Why research vocabulary in pre-university and university contexts? - Pre-university, undergraduate and postgraduate vocabulary

Vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes Research - Averil Coxhead 2018

Why research vocabulary in pre-university and university contexts?
Pre-university, undergraduate and postgraduate vocabulary

Maxwell (2013) makes a very telling point about EAP: ’Nobody is a native speaker of Academic English’. For this reason, research into specialised vocabulary for academic purposes is important from a range of perspectives. In a study of vocabulary in use in academic settings (Coxhead, 2011d), an experienced EAP lecturer in a university in New Zealand referred to vocabulary as ’the hidden curriculum in EAP’ (p. 150). He explained this point further by saying,

Well, it’s [vocabulary] there in everything we do but sometimes we don’t actually realise that vocabulary learning is actually going on and it is part of the task. You know, sometimes we are so focused on the writing element that it is easy to let it slide and not think enough about how they are developing the words they are using, because we are so focused on getting them to deal with the form and such things like that.

Equally I think you can go the other way in that you can focus so much on explicit teaching of vocabulary that students don’t see it as part of the reading and writing process…. It is a balance I suppose getting the right balance is the hard part.

(Coxhead, 2011d, p. 150)

In the same study, Coxhead (2011d) interviewed English as a second language writers on their approaches to specialised vocabulary in their academic writing. Fale, a participant from Samoa who was studying Nursing at university, highlighted how some of her encounters with specialised vocabulary came about through her husband beginning university studies,

Fale: Ever since [my husband] came to university he use (sic) this word [perception]. It is getting common in the house because of him. We called it ’[my husband’s] word’. He brought it home from university and uses it when we are talking together. [For example, he says], ’Come on, that is your own perception.

(Coxhead, 2011d, p. 139)

Fale and the whole family began to use this word as a marker of university language and found that perception and other academic words from university studies started to be used more often in family debates. Other students in the same study remarked that using specialised vocabulary in writing was particularly important when writing academic assignments for lecturers.

There has been a large amount of research into vocabulary in pre-university and university contexts. Like ESP, the field of EAP has been driven by learner needs. Early attempts to identify the lexis needed to succeed in university settings include Lynn (1973) and Ghadessy (1979) who developed word lists focused on lexical items that learners annotated in their textbooks, through to Xue and Nation’s (1984) University Word List, built by combining four existing academic word lists, including Lynn’s and Ghadessy’s. Many of the words in the resulting word lists are academic in nature, rather than technical (Nation, 2013). Difficulty with academic vocabulary for students has been noted in a range of more recent studies, such as by Biber and colleagues (see Biber, 2006) and Evans and Morrison’s (2011) research into the first year of study in the medium of English at a university in Hong Kong. In his book on word lists, Nation (2016, p. 149) makes a key point about academic vocabulary. He writes,

Academic vocabulary needs to be seen as cutting across the three frequency bands of high, mid-, and low frequency words. Words can be both academic words and high frequency words, both academic words and mid-frequency words and so on.

We have seen this same point illustrated in Chapter 2 of this book, where everyday words, for example, can also carry technical or specialised meanings in different subject areas. In this chapter, we will see how different selection criteria and approaches to research into academic vocabulary can affect the results of studies. It can be difficult to decide whether a study of technical vocabulary in Engineering or Medicine, for example, belongs in a chapter on university contexts or in Chapter 7 on occupational or professional contexts. This problem is compounded if a study draws on a corpus of professional writing, such as research articles, but is intended for university-level or pre-university-level students. In this case, the question could be whether these learners really read these kinds of texts.

The numbers of English language learners studying at university in English-medium institutions began to increase in the 1990s and 2000s and, apart from some times of economic decline when numbers decreased, the trend continues upwards. Evans and Morrison (2011) identify four types of students who undertake studies in English-medium institutions: students wanting to study in English-speaking countries, students in post-colonial countries where English-medium universities still remain, students studying by distance or at campuses of existing English-medium universities overseas and those who study in countries such as Germany and in parts of Scandinavia where programmes are delivered in English. Vocabulary is a major area of concern for the students in this study.

Reflecting the nature of the possible areas of study and levels of study, EAP tends to be separated into EGAP and ESAP (Dudley-Evans & St. John, 1998). As these labels suggest, general Academic English focuses on common areas of academic activity for a range of disciplines, for example, writing general academic essays, listening to lectures, giving presentations, and reading for academic purposes. EGAP students could enrol in a pre-university programme as preparation for their studies and perhaps as a way to develop their language skills to pass an international academically focused test, which is recognised by English-medium institutions and allows entrance into university studies. ESAP tends to focus on the ’language, discourse structure, and terminology of the genre-specific and discourse-specific domains, such as writing a PhD thesis in biochemistry’ (Flowerdew, 2015a, p. 466).

Chapter 2 on identifying specialised vocabulary and Chapter 3 on word lists have already introduced examples of research into single words and multi-word units from both EGAP and ESAP. The focus of this chapter is to delve more deeply into vocabulary for pre, undergraduate and postgraduate purposes, using examples from quantitative and qualitative approaches (and from studies which draw on both approaches).