[00:00:00] Hello everybody. This is Tore and Una for the CIRCLE project. Today we’re talking to Averil Coxhead from New Zealand, professor in applied linguistics at the Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. It’s a great pleasure to have you here, Averil. Perhaps you could introduce yourself a bit and tell us about why you came to be interested in vocabulary and vocabulary lists, which is today’s time.
[00:00:41] Okay, so Kia ora tatou. Good morning, everybody, from Aotearoa New Zealand. My name is Averil Coxhead. Thank you very much for the invitation to speak with you today. It’s great to get an opportunity to speak with teachers and I have a very fond place for Scandinavia and Sweden [00:01:00] and my heart, which you might not know. So it’s a place that I’ve visited quite often.
[00:01:04] And I’ve been doing more and more research within the Scandinavian context, which has been an Nordic context, which has been important to me recently. So I’d like to talk a little bit about that sort of research maybe a bit later on. So I’m a Kiwi. You can hear that in my accent. I grew up in a very small town in Aotearoa New Zealand, the first foreign language or local language that I learned is Te reo Māori.
[00:01:31] And I learned that as a primary school student, through the use of song and poem and a wonderfully warm teacher who I still remember today. So my first meeting of another language apart from English was a very warm and important one for me. And I then moved into learning French as a foreign language at school.
[00:01:52] And that was a completely different experience. That was a lot more regimented. There was a lot more grammatical work going on. I was very lucky to go [00:02:00] as an exchange student to Tahiti for six weeks, which from a New Zealand context is our backyard. And that opened my eyes to language being used in an everyday context to the kinds of language that I had learned
[00:02:14] in my high school and how useful some of it was and how useful some of it really wasn’t. So I found that there were some gaps in terms of my language knowledge. I then, as most Kiwis do, I went traveling or lucky Kiwis do. I went traveling and I traveled in a lot of places in Asia, for example. And then I finally did some teacher training in the UK and then went to live in Eastern Europe.
[00:02:39] So I have had several immersion situations where I have learned a language from nothing. Hungarian is one of those and what I found myself doing, at that point, as an adult learning Hungarian was vocabulary work because grammar never sang for me as somebody who is interested in language. So [00:03:00] I worked on it, but it was the vocabulary that I felt I needed.
[00:03:03] I needed the words for banana. I needed the words for cabbage. I needed all of that and I needed to be able to greet people. I needed to be able to say goodbye to them. And it wasn’t searching for the endings of verbs that worried me. It was the content words that I really needed. I then came home to New Zealand, which was a joy,
[00:03:21] and continues to be. And I went and did a post-graduate diploma at Victoria University of Wellington. And that’s where I found researchers such as Professor John Read, who’s now based at Auckland University, Professor Paul Nation, Emeritus Professor at Victoria University of Wellington. And these people were talking about things that really resonated with me as a teacher.
[00:03:42] When I went to, I was in John Read’s class on testing, read anything by John Read is the first thing I want to say. He’s enormously valuable as a researcher and experienced as a teacher. And he was talking about the University Word List and he said just very quietly, [00:04:00] somebody needs to update that research because it was done a long time ago and it just needs work.
[00:04:06] And I sat there thinking, I think I could do something like. Like I’m interested in words. I think, you know, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. And I went and saw Paul Nation and said, you know, G’day, I’m Averil. I’d like to update the University Word List from 1984. He said, read these things.
[00:04:28] I said, okay. So I took those things away and thought a little bit more about what that project might be. And I went to see a mentor of mine, a man called Jim Dickey, who was a wonderful reader scholar in my school at the time. And he looked at me and he said, I think you should do research because you know what works, but you don’t know why.
[00:04:51] So I took that as a challenge and thought, okay. So that’s how I ended up working on the Academic Word List and that involves [00:05:00] sort of understanding a little bit more about what kinds of vocabulary I was looking for, why I was looking for that kind of work and I was also teaching English for academic purposes. So for me, there was a real need behind the research that I was doing, because I could see that I had students who needed help with the vocabulary.
[00:05:18] And I was working in a space where I needed to know what words were useful for the students. And why. And then I’m looking at a tool like making a word list and saying, well, what value does that have for me as a teacher? So I never expected the Academic Word List to become something that was quite so well known.
[00:05:41] One of the first things I did with it was put it online. So I’ve had a website and I was helped by one of my colleagues at Victoria University of Wellington. I went to her one day and said, look, I think this would be good as a website. She said, yeah, she was enormously helpful with doing that work. So it became something that was [00:06:00] readily available.
[00:06:00] And I think that’s one of the reasons why it got picked up so quickly. Another thing is that talented corpus scholars and computer scientists have also picked up on the Academic Word List so you can do things now with the word list that you never used to be able to do. So for example, through the Compleat Lexical Tutor, you can do an analysis of a text using the Academic Word List.
[00:06:24] You can do the same thing using AntConc, Laurence Anthony’s website. And these kinds of tools, what they can do is allow anybody to upload a text and take a look and see what Academic Word List words are there, how often they occur, what collocations or what multi-word unit patterns they’re involved in.
[00:06:42] So I think that sort of toolmaking and the first one was Sandra Hayward, who was at Nottingham university. I think those kinds of tools in that development of the Word List, which was really nothing to do with me has also been enormously valuable. So it means that you can look, I’ve seen a new tool where it takes each [00:07:00] of the sub-lists of the Academic Word List..
[00:07:01] So sub-list 1 has the most frequent word families, sub-list 2 next most frequent. And that’s really important because what that does, now is give us an idea out of any text, what’s the proportion of words that come from sub-list 1, for example. So that’s an innovation as well. And I think that’s on the Compleat Lexical Tutor website.
