contrary, we need estimates of each such derived form.

It was permissible to omit from entry rare names of persons and places. Apart from this, every word or abbreviation was to be counted and was counted in most of my work. In some that was done without my direct supervision abbreviations were, I fear, somewhat neglected. In the concordances and vocabularies of text-books in French, etc., and in the counts by Eldridge, Cook and O'Shea, Miller, Housh and Anderson, abbreviations have been very largely neglected.

In all, over 20,000 words or abbreviations received a credit of 1 or more.

It should be made clear at this point that the credit assigned to a given word in each of the several counts depended upon the number of times the given word occurred in the particular book or article. It follows, therefore, that a given word might have a credit of 4 in the count of one book and a credit of 5 or more in the count of a second book. As an illustration in the count of Black Beauty the word angel has a credit of 1, in the Bible this same word has a credit of 5, while in Tennyson's plays it is credited as 2. It is evident that the credit received by the word angel in Black Beauty would not be a sufficient indication of its importance or occurrence in all the books counted. It became necessary therefore to devise some means of designating the importance of a word by adding together the credits received by that word in all the counts. The result thus obtained for each word is called the "sum of credits" or "credit sum."

We thus have for each of the 20,000 words which received a credit of 1 or more a record like that shown in Table I for the words and, angel, anger, angle, anguish, and animal. This record is summarized in a number, the "sum of credits," found at the bottom of each column. Thus the word and has a "credit sum" of 210; the word angel ,4o; anger, 36; angle, 15; anguish, 11; animal, 70.



The highest credit sum found among the 20,000 words, which belongs to the word in, is 211; the word which is 500th in rank has a credit sum of 75; the 1000th word has 49 as a credit sum; the 1500th word has 36 as a credit sum; the 2000th word has 28 as a credit sum; the 2500th word has 23 as a credit sum. The credit sums of the next 2500 words (to the 5000th) range between 23 and 10; those of the next 5000 range between 9 and 3; and there are about 10,000 words with credit sums of only 1 or 2. That is, the distribution of words in respect to frequency and range of occurrence is as shown in Table II.

The meaning of these credit sums can be realized by a rapid inspection of the list below which gives four or five words taken at random from those receiving the following credit sums: 200, 180, 160, 140, 120, 100, 90, 80, 70, 60, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10, 8, 6, and 4.


In the above list the exact credit sums of some of the words are not multiples of ten. These are: for, 201; it and one, 199; an, no, or, and some, 181; great, 159; her, 161; live and water, 139.

The general nature of the list may be realized from another point of view by an inspection of the following words which mark the ends of the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth thousands:

End of 1st 1000. Sum of credits, 49

chain   circle   condition   date   discover   double   escape   fancy

fence   fool   grave   health   history   jump   mail   merry   mighty


End of 2nd 1000. Sum of credits, 28

addition   Africa   Asia   authority   bosom   brass   bride   broke

brow   button   complain   congress   cottage   create   crime   crush

curl   deceive   defend   devil   Dick   doll   eagle   echo   eleven


End of 3rd 1000. Sum of credits, 19

Alice   amaze   argument   Arthur   banish   barren   bat   belief

beloved   bloody   bower   breadth   Britain   Caesar   capable   cedar

cloudy   combination   commend   confusion   conquest   consequence

construct   crept   dame

End of 4th 1000. Sum of credits, 13

accursed   actor   Adam   affair   afflict   airy   Alexander   almighty

alms   ambassador   amid   applause   arrangement   attorney   auto

awoke   bait   balm   beguile   Benjamin   Bible   boundless   bounty

brace   Carl

End of 5th 1000. Sum of credits, 10

abate   abolish   abound   accommodate   acorn   admission   adoption

adversary   affectionate   agency   aisle   ale   allegiance   aloft

anniversary   annoy   anoint   antiquity   anvil   apparel   aspect

asunder   Athens   attic   attitude


The most frequently occurring 10,000 words of our list are printed in alphabetical order with a rating of the importance of each as indicated by its sum of credits, and in a form convenient for use by teachers and others in The Teacher's Word Book.8 When the term "list" is used hereafter in this article, it will mean this list of 10,000 words.

The inclusion of all the words obtaining 3 as a sum of credits would extend the list to nearly 11,000. So I have eliminated those "3" words which seemed in the combined opinion of five judges to be the least important.9 I have also eliminated some words10 receiving credits so exclusively from one source that it seemed absolutely certain that a more extensive count would not include them. With this exception the list represents the unmodified results of the counts.


