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Focusing on vocabulary for academic writing

shutterstock_522965368Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer and lexicographer based in Bristol, UK. Her main interests are in vocabulary teaching and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). She worked on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and Oxford EAP (C1). She was also involved in developing and writing the new
Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books. When she’s not at her desk, she enjoys speaking at ELT events and teacher training.


When it comes to helping students with academic vocabulary, the range of words and phrases they might encounter in the course of their academic studies is huge and can be somewhat daunting. So when we were putting together the new Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books, we decided quite early on that the most useful area to focus on would be productive vocabulary: that is the words and phrases that students are actually likely to use in their own writing.

For all learners, indeed all speakers of a language, their productive vocabulary – the words they actively use regularly – is a subset of their receptive vocabulary – the words they recognize and understand passively. As teachers though, we often forget this distinction and vocabulary lessons can end up a mixed bag of new words and those that are already familiar, words that students are likely to use and those they may only come across occasionally. Concentrating on just the vocabulary that students are most likely to use in their writing can help to tune out some of the ‘noise’ and create more realistic, focused vocabulary-learning goals. In this post, I’ll share just three of the criteria we used to help achieve this aim.

1. Realistic models

It’s often said that the best way to improve your vocabulary is to read as much as possible. For students of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), it’s true that reading and noticing the vocabulary used by academic writers is important in developing their receptive vocabulary, but published academic texts may not always provide the best model for studying productive vocabulary. Published texts written by professional academics, such as textbooks or academic articles, are a different genre from the type of texts typically produced by university students as part of their coursework. So it’s perhaps not surprising that recent research has shown that even good student writers use a much narrower range of academic vocabulary than ‘expert’ academic writers (Durrant, 2016). That’s not to say that they’re somehow substandard, the requirements of the two genres are just different. So studying a published academic text won’t necessarily provide a realistic, or even a useful, model for the student wanting to improve the vocabulary they use in their own writing. Examples of good student writing will display a much more appropriate range of vocabulary that an EAP student might realistically hope to emulate.

2. The receptive to productive shift

We often tend to think of vocabulary teaching as being all about new words, but actually, much of the lexis that will help learners to improve their academic writing is likely to already be part of their receptive lexicon. As language users, we naturally tend to stick to the words we’re most familiar with when we’re speaking or writing, because we feel confident and comfortable with them. For many learners, encouraging them out of that comfort zone just means pushing them to use words and phrases that are already familiar from their reading. Extending a student writer’s productive vocabulary range isn’t always about introducing ‘difficult’ words, it’s often apparently simple words and expressions (on the whole, by far, in terms of, etc.) that will help improve their writing style and make their texts more readable.

3. Activities for production

After we’ve identified what vocabulary items to focus on, the next step is to design practice activities. It’s natural to start by checking comprehension, but if we want learners to start using lexis, we soon need to move onto more productive practice. This is where we run into the distinction between controlled productive vocabulary – words which learners can produce when prompted, say within a gap-fill activity – and free productive vocabulary – which they produce spontaneously in their own writing (see Laufer, 1998). If learners are to expand their free productive range, they need plenty of opportunities to get a feel for how to use words and phrases in context; playing around with phrasing, collocation and different forms of a word in a ‘safe’ environment where it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes, not in that high-stakes, assessed essay. Short writing tasks that encourage experimentation can help bridge that gap between the gap-fill and the essay.

Durrant, P. (2016) To what extent is the Academic Vocabulary List relevant to university student writing? English for Specific Purposes 43
Laufer, B. (1998) The Development of Passive and Active Vocabulary in a Second Language: Same or Different Applied Linguistics 19 (2)

**There are extra practice activities to accompany the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books available online, including a number of short free writing tasks.


Academic Language and School Success

Student raising hand in classCheryl Boyd Zimmerman is the series director of Inside Reading, Second Edition and Inside Writing. In this article, she describes the characteristics of academic language that pose challenges for English learners and proposes several essentials to include in the classroom. 

Academic language has been referred to as a “power code” in academic and professional circles; those unable to use it are at a social and academic disadvantage (Corson, 1985). As teachers, many of us are so fluent in academic and colloquial varieties of English that we flip back and forth with little thought. We adapt to the language of a formal lecture or a job interview, for example, and don’t think about the adjustments we make when using language in other settings. To help learners master academic varieties of English, we need to first raise our own awareness of the differences. What is academic language? Which characteristics are especially different from less formal varieties? Then we can consider: How can we help learners acquire academic language?

What is academic language?

The language of school is different from the “language of home” because its purposes are different. School introduces new ways to interact with people, different types of written text and new ways to relate with the world. Therefore, for learners of all ages, a school textbook or lecture will include features such as abstraction, authoritativeness, rich and complex meanings and technicality (Schleppengrell, 2010). To facilitate these functions, academic English contains features such as embedded sentences, passive voice, technical vocabulary (the words used in one discipline such as science or math) and more general academic vocabulary (words that are frequent in all content areas, but less frequent in everyday language).