[00:07:20] So I think a long answer to your question, but I came to looking at vocabulary because of several key influences really, but part of it is about me and who I am as a teacher. I remember teaching one of my stepping in, you know, a colleague gets sick, so you teach their class. And I was teaching for one of my colleagues, Jonathan Newton, another person, I highly value in my field as a researcher, but also as a friend and I taught his class for two days and he stepped into the class on the Monday and came to see me and said, what did you do to my class?
[00:07:50] What do you mean, what did I do to your class? He said, they want to know all about the vocabulary and the text, and they want to know how they can approach these words as learning. And what’s the most important and what’s going… so [00:08:00] clearly the fire in me was something that ignited his class as well. So I think that what I learned a lot about through the master’s project is the importance of frequency of vocabulary.
[00:08:11] That’s really key and word lists can really help with that. So I’ve been doing work recently on technical vocabulary and trades education. So what words does a carpenter who’s in training need to know, plumbing, automotive engineering and the other one fabrication. And it’s a real contrast. If you take a technical word list, for example, the plumbing word list that we’ve developed or the fabrication word list.
[00:08:40] If you organize those word lists, according to alphabet, it’s very different to if you organize those word lists according to frequency. So for example, in automotive technology, the most important word may well be “check”, to check the engine, to [00:09:00] check the apparatus. But if you do it by alphabet, you get all the words that start with A, and then all the words that start with B.
[00:09:06] And really, that doesn’t tell us as much, give as much information as a word list, which has organized by frequency. So, the Academic Word List, I arranged in several ways. One, I put it by sub-list by frequency and you can also find it by sub-list and then by frequency in each of those sub-list. So it tells you not that the most frequent word is the one that starts with A, but actually potentially the most frequent word is one that starts with F or G for example.
[00:09:36] So I think that that’s really important to get your head around frequency. As a key player in vocabulary, not all words are frequent. Some words are much more frequent than others. So we know that with frequency, the most frequent words do the most work. So in English we have 50 words in English that do 50% of the work.
[00:09:55] Right. And then the law of return drops and drops and drops and drops. [00:10:00] So in recent research, I’ve been looking for example, with MA students at the vocabulary of textbooks. And we looked for example, in China and in Indonesia at vocabulary and textbooks. And what we’ve been finding there is that there are high-frequency vocabulary is not as, is there.
[00:10:22] And it’s something that everybody needs to learn. The first 2–3000 words of English, everybody needs that. Right. But what we found is that the textbooks often contain a lot of very low frequency words. So words that don’t occur very often. So you get, for example, in the Chinese textbook study, which was published as Yang and Coxhead 2020, in the RELC journal. What we found in that study was that in a reading about snakes, and this is for learners who are kind of low, intermediate, intermediate level learners.
[00:10:55] You get words like “viperine”. Well, as a learner, do you [00:11:00] ever need that word? I’m a first language speaker of English. I’ve just said that word to you, but I’ve never really needed that. It’s a bit of a worry to me, you know, because of course students, then if they don’t understand about frequency or they haven’t really thought about it before, what they’re thinking is I’m reading this to prepare for an exam.
[00:11:20] So therefore, probably I need to learn all of these words, but actually they don’t at all. So one of the things that Paul Nation often says in his 2013 book Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, and he has another edition coming out soon, by the way. But he’ll say, you know, that learners need to understand that frequency plays a big role and that not all words are worth learning.
[00:11:44] Right. So they need strategies in order to deal with those words to, first of all, understand what are the good principles for selecting vocabulary to learn? And I think we need to share that with our learners. Because they need to make decisions outside of the classroom as much as [00:12:00] inside of the classroom with us.
[00:12:01] So I think it’s really important that we understand that vocabulary, it has high frequency, mid frequency and low frequency, for example, and that those high-frequency vocabulary items, they occur in all texts and they cover most of the vocabulary in any text. So most texts that you give students, probably actually the first thousand words of English might cover between 80 to 85% of the words in that text.
[00:12:28] Now, if you’ve got students who are studying English for medical purposes, it’s a different picture. So what we find when we analyze those texts, and I’m thinking about an article or a chapter in a book by Kero and Coxhead from, I don’t know, 2017, I think, or 18 looking at medical vocabulary.
[00:12:47] High-frequency vocabulary covers much less of a medical textbook, around 65%. Why? Because there’s a whole lot of low frequency words, which are technical. They might be [00:13:00] Latin, Greek in origin, for example. And that, that vocabulary covers more of a proportion of those of those texts and mid-frequency vocabulary does too.
[00:13:09] So it depends on the kind of text that you’re working with, but we know that the best return for learning is going to be high frequency vocabulary. And that’s not just recognition. That’s also use, which is another major area of work that we need to be thinking about in our teaching and learning. I’m just going to go on folks! I’ve done some work in the New Zealand context and interviewing teachers,
[00:13:33] it’s something that I’m working on at the moment. I want to find out much more about what teachers understand about vocabulary and how they’re approaching it. Because I think that teachers are often pushing areas that research hasn’t caught up with yet. So I really want to find out more about what’s happening with teachers and what they’re thinking about and why they’re approaching things in those ways. Because they’re the ones who are dealing mostly with the students.
[00:13:55] I think it’s really important. And what I found out that, it was quite a small [00:14:00] scale study interviewing teachers within the New Zealand context who are working in secondary schools. And what I found is that the only main difference between any of these teachers in New Zealand schools, was that the ones who had more teaching experience were a little bit older and had spent more time in the classroom that as English as a second language teachers, what they did with their students that was different from the less experienced colleagues, was they made sure that students had plenty of opportunities to use these words either in speaking or in writing or preferably both.