Before drawing conclusions from the facts of the list and planning uses for it, we must deal with certain questions about the quantitative and qualitative adequacy of the counts.

The question of quantitative adequacy may best be stated thus. What are the probable divergences of the present list from one that would be made up from counts of the same kind of selections in the same proportions, but hundreds of times as extensive? The full answer is given in Table III. The gist of it is that the present counts are adequate to determine the first one thousand words with a small probable error, and the next four thousand well enough for many educational purposes, and the last five thousand to an extent that is useful, though far from accurate.


Of the words put in the first 500 of our list, about 25 words would, by an infinitely extensive count, be put lower. Of the words in the second 500, about 31 would be put in the next higher 500, and about 57 in the next lower 500. Of the words in the top 5000, about 350 would be put lower. Of the words in the entire 10,000, about 1000 would be displaced downward, and replaced by others from the 60,000 not listed here, but almost all of them would come in the next few thousands, so that it is not a serious error to regard them as belonging within the 10,000.

There are 957 chances in 1000 that a word of credit above 100 would not by the infinite count receive a credit 13 higher or lower than it does; that a word of credit 50 would not receive a credit n higher or lower than it does; that a word of credit 25 would not receive a credit 8 higher or lower than it does; that a word of credit 20 would not receive a credit 7½ more or less than it does; and that a word of credit 15 would not receive a credit 6½ more or less than it does.

It is impossible to measure the qualitative adequacy of the counts and credits except by further very extensive counts. For example, only further counts of children's reading can decide whether our selections are an adequate sampling of the matter children do or should read. Only elaborate counts of correspondence will decide whether the Cook-O'Shea and Anderson counts are fairly representative of correspondence in general as to its quality. Moreover, there will always be some room for diversity of opinion as to the balance between what is read and what we should consider important to be read. As to the relative weight to attach to children's reading, correspondence, literary classics, the Bible, the newspaper, and so on, the diversity of opinion exists and will long remain. I hope some time to be able to publish all the original counts so that any competent person can use them with any weights that he thinks desirable.

In various details notable changes might be made. The importance of hath and doth, for example, depends almost entirely on the weight given to the reading of the Bible. If a revised version of it used has and does, they would drop down or out of our list. The importance of acid, ampere, atom, and the like, depends on the weight attached to reading on scientific and industrial topics as contrasted with "literary" reading.

The scientific student of the list can use the facts given about the counts and credits to amend it where he thinks wise. So it seems undesirable here to deal at any length with the principles of selection and weighting. I shall therefore simply note four principles, and illustrate in representative cases how the selection and weighting work out. Pains were taken to preserve some fair balance between importance for the boy and girl during the elementary school course, and importance for them after graduation. Rather large weight was given to appearance in a variety of sorts of reading, and relatively small weight to a large number of occurrences in any one sort alone. A balance was sought between reliability (attainable by a large count, as in the concordances) and significance. A word appearing in a small count is, other things being equal, more important, of course, than one appearing in a large count. The practical principle of obtaining the best result per hour of time spent in the counts was considered throughout, and explains the use of counts of vocabularies in foreign-language books, and the use of some of the concordances. It is not assumed, for example, that many elementary-school graduates will read Wordsworth, or Milton, or Pope, or Cowper to any considerable extent. The concordance counts, however, are made rapidly and with a moderate weight probably benefit the total result more than would the same amount of time spent on textual counts.

To turn to some illustrative cases, there are given in Table IV the sources of the credits for five words earning 100, 90, 80, 70, 60, and 50, 40, 30, 20, and 10 respectively. The words of credit above 100 would be at or near the top by any sort of count whatever.

In the next table (Table V) is given the rank order for these fifty words by the total sum of credits, and by children's reading alone, elementary text-books alone, standard literature alone, and so on.

It should be noted that I have included neither the counts from Hosic's 57 commonest selections in school readers nor Sleepy Hollow under Children's Literature here, but under English Classics.

Tables IV and V show that there is a correspondence between the sums of credits for the same word from different sorts of material, but that it is far from perfect. The coefficients of correlation (by the Spearman foot-rule) of Total with Children's Literature, English Classics, etc., are, in order, about .9, .8, .9, .5, .8, and .7.11 The high values of the first three (.9, .8, .9) are in part due to the fact that they predominate in determining the Total. Common Facts and Trades has the lowest correlation partly because it has the least share in determining the Total.