Both technical and academic vocabulary are rare in non-academic settings; therefore, learners don’t have enough exposure to “pick them up” unless they have a lot of encounters with people who use them. Technical words are challenging in part because they often have everyday meanings that are different from the meaning in the content area (mean and constant in math). Academic words are challenging because by nature they feature multiple meanings (primary election vs. primary purpose), subtlety of meaning (consider the subtle differences between survive and live), and one word with several parts of speech (system, systematically, systematize and systematic).

How can we help learners acquire academic language?

Academic language is not likely to be easily “picked up” in the same way that colloquial language is because of its technical nature and its infrequency. The essentials for learning it include adequate exposure, personal involvement along with authentic practice, direct vocabulary instruction, and an environment in which situated academic language is used and learners see its place in their futures.

Essentials for Academic Language Learning

Examples of Classroom Strategies

Adequate exposure
  • Write one academic word on the board each day (include its word family members). Use it often throughout the class in instructions, comments, questions, etc.
  • Don’t over-simplify vocabulary; use repetition and synonyms instead of omitting difficult words
Learner involvement and authentic practice
  • In class discussions, revisit course material by focusing on short segments of interesting content with activities such as word-contrast discussions (“Which informal word could you use in place of terminate here?”) and paraphrasing (“Can you re-state that sentence using termination instead of terminate?”)
Direct vocabulary instruction
  • Scaffolded instruction needs to draw attention to language forms
  • Technology (e.g., See an online lexical tutor for resources including glossed readings with hypertext, tools to create content rich exercises, frequency lists and much more)
A motivating situated learning environment
  • Research indicates that learners are motivated when shown that the material is relevant to their future (Hirai, Borrego, Garza, & Kloock, 2010)

Keep in mind that learners are not always as enthused about words as teachers might be; we need to communicate that academic language is an asset worth an investment.


Cobb, T. (n.d.) Complete lexical tutor. http://www.lextutor.ca
Corson, D. (1985). The lexical barOxford: Pergamon Press.
Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list.  TESOL Quarterly, 34, 213-238.
Hirai, D.L., Borrego, I., Garza, E., & Kloock, C.T. (2010). Academic language/literacy strategies for adolescents: A “how-to” manual for educators. New York: Routledge.
Schleppegrell, Mary J. (2010). Language and mathematics teaching and learning. Language and Mathematics Education: Multiple Perspectives and Directions for Research, pp. 73-112. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing


Teaching EAP vocabulary – squeezing it in

Julie Moore, part of the writing team for the new Oxford EAP series, looks at the joys, challenges and practicalities of teaching vocabulary as part of an academic English (EAP) course.  Julie hosted a webinar entitled ‘Approaches to Teaching Academic Vocabulary’ on 31st May 2012. This webinar is no longer available to view, however you can click here to access our complete webinar library and view other resources on this topic. 

With my background in ELT dictionaries and corpus research, I love vocabulary! And I think it’s probably the thing I most enjoy teaching, too. Trying to teach vocabulary as part of an Academic English (EAP) course, though, can throw up a number of challenges.

What to teach?

As a student moves from general to academic English, the increase in vocabulary load can be a daunting one.  A whole new register of language opens up full of abstract nouns (relevance, participation), formal verbs (derive, implement)  and specialized terminology (jurisdiction, nanotechnology). As a teacher, where do you start? Then there’s the problem of discipline-specific vocabulary. If you’ve got budding lawyers, historians, medics and engineers together in the same EAP class, who do you cater for?

In my webinar, I’ll put forward a few ideas and principles to help in selecting what vocabulary might be most useful to focus on in class.

How to fit it in?

Most EAP courses are very skills-focused. This is unsurprising as EAP students generally have quite clear goals in terms of what they need to do with language; read lots of academic texts, write well-structured essays, cite references accurately, take part in seminar discussions… the list goes on and it’s often quite a challenge to fit it all into a short EAP course. So how on earth do you squeeze in work on vocabulary as well alongside teaching all those vital skills?

I think the answer comes in two parts; a) by slipping in vocabulary work in small, but regular slots and b) by teaching students the independent study skills they need to keep working on their own vocabulary. I’ll be looking at some practical ways of doing both.

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Teaching EAP – a culture shift

Julie Moore, part of the writing team for the new Oxford EAP series, looks at some of the challenges involved in making the move from teaching General English to English for Academic Purposes.  Julie hosted a webinar entitled ‘Approaches to EAP: Teaching English for Academic Purposes’ on 29th March 2012.

When I got a job teaching on Bristol University’s pre-sessional EAP course some six years ago, I already had plenty of General English teaching experience under my belt.  I was excited at the prospect of teaching a group of intelligent, motivated students with a clear goal at the end of the course. What I wasn’t quite prepared for was the huge culture shift involved in moving from general EFL teaching to an EAP environment.

