Missing elements in word list research
The role and value of word list research for ESP
Nation’s (2016) book on word lists is a comprehensive analysis of research into the development and evaluation of word lists. Nation, Coxhead, Chung and Quero (2016) recommend that for research into specialised word lists using corpus comparison, the quantitative results require careful checking, that the size of any comparison corpus needs to be substantial for target items to occur, and that it should be carefully checked to ensure that no specialist texts are in the comparison corpus.
As seen earlier, the majority of research in this chapter has drawn on computer-based, quantitative analyses of corpora. In terms of such analyses, there is little research that compares and contrasts lexical items in different corpora to investigate how differences in corpora reflect differences in word lists (see Miller & Biber, 2015). That is, we need to see more work that investigates the effect of various corpora and how they were made on a range of word lists. Table 3.7 shows a range of studies using the AWL on different corpora, and this is an example of the kind of work that needs to be done, particularly around the validation, evaluation and replication of word lists in many research studies on vocabulary in ESP.
Another missing element in terms of qualitative research is in-depth analysis of words from lists in context in corpora in professional and academic fields (Byrd & Coxhead, 2010). This includes looking at the contexts to see what affordances for learning vocabulary, such as definitions and examples, might be there to support learning. Shell nouns (see Schmid, 2000) are an example of the kinds of lexical items which require closer analysis of texts. A shell noun is an abstract noun which is used to express or refer to complex ideas. Figure 3.2 shows an example, adapted from Coxhead and Byrd (2012, p. 13), where there is a chain from sentence one through to sentence three. Note how ’the results’ in the first sentence lead the reader to ’an alternative mechanism’ which is defined in the second sentence. That definition is then wrapped up in sentence three using the words ’this concept’, which means that the writer avoids repeating the definition from the second sentence. A frequency count alone would not bring such patterns to light. Therefore, research needs to ensure that corpora are looked at more closely and word lists are used to guide decisions on which words to look at first because of their frequency and range.
Figure 3.2 An example of a shell noun mechanism (adapted from Coxhead and Byrd, 2012, p. 13)
Word list research needs to build links with research into other elements of a learning environment to measure the affordances or effects on vocabulary learning. An example of such research is a study of teacher talk in Mathematics, Science and English as an Additional Language (EAL) classes recorded over a week in each subject at the start, middle and end of an academic year at an international school in Berlin. Coxhead (under review) finds that one feature of the teacher talk in these recordings is that they contain a very high percentage of high frequency vocabulary. This project also focuses on how subject-specific vocabulary is explained or taught in class, and in textbooks and materials, with an aim to developing pedagogically oriented word lists for this specialised context. Analysis is ongoing in this project. The importance of research which focuses on the effect of teachers and learners as mediators in their own approaches to word lists is underscored in an interview from a study of secondary school teachers approaches to specialised vocabulary (Coxhead, 2011a). One teacher explained her approach to specialised vocabulary in this way,
I try to get students to be reflective about their learning which includes noticing the words they are unfamiliar or less familiar with and then making judgments about their usefulness. This is often a student by student discussion and can be very quick but if more than one student has raised the same interest in a word I attempt to draw the whole classes’ attention to it, often leaving it on the board if no general consensus can be made about its usefulness. Creating an environment where vocabulary is discussed is my main aim rather than ’learning’ a preconceived list of words.
It is important that the voices and perspectives of the people who might use word lists are heard in word list research.