After this effect of the composition of the Total is allowed for, it still remains true that the vocabularies of Common Facts and Correspondence seem notably specialized in the table. That this is true in general seems certain to one who has made the counts. Indeed the Common Facts and Trades counts were selected to supply an obvious lack.

The greatest displacement for the Children's Literature is of equal, 18½ ranks too low (41½-23); for the Bible and Classics, it is angel, 27 ranks too high; for the Vocabularies and Text-Books it is class, 19½ ranks too high; for Common Facts and Trades it is sea, 42½ ranks too low; for Newspapers it is crowd, 19½ too high; and for Correspondence it is ah, 28½ too low. These displacements are all such as might be expected even in an infinitely extensive count. To obtain a measure of general importance for the elementary school pupil and graduate, we have to assign weights. If we weight Common Facts more heavily, angels will go down and bricks will go up!

The sums of credits at the basis of our list down to 10, the end of the fifth thousand, are determined to over three fourths of their amount by the counts from children's reading, classics, text-books and vocabularies. The result of this weighting corresponds probably rather closely with importance as measured by the prevailing ideals of what an elementary school pupil and graduate should read. These ideals are, however, themselves perhaps somewhat inappreciative of science, technology, business, and politics in comparison with literature and morals. They also perhaps undervalue the present and future in comparison with the past. There is further an increasing trend toward considering what the pupils will read as well as what they should read. The present list may therefore be criticized as too weak in credit to children's literature and newspapers, and much too weak in credit to words relating to common life and trades. It will, however, serve reasonably well until more extensive and specialized counts are made.

The following would be specially worth making:

A count of 250,000 to 1,000,000 words taken at random from a standard encyclopedia.

A count of 250,000 to 1,000,000 words taken at random from newspapers and weekly magazines.

A count of 250,000 to 500,000 words taken at random from boys' magazines.

A count of 250,000 to 500,000 words taken at random from girls' magazines.

A count of 250,000 to 500,000 words taken at random from reading of a definitely utilitarian nature, such as printed directions for the use of machines, tools, medicines, etc.; laws and ordinances; proclamations; hand books; railroad guides; civil service examinations for policemen, firemen and the like.



Conscientious teachers now spend much time and thought in deciding what pedagogical treatment to use in the case of words which offer difficulty to pupils. In the third readers which they use they find, according to Miller, over nine thousand different words.12 Some of these probably should not be taught at all in that grade; some should be explained at the time to serve the purpose of the story or poem, but then left to their fate; some should be thoroughly taught and reviewed. The Teacher's Word Book helps the teacher to decide quickly which treatment is appropriate.

The same service is performed, of course, in each of the school grades. Consider, for example, these words taken from Shelley's "Ode to a Skylark," a poem often found in school readers for grade seven or eight.






































If the reader will decide for himself in which thousand each of these belongs, keep account of the time spent to reach a decision, and then compare his ratings with those on page 357 derived from the list, he will have a sample of the gain in time and correctness of judgment due to using the list.

Even expert teachers have very inadequate and inaccurate notions of the relative frequency and importance of words. For example, thirteen expert teachers were asked to rank certain words as 10, if in the first thousand for importance; 9, if in the second thousand; 8, if in the third thousand; and so on, using o for words below the tenth thousand. They differed enormously from one another in their ratings for the same words; and any one of them gave widely different ratings to words which are of closely equal importance by our count or by the average voice of the thirteen. For example, their ratings for ten words all having 10 as a sum of credits, and thus being all in or near the lower half of the fifth thousand, were as shown below:


In teaching arithmetic, history, geography, civics, or elementary science, there will be found in the book lessons many words which some of the pupils will not understand. Which are these, and in which cases should the occasion be used to master a word for future use? Decision obviously depends in part upon how important the word is. For example, the first twenty-five pages of a standard geography for elementary schools contain these words:


What the teacher should do with each of these words depends partly on its special importance for geography, and partly on its general importance then and later for pupils of the grade in question. It will be found, with respect to the latter, that some of these words rank as high as the first thousand, while some of them do not appear in our list at all, and probably would not appear even in a list fifty per cent larger.

The Teacher's Word Book does not, of course, rate correctly for any one community, words which are very important locally (as, for New York City, subway, elevated, Brooklyn). By its very existence, however, it directs attention to this issue, and stimulates the educational authorities to extend and amend it in respect to words of special local importance. In the case of spelling, the publication of general lists has been notably effective in producing the reaction of attention to special local lists; and we may expect the same effect from this reading- or meaning-list.


