The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, July 04, 2014

Thinking about academic lexicons

Last weekend I was in Frankfurt for an EAP Day organized by OUP and ELTAF. The teachers were a mix of those already involved in EAP and those just interested to find out about it, but all were happy to join in and ask questions, even when I plunged them straight into EAP activities first thing on a Saturday morning!

One of the sessions was on EAP vocabulary and as I’ve done before, I started off by asking everyone to write a single word on a blank card that they thought of as typically academic.

In the workshop, I talked about the three categories of vocabulary needed by EAP students developing their own academic lexicon:
- general vocabulary: words in the top 2000 most frequent words in the language, but with a special focus on those apparently common words which have more specific academic uses (table, find, string, etc.)
- core academic vocabulary: as per the Academic Word List
- specialist vocabulary: especially terms used in specific academic disciplines

So how did the teacher’s intuitions about academic vocabulary match up to these different areas?

36% of the words chosen were Top 2000 words. Many clearly fitted into the category of words that are useful in an academic context and have slightly different everyday and academic senses, such as critical, examine and practice. Critical (and criticize and critique) came out as part of the discussion we had about subtly different academic uses. Notice the difference between these two definitions from a general learner’s dictionary (OALD) and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English:

OALD: critical adj: expressing disapproval of sb/sth and saying what you think is bad about them
OLDAE: critical adj: involving making fair, careful judgements about the good and bad qualities of sb/sth

Another 36% of the words chosen by teachers were on the Academic Word List, so solid core academic vocabulary, like significant, criteria, data, assessment and thesis.

The remaining 28% were words which don’t fall into either of the other two categories. Some of these – purport and construe – were clearly very formal and potentially academic in register (both appear in OLDAE), but just not frequent enough to make it onto the AWL. The others form an interesting little group which I may have to consider adding into my workshop next time I give it, and that’s what could be described as words that students won’t actually use in their academic writing, but need to talk about studying. So there were words like dissertation which are about academic study generally (you could add seminar, tutorial, deadline, extension, plagiarism, etc.) and also linguistic metalanguage, such as collocation – the essential terminology you need to talk about language learning (you could add register, hedging, clause, etc.)

To get to this breakdown, I used the Vocabulary Profiler on the Lextutor website, which picks out AWL words and classifies the remainder in terms of frequency. It’s a really useful (free) tool which I gave a demo of in the workshop. I know though that when I've shown it in the past, teachers have come back to me afterwards and said they couldn’t get it to do what I’d shown them. Because the website has so many different tools available, it can be a bit difficult to navigate if you’re not familiar with it. The following link will take you straight to the AWL highlighter tool: http://www.lextutor.ca/vp/eng/ I’ve also put together a short demo:

Unable to display content. Adobe Flash is required.

At the end of the session, I asked everyone to go back to their cards and to classify the word they’d noted down at the start into one of the three groups. 57% of people classified their words correctly, although to be fair, several others chose words which arguably ought to be on the AWL but aren’t!

Thanks to everyone who came for such an enjoyable and stimulating day, I hope you all went away with some food for thought.


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Tuesday, July 01, 2014

EAP & Corpora: A fabulously nerdy day out

After a busy few weeks at my desk and two EAP weekends in a row, I’ve got a bit of a blog backlog,  so let me go back a bit first …

A couple of weekends ago, I went to a BALEAP event at Coventry University about EAP and corpora. I hesitated a bit about going, as I wasn’t speaking, I didn’t have any publisher funding, so it meant shelling out for the fee and the train fare from my own pocket. It just seemed too much up my street to miss though and in the end, it proved well worth it. It was a great day, with lots of interesting sessions and plenty of opportunities to chat to people between times. I came away feeling that my brain had been properly stretched and that I’d really learned some new stuff. 

These are just a few of my highlights …

Philip Durrant from Exeter University jumped right in with some fantastically-nerdy academic details in his opening plenary, looking at how we divide up academic disciplines and presenting results of his research into how disciplines map out if we look at them in terms of similarities (and differences) in vocabulary use (based on student writing in the BAWE corpus). He came up with some great “maps” showing how disciplines form into clusters with “hard subjects” (sciences; physics, chemistry, engineering) displaying similarities on one side, “soft subjects” (arts and humanities; English, history, philosophy) together on the other side, then various subjects, perhaps as you’d expect (social sciences; business, health) somewhere in the middle sharing aspects of both. This may feel fairly obvious, but it was the small details which came out that caught my attention. For example, when he broke down disciplines further into academic level, some displayed fairly similar vocabulary use at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and others showed quite a shift. Engineering, for instance was firmly in the hard science area of the map at undergraduate level, then moved into the centre ground alongside business at postgraduate level (reflecting a shift to a more applied approach). Although I spent a lot of the session coming up with questions and holes to pick in the research, I take that as a sign that I was really caught up in what he was saying! And I loved the visuals :) [A reference to his latest paper is here, but unfortunately, it’s a journal you need a subscription for, which I haven't got :( ]

I went to a really interesting session by Bella Reichard about using concordancers (corpus software) with students in an EAP context. One of the issues to come out of the session, and which continued a bit on Twitter afterwards, was the amount of time teachers have to invest in becoming familiar with concordancing software themselves so that they feel confident enough to use it in class. It got me thinking that perhaps we need to focus first on the benefits to teachers of using concordancers as a resource for themselves rather than jumping ahead to using them with students. Definitely a subject for a blog post … watch this space.