[00:14:38] So I think that it’s really important to think about that point to say, what Nation calls creative use or generative use. So how many opportunities do students actually have to use words? And I don’t mean that they’ve just had an encounter with that word, it’s completely new to them, now you want them to write a sentence.
[00:14:56] I think we need to be careful about those kinds of activities, [00:15:00] but plenty of opportunities for for using words in context, plenty of opportunities for encountering the words, for thinking about them, using them in writing, preparing. To speak by writing first, we know that you’re more likely to use words if you plan first to use them, for example.
[00:15:18] So I think we have to think as teachers about what kinds of opportunities learners are getting. And not only what kinds of words we’re asking them to focus on and why, but then what do we want them to do with it? Because it’s not enough to just say here’s a word. Good. Carry on. Memory doesn’t work like that.
[00:15:36] You can remember the phone number of when you were a small child. Why? Because you learned it. It’s part of your heart, it’s part of your soul. And you used to use it all of the time. I learned it. I learned our phone number because I accidentally telephone called the local police instead of home.
[00:15:53] So, you know, you only do that once. Can I speak to your mother? Sure. Mum, it’s the police. This [00:16:00] isn’t good. So I think what I’m getting to is that there are a whole lot of principles and ideas that teachers may well be putting into practice and beliefs that they have. And what we need to be doing with the research is underpinning, making sure that what the teachers are doing and what the research is showing to be the most effective, actually connect in some way.
[00:16:19] And I think word list research is an area where often teachers say, I don’t know about word lists or, I know about them, but I don’t use them because I don’t know what to do, or I think they’re a bit useless or, you know, but, but they actually have a lot to offer.
[00:16:34] Since we are mainly in the Swedish context,
[00:16:37] I’m going to use that as a sort of stepping stone, perhaps. Language studies and language teaching used to be pretty much more controlled if we go back 30, 40 years in time. There were, much stricter guidelines as to what grammatical structures, were supposed to be covered when and so on and also word [00:17:00] lists.
[00:17:00] And in 1967, a book was published in Swedish, in Sweden called 10 words for 10 years of English vaguely suggesting that you learn 1000 words per year, somehow. There was a shorter version of that book called 8,000 words for eight years of English by a practicing teacher it was published in 1967.
[00:17:27] Now those kinds of lists are long gone, and what we now see is a much looser approach to that. Also in teacher education, we get questions from our language teacher students: what words should I teach? How should I know if they should know these words and what can I do?
[00:17:54] And one of the underlying questions there is, can I trust the textbook? You know, the [00:18:00] kind of vocabulary that sometimes pops up in textbooks. Words can be highly interesting because they are sort of in a context and you need to know them there and then to understand the text, but is it a word that the learners should learn eventually?
[00:18:18] So yes. If you could talk a bit more about how teachers can use these lists, such as, the Academic Word List or General Service List and so on. And perhaps if you could also say something about what do we mean by the Academic English Vocabulary Word List? What is academic about it? We’re just using, what kind of words are we looking for there?
[00:18:47] Questions that often comes up when we’re talking about English for academic purposes or academic vocabulary is what is academic vocabulary. And I think there are a couple of key points to think about here. One is that [00:19:00] academic vocabulary usually gets broken into two main areas. So you get English for general academic purposes.
[00:19:07] So that’s the vocabulary that occurs across subject areas. Doesn’t matter if you’re studying biology, chemistry, history, political relations, linguistics. Whatever. These words are going to turn up. So this was where I was focused. That’s the vocabulary I focused on when I was doing my research into the Academic Word List.
[00:19:28] Then you get English for specific academic purposes and that’s really, you know, what about biology? What about chemistry? Linguistics, what are the words that come up in those areas? So that’s very specialized and technical vocabulary and I’ve been doing a bit more work in that area recently, too, because I think that there are …medical vocabulary, for example, English, for general academic vocabulary, English for specific academic vocabulary.
[00:19:51] Right? So that’s, that’s the first thing one is occurring across the subject areas, that’s the general purposes and that’s words like “furthermore”, “ongoing”, you [00:20:00] know, and those kinds of words really don’t have much content to them. So these are the words that tend to be a little bit like the glue in the text. Then your specialized vocabulary, they’re much more content based and very closely connected to the subject area. And some of the work that I’ve been doing recently has been looking at that, those specialized words. And one of the reasons why I’ve been looking more at specialized vocabulary is that we’ve realized more recently that actually the proportion of those words in text is much higher than we initially thought.
[00:20:35] Now I need to go back to the English for general academic purposes work that I did with the Academic Word List. Just to talk about that a little bit, because there’s a key concept there that I think really needs to be talked about. I’ve talked about high-frequency vocabulary, right? As being the first, second, third thousand words of English.
[00:20:51] Now the most reliable word list of high-frequency general English is Paul [00:21:00] Nation’s, word lists, which were made from the British National and Contemporary Corpus of American English. So that’s, they’re called the BNZ COCA lists. And if you want to know about the research, that shows why they’re the best lists you can look at work by Yen Dang who’s at the University of Leeds in the UK, and she’s done some work with Stuart Webb and I, looking at evaluation of high-frequency word lists. So there’s that. Now, when I looked at the Academic Word List and was trying to develop this word list, I needed principles to select items. And one of the key ideas that I had at the time was that if you are a student who’s coming to study in New Zealand at a university, then probably you already know the first 2000 words of English.
[00:21:46] So I’m not going to look within the first 2000 words of English. I’m going to assume that you have that knowledge. Remember that at that time, because this is over 20 years ago, we were thinking that this [00:22:00] layer of academic vocabulary is going to be outside the first 2000 words of English. In which case I use the General Service List, it was the only one available at the time that was strong enough to do the work that I was doing. So thinking, first of all, that students would know that vocabulary. And that second of all, that the vocabulary we’re looking at was outside of that first 2000 words. Now we now know of course that high-frequency vocabulary can also be academic.