The list makes it much easier than it has been in the past to put standards for word knowledge, by grades, by ages, or by mental ages, into clear, definite, comprehensible form. For example, we may say that at a certain mental age or grade the minimum standard should be knowledge of the meanings of 95 per cent of the first 2500 words, 80 per cent of the next 1000, 60 per cent of the next 1500, and 20 per cent of the next 5000. If it seems desirable, we can specify still more narrowly, for example, 100 per cent of the first 1000, 95 per cent of the next 1000, 90 per cent of the next 1000, 80 per cent of the next 2000, with or without stipulation of a knowledge of the second 5000.

The actual learning of meanings is probably best accomplished by a large amount of relatively easy reading, plus a much smaller amount of harder reading with recourse to the dictionary, plus a still smaller amount of specific teaching of meanings as such. This actual learning of meanings also may be accomplished by means of varying and unsystematic stimulation of individual pupils. But the testing and keeping account of the knowledge gained does need to be in terms of specific word knowledge, and the list is a great aid in defining and testing such word knowledge.


Within very recent years there has been quietly developing a demand for objective, scientific evaluation of text-books and other instruments of instruction. A first book in reading, for example, is being judged by a system of credit points for type, spacing, number of words used, quality of the English, interest of the selection to little children, and the like. One element in such an evaluation of almost all text-books is the suitability of their vocabularies to the grade for which they are intended. This can be measured with absolute impartiality with the aid of the list. One has only to make a word count of a sufficient sampling of pages from the book in question, and look up the ratings of the words on the list. For example, when it is found that of two contemporaneous beginners' books in arithmetic to be read by pupils in the first half of grade 3, one has in the first fifty pages eleven words that are not in our 10,000 at all, and twenty-five more that are not in the first 5000, whereas the other has five and fifteen as the corresponding numbers, it is obvious where credit belongs for wisdom and care in the choice of words.


The importance of the words in readers and other reading material and the gradation of this material should, of course, be one element in its evaluation. Without a word list such as this, however, the judgments have necessarily been subjective and rather vague. With this list, they can be absolutely impartial and precise to any desired degree. The results of the studies which I hope this list will stimulate, are likely to be far-reaching in their exposure of imperfect selection and gradation of material in even our best instruments of instruction. Until such a list was available, indeed, the labor of inspecting material for details of vocabulary was too great perhaps to be expected from authors. As an illustration, I have taken at random the last pages of Book II, the first pages of Book III, and the last pages of Book III, counting approximately 4500 words in the case of each, from one of the best of present series of readers.

The vocabulary of the beginning of Book III is actually wider than that of the end of the book: 842 words to 736! From the end of Book II to the beginning of Book III there is a jump of over 20 per cent, from 681 to 842.

Attention to the importance and difficulty of words in selection and gradation is only one of many possible desiderata to be considered in a series of readers. It may well be sacrificed from time to time for the sake of literary excellence, or interest, or informational value, or other worthy qualities. But it should not be sacrificed to no purpose; and it has just claims for much consideration not only in grades 1 to 3, but to the very end of the elementary course.

The list, when used in connection with a word count of any instrument of instruction, will probably often lead to constructive recommendations of some importance. Two such may be noted here. The first is that primers and first readers should try to secure interest and adaptation to childish ideas and activities, without recourse to rare and even fictitious words. The second is that they should try to provide for phonic experience and practice without recourse to such rare or fictitious words. There are words in primers and first readers which do not even rank in our 10,000, or would not rank there except for the credits they get by virtue of their use in primers and first readers. Children are taught to read words in the first year of school which they may actually not see again for years.





A list of the words which would not be in the :o,ooo except for their presence in the first, second or third readers is instructive from many points of view. This list for words beginning in 6 and c is given on page 360. Above is a list of words which are in the first, second, and third readers, but are not even in the 10,000.


