Why research vocabulary in secondary school education? - Specialised vocabulary in secondary school/Middle School

Vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes Research - Averil Coxhead 2018

Why research vocabulary in secondary school education?
Specialised vocabulary in secondary school/Middle School

A key driver for my own research interest in this field is that today’s secondary school student is potentially tomorrow’s first-year university student, meaning these students may become my students one day. From this point of view, it makes sense that I take notice of vocabulary in these settings. My second concern is that EAP is not restricted to just higher education as an area of inquiry. This point came home to me during many conversations with secondary school teachers about Coxhead’s (2000) AWL, where it became clear that there was little research on vocabulary in the high school context. These teachers had noted that the AWL contained items that were useful in their context, and they were keen to find out more about the specialised vocabulary of their areas. This interest sparked a range of studies into the vocabulary load of secondary school texts in Science (Coxhead, Stevens & Tinkle, 2010) and English (Coxhead, 2012c), teachers’ understandings of and approaches to specialised vocabulary in their classrooms (Coxhead, 2011a, 2012a), vocabulary size research in schools (Coxhead, Nation & Sim, 2015) and the nature and growth of vocabulary knowledge in the international school context, and of academic vocabulary knowledge in secondary schools in New Zealand (Luxton, Fry & Coxhead, 2017).

Much of the research into the nature of specialised vocabulary in this book and in Applied Linguistics so far has focused on university and professional fields. Secondary school educational contexts and EAP have been less explored. That said, there are a number of approaches to secondary education in the wider literature. For example Humphrey (2016) investigates school settings and EAP and discusses models such as Language Across the Curriculum and content and language integrated learning (CLIL) in these contexts. In relation to vocabulary, Humphrey (2016) compares everyday and academic contexts under the dimension of subject matter. The contrast here is between everyday vocabulary ’in simple nominal groups’ vs ’technical lexis, defined and classified in complex nominal groups’ (p. 452). Technical vocabulary fits with academic disciplines, in this definition, and is bound closely to concerns around literacy. Learners and teachers, therefore, have a potentially heavy burden in this area. Vocabulary research in EAP can help, for example by identifying specialised vocabulary in disciplines and looking at teaching and learning of vocabulary in and out of classrooms. For more on the potential for massive online multi-player games, see Coxhead and Bytheway (2015).

In the secondary school arena, vocabulary has begun to make its way into national curriculum documents, including the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2010) which states that learners need assistance with the specialised vocabulary of eight learning areas in the curriculum: English, the Arts, Health and Physical Education, Languages, Mathematics and Statistics, Science, Social Sciences and Technology. Vocabulary size is identified by the Ministry of Education as a major challenge for educational achievement (Ministry of Education, n.d.). New Zealand-based research by Gleeson (2010) found that secondary school teachers consider vocabulary to be a major challenge for their students. Vocabulary is also an area of concern in the USA’s Common Core State Standards (CCSS) (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). Greene and Coxhead (2015) discuss the relationship between the CCSS and academic vocabulary for Middle School students in the US system. Like the New Zealand curriculum, vocabulary is embedded into the CCSS, for example, in standards which require the use of specialised vocabulary in relation to History and Social Sciences in school texts and students’ writing and speaking (Gardner, 2013; Greene & Coxhead, 2015; Johns, 2016). Gardner (2013) has responded to this need for vocabulary and the Common Core by developing a Common Core Word List, by combining the most frequent words in Nation’s BNC frequency lists and the COCA. This reflection of vocabulary in national curricula and teacher-based research suggests that there is a need to find out more about the nature of vocabulary at secondary school level.