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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?

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.

Click here for a collection of four different word lists that together provide an essential guide to the most important words to know in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP): OPAL (the Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon).

Watch Michael’s webinar to find out more about the power of corpora to create EAP word lists. See some examples from OPAL, and get some practical ideas for using the word lists in your teaching.


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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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.




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Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Vocabulary learning strategies Q&A

Nick Michelioudakis has been a teacher, examiner and trainer for many years. His most recent webinar ‘Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Vocabulary Learning Strategies’ sparked an interesting dialogue on the ways students learn new words. Here are the answers to some of the questions from the webinar.

I would like to start by thanking everyone for attending the Webinars and for their positive comments at the end. If you would like to read an article based on these ideas that we discussed, here is the link: http://oxelt.gl/2zBMc58

OK, on to the other questions now, which I hope will help me raise one or two interesting points.

Where do students find these collocations in order to record them? Texts?

This is an important question and it is something I forgot to stress during the Webinar. It is useful if students first encounter the words in texts. In this way they can get all kinds of information, including (hopefully) a useful collocation.

If for whatever reason the text does not help much, students can use this amazing tool, SkELL, to look at examples from other authentic texts. As you can see from the screenshot, simply enter a word in a box and you get a number of sentences. This will help students immensely.

What are the rules for dividing sentences into chunks?

This is a hugely important question – and far too large an issue to cover here. As I see it, this is where the teacher’s knowledge of the language comes in. There are all kinds of ‘chunks’ out there and they differ in size, in how ‘fixed’ they are, and in their level of idiomaticity. The teacher must use their judgment to decide where to direct students’ attention, it could be a simple collocation (‘dress a wound’) or a whole phrase (‘let’s cut to the chase’), or something with a ‘movable’ part (‘reported a % increase’). The chunks you focus on will depend on frequency, coverage (whether they can be used in many contexts), students proficiency, and the needs of the syllabus.

What about using opposites to explain words?

There is nothing wrong with using opposites provided students really understand what the word used as an explanation means. For instance, if you want to explain the meaning of the word ‘cowardly’, there is nothing wrong with telling students that it means the opposite of ‘brave’. However, it is generally not a good idea to present two unknown words which happen to be antonyms in the same session (e.g. ‘generous’ – ‘stingy’) if students are unfamiliar with both, in case they mix them up.

What’s the difference between linking and anchoring? And which ones are just for revising?

The two techniques are very similar. However in ‘linking’, students start with a set of words, and then try to discover ways to connect two or more together. When students use ‘anchoring’, they start with a particular word, fix it in their mind, and then try to discover connections with other words themselves. If the starting word is ‘nostalgia’, they may come up with ‘memory’, ‘think back’, ‘miss someone’, ‘nostalgic song’, ‘pensive mood’, ‘sad’, ‘melancholy’ etc. They may even come up with personal associations which will only make sense to them.

How can we avoid the typical students’ question “how do I say …?”, starting from a word in their mother tongue?

Well, personally I am not sure we should be discouraging this. In fact, this is one of the strategies I mentioned in the Webinar (‘expanding’). As I see it, there is nothing wrong with allowing students to use their L1 as a springboard for discovery. It’s natural for students to reflect on their knowledge and say to themselves ‘OK – this is something I can say in the L1; how can I say it in English?’ What we do want to do though is encourage them to think in terms of sentences rather than single words. What I do if a student asks me ‘How do I say ‘άγκυρα’ (anchor) in English?’ is ask them to give me a sentence.


I really hope you found these techniques useful! If you get the chance to try them out, I would be interested to hear how the lesson went. Contact me via my email address: nickmi@ath.forthnet.gr.


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40 Years of Practical English Usage

The challenges of academic writing in ESLMichael Swan, author of Practical English Usage, joins us on the blog today to review his IATEFL talk this year all about the new, fourth edition of PEU and its new features and organisation. If you were unable to attend this year’s conference, we hope you enjoy this post!

The history

PEU started as a card index with explanations and examples of typical problem points, based on my experience of students’ difficulties. I created this primarily for new teachers at the school where I worked, who often had trouble dealing with their students’ mistakes and questions,  They found (as teachers still do) that systematic grammars are not always the best kind of reference material for clear and adequate explanations of single problems. The ‘one answer to one question’ formula which (up to a point) characterises usage guides is much more user-friendly.

Later I turned the card index, greatly expanded, into a book, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1980. Teachers and advanced students found it helpful, and a second edition followed in due course. This benefited considerably from feedback from users, from advice from British and American grammarians, and from my own continuing research.

By 2005 there had been enough developments in English to justify a third edition. The existence of better and more accessible corpus evidence for usage made possible a number of improvements, and I took the opportunity to add some more general ‘background’ entries on such matters as correctness and language variation.

Why a fourth edition?

English continues to develop and change, and a usage guide needs to keep pace. I had also built up a fair number of revision notes over the intervening ten years, and I was glad of the opportunity to make further clarifications, additions and corrections. (Nobody ever gets everything right the first time, or the second, or the third!) After consultation with users of the previous editions, I also decided it was time to make an important change in the book’s organisation.

Reorganisation

In the first three editions, the 600-odd numbered entries were arranged in alphabetical order of title. This dictionary-like formula works well in a native-speaker usage guide, which deal mostly with word problems. It is less satisfactory in a guide dealing with learners’ problems, since these are largely grammatical. Related topics get separated, so that while ‘countable and uncountable nouns’, for example, are listed under C, other noun problems are found under N. More seriously, only the major topics can be found by an alphabetical search; smaller topics (the majority) come inside entries that don’t begin with ‘their’ letter. (So, for instance, the use of singular and plural verbs with decimals and fractions, or the British-American difference in the meaning of ‘first floor’,  are covered in the entry on ‘numbers’, not under D or F.) This means that in practice people using the book generally locate the information they need by going to the very complete index at the back.

In the fourth edition, the entries are still separate, dealing as far as possible with single problems or small groups of problems.

michaels1

However, the entries are now arranged by topic. The grammatical entries have been brought together into 28 main Sections, which together constitute a complete students’ grammar:

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Each Section is introduced by general notes on the topic and a list of typical learners’ problems:

michaels3

Word-formation and vocabulary are dealt with separately in three more Sections, including an A–Z list of nearly 380 word problems:

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Now online

Practical English Usage is now also available online, along with the new edition of the accompanying Diagnostic Tests, which help learners and their teachers to see which parts of PEU need to be studied.

 


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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.

References:
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.