It is interesting to note those words which are suitable to develop phonic insights and habits and are among the thousand most important words according to our count. I have, therefore, taken about seventy of the most useful phonograms, and entered after each phonogram the words from the first thousand of our list which present it clearly. Some of these words are not equal in interest to the words now used in beginning reading for the purpose, but on the whole, they will form a very serviceable basis for phonic drills; and every one of them is well worth learning for its own sake.

ace—face   place   race   space

ack—back   black

ade—made   shade   trade


ake—cake   lake   shake   take

all—all   ball   call   fall   hall   small   tall   wall

ame—came   game   name   same

an—an   can   cannot   man   manner   plan   ran   than

and—and   band   command   demand   hand   land   sand   stand

at—at   fat   hat   matter   sat   that

ate—gate   late   state

ay—away   bay   day   gray   lay   may   pay   play   say   stay   today   way

bl—black   bless   blind   blood   blow   blue

br—branch   brave   bread   break   breakfast   bridge   bright   bring   broad   broken   brook           brother   brought   brown

ch—chair   chance   change   charge   chief   child   children   choose   church

cl—class   clean   clear   clock   close   cloth   clothing   clothes

cr—cried   cross   crowd   crown   cry

dr—draw   dream   dress   drink   drive   drop   dry


eep—deep   keep   sheep   sleep

eet—meet   street   sweet

ell—bell   fell   fellow   tell   well

en—men   pen   ten   then   when

ent—cent   center   different   enter   entire   sent   went

est—best   nest   rest   yesterday

et—get   let   letter   met   set   settle   yet

fl—floor   flow   flower   fly

fr—free   French   fresh   friend   from   front   fruit

gl—glad   glass

gr—Grace   grain   grant   grass   gray   great   green   grew   ground   grow

ice—nice   price

ick—prick   quick   sick   stick   thick

ide—beside   decide   divide   guide   hide   ride   side   wide

ight—bright   delight   fight   light   might   night   right   sight

ill—bill   fill   ill   kill   mill   still   till   will

in—begin   in   inch   increase   indeed   Indian   instead   interest   into   skin   thin   win

ine—line   mine   nine   shine

ing—being   bring   coming   during   evening   going   king   morning   ring   sing,   and   many   others

ip—lip   ship   trip

it—fit   it   its   sit

ite—quite   white   write

oat—boat   coat

ock—clock   lock   rock   stock

old—cold   gold   hold   old   sold   told

ong—along   belong   long   song   strong   wrong

ook—book   brook   cook   look   took

oon—noon   soon

op—shop   stop   top

ot—hot   not

ound—around   found   ground   pound   round   sound

out—about   out   outside   shout

own—brown   crown   down   town


pl—place   plain   plan   plant   play   pleasant   pleasure

pr—practice   press   pretty   price   prince   promise   proper   proud   prove

qu—quarter   queen   question   quick   quiet   quite   require

sh—shade   shake   shall   shape   she   sheep   shine   ship   shoe   shop   shore   short   should   shoulder   shout   show   shut

sk—skin   sky

sl—sleep   slow

sm—small   smoker

sp—space   speak   spend   spirit   spoke   spot   spread   spring

st—stand   star   start   state   station   stay   step   stick   still   stock   stone   stood   stop   store   storm   story   study

str—straight   strange   stream   street   strength   strike   strong

tr—trade   train   travel   tree   trip

wh—what   wheat   wheel   when   where   whether   which   while   white   who   whole   whom   whose   why


By the elimination of certain specially childish or "literary" words from the first 500 of our list and the addition of certain words of special importance to the newcomer to America, such as danger, poison, cent, dollar, entrance, exit, we shall have a basic list of great value in teaching foreign adults to read English. A tentative first 500 for foreigners may be formed simply by omitting ball, being, pretty, and soldier from the list on page 365, and adding danger, poison, cent and dollar. A second 500 can be formed in much the same way. The use of two such lists, with any additions necessary to arouse interest and meet local needs, may be expected to improve and facilitate the teaching of English to foreigners above the age of twelve.


Investigations by Bagster-Collins have shown that first-year books in French, German, and Spanish differ enormously in the words used, and that many of the words in any one of them are such as should not be learned by the beginner. It is also probably the case that in any one of them some very important words will be given little or even no attention. Until counts for the foreign language itself, comparable to our count for English, are available, it will be worth while to check the vocabulary of a foreign language text-book against our list. Words of little importance according to our list should receive little emphasis in teaching, unless they are of clear service to the student. Words of much importance according to our list which are given little or no practice by the text-book should be provided for by additional exercises unless they are words like acre, baseball, or inch where use is restricted chiefly to English speakers and writers.


