Testing specialised vocabulary in ESP - Vocabulary research and ESP

Vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes Research - Averil Coxhead 2018

Testing specialised vocabulary in ESP
Vocabulary research and ESP

One of the main area of testing in EAP and ESP is course-based, where teachers in institutions and language schools, for example, carry out class-based testing at the end of a course. This activity is underrepresented in testing literature, according to Schmitt and Hamp-Lyons (2015), who also see EAP practitioners as needing stronger awareness of and literacy in testing. They argue that EAP teachers are expected to be knowledgeable about all elements of language testing: development, administration and interpretation, but degree courses at postgraduate level for language teaching professionals, more often than not, do not mandate language assessment courses. This lack of awareness in language assessments is a major problem, according to Schmitt and Hamp-Lyons (2015) because

EAP teacher-testers face a myriad of similar questions that are not readily answered by mainstream assessment textbooks. This is arguably because these books primarily focus on how to create tests and exams that are similar in format to large-scale standardised examinations and thus give little attention to how to integrate assessments into curriculum planning or how to develop both curricula and assessment for specific groups of students. For example, textbooks offer little guidance to teacher testers in EAP programmes which are experiencing an influx of mature students who have performed poorly on standardised exams such as IELTS despite having considerable specialised language and knowledge in their specific field, e.g. academics who are required by their universities or governments to get PhDs in order to keep their jobs.

(p. 5)

Another part of the tension in EAP and ESP testing comes from the very close relationship between content and linguistic knowledge. Douglas (2013) makes the point that

it should always be part of the construct of specific purposes tests that learners’ specific purposes language needs include not only linguistic knowledge but also background knowledge relevant to the communicative context in which learners need to operate.

(p. 371)

ESP teachers are experts in pedagogy and language, but not necessarily experts in the specialised fields of their learners. This particular tension plays out more in areas such as standardised testing in Aviation (see Knoch, 2014, for example).

As well as localised testing in ESP and EAP classes, there are two other main areas of testing. In EAP, the site of the majority of language assessment development (Douglas, 2013), there are large, standardised tests, for example, in the form of IELTS, TOEFL and Pearson Academic, in the international sphere. At the local level, institutions may develop their own assessments for entry, such as the Diagnostic English Language Needs Assessment (DELNA) used at Auckland University in New Zealand (see Read, 2015; for more information go to www.delna.auckland.ac.nz/en.html). The second key area of ESP testing is English for Employment in fields such as Aviation, Medicine and Business (Douglas, 2013). As we have seen in Chapter 7, vocabulary is seen as central in Aviation assessment and is part of an integrated assessment/judgement (Knoch, 2014) rather than a separate section of a test as it is in Wette and Hawken’s (2016) English for Medical Purposes test. Read and Knoch (2009) examine Aviation English tests more fully from an Applied Linguistics perspective.

All of this further begs the question of how specialised vocabulary fits into testing in ESP. Potentially thousands of words have been identified in specialised vocabulary in Medical English — for example, in Quero’s (2015) analysis of Medical textbooks, in the LATTE research (Coxhead, Demecheleer & McLaughlin, 2016) and in multi-word unit studies such as Ackermann and Chen (2013) and Simpson-Vlach and Ellis (2010). Read (2000) points out that how to best include multi-word units in assessment is not very clear. Other questions which arise in relation to specialised vocabulary in ESP include the following: How much of this lexis can be usefully addressed in courses, and be targeted in course-based testing? How can this research be usefully drawn on for larger-scale tests? What elements of lexical knowledge might be usefully assessed and how? Word lists have been picked up as one way to focus on specialised vocabulary in testing, so let us look at that area in particular now.