[00:22:27] So if we’ve made a change within the field and understood that there are words which are high frequency that are also academic in nature. So that’s why Dee Gardener, may he rest in peace, and Mark Davies developed the Academic Vocabulary List where they started from scratch and said, actually, potentially you could have words, which are high-frequency words that are academic.
[00:22:50] So let’s start with a very level playing field when it comes to the selection of vocabulary. So if you’re interested in their Academic Vocabulary List, they have a really wonderful [00:23:00] website, academicvocabulary.info. And I think they’ve got a new one called Just the Word www.just-the-word.com, but I’m not completely sure about that.
[00:23:06] You’d need to check. These are fabulous resources because they allow teachers to search for words in large corpora. I’ve got a student at the moment who’s looking at the vocabulary of CoVid for example. Looking at Governmental communication around, CoVid, looking at the proportion of technical vocabulary in those texts as well as multi-word units.
[00:23:27] So one way to do that work is to gather a local corpus of people speaking. There’s one of the dogs, sorry. Gathering a local corpus of people speaking and then comparing it against a larger corpus, which you can do because of work by people like Mike Davies. So you could be taking a look at newer academic general Academic Word List, such as the Academic Vocabulary List.
[00:23:51] And we’ve also got a new Academic Spoken Word List, which is also Yen Dang, Stuart Webb. So we’ve got the [00:24:00] the new Academic Vocabulary List, which was from 2014. Then you’ve also got the spoken Academic Word List, which is Yen Dang’s work with Stuart Webb and I. And that’s available through her website as well.
[00:24:12] So that’s targeting the vocabulary of academic spoken English. The reason why I’m talking about that spoken word list is it actually contains a large amount of high-frequency vocabulary. So you’ve got that crossover thing going on with those words. The second thing that’s important to say about that high-frequency vocabulary is that unfortunately we’re finding in testing studies that learners often don’t know the first couple of thousand words of English or that they have gaps in their knowledge. That’s important because high-frequency vocabulary is really important.
[00:24:44] We know that it covers a lot of the vocabulary in any text. We also know that learners often think that these words are easy and that they know them, but actually when you test them in some way, they’re not as easy as we think. Now, one of the studies [00:25:00] that Paul Nation and I did, and this was one of my favorite pieces of research, but it’s kind of buried a little bit. But it was looking at what happens when you test a group of learners all at once versus sitting alongside learners and testing them one-on-one. Okay. The reason why we did this research and it was in New Zealand secondary schools. And I think any researcher at any time should step inside a school and just see what teachers do every day, because it is extraordinary. So, what happened with that research was that Paul Nation had an MA student who wasn’t me, who was teaching in a local secondary school. And he gave the Vocabulary Levels Test, which had a second thousand, third thousand, fifth thousand and tenth thousand and Academic Word List levels. He gave that test to a group of students in his high school. And what he found is that the first language speakers of English didn’t score very well on that test.
[00:25:55] And Paul thought, that’s a bit strange, right? Because first language [00:26:00] speakers should actually score quite well on that test. So what Paul did is he arranged to visit the school and he sat individually with students and he just encouraged them. So if they were slowing down or there’s something happening, he’d just say, keep going now you’re doing well.
[00:26:14] Or if they, if he wanted them to say a word like “paradigm” or whatever it is. And he would provide the word in spoken form and they’d go, ah, and then away they went. They doubled their scores. Now either they doubled the scores because they had the chance to repeat the test, but they had no idea that that was going to happen to them that day.
[00:26:34] Maybe they doubled their scores because Paul Nation is a nice man to sit next to maybe they doubled their scores because they were concentrating or engaged in the testing process. So we then took that little study and then we said, okay. So what happens when we go into a much bigger population and we get people to sit the Vocabulary Size Test, which gives you a measure of how many words learners know.
[00:26:57] So that’s a total score, not a level score. [00:27:00] And we got them to sit in groups and individually, and either you did it individually first, then in a group, or you did it in a group and then you did it individually. And for individually, we had students sitting with researchers that we had trained and their job was to sit and provide encouragement and just keep people focused, keep people moving on, moving through the test.
[00:27:23] Now, one thing we find with this test is that it often gets to a point when you’re doing the tests, especially up the 20,000 level, that actually you’re reaching the limits of your vocabulary knowledge. So people can find it quite challenging from a personal perspective. And normally the people who step up to take a vocabulary science test think that they’ve got a good vocabulary size, right?
[00:27:42] So you’re dealing with a couple of different elements in this research. If we were in a class right now, and I was talking to you about this research, I would ask you to stop and have a chat to the person next to you. What do you think would be the result of that research, where you’re taking people when you’re getting them to set a test [00:28:00] individually, and then they’re sitting a different version of the same test, which is a comparable version, they’re going to do it in groups. What are the results we’re going to see? So what we found was that if you’re in the top quarter, so you’re the top students in terms of the scores, it didn’t matter. Group, individual doesn’t matter to you. Next group down, there was a difference, but it wasn’t statistically significant.
[00:28:22] So in other words, you’re going to do okay as well. The third quarter, more of a difference. You did better on the individual than the group, but again, nothing that really raises big flags. The group that really showed a big difference between sitting the test individually and sitting tests in the group was the lowest quarter.
[00:28:42] So the weakest test takers. Now, what does that mean? We do most of our testing in New Zealand in groups. I can’t think of any time where I have sat a test individually as a student. And certainly not really, ever given a test,, apart from when students really [00:29:00] needed a bit of extra support, as a teacher, in which case they just came to my office or we meet somewhere and they would do the test with me, or they might be special- needs student who needs a reader- writer or somebody who just needs that extra support.
