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Why do we need EAP word lists? | Michael McCarthy

The EAP vocabulary challenge

If you are like me, and your English for Academic Purposes (EAP) teaching typically consists of a mixed group of students from a variety of language backgrounds and a variety of academic disciplines, then you know how difficult it can be to satisfy everyone’s needs. The pre-sessional PhD student who is going to go on to study cosmic black holes may get frustrated if the teacher spends a lot of time engaging with the special terminology of medicine for another student in the class. It is far more straightforward if you are teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP), the special language needed for groups who share the same discipline, for example a class of marine biologists or a group of town planners.

Given the size of the vocabulary of all our academic disciplines put together, with a total specialist terminology that probably runs into tens of thousands of words, we are faced with what would seem to be an impossible task. However, thanks to the power of corpora (computer-searchable databases of written and spoken texts), we are able to establish a common core of vocabulary which is used across a wide range of disciplines, one that we can use in teaching. You may well already be aware of general English word lists for EAP that are freely available online or which have been incorporated into some of the text books you and your students use. Nonetheless, a general English word list only tells us part of the story, and we need to do more to arrive at something which will genuinely be usable and useful for our EAP students.

A common core?

Looking ahead to my webinar on EAP word lists, let’s consider what a common core vocabulary for EAP might look like. There are different options for exploiting corpora, and each one has PROS and CONS:

  • A straightforward frequency list going from the most frequent to the least frequent words that are shared across many or all disciplines.

PROS: Easy to produce at the click of a mouse if you have lots of academic texts stored in a computer. We can focus on different segments of the list for students at different proficiency levels.

CONS: The list will still be very long, and much of it will be common, everyday words your students already know from general English.

  • A keyword list: this tells you which words are significant and distinct in academic English, when compared with any other type of English.

PROS: More powerful and targeted than a frequency list. We can concentrate on the ‘fingerprint’ or ‘DNA’ of academic English.

CONS: It’s not immediately obvious why a word might score so highly as a keyword. ‘Terms’ is an academic keyword. Is it because universities and colleges break the year up into teaching terms, or is it something else?

  • A list of chunks: chunks are recurring patterns of words. Most corpus software can produce lists of the most frequent 2-word, 3-word, 4-word, etc. chunks in a corpus of texts.

PROS: Chunks are extremely common in all kinds of texts and are fundamental in creating meaning, for example, structuring academic arguments, linking parts of texts, etc. They take us way beyond single words.

CONS: The computer often finds chunks that are incomplete or not easy to understand out of context (e.g. in the sense that).

Is one set of lists enough?

All these different ways of approaching a common core for EAP have pros and cons, as we have seen, and in most cases, it’s true to say that the pros outweigh the cons. But there is another factor, too. Much of a student’s experience of academic life will come through speaking and listening. The students I teach typically must write essays, dissertations and reports, but they also have to attend lectures, take part in seminars and discussions and give presentations. So good academic word lists will consist of different lists for spoken and written EAP, taken from different corpora. Spoken EAP often overlaps in surprising ways with conversational English and yet is still first and foremost concerned with transmitting, creating and sharing academic knowledge. How is that achieved? The big question is: what do we learn from separating spoken and written EAP lists?

Then what?

Even if we build an ideal set of lists, the question remains as to how we can use them. Simply drilling and learning lists is not enough; the real challenge is how to harness the words, keywords and chunks to create continuous texts in speaking and writing. First comes the problem of meaning, so it will be necessary to experience and to practise the common core words and chunks in context; we may find that a particular word or chunk has developed a special meaning in one or more disciplines but not in a wide range of disciplines. It will also be important to exploit technological resources such as links between word lists and online dictionaries and other resources. No one, simple approach will deliver the results we hope to get from word lists, and an integrated approach will serve us best.

If you want to know more about how we use the power of corpora to create EAP word lists, to see some examples from OPAL (the Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon), a new set of EAP word lists from Oxford University Press. And to get some practical ideas for using the lists in your teaching, why not sign up for my webinar?

Michael McCarthy is Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Nottingham. He is author/co-author/editor of 53 books, including Touchstone, Viewpoint, the Cambridge Grammar of English, English Grammar Today, Academic Vocabulary in Use, From Corpus to Classroom, and titles in the English Vocabulary in Use series. He is author/co-author of 113 academic papers. He has co-directed major corpus projects in spoken English. He has lectured in English and English teaching in 46 countries.


What is a core vocabulary?

It’s very difficult to say exactly how many words there are in the English language because it depends how you count them and, of course, language is changing and growing all the time. But even at a conservative estimate, there are well over a quarter of a million distinct English words. That makes the task of teaching vocabulary to learners of English seem a rather daunting one.

Thankfully, Zipf’s Law comes to our rescue. This states that a handful of the most frequent words in the language account for a disproportionately large chunk of any text, either written or spoken. The top 2000 most frequent words, in particular, make up somewhere around 80% of most texts. That makes frequency a good rule-of-thumb indicator of the words we should probably focus on teaching first.

