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Category Archives: eap

By R. Michael Medley, Ph.D., Professor of English, Eastern Mennonite University

Two ways that I use the Academic Word List are as follows, the assumption being that this is some sort of English language development class for those who need English for academic purposes:

1. If the students are doing a reading which contains many unfamiliar words (but the reading is interesting to the students and helping them learn about something that they want to learn about), I might use the AWL to identify which words in the passage are more worth the students’ concentrated attention.  We all know that some words are of such low frequency that it is not worthwhile for learners to spend time working to incorporate those words into that active (or even passive) vocabulary.

But if some of the new words in the passage are on the AWL, then I can devise some kind of exercise or discussion that brings those words into focus and gives learners (a) additional multiple exposures to the words and (b) actual practice using them.

2. I am in the process of writing some ESOL materials based mainly on readings representing a unified content area.  I regularly use a vocabulary profiler, LexTutor,  to help me see the relative frequencies of the words that make up the passage.  This vocab profiler also identifies AWL words.  So if I am trying to simplify the text a little, I can simplify by changing the “off-list words” — that is those words of quite low frequency, which are not on the AWL.  I will certainly leave the AWL words in the text so that the students get exposed to them. Since most of the texts in my materials will be read by high intermediate or advanced students with instructor support (and not as extensive reading by the students independently) I feel that it is adequate if 90% of the vocabulary falls into the top 2000 words of English (usually that means about 80-85% of the words are in the top 1000).  The 10% of words not in the top 2000 will be AWL and low-frequency words.

A teacher who uses a lot of electronic texts with her/his learners, could easily use this vocabulary profiler to check on the presence of AWL words in the readings–in effect, guiding the choice of readings based on their vocabulary profiles and then guiding the teacher in choosing vocabulary to bring into focus either before or after the reading.

An interesting realization I’ve had in preparing these materials is that there is a lot of specialized vocabulary for the particular subject area with which I’m dealing. Now that I am working on chapter 12, it seems that the low-frequency vocabulary for one reading has grown very large. But when I look carefully at the words, I’ll see right away that many of these words have been introduced already and practiced many times through the previous 11 chapters.  This realization illustrates the value of doing extended reading (not exactly the same as extensive reading)–that is reading a lot in one subject area or becoming accustomed to the writing style (patterns of thought and expression) of one author.

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>By Dick Tibbetts – University of Macau, Macau

We try to teach ESP to low level students and beginners and it doesn’t work. Employers and administrators demand results. They have students with little English and they need English users who can conduct business in English or get degrees etc. and so they give them to us. If we tell them that NSs have a vocabulary of 20K word families and that in real business and academic situations a lot of these words come into play, even if infrequently, they will reject our 5 year immersion courses and find someone who will promise the earth.

I don’t do much ESP but I do run courses with an EAP bias. I try and keep them general but the university has some students with 1800 words or less studying business admin. and humanities subjects so they want them to write academic reports and papers and to be able to communicate sophisticated ideas.

What happens? Well, firstly, they are expected to write in a genre that they cannot read. They do not have the vocabulary to read academic journals and papers and can barely understand their textbooks. We have a textbook that tries to get around this by using texts from newspapers and magazines and then asking the learner to write essays full of “nevertheless” and “moreover”.

I firmly believe that you cannot write in an academic genre unless you can read and understand that genre. Each academic genre is special to its subject. Some social sciences have more use of first person pronouns than more technical papers. A scholar who is an authority in a field can use more first person pronouns than a student. And there are many other differences.

A second problem is that if the learner has a small vocabulary they find it difficult to place the meaning, context and collocations of the sophisticated words they are being taught. They also find it difficult to see the rationale behind the “rules” they are taught to write by.

Even with more advanced students there is still a real problem. Take a learner with 6000 words plus the EAP list and subject specific vocabulary. They can read academic material and with a 95% comprehension can often guess unknown words from context. However, these unknown low frequency words they come across are not there for trivial purposes. Most of them are there because they are necessary for meaning and expression of the topic. When it comes to writing, the poor student is expected to write with the same sophistication as the NSs they compete with in the international job market and with a similar degree of expertise as found in the articles they read. When they write they will find that every 20 words there will be a word
they need but do not have.

It’s a mess.