[00:29:12] So, if you are teaching a class of students and you’ve got people who are really struggling and you’re going to give them a test of vocabulary size, or vocabulary levels, for example, using the Updated Vocabulary Levels Test from Stuart Webb, which tests the first 5,000 words of English, test them individually
[00:29:31] if you think they’re going to struggle. Now, I’m not saying, you’re not going to test the whole group individually. I think you really need to be saying as a teacher, these guys, if I just sit with them and encourage them and keep them on task, this is going to show, give a better representation of the vocabulary knowledge that they have.
[00:29:47] So I think this kind of research, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to do. It’s not easy for schools to organize students. It’s not easy to fit this into a busy [00:30:00] working day within a school, but actually it speaks to the kinds of things that we might think about as teachers. You might already give tests one-on-one to students because you’ve understood as a teacher that actually there’s an issue for them, or there’s something that they need as extra support.
[00:30:16] Now, my question is, as a vocabulary researcher, do you test vocabulary knowledge at all in Sweden? I know the Norwegian context testing is not seen as something that is done and certainly vocabulary is not something that plays a major role in language teaching in the Norwegian context, or even in the Danish context from what I can see. I might be wrong about that.
[00:30:40] But if we’re thinking that vocabulary is something which is enormously important, everybody needs it, why are we not finding out much more about the vocabulary knowledge that our students have? If you gave students the Updated Vocabulary Levels Test, which tests the first 5,000 levels of the most frequent words in English, based on Paul [00:31:00] Nation’s work, what results are you going to get?
[00:31:02] So you might find for example, that your students have a really strong knowledge of the first 5,000 words of English. That would be fantastic. You might find that some students have got holes in their vocabulary that you could drive a truck through, in which case that’s a problem. So we can be using word lists in a way to develop tests that are useful for us, for students and for teachers.
[00:31:26] We can be using word list to take a look at the kinds of texts that we’re using in our class to see whether or not we’re actually presenting texts that might be high interest, but have a whole lot of vocabulary that our learners really don’t need. So we’re actually making a point of selection here to say, if I run this through a vocabulary profiler, and I find that there’s a lot of low frequency words like “viperine”, you’ve got a job to do as a teacher. Either you say, I’m going to keep this vocabulary in there, raise the awareness of my learners to say: these words, you’re not going to need, but we could work on a strategy [00:32:00] whereby you take a look at their word and you try and guess the meaning of that word without trying to learn it, so guessing meaning from context strategy, or you could replace that word with another word that’s going to be more useful and word lists can help you with that. So they can be identifying words that are academic. They can be identifying words that are technical and they can be saying, look, how often do these words occur?
[00:32:24] So another way of looking at that text might be to say, this word occurs. I think it’s really important. Actually, I’m going to adapt the text so it occurs several times rather than just once, because we know that repetition helps with vocabulary learning, right? So you could be taking the text and just seeding or putting in more of these words, repeating them to help the learners to say, okay, so this word’s important.
[00:32:49] I’m saying it’s important because it’s here a couple of times for a start, so you could repeat it. We could say this word is not important. I’m going to take it out. Put another word in there. You could also be adapting texts so that you [00:33:00] highlight words that are the ones that you want your learners to notice.
[00:33:04] And that’s important too, because highlighting draws attention to words. And we know that attention is one of those elements of educational psychology. Through educational psychology, we know that highlighting words means that draws attention. And that means that learners will focus on those words more.
[00:33:20] Right? So there are all kinds of tricks and tips for vocabulary teaching, which is not: today, we’re going to teach five words. It’s not about that at all. It’s saying, what kinds of words am I presenting to my students? How much reading are they doing? How much listening are they doing? Under what sort of conditions? How am I highlighting that vocabulary? Is this vocabulary really needed for my students? Do they need it tomorrow as much as they need it today to understand this text? Now, one thing I haven’t talked about so much is multi-word units. So we’re doing more and more research looking at multi-word units.
[00:33:58] So those are words that occur [00:34:00] commonly occur together. And it’s not just random that they occur together. These words statistically belong. They have a strong connection, right? So one of the things one of my PhD students is working on is the development of a test of academic collocations because these are collocations such as “wide range” would be a good example.
[00:34:22] So “wide range” they belong together. So what she’s been looking at is developing a test of recognition and then a test of recall of these academic collocations and the collocations come from the Academic Collocations List. And if you’re interested in that list, there’s a wonderful website called the EAP foundation website.
[00:34:42] And what that website does is it takes existing word lists, gives a bit of background and detail on these word lists. Then it’s got general academic purposes lists. It’s got secondary school vocabulary lists that have been created by Clarence Green and [00:35:00] his colleague James Lambert, for example, in the Singaporean context, and using UK textbooks as well.
[00:35:08] Those two researchers have also produced secondary school phrase lists in, for example, history science, maths. So the EAP foundation website has got those word lists there. And what you can do is upload your texts and it will highlight the items in your texts that come from various lists.
[00:35:25] Right? So that’s a really great tool. And again, you can print out your text with those items highlighted, which means it draws attention to those items there too. But it can also tell you the proportion of multi-word units, for example, in the texts. Now, what we know about academic collocations is that, well, what we know about multi-word units is there are many of them in English, and that up to 30–50% of any texts might contain multi-word units. But one of the issues is they don’t tend to get [00:36:00] repeated as often as single words, they don’t have that high frequency that single words can have, but learners need them because they’re really important for fluency and reading. They’re really important for fluency. And speaking, for example, they help our writing.