The Oxford 3000TM: then and now

With this aim in mind, the Oxford 3000 word list was first put together back in 2005. Since then, the list has been widely used by learners, teachers, syllabus designers and materials writers to help them choose which vocabulary is worth spending most time over. Fourteen years on, however, it was time for an update. The new Oxford 3000 has had a thorough revision including a new look at the criteria for inclusion and the use of new frequency data based on a much larger and more up-to-date corpus.

Frequency vs. relevance

Whilst frequency is the guiding principle behind choosing which words to include on the list, it doesn’t quite work as a basis for selection on its own. That’s in part because there are a surprising number of words that describe basic things in the world around us and that learners would expect to learn quite early on that actually wouldn’t qualify for a top 3000 on frequency alone. So, words like apple and passport, for example, probably wouldn’t make the cut.

Thus, the new Oxford 3000 balances frequency with relevance to the average learner. As well as how common they are, the list compilers took into account whether words are typically used to talk about the kinds of themes and functional areas common in an ELT syllabus, and the types of tasks and topics needed in English exams.

A core vocabulary as a starting point

It would be wrong, however, to assume that 3000 words will be enough on their own for a learner to read and communicate successfully in English. The Oxford 3000 aims to provide a core vocabulary, that is, a solid basis that students can build around.

At the lowest levels, words on the list are likely to make up the bulk of the learner’s repertoire. So, for an A1 learner, for example, 90% of their vocabulary might consist of basic core words. As learners progress and want to read about and express a wider range of ideas, though, while they will still rely heavily on that core, they will also need to supplement it with vocabulary from other sources. The Oxford 3000 aims to provide a core vocabulary for learners up to roughly B2 level. By this stage, more and more of the vocabulary they acquire will reflect the unique interests and needs of each individual learner.

Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer, lexicographer and corpus researcher. She’s written a wide range of ELT materials, but has a particular passion for words and always gets drawn back to vocabulary teaching. She’s worked on a range of learner’s dictionaries and other vocabulary resources, including the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice titles.

Click here to access the Oxford 3000, Oxford 5000 and Oxford Phrase List.


Learning and teaching pragmatics | Anna Krulatz

Successful communication entails much more than following the rules of grammar, having a large lexicon, and speaking in a way that is intelligible to the listeners. What language learners also have to attend to is how meaning is constructed in context. They have to select appropriate language forms depending on the situation and the person they are speaking with. Pragmatic competence (sometimes also called pragmatic ability) refers to using language effectively in a contextually appropriate way. People who interact with each other work jointly to co-construct and negotiate meaning depending on factors such as their respective social status, the social distance between them, the place of interaction, and their mutual rights and obligations.

Cross-cultural and cross-linguistic differences in pragmatics

Pragmatic norms vary across languages, cultures and individuals. They are so deeply intertwined with our cultural and linguistic identities that learning pragmatics norms of another speech community, especially in adulthood, can be quite challenging. This is because culturally appropriate linguistic behaviours in the target language may differ in many ways from those in the first language (or languages). Think about the language and culture you identify with most closely (it can be your first language or another language that you use extensively in your daily life). If your language is like Russian, German or French, and makes a distinction between formal and informal ways of addressing another person (i.e., ты/вы, du/sie, tu/vous), it may be difficult for you to use informal ways of addressing people of higher status such as your boss, supervisor or professor. Conversely, if your language makes no such distinction and you are learning a language that does, it may be unnatural for you to differentiate the forms of address you use depending on whether you speak to a friend or to someone of a higher social status. Languages also differ in regards to speech acts, or utterances that are intended to perform an action, such as apologies, requests, invitations, refusals, compliments and complaints. Think about compliments. How would you respond in your first or strongest language if a good friend complimented you in the following way?

Friend: “Your hair looks great! Did you just get a haircut?”

You: “…?”

A native speaker of American English is likely to say something along these lines, “Oh thanks, I just styled it differently today. I’m glad you like it.” On the other hand, a Russian may say something like, “Oh really? It’s a mess. I spent a whole hour this morning trying to style it, and that’s the best that came out of it.” It is all good if these speakers are interacting with someone of the same language background or someone who is well versed in the pragmatic norms of the same language. But put an American and a Russian together, and the interaction may end in an awkward silence because the compliment was turned down (if it’s the Russian responding to the compliment), or a bewilderment at the other person’s immodesty (if it’s the American who is responding). This and other instances of pragmatic failure can cause much more misunderstanding than grammatical or lexical errors.

 Why teach pragmatics?

