Word lists and testing - Vocabulary research and ESP

Vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes Research - Averil Coxhead 2018

Word lists and testing
Vocabulary research and ESP

Several word lists in ESP have been used to inform vocabulary tests. The Vocabulary Levels Test (VLT) (Nation, 1983; Schmitt, Schmitt & Clapham, 2001) is a receptive test of vocabulary which includes a section based on the AWL (Coxhead, 2000). The AWL in the VLT has been used to assess vocabulary knowledge in EAP (see Akbarian, 2010 for an example). Read (2015) discusses the relationship between academic vocabulary and academic literacy in EAP, including the differentiation between specialised or technical vocabulary in disciplines and general academic vocabulary. Read notes that these general academic items, such as classify and describe are a source of difficulty for learners and EAP teachers are highly aware of the problems these less salient items present in texts for learners. Webb and Sasao (2013) outline the development of a test on the AWL. Equally, other lists of general academic vocabulary have yet to be incorporated into testing on a large scale, for example, Gardner and Davies’s (2014) AVL, to the best of my knowledge.

Another example of a test which has been developed using word lists is Begler and Nation’s Vocabulary Size Test (VST) (2007) (see also Nation, 2013; Nation & Coxhead, 2014; Nation & Webb, 2011), but this test is not specifically for ESP purposes. This test draws on Nation’s (2012, 2006) frequency word lists based on the BNC and the COCA corpus. This test has been used to assess the vocabulary size of first and second language speakers in New Zealand secondary schools (Coxhead, Nation & Sim, 2015) and university (see Nation & Coxhead, 2014; Elgort & Coxhead, 2016). The VST uses sampling from frequency levels of the BNC. The format of the test has been the subject of some criticism from researchers such as Gyllstad, Vilkaite and Schmitt (2015), for example, that the format of the VST might lead to guessing and therefore inflated measures of vocabulary size. The BNC/COCA lists by Nation have also been used in a Listening Vocabulary Levels Test (McLean, Kramer & Beglar, 2015). These tests provide an example of how a word list could be used to develop a size test for specific purposes. Nation (2016) has a useful chapter on word lists and vocabulary testing.

Taking account of the purpose for assessment is important in ESP testing (Douglas, 2013). Studies into identifying specialised vocabulary, such as Nelson (2000), recognise this point by gathering spoken and written corpora that include texts which people need to read and write, as well as texts that they will hear and say in their occupations. The vocabulary used between professionals and between professionals and laypeople can be very different (see Chapter 7 for examples). Language testing needs to take these points into account. Knoch (2014) and Wette and Hawken (2016) discuss approaches to Aviation and Medical purposes testing which have integrated and segregated approaches to specialised lexis.

Monitoring learning during courses could perhaps involve regular and often low-stakes assessment of lexical knowledge. File (2014) presents an option for in-class, low-stakes assessment of vocabulary, which can be easily adapted to EAP and ESP classrooms at any level of proficiency. In File’s approach, students are in charge of selecting the lexis for their in-class test, after a week or period of time when the learners would have dedicated attention to learning the target words. The procedure involves a set of tasks for the students, such as writing down all the 15 target words to be tested. This first step is about retrieving the words from memory and thinking about their spelling. The students then focus on adding word stress to each word and their part of speech. Evaluative tasks include deciding which words have positive or negative meanings. File (2014) suggests asking the students to talk about times in the week when they used their target vocabulary, as well as what they could do to try to use the words that they had not used during the week. This kind of activity models a way to address different aspects of word knowledge from Nation (2013), including form, meaning and use. Including low-stakes assessment like this example from File (2014) could have a positive effect on motivation for learners to study and learn specialised vocabulary in an organised way. A post-course assessment on technical vocabulary can provide information on the learning of the students overall for both learners and teachers, and help with refining the vocabulary programme for the next cohort.