[00:36:14] If you use more multi-word units in writing, you get higher scores. So we don’t just think about vocabulary as single words, but also what are the commonly used words that go with them. So there are lots of tools available for teachers to be looking at multi-word units as well. And we’ve got a paper under review at the moment, which looks at the impact of an intervention where a teacher was raising learners’ awareness in Vietnam of multi-word units, training learners to recognize them because that’s important, right? You might not think of something as being a multi-word unit. So it’s helpful for learners to figure out, help figure out and test their wings about what is a multi-word unit.
[00:36:55] As part of that program in Vietnam, that teacher had access [00:37:00] to corpora. We’re using the Davies and Gardner Academic Vocab website with the Corpus of Contemporary American English. It’s very easy to find. She trained learners to use that program so that they could search for multi-word units and take a look at them in context.
[00:37:19] She also had multi-word units in dictionaries. So helping learners look for dictionaries use as well. So the first thing that she was doing in that program was training the learners to know what a multi-word unit possibly looks like, and then to make decisions about whether they want to use them or not. And what we found in that study was that the learners who got trained up and using and looking at multi-word units, their awareness really grew, but also they started to use these words in their own writing without any prompting from the teacher at all.
[00:37:49] So, because they grew in confidence and these activities where they’re looking and focusing on multi-word units, they actually then started to use them later on in writing that wasn’t [00:38:00] really related to what they’d been doing earlier in class. So that’s good news. What does that mean? That means that a teacher does not have to stand there and say today’s 10 words are these. The teacher can say, I’m going to train you to be better at strategy use, to decide what words you want to use? What words do you want to learn? Why you want to learn them, how they speak to you and then providing opportunities for use later on and for feedback as well.
[00:38:27] So word lists can be useful for guiding what kind of vocabulary you could be looking at according to frequency, they can be useful for analyzing the texts that you’ve got to try and find out what vocabulary is in them and what vocabulary isn’t.
[00:38:46] And if you’ve got vocabulary in it which is low frequency and not useful, replace it. Word lists can help you with that. They can help identify multi-word units as well to try and see what’s in here and what gets repeated. And that [00:39:00] means that you can start looking across your area. If you’ve got all your texts available electronically, then you could be saying, what am I doing at the start of the year?
[00:39:08] What am I doing in the middle of the year? Does this vocabulary come back round again? If it does, that’s great. If it doesn’t, we’ve got a problem because we forget quickly. When it comes to vocabulary, it really needs to speak to us. Learners need plenty of opportunity to use it. Now I want to talk a little bit about Nation’s Four Strands as well.
[00:39:27] And I don’t know if you’ve covered this before. Is it something that you’ve read about?
[00:39:31] Very much so! I would say the whole CIRCLE project is based on the Four Strands.
[00:39:35] Right? Fantastic. So I won’t cover the Four Strands so much, but one of the things that I get questioned a lot about is how can teachers teach the Academic Word List? Now what Paul Nation would say is that’s not a good question to ask.
[00:39:49] A good question to ask is what are the opportunities I can provide my learners? How can I plan for academic vocabulary in my classroom? So one of the first things is to think about it. And to [00:40:00] plan for it and say, well, what’s the vocabulary my learners need? Now we found in a Norwegian project with Kimberly Skjelde, she tested the academic vocabulary, knowledge of learners in I think their junior high school students. I get a bit confused with the system there. And what she found is that actually learners had some knowledge of general academic vocabulary in English, but there were gaps. Then they didn’t really display as much mastery as we would have thought, because you’re talking about a population of students who are quite immersed in English in a way, right?
[00:40:34] So they’ve got a lot of everyday English, but academic vocabulary is not vocabulary of the everyday. Some of it will be in terms of being high-frequency vocabulary, but it might be used in a different, the vocabulary might be used in a different way in the school context. I did a study looking at New Zealand secondary school students and asking about specialized vocabulary, for example, in biology or chemistry.
[00:40:58] And these teachers, you [00:41:00] could see them, they were quite frustrated because, they said that the technical vocabulary of their subject area, actually first language speakers need this as much as second language speakers need it. And this vocabulary really only occurs in school. So you don’t often talk about respiration, for example, outside the school context, it’s not a kind of normal thing that people do.
[00:41:20] You tend to do this work in school. So as teachers, they were saying, you know, Oh, I try several ways to work on the technical vocabulary of my field with my students. But the difficulty is words that have an everyday meaning in English, but a specific meaning in my field. And they found that really difficult, because we know from work like David Corson, may he rest in peace,
[00:41:43] the Australian researcher who was based in Canada for many years, two things. One is that this academic language is very much bounded by the context that it’s in, but also that if people don’t get exposure to that language outside of the classroom, it tends [00:42:00] not to stick so much. And that our default is high-frequency vocabulary.
[00:42:04] We will go back to using high-frequency vocabulary because we’re comfortable with that vocabulary. So one of the stretchers can be how to work with students to say, look, I know you think, you know this word, but here’s a new context for this word. And what’s the learning from our earlier knowledge of this word that can help us with understanding this word in this new context.
[00:42:27] So what the teachers were doing was they were using a variety of strategies. They were using word parts. So words like photosynthesis, they were breaking those words down. These are highly experienced secondary school teachers. So they knew about word parts. They knew that that would help their learners. They would also do a lot of restriction: we’re going to use this word and we’re only going to use it in the technical way in this classroom.
[00:42:52] So I’m going to restrict the usage and I will correct my students. I’ll set up the opportunities for them to use these words. And I will [00:43:00] correct my students when they don’t quite get it right. I’ll make sure that peers correct them when they don’t quite get that right. But you could sense the frustration that students would say, well, look, I already know what respiration means.
