Why research vocabulary in the trades? - Vocabulary in the trades

Vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes Research - Averil Coxhead 2018

Why research vocabulary in the trades?
Vocabulary in the trades

Most research on specialised vocabulary tends to be focused on academic and specific purposes, concentrating for example on pre-university studies and the vocabulary such students may meet in the course of their university studies. Examples of such work can be found in Chapters 5 and 6. Trades vocabulary is important to research because this area is under explored in ESP. By way of an illustration of the kinds of vocabulary used in this context, here is an example of tutor talk from a Carpentry class from the LATTE project, Figure 8.1. In this example, Connor, the tutor, is discussing thermal insulation in a theory class. Theory classes take place alongside practical building in Carpentry. This discussion takes place in a Pasifika stream of the programme and begins with several brand names, before going on to the topic of insulation,

Note that Connor refers to the islands, where the temperatures are considerably warmer over the course of a year than in New Zealand. This cultural information is an important part of the Pasifika trades class and is being woven into the talk of the classroom to help illustrate a key point about insulation. The key word, insulation is repeated often through the talk, and its word family member (insulated, as in a fully insulated house) features also.

Figure 8.1 Connor, a Carpentry tutor, on specialised vocabulary in the trades

Another important point is that while it appears that research on the trades focuses on literacy requirements for vocational education (see, for example, Ivanič et al., 2009), little of that work focuses on vocabulary. The New Zealand Qualifications Authority includes vocabulary as part of its Literacy Learning Progressions, as can be seen in this description of what ’literacy learners need’ (Ministry of Education, 2010):

Literacy learners need to learn to make meaning of texts. This learning includes the use of background knowledge (including knowledge relating to their culture, language, and identity), vocabulary knowledge, knowledge of how language is structured, knowledge about literacy, and strategies to get or convey meaning.

There are clearly examples of research which focus on the kinds of knowledge required for trades education, for example Vaughn, Boone and Eyre (2015) on carpentry and ’vocational thresholds’, and Parkinson and Mackay (2016) on literacy practices in Carpentry and Automotive Technology. Research on identity such as Holmes and Woodhams (2013) focuses on how talk in the workplace supports identity building in apprenticeships. A key component of learning to be a tradesperson is to demonstrate through words and actions that the learners belong to the trades (see Colley, James, Diment & Tedder, 2003; Chan, 2013). Another example of literacy and trades can be found in Casey et al. (2006) on embedding literacy and numeracy into plastering.

Vocabulary is an important part of trades education. Interviews in the Carpentry programme at a Polytechnic in Aotearoa/New Zealand (Parkinson & Mackay, 2016) uncovered a core concern for tutors about the vocabulary of Carpentry for all students in the programme, whether they were first or second/foreign learners of English. Like educators in other fields, such as secondary school and university, a major concern of tutors was that students were not aware of the technical nature of everyday words. Another concern was that learners needed to know the meanings of words and to be able to use them precisely. Learners need to be able to distinguish between different types of hammers, for example, and between trade names.

Trades students are also clear that vocabulary is important in the trades and that it poses challenges for their learning (Coxhead, Demecheleer & McLaughlin, 2016). One particular challenge is that much of the learning is through talk in classrooms and in the case of Carpentry, on building sites. The apprenticeship model encourages working on projects alongside registered tradespeople to gain qualifications which also suggests a focus on learning through listening. As part of the Languages in the Trades project, Carpentry students were asked to complete a questionnaire (see Appendix 2) about some of the challenges of vocabulary in their programmes. The students’ concerns included the sheer amount of vocabulary to learn, ’Learning what word means which component because there are so many to learn it can get confusing and mix up’ (p. 46), ’safiet’ [soffit]. They were also concerned that the words in Carpentry are unfamiliar: ’They sound really weird making it hard to remember and spell out’. Another worry was that trades education required a great deal of learning while listening (Coxhead et al., 2016). These comments from students relate closely to key concepts of vocabulary learning in terms of memorisation, form and meaning connections, and the need for creative use of vocabulary to support learning. The comments also reflect some key points about vocabulary for specific purposes in that it is closely related to the subject area and there are many new lexical items to learn in the course of study.

Part of knowing specialised vocabulary in the trades relates closely to assessment. This point is evident in this section of a class transcript from Automotive Engineering, where Bob, a tutor, has been revising on the content of the course with his students (and promises a reward of a YouTube video of the Isle of Mann crash afterwards). Questions from Bob’s quizzes on starter motors and current flows include, ’Why is there low current flow through the armature? What’s reducing the current flow through the armature?’ He continues by saying,

Bob: Remember all those words that have been spoken this morning because you need to, in the test it is not gonna be drawing the current paths, it’s gonna be explaining with words because the level four students, you need to do more than regurgitate current paths. You need to be able to speak with technical terms or record with technical terms the current flow paths. Ok excellent, moving on then.

(Unpublished data, LATTE project)

Another reason why specialised vocabulary is important in trades-based education is that students who are studying a trade develop their knowledge of the language of the trade as they develop their knowledge of the trade. Woodward-Kron (2008) points out that a student’s disciplinary knowledge is closely tied to the command of the specialised language of that discipline. Furthermore, everyday vocabulary plays a role in trades-based language (examples are shown in Figure 8.2), and there is a clear expectation of using the right term and right layer of specificity for trades-related vocabulary. Learners in the trades are expected to know what tools are used for what jobs, for example. These points all lead us to consider some important questions around trades-related vocabulary, such as What are the most frequently used lexical items of the four trades in the LATTE study: Automotive Engineering, Fabrication, Carpentry and Plumbing? How might we identify these words for learners and teachers? What kinds of vocabulary make up a specialised word list of plumbing? The first main step to answering some of these questions was gathering written and spoken corpora for analysis.