A   about   above   across   add   after   again   against

air   all   almost   alone   along   also   always   am

among   an   and   another   answer   any   apple   are

arm   around   as   ask   at   away   back   bad

ball   bank   be   bear   beautiful   because   become   bed

been   before   begin   behind   being   believe   best   better

between   big   bird   black   blow   blue   body   book

both   box   boy   bread   bring   brother   brought   build

burn   but   buy   by   call   came   can   care

carry   case   cause   certain   change   child   children   church

city   clear   close   cold   color   come   company   corn

could   country   course   cover   cross   cut   dark   day

dead   dear   death   deep   did   die   do   does

done   door   down   draw   dress   drink   drive   drop

during   each   ear   early   earth   east   eat   egg

end   enough   even   ever   every   eye   face   fair

fall   family   far   fast   father   fear   feel   feet

few   field   fill   find   fine   fire   first   five

floor   flower   fly   follow   food   foot   for   form

found   four   free   fresh   friend   from   front   full

garden   gave   general   get   girl   give   given   glad

go   God   gold   good   got   great   green   ground

grow   had   hair   half   hand   happy   hard   has

have   he   head   hear   heart   heavy   help   her

here   high   hill   him   himself   his   hold   home

hope   horse   hot   hour   house   how   hundred   I

if   in   into   is   it   its   just   keep

kill   kind   king   know   known   land   large   last

late   laugh   law   lay   lead   learn   leave   left

length   less   let   letter   lie   life   light   like

line   little   live   long   look   lost   love   low

made   make   man   many   mark   matter   may   me

mean   measure   meet   men   might   mile   milk   mind

mine   miss   money   month   more   morning   most   mother

mountain   move   much   must   my   name   near   need

never   new   next   night   no   north   not   nothing

now   number   of   off   often   old   on   once

one   only   open   or   order   other   our   out

over   own   paper   part   pass   pay   people   person

picture   piece   place   plain   plant   play   please   point

poor   power   present   pretty   put   quick   rain   raise

reach   read   ready   reason   receive   red   remain   remember

rest   rich   ride   right   river   road   rock   roll

room   round   run   said   sail   same   save   saw

say   school   sea   second   see   seem   seen   send

sent   serve   set   several   shall   she   ship   short

should   show   side   sight   silver   since   sing   sister

sit   six   sleep   small   so   soft   soldier   some

something   sometime   son   soon   sound   south   speak   spring

stand   start   state   stay   step   still   stone   stop

story   street   strong   such   summer   sun   sure   sweet

table   take   talk   tell   ten   than   thank   that

the   their   them   then   there   these   they   thing

think   third   this   those   though   thought   thousand   three

through   till   time   to   today   together   too   took   top

town   train   tree   true   try   turn   two   under

until   up   upon   us   use   very   visit   voice

wait   walk   wall   want   war   warm   was   watch

water   way   we   week   well   went   were   what

when   where   which   while   white   who   whole   why

wide   will   wind   window   winter   wish   with   without

woman   wood   word   work   world   would   write   year

yet   you   young   your


The instruments of instruction in mathematics, science, history, civics, and even literature, used for pupils in high schools, especially in Grade 9, may well be scrutinized from the point of view of the Teacher's Word Book. Other things being equal, it is better not to burden a subject like algebra or chemistry with unnecessary linguistic difficulties. The slight gain from a widened vocabulary is more than balanced by the loss in ease of comprehension of the principle to be taught.

As an illustration, note some of the words used in the first fifty pages of two well-known text-books in algebra which are not in the list at all. Some of these should probably not have been used. In the case of others the preparation for the lessons in question should include special attention to the meanings of the words.


Ours is not a spelling list, and the order of importance of words for spelling will often diverge widely from that of this list. Words like ache, cough, hoarse, doctor, medicine, coat, shoes, waist, dear madam, yours truly, Mass., Conn., Ill., Neb., will figure relatively much more frequently in writing than in reading. In a spelling list also the derivatives may best be counted separately.

This list will, however, be useful to correct certain notable omissions from the spelling lists, such as parts of irregular verbs from the Cook-O'Shea list, or names of the days, months, states, large cities, and the like from the Ayres list. It will be still more useful to extend spelling lists beyond 2500 or 3000, as seems necessary with pupils in high schools and pupils who expect to become stenographers; and this may also be desirable for others. The work being done at the University of Iowa by Horn and Ashbaugh will soon, I trust, provide us with a list even more adequate for spelling than this list is for reading.


This list makes it possible to devise tests and scales for word knowledge which will be very much superior to any that we now have. Existing tests and scales are made better at once because we can give to each element of the test a rough measure of importance.