[00:43:11] And the chemistry teacher would say. No, you don’t. Not in my context, you don’t, and it’s a real problem and it’s not just for second language speakers. It’s for first language speakers as well. And I think that in that Norwegian research, I think what we’re seeing is that learners think they know this word, these words, but if we test them, is the problem that they’re being tested?
[00:43:35] They’re not used to that, or is the problem that actually we are finding some gaps in their knowledge. And I think that anything that we do with testing, where we’re finding gaps in knowledge, we need to actually talk with the students about this, to say, there’s that wonderful quote, nobody’s a native speaker of academic English.
[00:43:51] So this is something everybody needs to be thinking about. And there are word lists of middle school, for example, maths [00:44:00] chemistry, social sciences, history. They are the middle school vocabulary lists, and they’re available on the EAP foundation website. And I worked with Jen Greene to develop those lists, for example.
[00:44:09] So there are word lists out there that can target your learners and you could be doing something very simpleat the start of it. If you’re a content teacher, you could be doing something simple with word lists to say, here’s, sub-list one of the Academic Word List. You tick the words that. Or, you tick the words that you’re confident you can use because that’s something else to think about as well.
[00:44:29] Most learners, when you do that, they give you an honest response to that. And then you can say, well, okay, if you know these things, then where are the gaps for you? What is it that we could be working on usefully for your vocabulary? The other thing about use is giving feedback and if your students are writing and you find that they’re using the first thousand words of English only, then there’s a challenge for them as to say, you actually know a lot more than you’re using here.
[00:44:54] And we know that our receptive knowledge is much bigger all the time than our productive knowledge. So pushing the [00:45:00] production is really important too. The last thing I want to say about multi-word units, as we did some work with Frank Boers, who’s now at Western University in Canada. He was with us for a few years, which was great.
[00:45:11] Looking at common activities from textbooks to do with vocabulary and multi-word units. So what we did there is we had these common activities, like fill in the gaps or odd man out, crossing out which ones are wrong, things like that. And looking to see what happens when you get people to fill in one gap of a multi-word unit.
[00:45:34] So there might be two items that are a multi-word unit, but we’re only going to have one gap. So you fill in one word of the two, compared to putting in the whole multi-word unit. Does that make sense? So, it was holistic, the whole thing versus analytical. We found two main things, and this is a little bit of scary time in terms of being a teacher and looking at research. [00:46:00] So what we found is, first of all, those activities were not very good for retention of vocabulary knowledge. They really don’t do a great job in terms of providing a memory trace. We also found that learners who got something right in the pretesting after they went through our intervention study sometimes got things wrong afterwards.
[00:46:23] So in the process of doing that work, they started to misassociate things and they learned the wrong thing. So we scrambled them. And that makes me feel a bit sick. And then the last thing, the last thing was that when we got them to focus on the whole unit, it was better for vocabulary retention of those units.
[00:46:47] Right? So those analytical ones where you’re just filling in one word of two, stop doing that for a start. So if you’re going to keep going with these activities, you need to be looking at the whole multi-word unit. Okay. So, [00:47:00] those kinds of activities, where you’re getting people to fill in gaps and do things, I think that they lack the richness that learners need in order to grow their vocabulary knowledge and grow their vocabulary confidence. So research that I’ve done looking at vocabulary use, a lot of it is confidence. That they actually are taking a risk and if learners are taking a risk when they’re trying to use these vocabulary items, they’re more likely to take a risk if they’re in a secure environment, if they know that their attempts to use vocabulary are going to be respected and not the victim of a drive-by shooting, you know, not lots and lots of red on the page. So it can take a lot of confidence for people to actually start using vocabulary that they’re not that confident with.
[00:47:44] The other thing I wanted to say now there’s a researcher in the USA called Joe Barcroft. And Joe was looking at what happens when learners get presented with a new word, and then they have to write a sentence. That’s often what teachers do they say? Here’s a word,now then write a sentence. What he found is that learners [00:48:00] split their attention when they have to do that.
[00:48:04] And if they’re focusing on the meaning, they don’t remember the form. And if they’re focusing on the form, they don’t remember the meaning. So when we’re asking learners to do that, it’s the equivalent of sending a text while you’re driving. Your brain doesn’t then encode well. You don’t get a good, strong memory trace.
[00:48:20] So I think that when it comes to vocabulary, I think there’s a whole lot of us out there doing research on vocabulary. And I think that there’s a lot more to be done and it’s not all about word lists, but word lists are a key part to try and understand a lot more about what vocabulary is in the language that we’re presenting to students.
[00:48:40] And they’re a way to analyze the texts that we’ve got. There are more multi-word unit word lists out there too, but they can be quite tricky to develop. You had a question for me about some of the work that I’m doing at the moment. I’ve been doing a lot more work on languages other than English and vocabulary.
[00:48:59] And this is something that [00:49:00] I think is really important. And I’m thinking about scholars like Dr Anne Sofie Jakobsen who’s in Denmark, and she has done work on Danish and Danish academic vocabulary, and general vocabulary in Danish, which connects through to scholars in Iceland, who also have been looking about the learning of Danish as a second language.
[00:49:20] I’ve been looking at what happens when you take a word list, like a technical word list from our work in trades education. And if you’re interested in trades education, we’ve written a book about this through Routledge called English for vocational purposes, by the way. So a couple of things about that work: one is that a colleague, Kiko (Falakiko Tu’amoheloa) has translated those word lists into Tongan using experts in the trades and using his considerable skills. And I suspect some of his family members considerable skills as well. And we found out some really useful things when we did that translation work. So one is that when you get a scholar like me and you put [00:50:00] me into a whole new context, I lack skills that other people have.
