Challenges of specialised vocabulary in schools
Specialised vocabulary in secondary school/Middle School
As already mentioned, there is quite a range of possible contexts where English is being used in classrooms in different subject areas as well as a range of learners with different proficiencies in English and different first languages, all in one class. Learners may encounter the same high frequency words in one subject area which occur in another subject area with specialised meanings. For example, the word product is specialised in Economics and in Mathematics and is used in general English. In an online survey of secondary school teachers in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Coxhead (unpublished data) asked teachers to reflect on elements of specialised vocabulary in schools. One teacher responded by writing,
There is specialised vocabulary for every subject that does not translate and this is an area that could be exploited more. More importantly for senior students is the language of instructions in assessments. This also does not translate from subject to subject and this issue should be addressed. For example what does ’describe’ mean in English and what does ’describe’ mean in Geography. Maybe visual depictions would be useful.
(Coxhead, unpublished data)
This rather full answer from the teacher suggests how the movement between subject areas by students in secondary schools in their everyday schedules is problematic in terms of the specialised vocabulary that the students encounter in different subjects. Another response from a teacher about deciding whether words are specialised in their subject area was, ’Blank looks on faces!’(Coxhead, unpublished data). See Appendix 1 for the survey questions.
Other factors which can influence specialised vocabulary in schools include the kinds of reading required in different subjects, the age of learners and their language learning background and level of vocabulary knowledge and what teachers and learners consider to be important about vocabulary in and out of class. And, of course, it is not just what students read in the course of their studies which need to be investigated from a specialised vocabulary perspective. Classroom talk between teachers and learners is also an important source of input and output for learners. Gibbons (2006, p. 1) draws attention to the importance of talk in language learning contexts, noting, ’The talk of teachers and students draws together — or bridges — the ’everyday’ language of students learning through English as a second language, and the language associated with the academic registers of school which they must learn to control’.
Llinares, Morton and Whittaker (2012) contrast examples of everyday (things, objects, food, changes) and scientific (biology, organism, features, characteristics) lexis. They point out that ’teachers are aware of the importance of eliciting the right technical word from the students, especially when it is particularly relevant for the topic under study’ (p. 191). They also note that teachers in CLIL classrooms tend to pay most attention to meaning ’with priority mainly given to the meaning of key concepts for the understanding of important subject content’ (p. 192). A feature of learning a language in schools through English, for these authors, is the contrast between the ’technical and often abstract’ language used in content classes compared with the communication-focused language of general or English as a foreign language classes (p. 191).
In highly mobile learning situations, such as international schools where parents and caregivers and children may move countries and language contexts quite often, some students can miss out on opportunities to fully develop academic and specialised vocabulary in their secondary school education. A possible danger in these cases is that these students can fail to develop this language in their first language, let alone their second. Progression in schools from early years of study to later years involves higher and higher levels of specialisation in subject areas. For example, general Mathematics in early years becomes algebra or calculus in later years of high school. This specialisation in subjects has an impact on the vocabulary used in textbooks and classrooms.
In the next section, specialised or technical of vocabulary from four core areas of secondary school studies are presented. These four areas are English Literature, Mathematics, Science and Social Sciences. This section also looks at the effect of specialisation at school on vocabulary development and the vocabulary load of secondary school texts. To highlight differences in contexts and approaches in research, I will draw on findings and examples from a research project on vocabulary in context in school corpora in New Zealand (Coxhead & White, 2012; Coxhead, 2012c), on Middle School texts in the United States (Greene & Coxhead, 2015) and an international school in Germany (Coxhead, 2017b). Let’s start with the Middle School Vocabulary Lists from Greene (2008) by way of background.