Using specialised word lists in learning and teaching - Vocabulary research and ESP

Vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes Research - Averil Coxhead 2018

Using specialised word lists in learning and teaching
Vocabulary research and ESP

Nation (2016) outlines ways to use word lists to design learning goals for vocabulary in curriculum design. A first principle in this decision-making process is to focus on the most frequent vocabulary to ensure better return for learning effort. Frequency-based word lists for ESP can help with these decisions because they rank the lists from the most frequent to the least frequent items. An example of such ranking is Coxhead’s (2000) AWL, which has ten sublists. The most frequent word families are in Sublist One, the next most frequent are in Sublist Two and so on. The division into ten lists was made to help make attainable learning goals.

A word of caution is necessary when working with word lists in ESP or EAP courses. There may be a temptation to start at the top of an alphabetised list of words, without thinking about the importance of frequency in word lists first. Alphabetising a word list is often done because it provides an easy way to present a word list (see the example from the trades in Chapter 8). However, this format does not portray useful information on word selection, which can guide learners, teachers, and researchers about which words are the most important or should be tackled first. For this reason, the AWL is presented in several formats by Coxhead on the AWL website (, including the ten frequency-based sublists of the AWL being available separately, and the word family-based AWL lists also have the most frequent word family members in the AWL corpus in italics. For example, assessment is the most frequent member of the word family with the headword assess. Another common problem with word lists is conflating counts based on word families in research, for example, to find out more about the vocabulary load of a text, with a mandate that all the words in the family need to be learned. It is important to take actual occurrence of lexis in context in combination with using word lists for guiding the learning of specialised vocabulary.

Another reason to think carefully about taking an alphabetical approach to word lists is that there is a strong possibility that presenting words that look very similar will create interference for learners. Nation (2000) warns that learners can easily confuse words that look or sound the same or are opposites. This problem can occur even when learners have some background knowledge of words already, as Coxhead (2011d) found in a study of vocabulary use in writing from academic input. Coxhead deliberately ensured that items which could cause interference were included in the input texts and that using these words was part of the writing task. Several learners commented in post-writing interviews about problems with interference between these words. One of the participants in the study, Crystal, confused the words ethnic and ethical, which were in a source reading on Internet banking. Crystal explained that she struggled to use those words, even though she knew them both, because their spelling was similar. She abandoned her attempts to use these words in writing because of her confusion. She also got confused over the word ensure, a word she already knew, and a word in the text which looked similar (assure).

It is also important to think carefully about how a word list was developed and its purpose. An example is Coxhead’s AWL (2000), which was developed with second or foreign learners of English who were planning to study at university in mind. The list was developed using a corpus of written university-level academic texts in English. I often receive emails about the use of the AWL in a range of teaching and learning situations, including one request for word cards for the list so that a parent could use them with a three-year-old native speaker of English, to develop the child’s vocabulary. Byrd and Coxhead (2010, p. 51) provide some questions to ask when considering adopting or adapting a specialised word list into a classroom context, for example, whether the list was developed from a spoken or written corpus or both, the kinds of texts in the corpus, whether they represent the kinds of texts that students would read or write, the principles of selection, and any details on how the list was evaluated.

A specialised word list could be used as a starting point for finding out more about the vocabulary learners know at the start of a course. A simple technique would be a yes/no kind of test, where learners just work quickly through the most frequent items in a list, and tick words they know. Any cause for concern that this knowledge might be overestimated or that the learners might only recognise a word could be checked with a short interview and asking questions about the words. The students could then go back over the ones they identified as unknown and set some goals with them about learning the meaning and the spelling of these words as quickly as they can. If the high frequency words are well known already, then the learners could check through the rest of the sublists. It is important to check that learners recognise words in speaking and in writing, so fairly simple dictation or word recognition tasks could be devised to check.