[00:50:04] So I really enjoyed learning much more about what it means to be a scholar working in bilingual circumstances. We found that the technical vocabulary in plumbing, for example, that Tongan shares high-frequency technical vocabulary with English. So that’s good news because what that means is that the students who are studying in Tongan have these words already and they know them in Tongan, and then they have an equivalent in English.
[00:50:32] That’s great. So that means that those learners have a really strong start. Right. But the low frequency, technical words, they generally don’t have those words in Tongan. So we had to do a couple of things. One was to really have translations of what these things actually are. So the translations ended up being quite long because you have to really describe them.
[00:50:58] Another thing we found is that sometimes [00:51:00] there are multiple words in English that are technical, like check diagnose and test. We use all of those and in Tongan they use one word to do those things. So that has an implication for learning. Right. So learners are thinking, well, it’s just this word.
[00:51:15] But actually English has several. So that means that I need to recognize those words when they get used. And I have to look at the collocations or multi-word units around them to see what kinds of things get checked. What kinds of things get diagnosed? What kinds of things get tested? You know what I mean?
[00:51:35] So we also found that there were words that had been “Tonganised”. So they got taken from English and put into Tongan. So what that means is that the sound may have changed a bit because we use a sound in English which doesn’t exist in Tongan. So they’ve changed it. What that means is that if these learners are going from Tonga, coming into the New Zealand context, for example, we need to recognize they already know a lot [00:52:00] and they’re not struggling with content knowledge of this field. They’re highly knowledgeable. They know a lot more than somebody who’s just been working in the New Zealand context and is starting their studies. Right. But they might not know the low-frequency technical vocabulary, and that’s where we need to be targeting the work. And through word list, that’s where we find out those things. Okay. I’ve been doing more work on traditional Chinese medicine with one of my PhD students. There’s a lot, there’s really a lot. And I think that there’s a lot to be done in Sweden, in schools and in universities to try and find out much more about what happens with vocabulary in those contexts and what teachers and learners are struggling with and what they’re championing.
[00:52:43] There are so many, there are so many things in vocabulary that speak to teaching and then can have such an impact on learners. That’s the thing. If I had known about frequency when I was learning, I mean, I know it now, so, you know, I’m [00:53:00] picking up in my language thing. I know what I need to do in order to really take charge of my vocabulary. I want to give you a very simple teaching activity that I used to use when I was teaching English for academic purposes, if that’s okay. What I used to do in my class, and I saw them every day, oh no, four days a week for 12 weeks. And what I used to do was take a shoebox, and I always had lots of vocabulary on the board at the end of a class. And we’d go through and say “in the box or not in the box” and select, you know, it’s going in the box, why it’s not going in the box, why not?
[00:53:38] And then the students would choose the words that they wanted to put into the box. Everybody would make word cards and work cards are important because with a word card, you can’t see the back. So you have to use your brain, right. To remember things. So it’s not monkey see, monkey do, like textbooks, not textbooks, vocabulary lists in a book.
[00:53:58] So students would make their own [00:54:00] cards and you could see that they put a lot of care and effort into it because what they were doing was, was developing a resource for everybody in the room. Right. So the words would go onto the cards and there’d be a definition in English on the back or a common collocation or whatever it was about that word that everybody really thought was important for their learning.
[00:54:21] Usually after 10 weeks, I would have 800, 900 words in that box. That’s a substantial amount of vocabulary. What I found after a couple of weeks is I would say, what about this word then? And students would say, no, it’s in the box. Or they would say, oh yeah, we’ve got that one in the box, but that’s the new word family member or no, there’s a collocation here.
[00:54:42] And they use that language with me. So in the end, you’d end up with this enormous resource. And in class, you’ve always got some students who finish early or. So you can develop activities using those word cards, you know, so getting them to test each other, for example, when, if you’ve ever done students testing each other, they’re much harder on [00:55:00] each other than a teacher Ever is.
[00:55:02] They did writing activities, they did sorting activities. They did all kinds of stuff with those words. And every so often I’d go into class early just to see how everybody’s doing, say good morning, do that stuff. And usually there’d be a group of people and they’d be just going through the cards, passing them around having a bit of a chat, doing that sort of stuff.
[00:55:20] So they had regular repetition of that vocabulary and those students grew, their vocabulary grew over that time because they had something very simple, very targeted. Now I know that that strategy was really useful, because usually somebody would steal all of the cards out of the box on the last day of class.
[00:55:39] So you’d go into the class and the whole class would sit there, going somebody stole, you know, you see them look at each other. It’s like, who? Did you take all the cards out of the box? Who did that? And I mean, that means that people think that this is, this is a great enough resource that they’ll actually go to those kinds of lengths.
[00:55:55] Now, something simple, like that means that that vocabulary is given attention. [00:56:00] The learners buy into it. Everybody knows what it’s for. Everybody knows the principles of why we’re doing what we’re doing. And they know that this is something. It’s going to be helpful for everybody. And so it’s like, like a common, you share the responsibility really, and you share that learning and testing of each other and working with those words.
[00:56:22] Now, I don’t currently teach in English for academic purposes class, but if I was going to do that again, any class, I would immediately start that one more time. It’s so simple, so simple and so valuable. Beautiful activity!. That’s a wonderful gift I think to the teachers who are listening to this, to have that, to take away with them from this talk.
[00:56:47] I’ve kind of covered most of it. I think that I’ve done a lot more research since I did the Academic Word List for a start.
[00:56:59] So [00:57:00] one of the dangers of word lists for example, is monkey see, monkey do learning. So we don’t want that. We need these words to be appearing in context, and to be part of rich instruction. Another danger is that people start at A and go to B and go to C. Life doesn’t work like that, vocabulary doesn’t work like that.
[00:57:16] Well, thank you so much for talking to us, Averil. Wonderful.