In my webinar, I’ll talk about some of the differences and issues that teachers from a general ELT background come up against when they make the move into teaching EAP. Many of those differences can actually be seen as advantages, the main one being that an EAP syllabus is much more focused and clearly defined than many General English courses.  Because you’re working with a very specific genre, academic English, there are clear sets of skills to be taught – reading academic texts, listening to lectures, participating in seminar discussions – and a well-defined, well-researched language register that students need to master.

For me, one of the big challenges though was getting used to the content-driven nature of EAP.  In a General English classroom, you don’t care too much what the students talk about as long as they’re communicating ideas as proficiently as possible for their level.  In EAP, what you say matters almost as much as how you say it.  You find yourself teaching not just language skills, but thinking skills, how to develop a thesis or structure an argument.  At first, you’re desperately trying to remember back to how you did things when you were at university, and getting to grips with a whole new set of terminology. Once you get into the swing of it though, it can be a really interesting, stimulating environment in which to teach.

You can watch the webinar here.

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English for Academic Purposes – 7 Myths and Realities

Ahead of his talk at IATEFL 2012 about integrating skills, language, tasks, and critical thinking, Edward de Chazal talks about some of the myths and realities about English for Academic Purposes.

English for Academic Purposes (EAP) is one of the fastest-growing areas of English Language Teaching (ELT). You may have come across a few myths and misconceptions flying around. It’s dry and dull, right? Actually no. I’ve come up with seven myths like these, and I’ll argue against them all.

1. EAP is dry, serious, and dull

It’s certainly serious, but it needn’t be dry and dull – is studying your chosen subject dry and dull? And do you find listening to people talk about their fields dry and dull? EAP is serious because it is all about gaining and researching new knowledge, making new connections, and communicating these ideas. Communication is at the heart of EAP, and the EAP classroom needs to reflect this. Unlike many general English language teaching (ELT) contexts, a lot of this communication is done through writing – so writing and reading are very important. Speaking and listening are too, and a lot of spoken and written communication takes place in slightly formalized and conventional set-piece events such as lectures and seminars.

2. EAP is objective rather than subjective

This is one of those often-repeated statements, but it’s highly misleading. Objectivity is associated with facts. Of course facts vital and necessary, but they’re not sufficient. It’s not the aim of university degrees to merely teach and learn facts. In response to facts we need such thinking activities as interpretation, speculation, and evaluation. These are all subjective. Subjectivity is based around people, and people’s responses – such as their evaluation of the same idea or piece of evidence – vary from person to person. From economists evaluating the merits of a policy response to psychologists speculating on the causes of a unusual behaviour pattern, the results are subjective. And subjectivity is not inferior to objectivity – it’s potentially more interesting and associated with originality, which is highly-valued in academic contexts. The interface of objectivity and subjectivity lie at the heart of academic life.

3. EAP is basically IELTS

No. On a scale of general to academic, most EAP practitioners would place IELTS much nearer the general end. IELTS is not officially described as an academic examination, and it does not venture far into EAP territory of reading and synthesizing texts, writing referenced essays, and critical thinking. IELTS reading texts and tasks might offer a flavour of academic ones, but without the rigour.

4. To teach EAP is to teach subject knowledge and content

In reality, the purpose of EAP is to meet the needs of students planning to study (or already studying) at university through the medium of English. Their needs revolve around language, the four skills, and study skills including critical thinking. The focus of EAP is not on the knowledge, or even specific language of any particular subject – from Accountancy to Zoology – but on core skills and generic language that can cover any discipline. If you’re teaching subject knowledge alongside language, that’s Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL).

5. Vocabulary in EAP means a focus on subject-specific words, and scientific terms and concepts

Just like our fourth myth, most EAP contexts are not closely concerned with teaching and learning subject-specific terms and concepts. EAP teachers leave that to the subject-specific experts! EAP materials include core and academic language which is generic to any discipline – e.g. analysis, significant, is based on, seems to suggest that. The job of the EAP practitioner is to gradually gain an understanding of the types of discourse and texts that students have to read and write in their discipline – how these texts are constructed and what language is used. We need to be able deconstruct these pieces of discourse, and enable our students to do the same. We need to understand, analyse, and reprocess meaning, but when it comes to systematically presenting subject-specific terms we just don’t go there. We’re all discourse analysts now!

6. To study in an English-medium university you must have an extremely high level of English

Not always so high. Students very rarely reach C2, in general ELT or EAP. Students usually have to reach a high B2 level (upper intermediate), or perhaps C1 (advanced) before they start studying. English language level requirements vary quite a lot, but they are not as high as many people expect.

7. It’s not the job of English-language teachers to teach critical thinking

Well, if you’re an EAP teacher, you’ll find it hard to avoid this. Critical thinking involves activities like identifying the stance of a writer, connecting items across different texts, and evaluating an idea – how plausible is it? Is it based on sound evidence? A student who struggles to critically engage with activities like these will struggle when they start their degree, and as EAP teachers we need to develop our students’ critical thinking skills – as well as our own!

What are your thoughts on English for Academic Purposes? What do you think are some myths and realities about it?

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