It also becomes much easier than it would otherwise be to extend tests of word knowledge by alternative forms; and to assign a provisional gradation for difficulty within each form. Finally, certain very promising new methods of testing word knowledge become practicable, when we have ten thousand words graded fairly well as to importance.14


It is hoped that the Teacher's Word Book will be of service to students of education in many other ways. It seems, for example, to offer an excellent chance to measure the relative importance of words of Latin derivation, and of the extent to which a given knowledge of Latin may be expected to help a pupil of a given degree of ability to understand the present meanings of these words.

The frequency of the use of words in the reading matter of any given time for any given group is of some value as an index of the knowledge and interests of that group at that time. The words which are not in concordances of Shakspeare and Milton but are very common to-day would, I think, make an instructive list. The words which are not in Shakspeare, Milton, Pope, Cowper, Wordsworth, or Tennyson, but are common today, are perhaps more instructive. The words which figure largely in the two newspaper counts but only slightly elsewhere in our material form an interesting group. Among them are, for example, hosiery, millionaire, and nomination!

There is, of course, a notable lag of a list like this behind the actual reading material of 1920. It may well be that automobile, auto, and Ford, are now read oftener than horse, though the credit sum on our list is 108 for horse to 33, 13, and less than 1015 for the other three, respectively. The lag in school readers is perhaps even greater than that in our list.

Children read about giants and fairies, knights and castles, kings and queens, forms of work and fighting, and ways of thought and belief, which are really a sort of paleontology of civilization. This does not, of course, do much harm, since the misleadings about the facts of human nature and the world are probably easily curable, and the literature of folk-lore, feudalism, and militaristic societies is reputed to have great merits of simplicity, interest, and literary quality. In general, material finds entrance to our readers a generation or more after it is written. Possibly this is wise. Literary critics as a rule agree that you must wait for the long test of time to decide what is really great and fine in literature. They would presumably not make such a confession of their own lack of acuity if it were not true. The contrast with science, where the elementary student may learn about, say, the electrons, a year or two after their discovery, should, however, receive our attention. Since school histories also usually spend 95 per cent of their energies on the world minus the decades since the pupil and his older brothers and sisters were born, the pupil's academic reading acquaintance with human affairs is almost entirely out of date. It may be well for it to be so. It surely is well that teachers should understand that it is so.

The Teacher's Word Book may also help us to understand why so many children and so many adults read what the cultivated man condemns as trash. Dr. Jordan16 has shown that boys will wait for an hour at public libraries to get books by certain present-day writers whose names the cultivated man has never even heard. It is commonly assumed that children and adults prefer trashy stories in large measure because they are more exciting and more stimulating in respect to sex. There is, however, reason to believe that greater ease of reading in respect to vocabulary, construction, and facts, is a very important cause of preference. A count of the vocabulary of "best sellers" and a summary of it in terms of our list would thus be very instructive.


It was formerly customary to teach the meanings of prefixes and suffixes. Such teaching became discredited, partly because it extended to rarities like agogue and ambulist, partly because the prefixes and suffixes were divorced from their connections in real words, and partly because of the ambiguities of many of them. The word counts reveal the very great importance of certain prefixes and suffixes, and suggest that they are worth teaching, in proper connections, even though the pupil will be occasionally misled. For example, there are in our list 170 words beginning with un. Of these, 15 begin with under, leaving 155. The remainder of the word is, in 140, or 90 per cent, of these 155 cases in the list as a word by itself. In only about four per cent will the simple negative or oppositional meaning of un mislead pupils (save perhaps a very few very dull pupils). If pupils were taught17 un—after learning, say unhappy, unkind, and unwilling— it would probably represent a considerable economy over leaving them to discover its meaning haphazard in the course of further reading. The advisability of teaching any prefix or suffix should be considered in the light of similar data about it now readily available in the list.

This report has already overrun its allotment of space, but I must at least mention the fact that one chief service of the Teacher's Word Book will be to aid in the production of some much better list, from wider counts, to replace it. The entire procedure in counting, entering and crediting words is made very much easier, once we have an approximately correct list for use in recording the counts economically.

1The reader is asked to accept arbitrarily these credits since an explanation of the method by which they were obtained is too involved to be given here.

2It would probably be more scientific to enter these along with items 22 to 30 as Standard Literature; and, in another connection, this is done. The list is as follows:

Allingham, The Fairies.

Anderson, The Steadfast Tin Soldier.

Anderson, The Ugly Duckling.

Bjornson, The Tree.

Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad.

Browning, How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.

