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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.


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Making the leap from school to university

Group of teenagers walking to schoolLara Storton has seventeen years of experience in ESL, teaching English for Academic Purposes, IELTS and Exam Preparation and teacher training in Asia, Europe, Australasia, and the UK. Recent works include the Oxford Online Skills Program (Academic) Reading and Writing levels A2-C1 and Milestones in English Student’s Book and Teacher’s Book at B1+ level.

As a teacher, one of my greatest pleasures is seeing my students finish their course of study at school and move on to bigger and better things. For many of them, this means going on to university – an opportunity to study their area of special interest, pursue their dreams and gain the qualifications they need for a successful career. I am proud to say that many of my students have done just that, gaining desirable jobs in finance, marketing, aeronautics, design and tourism to name a few. Making that initial leap from school to university education in your own language is challenging enough, even more so when you are doing it in a second language. Not one of my former students has said that it was easy, but they all agree that it was worthwhile. You want your students – so packed with potential – to walk into their first university seminar brimming with confidence and enthusiasm, ready to engage, question and share their views. So how can you help them achieve that?

The key to success is confidence.

Of course some people have more confidence than others when it comes to putting their opinions forward. At university, your students will be expected to contribute to seminar discussions, workshops and debates, discuss ideas and theories with their peers and respond appropriately to their contributions. This is something that you can encourage your students to do in every lesson, building their confidence gradually as they move through their course of study.

Take every possible opportunity to engage and involve the students personally in the lesson content:

  • Raise their ‘schema’ (knowledge and interest) on a topic by asking them questions, e.g. Do you know anything about this topic? Have you ever read/heard about this? What do you know about it?
  • Ask them whether the content of a text or listening relates to their own experiences and to give their personal responses – do they agree/disagree with the writer/speaker and why?
  • To promote independence, put them into pairs to have mini-discussions on these points and then report back to the class.

Every opportunity you give your students to engage personally with a topic will fire their imagination and enhance their motivation

More than words

A challenge for non-native students at university is understanding the underlying (hidden) meaning in academic texts whether they are written or spoken – in lecture or discussion form. In English, so much meaning is conveyed through how something is written or said (or in some cases not written or said).

Where possible, draw your students’ attention to the more subtle discourse features such as:

  • understanding the writer’s intention or purpose
  • inferring meaning from context
  • considering whether a source is valid or biased
  • encourage them to be curious, to delve deeper to find hidden meaning and intentions.

At first, your students may not be used to questioning or constructively criticising the work of a published academic. However, this is acceptable and even encouraged in at university level in many countries. Your students may need time and practice to come around to this way of working, but that’s OK, these things take time.

Say it right

Of course some people have more confidence than others when it comes to putting their opinions forward. That first university seminar is a great milestone in academia for native and non-native speakers alike. When to speak? What to say? Who to say it to? How to respond if someone speaks to me? Will I say the right thing? What will my tutor/lecturer/peers think of me and my opinions? That brings us back to confidence again.

To help your students get it right first time you can:

  • Draw attention to how they should give and respond to opinions appropriately.
  • Remind them that it isn’t just what you say, it’s the way you say it – being too direct might cause offence while being indirect could lead to confusion or misunderstanding.
  • Encourage them to watch debates, current affairs programmes, podcasts and lectures on TV or online.
  • Teach useful phrases for softening responses, e.g. That’s a valid point but I’m afraid I disagree. / I’m inclined to disagree with you because …
  • Highlight hedging phrases such as tend to / seem to to avoid making generalisations.
  • Remind your students that conversations are a two-way thing – you don’t just wait for your turn to speak – you listen and respond both verbally and physically – with appropriate body language such as a nod of the head or politely indicating another speaker to go ahead if you accidentally interrupt them
  • Give students plenty of opportunities for collaboration and interaction during lessons in order to help them practise and hone these essential conversation skills.
  • Most importantly, encourage them to have a go and say what they want to say because their contributions are as valuable as any other person in the room.

The leap to university is only the beginning but at least with your help they will have started on the right foot.

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