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:

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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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