Browning, Incident of the French Camp

Browning, Pied Piper of Hameln.

Bryant, Planting of the Apple Tree.

Bryant, Robert of Lincoln.

Bryant, Song of Marion's Men.

Bryant, To a Waterfowl.

Burns, A Man's a Man.

Byron, Destruction of Sennacherib.

Carlyle, To-day.

Drake, The American Flag.

Emerson, Concord Hymn.

Emerson, The Mountain and the Squirrel

Franklin, Proverbs.

Franklin, The Whistle.

Gray, Elegy.

Hemans, Landing of the Pilgrims.

Holmes, The Chambered Nautilus.

Holmes, The Deacon's Masterpiece.

Holmes, Old Ironsides.

Hunt, Abou ben Adhem.

Ingelow, Seven Tunes One.

Irving, Rip Van Winkle.

Key, The Star Spangled Banner. Brigade.

Kingsley, The Lost Doll.

Kipling, Toomai of the Elephants.

Lincoln, Address at Gettysburg.

Longfellow, The Arrow and the Song.

Longfellow, The Village Blacksmith.

Lowell, The First Snow-Fall.

Macaulay, Horatius.

Miller, Columbus.

Moore, A Visit from St. Nicholas.

Saxe, The Blind Men and the Elephant.

Scott, Lochinvar.

Scott, Love of Country. (Lives there a man.)

Shakespeare, Orpheus with His Lute.

Shakespeare, Under the Greenwood Tree

Sherman, Daisies.

Smith, America.

Stevenson, My Shadow.

Stevenson, The Wind.

Tennyson, The Brook.

Tennyson, The Bugle Song.

Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Tennyson, Sir Galahad.

Thaxter, The Sandpiper.

Whitman, O Captain, My Captain.

Whittier, The Barefoot Boy.

Wolfe, Burial of Sir John Moore.

Wordsworth, Daffodils (I wandered lonely).

3I am indebted to Professor Bagster-Collins for the Spanish data and to Mr. Ben Wood for their translation.

4A column means about 116 occurrences in the Bible; about 90 in Shakespeare; about 92 in Wordsworth; about 72 in Tennyson's plays, or in his poems; about 80 in Milton; 82 in Pope; and about 55 in Cowper.

5The words of Common List A were as follows:

6W. N. Anderson, The Determination of a Spelling Vocabulary Based upon Written Correspondence, Aug. 1917. Manuscript in the library of Iowa State University.

7Including changes of y to ies, ier, iest and ied.

8This is a book of 132 pages so arranged that relevant facts about any of these words can be entered. In the case of the 5000 most Important words, the credit sum is followed by a number and letter stating in which thousand and in which half thereof the word belongs. Thus "43 2a" means that the word has a credit sum of 43 and is in the first half of the second thousand. "21 3b" means that the word has an importance of 21 and is in the second half of the third thousand. Within the first five hundred there is a further distinction into hundreds, 1a1 meaning that the word is one of the first hundred; 1a2 meaning that it is in the second hundred; 133 meaning that it is in the third hundred, and so on. The book is obtainable from the Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, 525 West 120 Street, New York City.

9As a consequence the "3" words remaining in the list are probably on the whole nearly or quite as important as the "4" words.

10Such were, for example: Agrippa, Albion, Arabella, Castoria, chee, chiffonette, contemn, Coronado, Cyprus, Dagon, drave, Eli, Enoch, Ephriam, Galatians, Gardinar, Hepsy, Jephthah, Jip, linnet, ope, pate, pied, Titus, trow, Tubal, tweet.

11The absolute magnitudes of these coefficients lack their ordinary meanings, since the words are taken at intervals of 10 in respect to the credit sum. The relative magnitudes are all that I mean to measure by them.

12Many of these, however, are derived forms.

13Some of these are not in the 10,000 as printed, since there were over 1700 words of credit 3, which carried the list to about 10,800. So the less important of the "3" words were left out of the final list.

14It may be noted here that the List will be of value in the arrangement of psychological tests in general, by enabling their authors to be sure that the words in the instructions for a test are sufficiently easy to understand.

1518 for ford and Ford together. At least 8 are for ford.

16Jordan, A. W., Children's Interests in Reading. Teachers College, Contributions to Education, No. 107.

17The cases where such misleading might be considerable are: unanimous, uniform, unit, unless, unto, and untoward.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 22 Number 4, 1921, p. 334-370
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 4010, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 12:17:55 PM

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