Researching teachers and the teaching of specialised vocabulary - Specialised vocabulary in secondary school/Middle School

Vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes Research - Averil Coxhead 2018

Researching teachers and the teaching of specialised vocabulary
Specialised vocabulary in secondary school/Middle School

In this section, we move to teacher cognition about specialised vocabulary in secondary school vocabulary studies based on studies carried out in the New Zealand context. Coxhead (2011a, 2012b) looked into how secondary school teachers in Aotearoa/New Zealand identified specialised vocabulary in their subject areas. Survey questions also asked teachers how they introduced and consolidated specialised vocabulary in their classes, and what resources they used in their teaching (see Appendix 1 for the survey). A total of 153 teachers from 50 New Zealand schools began the online survey but only 61 respondents completed the survey in full. These teachers grouped into four subject areas: Science (n = 21) (including Biology, Chemistry and Physics), English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and Languages (n = 17) (including French), English Literature and Arts (n = 16) (such as Theatre Studies, Visual Art and Drama) and Social Sciences and Economics (n = 7). Unfortunately, this last group is much smaller than the other groups.

From the data analysis, it became clear that a range of factors influenced the decisions teachers made about specialised vocabulary selection. Nearly three quarters relied on student feedback and questions in class for identifying specialised vocabulary to focus on. Over 50% of the teachers used their own content knowledge to guide their decision making or thinking about the needs of English as a second or foreign language in the class, while just under 50% were guided by discussions in the class and the content of the class. One ESOL teacher reported gathering vocabulary from many sources, and considering how words might ’transfer’ between subjects. She also made sure that when students raised questions about words in class, she included these words in assessment, as a way to encourage students enquiries about lexis in class (Coxhead, 2012b). In the survey overall, textbooks were less likely to be drawn on as a source of support for deciding which vocabulary to focus on.

Everyday words were clearly considered problematic for a Biology teacher, who reported a focus on words which have a specialised meaning in Biology but a different meaning in other school subjects (Coxhead, 2012b). This teacher thought it was important to ensure that students were well aware of the correct use of specialised vocabulary in Biology.

As mentioned in the Social Sciences section earlier, online sources such as the New Zealand Ministry of Education resources and word lists provided guidance on which words to focus on in class. Other curricula internationally also provide work lists to guide teachers, such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP). How the vocabulary is selected and defined by curriculum designers for the IBDP, for example, would be an interesting research project.

In response to the questions in the survey about how teachers introduced and consolidated specialised vocabulary in their classes (Coxhead, 2011a), the everyday context of the class was widely reported as being important (77%). A total of 71% of the teachers reported thinking about specialised vocabulary when planning lessons and teaching. It is common for teachers to augment textbooks with their own designed or gathered materials. More than 50% reported using their own resources in class, as well as textbooks and online tools were used once a week (over 40%). Dictionaries and vocabulary cards as learning strategies were reported very differently across the teacher group, from every day to never. The teachers completed Likert Scales indicating how often they used particular resources in class for specialised vocabulary (see Appendix 1). For example, Science teachers reported using dictionaries the most often, followed by Social Sciences and Economics, and English and Arts teachers. ESOL and languages teachers were the least likely group to use dictionaries.

Teacher experience also seemed to affect pedagogical choices in teaching vocabulary. Teachers who had taught for more years were more likely to use activities requiring students to use target lexical items in their writing and/or speaking. Teachers who had taught more than 16 years reported doing more activities such as think-pair-share and dictionary practice activities. This small-scale study suggests that these teachers did vary somewhat in their approaches to specialised vocabulary in schools, depending on their subject area and experience. The most important difference seemed to be in the area of materials and resources used in class, including dictionary use.