Specialised vocabulary research into teaching and learning in ESP
Vocabulary research and ESP
Many research studies recommend raising awareness of specialised vocabulary in sections on implications for pedagogy. For example, Pardillos (2016) argues for raising learners’ awareness of metaphor in Legal English as an important part of an ESP for legal purposes course. Littlemore, Chen, Liyen Tang, Koester and Barnden (2010), recommend training in recognition and understanding in metaphor for EAP students. Corpus-based learning is sometimes recommended as a technique for learning vocabulary. Hafner and Candlin (2007) discuss using corpus tools to work with Legal vocabulary. Charles (2012) provides support for corpus consultation to support specialised vocabulary use in writing in postgraduate classes at her university. With over 40 participants from a range of disciplines and 21 language backgrounds, Charles (2012) set out to use academic corpora as a means to develop grammatical and rhetorical skills. This work was following on from earlier research with postgraduate students by Lee and Swales (2006), for example, where the learners develop their own discipline-specific corpora. This do-it-yourself corpora approach is also reported in independent learning research with postgraduate learners (see Starfield, 2004, for example). Charles (2012) reported on student feedback about the course and its benefits. Some students commented that consulting disciplinary-specific corpora helped with specialised vocabulary. As one student wrote, ’It helps me use the same language as others in my field’ (Charles, 2012, p. 100). Chapter 4 in Charles and Pecorari’s (2016) Introducing English for Academic Purposes has a section of a corpus-based approach to EAP and a helpful discussion on direct and indirect uses of corpora for vocabulary-related learning and teaching.
Some research papers focus on ways to use corpus analysis and specialised vocabulary for making classroom materials. An example comes from Vincent (2013), who recommends using a text-based technique for identifying frequent words and corpus consultation to check for common col-locations of those words. With practical suggestions on how EAP teachers can integrate data-driven learning based on corpus-based discoveries into their teaching, this article provides helpful suggestions on ways to work with corpora and vocabulary. Another example is from Breeze (2015), who analyses specialised vocabulary in a corpus of legal documents and presents options for focusing on lexis such as arise and hold. Suggestions for working with clusters of specialised vocabulary, such as landlord, lease and premises are also made based on patterns from the corpus analysis. Rusanganwa (2013) reports benefits for students in learning technical vocabulary such as capacitor by undergraduate Physics students in Rwanda using multi-media. His students scored higher on post-tests having studied the vocabulary using multi-media compared to blackboard-based instruction.
Breeze (2015) argues for a systematic approach to teaching and learning specialised vocabulary in ESP, where the lexis is drawn from the area of specialisation. While this study does not include a measurement of vocabulary learning, it is useful to look at the examples from Breeze, which are based on the Legal corpus analysis. Many of the examples in Breeze’s work use a gap fill or fill-in-the-blank format, or ask learners to choose between options. Exercises such as these tend not to lead to a great amount of learning according to Boers, Demecheleer, Coxhead and Webb (2014). Using the Involvement Load Hypothesis (Hulstijn & Laufer, 2001) as a framework, we might find that gap fills, for example, contain some elements of need and evaluation, but if the exact words to fill the gaps are presented at the bottom of the page, then search is not part of this activity. If more words are provided for the gap fill than there are spaces in the text, then the element of evaluation is brought into play for the learners. Increasing the amount of involvement may help with retention of vocabulary.
It is one thing to develop word lists of multi-word units, but it is another to take this research into classrooms (Byrd & Coxhead, 2010). How can these multi-word units be focused on and how should they be integrated into classroom materials and course design? One example comes from Jones and Haywood (2004), who selected formulaic sequences from existing word lists to introduce into two EAP classes in a UK university. Over ten weeks, students in one class were trained to notice and learn target formulaic sequences, for example through concordancing, highlighting, analysing sequences and using them in writing. The other class was used as a control group. Jones and Haywood (2004) found that while the students in the experimental group had their awareness of formulaic sequences raised, post-tests showed that they did not learn the sequences very well, nor did they use them much in their writing. This finding relates to other studies such as Cortes (2013) which have noted that second language writers in English do not use the same amount of multi-word units in their writing as professional writers and native speakers do.
Jones and Haywood (2004) attributed the lack of learning of formulaic sequences in their study to a range of factors, such as the learners failing to memorise the sequences well or using sequences they already knew in their writing. There is certainly an element of risk with using semi-familiar lexis in writing (Laufer, 1998; Coxhead, 2011b). Boers and Lindstromberg (2012) comment that learners in the Jones and Haywood study might have needed more exposure to the sequences and more practice using them to lay a stronger memory trace. They recommend intentional learning of sequences to aid memory.
It is important when it comes to using specialised word lists in language learning to consider how these lists might be integrated into courses of study and how this integration might be assessed. In a study of an EAP postgraduate writing course in an Australian university, Storch and Tapper (2009) looked at the impact of a focus on academic vocabulary using Coxhead’s (2000) AWL. Storch and Tapper (2009) found that the learners in their study used more academic lexis in their writing as a result of the course, and that the learners used it appropriately. The EAP course had multiple elements that could have supported the development of that lexical knowledge and use, including direct teaching, reading in specialised academic areas, feedback on lexis on student writing and class-based discussions about academic vocabulary.
Using specialised vocabulary in writing is a particularly important element of writing in EAP and ESP. In a New Zealand—based study of the use of vocabulary in writing in English by second language university students, Coxhead (2012b) found that the writers had concerns about how their vocabulary selection and accuracy would be viewed by academic readers, how risky it might be to use lexis that was not familiar and whether they knew enough about a word to use it in writing. A tennis-playing friend once described these difficulties of the learners as being similar to ’running around her backhand’ while playing tennis. That is, working hard to position herself on the court to hit the ball with her forehand because it was stronger than her backhand. The participants in Coxhead’s (2012b) study struggled with all three aspects of knowing a word, identified by Nation (2013): form, meaning and use. Form was difficult for some learners who could not recall how to spell some words. The form-meaning connection was difficult for others as they found it hard to connect a particular word with the content of their writing. The dilemma with use is that while learners might recognise a word or multi-word unit when reading, and know its meaning, they might not know enough about it to use it in writing.
Mežek, Pecorari, Shaw, Irvine and Malmström (2015) compared the learning of specialised vocabulary by bilingual learners in a large-scale research project in Sweden. They investigated the learning of specialised vocabulary in Linguistics and Literature studies in English and how it is affected by being presented in reading or listening or in both modes. The findings of this study suggest that specialised vocabulary that is learned in both reading and listening (the order of presentation does not matter) is better remembered, even if lecturers only briefly mention the terms in English in lectures. Gablasova (2014) also compared the learning of specialised vocabulary in English and in the first language of students in Slovakia. Using an oral recall task after reading, the participants who learned the vocabulary in English demonstrated weaker recall of the meanings of the target words and weaker knowledge of the items initially than those who had learned specialised vocabulary in Slovakian. A delayed test showed the level of forgetting in the English group was higher than for the Slovak group.