I first started to realise the importance of focusing on pragmatics in language teaching when I worked with international students at the University of Utah. Email use on campus was just beginning to gain in popularity as a medium of communication, and I would get emails from international students that came across as very informal. In fact, I started wondering if these students thought there was no difference between emailing a friend and emailing a professor. Here is a typical example:

Clearly, the goal of this message is to make a request for an extension on a deadline and a meeting during office hours. Although the email is mostly grammatically correct, it contains want- and need-statements, both of which are very direct ways of making requests. The student is also not using any hedges such as “please,” “thank you” or “would you.” Because of the context of the interaction (university campus in the United States), and the social distance between the two parties involved (student – professor), the message comes across as overly direct, bordering on impolite. As I received similar emails very frequently, I decided I had to do something to help my students develop their pragmatic competence. If your own students also struggle with the rules of netiquette, you may find this lesson plan by Thomas Mach and Shelly Ridder useful.

Unfortunately, few language courses and fewer textbooks focus explicitly on the development of pragmatic competence. Research shows, however, that language learners may not be able to notice that target language pragmatic norms are different from those in their first language, and can, therefore, benefit from pragmatics-focused activities. We looked at several examples of those in my webinar! Click here to watch the recording.

Do you have any examples of embarrassing or funny moments caused by pragmatic failure? Or ideas on how to teach pragmatics? If yes, please share your thoughts in the comments! 

Anna Krulatz is Associate Professor of English at the Faculty of Teacher Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, where she works with pre- and in-service EFL teachers. Her research focuses on multilingualism with English, pragmatic development in adult language learners, content-based instruction, and language teacher education.


Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Mahan-Taylor, R. (2003, July). Introduction to teaching pragmatics. English Teaching Forum, 41(3), 37-39.

Rose, K. R., & Kasper, G. (2001). Pragmatics in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ishihara, N., & Cohen, A. (2010). Teaching and learning pragmatics. Where language and culture meet. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Limited.


Enabling students to become autonomous learners of vocabulary

Teaching words

I taught English as a Foreign Language for many years in Japan and also for a short time in China. During my time as a teacher I always tried to focus on teaching words. I did this for a couple of reasons. First, in my experience as a foreign language learner, I saw the value in learning vocabulary. Learning words helped me to communicate a little bit more effectively, and allowed me to understand a little bit more. Moreover, I found vocabulary learning to be motivating. I might not see the gains that I made in speaking, listening, and grammar, but I could see that I knew more words each week, and this encouraged me to keep studying. Second, I could see that my students always made an effort to learn vocabulary; in every class as I walked around the classroom I could see that students had written new words in their books.

Despite my best efforts to teach vocabulary, I was always a little disappointed by the progress of my students. However, now that I have a better understanding of the research on vocabulary learning, I realise that I was part of the problem; I could have done a better job helping my students to learn vocabulary.

There are too many words to teach!

In my webinar, I will talk about several issues that I believe are really important to teaching and learning vocabulary. The first and basis for the talk is the fact that there are far too many words to teach. Native speakers of English know about 15,000 words, and to understand books and newspapers, students need to know around 8,000-9,000 words. Students may only learn a small proportion of these words in the classroom, which means that if they are to be successful in their lexical development, they need to learn the majority of words on their own outside of the classroom. This means that one of the most important jobs for teachers is to help their students to become effective and efficient autonomous learners of vocabulary.

Vocabulary learning strategies

There are several vocabulary learning strategies that instructors can teach to help their students to become more effective and efficient autonomous learners. All of these strategies are fairly simple, which is perhaps why typically little classroom time is spent on mastering vocabulary learning strategies. However, because of their great importance, it is worth spending a great deal of classroom time ensuring that students can effectively learn words on their own.

I will touch on a couple of vocabulary learning strategies in my webinar. The most important one involves working with different types of input that students might encounter outside of the classroom to show students that they can understand and enjoy English on their own. Input that students might be motivated to learn from such as English television programs, YouTube videos, shopping sites, and songs. Initially a great deal of these types of L2 input may be too difficult for students. However, with support from teachers over a sufficient period of time, students may find that not only can they have reasonable comprehension of the input, but they might also see that they can enjoy learning with it. Essential to this strategy is showing students that there are opportunities to enjoy learning English outside of the classroom, and how making the most of these opportunities is fundamental to L2 development. With teaching vocabulary learning strategies, it is not what is gained during the classroom that is of greatest value, but rather what is gained when students are encountering and using English outside of the classroom that is key.

In my upcoming webinar, I look forward to discussing with you how to help students become autonomous learners of L2 vocabulary. I believe there are some useful points in my webinar that would have helped me do a better job of helping my students to learn vocabulary when I was an EFL teacher. Hopefully there will be some value in the talk for each of you.

Register for the webinar

Stuart Webb is a Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Western Ontario. Before teaching applied linguistics, he taught English as a foreign language in Japan and China for many years. His research interests include vocabulary, second language acquisition, and extensive reading, listening, and viewing. His latest book (with Paul Nation), How Vocabulary is Learned was published by Oxford University Press in 2017.



5 things you need to know about Academic Vocabulary

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.