Learning vocabulary is about so much more than ticking off words on a list as you manage to match a written word form to a surface meaning or translation. For a learner to say they really know a word, especially if they hope to count it amongst their productive vocabulary, then it takes time, repeated encounters, and digging a bit below the surface. This, of course, is true of all language learners, but for those learning English for academic purposes (EAP) the specific aspects of vocabulary knowledge differ somewhat. In this post, I pick out some of the factors that those teaching and learning academic vocabulary might need to bear in mind:
1. Form & families: With any vocabulary learning, recognising the spelling and pronunciation of a word is generally a starting point and from there, the learner needs to become familiar with inflected forms (plurals, verb forms, etc.). In an academic context, being able to switch between different parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) is also vital. When constructing (or decoding) the longer, more tightly-packed sentences typical of the genre, being able to flip between an adjective and noun form, for example, can make the difference between a smooth, coherent sentence and a slightly awkward, ambiguous one. Abstract nouns (significance, reliability, establishment), in particular, are must-knows for the academic writer. Knowing that reliability is the noun form of the more common adjective reliable is really helpful. Better still is recognising that adjectives ending –able can typically be transformed into nouns ending –ability. And being able to add the appropriate negative prefix (unreliability) might help construct that killer sentence.
2. Meaning(s): We all know that there isn’t a simple one-to-one relationship between form and meaning in English. Many words have more than one meaning; take, for example, table as the piece of furniture or the chart with rows and columns. In academic disciplines, these common words often also have specialist meanings. Some of these are clearly related to the word’s basic meanings (e.g. periodic table, Chemistry), others are further removed (e.g. water table, Geology). For the EAP student, recognizing these specialist uses and compounds is an important part of their learning journey.
3. Collocations & chunks: If students are to use words productively, then they need to understand the kind of words they are used together with: collocations, dependent prepositions and fixed phrases. Again, this is true of all vocabulary, but academic writing has its own set of specialist collocates, the correct choice of which might not just ensure a more fluent, natural style, but might affect the message the writer is trying to convey in important ways. For example, the difference between being responsible to (the directors are responsible to shareholders) and responsible for (the manager is responsible for the safety of staff) could make all the difference in an academic essay.
4. Grammar: I’ve written before about the importance of understanding ‘word grammar’ in EAP. For example, going back to those key abstract nouns, when you need to ensure that the verb in a sentence agrees with the head noun in a long noun phrase, you need to know whether that noun is countable or uncountable. What’s more, words that are typically uncountable in everyday usage (like behaviour) can be used countably in some specialist academic contexts.
5. Register & connotation: Finally, getting a feel for which words are appropriate to use to convey your intended meaning in a particular context takes time, plenty of reading and noticing. It involves understanding formal and informal words (get vs purchase), strength of meaning (unsatisfactory vs appalling), positive and negative connotations (tough vs challenging) and appropriate terms to talk about potentially sensitive topics (e.g. patients with mental health issues).
In my upcoming webinar, Academic vocabulary: what do students need to know about a word? on Thursday 19th April at 15:30 BST, I’ll talk a bit more about these aspects of vocabulary knowledge in EAP and we’ll look are some practical ways of helping students to improve their depth of understanding as well as simply expanding their range of vocabulary.
Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer, lexicographer and corpus researcher. Her specialist area of interest is teaching vocabulary. She’s worked on a number of learner’s dictionaries and specialist vocabulary resources, including the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice titles. Julie is also an EAP teacher and a teacher trainer.