English Literature - Specialised vocabulary in secondary school/Middle School

Vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes Research - Averil Coxhead 2018

English Literature
Specialised vocabulary in secondary school/Middle School

English Literature classes and curricula are an important area of study for specialised vocabulary in secondary education. In many cases in Aotearoa/New Zealand, English as a foreign or second language students seem to be placed in classes which focus on English Literature as a way to support language learning or provide a way into learning English. English Literature is a core subject at secondary school in New Zealand. In a corpus-based study of English Literature texts in New Zealand schools by Coxhead (2012c), a key question early on in the development of the corpus was, ’What is a text in English Literature?’ The New Zealand curriculum is enquiry-based, which in essence means that there are no prescribed texts. There are certainly no textbooks readily available for building a corpus such as the one from Greene (2008). The corpus for the New Zealand study needed to include a wide range of texts for literature, including written and spoken texts such as films, TV/radio/newspaper/magazine/billboard and other advertisements, websites, YouTube clips, short stories, newspaper stories, television news clips, novels and plays. To find out what might represent these kinds of texts, a national association of English Literature teachers contacted their members on my behalf and a crowd-sourced list of texts commonly used by teachers was developed. The list was roughly divisible by senior and junior school texts, which for building a corpus is very useful. But the size and purpose of the texts for the corpus proved quite tricky to manage (Coxhead & White, 2012). Teacher-made resources were often used in classes, quite possibly handed down and around between teachers. The Ministry of Education Te Kete Ipurangi website (available at www.tki.org.nz/) is a repository for teacher-made and shared resources. Mindful of Radford’s (2013) master’s research on university-level Computer Science, which suggested that teacher-made or sourced materials have lower vocabulary load figures than textbooks and journal articles, we kept these resources separate from the source texts of English Literature. Finally, for one of the parts of the curriculum, students can choose their own texts to study, and it was beyond the scope of a small study of secondary school texts to crowdsource beyond the teachers at that stage. This point does bring up some interesting questions about the nature of the texts and potentially the vocabulary in those texts for a secondary school study.

A small-scale study was carried out based on recommendations from the crowd-sourced English Literature list, based on a junior and a senior school collection of texts. The corpus contained just over 250,000 words in the senior section and 170,000 running words in the junior section. An imbalance like this between corpora can be seen as a weakness of the study. However, the texts at senior level are longer on the whole than the texts for junior school. Compare, for example, Pride and Prejudice at 122,816 running words in the senior corpus and Much Ado About Nothing (available from www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2240) at 23,297 running words in the junior corpus. The six movies in the corpus have a similar total of running words at around 20,000, but the movies are quite different: Run, Lola, Run; Moulin Rouge, and Shine in the senior corpus and Lemony Snickett, Shrek and Whale Rider in the junior corpus.

What did this study find about the nature of vocabulary in English Literature in schools? Firstly, this study showed that students need a large vocabulary to cope with the demands of reading secondary school literature, at junior and senior levels. The corpus analysis showed that, like Nation’s (2006) study of novels, the junior and senior texts needed 8,000—9,000 word families plus proper nouns to reach 98% coverage. To give an idea of the kinds of specialised vocabulary which might be in secondary school English Literature texts in New Zealand, here is the response of a Drama/English Literature teacher to Coxhead’s (2011a) online survey on specialised vocabulary in schools (Question 5 in Appendix 1) (this quotation is from unpublished data in the study). The teacher is responding to a request for more information in the survey on how teachers decide what specialised vocabulary to focus on with their students:

I research the topic we are working on and the action words within that (i.e. Devising = split stage, levels, contrast, voice over; Shakespeare = groundlings, courtly behaviour, enjambment lines) and then explain these to the class in terms they will understand whilst still using the correct terminology.

(Coxhead, unpublished data)