My final highlight was Hilary Nesi’s hands-on corpus session. Her focus, investigating the use of citation by students in different disciplines (using the BAWE corpus) was very interesting, but the best bit was just playing around with corpus searches, trying to find the best way to get what I wanted, alongside the likes of Hilary Nesi and Diane Schmitt. As a lowly, commercial corpus ‘hack’, it was quite nice to feel just as proficient as the academic corpus luminaries. Sometimes part of me would really like to do the PhD I contemplated a few years ago, to spend time playing around with corpora without the restrictive briefs or time pressures of the commercial world … but then, I know I just wouldn’t have the patience to do all that situating my research within the academic whatsisname! Still, it was fun to dip a toe in the academic water for a while…

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Monday, May 26, 2014

EAP: A PARSNIP-free zone?

I’ve just been putting together a talk about academic vocabulary for an EAP event at London South Bank University next Saturday (31 May).

I’m going to be talking about ways of exploring vocabulary in EAP that go beyond just lists of words. I’ll be looking at the familiar topic of collocation, but giving it an academic / discipline-specific slant. I’ll also be talking about register, authentic texts and issues around marked language. But the topic that’s really sparked my interest as I’ve been preparing for the talk has been the concept of connotation and how students need to learn to tread very carefully with vocabulary choices when they’re writing about sensitive topics.

Connotation doesn’t often get much coverage in general ELT materials. In some advanced coursebooks, you’ll perhaps get something about the distinction between slim (approving) and skinny (traditionally disapproving, although I wonder if we’ll find that changing with the advent of skinny jeans?!).  But it rarely goes much further than that. I think one of the main reasons being that connotation, all the cultural and social baggage that words carry with them, really comes into its own when we get onto talking about more sensitive topics where we need to tread carefully in our language choices. And of course, these are the very topics that materials published for a global ELT market avoid so as not to offend their potential customers – I’m sure many of you will have come across the classic PARSNIP* acronym for topics to steer clear of.

In EAP though, these are often the very topics that our students, especially in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences will be reading and writing about. I trawled back through the titles of essays written by my own pre-sessional students over the years and found the following topics:

       Security or Segregation: Is UK Immigration Policy Toward Third World Immigrants Unfair? (Law)
       Problems in intercultural relationships between Russia and the EU (Politics)
       Wife abuse and its psychological effects on abused women (Psychology)
       Discussion of the rainbow zone in British cinema—from homosexual to queer (Film Studies)
       What kinds of problems may limit the value of Mental Health Review Tribunals? (Law)

It was actually this last one, from a Chinese law student, which first really got me thinking about connotation and the issue of sensitive language.  Throughout the first draft of her essay, she referred to how the legal system deals with “mental patients”. I winced slightly every time I came across the phrase and in my feedback, I suggested she change it to “patients with mental health problems”. In her tutorial though, she questioned why she should change something so simple and concise to something more awkward and unwieldy. Good point and not an easy one to explain!

The final part of my talk on Saturday will go into my answer and how this translated into materials and activities exploring connotation and sensitive language a few years later when I was working on Oxford EAP Advanced.

If you’re based in or near London and want to come along to find out more, then the event is free, but you’ll need to register here in advance.

* PARSNIP: stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms (racism, sexism, etc.) and Pork

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Monday, May 19, 2014

EAP2014 Potsdam, Berlin

Last weekend, I had a great trip to Berlin to attend a one-day EAP conference at the University of Potsdam.  I had a really interesting day, chatting to lots of colleagues teaching in the university sector in Germany and learning more about what EAP entails in their context. It’s always fascinating to get different perspectives and I think I took two main points away from the day about EAP in Germany:
-  a lot of EAP teaching is to single-discipline groups (ESAP) , with an expectation that it will use texts/materials from that discipline (a point I’ll come back to below)
- German students have a tendency to overcomplicate their academic writing, trying to produce structures which would be considered ‘elegant’ in German academic style but which just don’t transfer into English. An interesting angle for the focus of language work in this context.

I was there to lead a workshop on the topic of “Writing your own: How to create effective EAP materials”, with ideas taken from my training module for ELT Teacher 2 Writer (How to Write EAP Materials). We started off by looking at a few general ideas and principles to bear in mind when writing your own EAP materials, especially around thinking carefully about your audience (both students and teachers) and your aims.

Then participants worked in groups to come up with ideas to exploit a short text (an abstract from an academic article).  I wasn’t quite sure how it’d go, but everyone did an admirable job of plunging straight into an academic text on a Saturday morning and came up with lots of good ideas and discussion.

For me, one of the most interesting things was that a lot of the groups were very focused on the topic of the text. As an EAP writer, especially writing for mixed-discipline groups, although I do think about the topic of the texts I choose, I’m generally much more focused on the features of academic writing it illustrates (organization, style, language, academic conventions, etc.) – as they relate to my aims for the lesson.  Many of the teachers in the workshop started from the perspective of how the topic of the text would be relevant (or not) to their students and what discussion it might generate. This seemed to link to many of the comments made about teaching single-discipline groups and how difficult it was to work with law/engineering, etc. texts which they (as English teachers) found difficult to understand. I wonder whether this points to lessons dominated by content (revolving around comprehension questions and discussion) rather than general features of English in an academic context? Food for thought perhaps?

We finished off with a look at a few tips and tools to help with writing your own materials and in particular, to help in selecting language to focus on, such as AWL highlighters and one of my favourites tools, the advanced search facilities available on the CD versions of learner’s dictionaries.

I certainly enjoyed the session and found it very interesting to see which points produced the most discussion and comments both during the workshop and in chatting to people afterwards. Thanks so much to everyone who came along and contributed! It’s certainly a topic I’d really like to do more workshops on … now I just have to find a way of financing some more!

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