From general to specific: Materials for EAP vocabulary teaching

In this post, MaWSIG Joint Events Coordinator Clare Maas follows up on some of the questions that were raised in the Q&A session at her Meet MaWSIG webinar. The recording of the webinar is available here.

The first few minutes of my talk are not included in the recording, so I’ll summarise my introduction briefly before I respond to some of the questions that came up in the discussion. 

I have often observed a need for more structured vocabulary instruction in EAP courses.

It seems to be easily forgotten among the study skills and grammar progression emphasis in many syllabi. I discussed this in an article I recently co-wrote with my colleague Christiane Resch (2020). 

‘Knowing’ vocabulary

What does it mean for someone to really ‘know’ a word? In most sources on this topic, you find a very similar list of aspects that contribute to this knowledge: denotative meaning, connotations, lexicogrammar, collocations, colligations, and register.

It also makes a difference whether a lexical item will need to become part of someone’s receptive (passive) or productive (active) vocabulary knowledge. Knowing a word receptively means we understand it when reading /listening – so knowing its denotative meaning and connotations is probably enough. Productive knowledge means we can use it ourselves accurately and appropriately – and for this we need to internalise the other aspects about the vocab item, too. 

Materials for teaching vocabulary

The main message of my webinar was my summary of insights from research on how to teach vocabulary so that students really ‘know’ it: We need to provide numerous opportunities for students to deliberately engage with suitably selected, context-embedded vocabulary. On my final slide I summarised the key points from the rest of my talk looking at how to do this effectively. 

One question came up about this summary: What does this 6+ mean? 

People need to encounter and use a lexical item multiple times before they can really be said to “know” it. In the relevant research, estimates start at around six times – so at least six encounters are necessary for a word to be learnt (Laufer & Rozovski-Roitblat, 2015).

Selecting suitable vocabulary

People asked in the chat box: How can we rank the words’ levels to help us select what to teach? / What tool did you use to highlight the different CEFR word levels in the text? / I just tried out vocabkitchen.com – How do you get the system to give you the vocabulary levels? 

The examples I showed came from VocabKitchen. This is one of several free online tools that you can use to ascertain the CEFR levels of words, or their inclusion on the (New) Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000). Once you’ve copied your text and profiled it, by clicking “CEFR” for example, you can click on the individual CEFR levels at the top to show or remove the colour highlighting for certain levels.

Still, as I said in my webinar, we obviously can’t and don’t need to teach everything that is on the (N)AWL or highlighted as a certain CEFR level just because an online tool finds it within our sample text. Instead, we’ll probably pick a ‘set’ to focus on, e.g. nouns made with the -tion affix, Latinate verbs, etc. In addition, we need to try to make sure that the lexical items we focus on and practise also reoccur and are reencountered by students throughout the course.

Numerous opportunities & Context embedding

One question that came up on this topic was: Do you pick vocabulary and then look for context? Or pick context and then find words in the context? 

It depends. As I said in the webinar, I take two main approaches to making vocabulary teaching materials from reading texts, which basically correspond to the two parts of this question: 1) We have vocabulary items we want students to learn: In this case, I would look for a context in which they often occur, and then either write a text using them or insert them into a suitable text by replacing known synonyms with the new vocabulary. This ‘sneaking’ of new vocabulary into various texts that students read, even if it is not the focus of any activities, can help us ensure that students repeatedly encounter it in a suitable context. 2) We have a text which gives us a context and want to focus on the vocabulary in it: In this case, I would check CEFR levels and word lists to determine which vocabulary is likely to be new and useful to my students, select a suitable set, then design activities to help them notice/practise those words and phrases. 

Connected to that, someone asked: Can we select the vocabulary we are going to teach according to the contents of the academic texts students are going to read? Are there any other methods? 

Yes, I think this is one good way of selecting vocabulary to focus on in teaching and materials, as the language will be highly relevant to the students. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking it’s an EAP instructor’s job to teach the jargon and specific vocabulary for subject-specific concepts! Particularly if there are students from different disciplines in one EAP class, it’s probably better to focus on more general academic vocabulary that is likely to be useful and relevant to all of them. Here, I might focus on typical vocabulary and language features found in a certain text type or part of a text, e.g. reports or abstracts.

It’s also important to show students strategies for deducing meaning, ways of using reference tools, and techniques for learning vocabulary items on their own, which they can apply independently when reading the specific discipline’s academic texts.

Engagement

Firstly, there was a question regarding my overall approach: Can you repeat how Bloom is applied here? 

I try to create series of activities that progress through The Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive processes: moving from activities that promote understanding, to applying and analysing, then evaluating, and finally in a more productive stage, to creating, i.e. producing things with the new language, which are further evaluated and improved. It’s a framework that I think a lot of people find generally useful for creating EAP materials.

For those looking for a list of possible activities that promote deliberate engagement with vocabulary, I have compiled the relevant slides into one document here.

Regarding the gap fills I showed as examples of activities where students apply new vocabulary: Do you have a resource that has gap fill activities like that made? Or did you make them yourself? 

There are quite a few books and resources that include activities like these. For example, the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice (OUP) series or Academic Vocabulary in Use (CUP). One of the example activities I showed during the webinar was adapted from a collocations dictionary which includes some practice exercises. The other one I made myself, using example sentences from learner dictionaries and the SKeLL database

Overall, I do often look at published coursebooks and workbooks to see what kinds of exercises they use, and then make my own based on the vocabulary that is most relevant to my target students. If you’re going to write your own, especially gap-fill, activities, there are a couple of key things to bear in mind. Firstly, the examples need to be realistic and unambiguous, so I suggest taking them from authentic texts or corpora. Moreover, the activity needs to be written in a way that limits the number of possible correct answers (especially if you’re doing multiple-choice or making materials for self-study) – unless you want to discuss the suitability of various answers in a lesson.  

And, as a final note here, you can always extend gap fill and ‘understanding’-focused exercises by asking students to explain their answers and analyse why the answers are right or why other answers are less suitable (this is ‘analysing’ on Bloom’s Taxonomy). Alternatively, you could use explanations and analysis as part of paraphrasing activities, for example, with sentences taken from students’ previous work or non-expert academic sources such as texts on JSTOR Daily. 

Someone later asked about the Correction/Improvement Tables, which I presented as an activity for evaluating and producing new vocabulary in context: The “improvement table” with Phrase / What’s wrong / Reason / Source  is a wonderful idea, but it’s difficult for me to find a Source. Is there a different way? 

I’d emphasise that it’s less important to cite a certain source with a page number reference etc. than finding out which source types are most helpful for which types of issues with academic vocabulary. This is important in helping students develop independent learning strategies and resources. That way they know where to look for help in future if they’re facing similar issues, e.g. dictionary, thesaurus, collocations tool, etc. 

One follow-up question was asked at the end: What sources do you recommend to teach students of technical fields? (ESP) 

I’d highly recommend collaborating with the subject/content instructors and using some texts from the introductory textbooks on the subject as the basis for ESP vocabulary teaching and materials. There are also books available that may help you. Garnet and Pearson/Longman, for example, both have ESP titles in fairly technical fields. Other publishers do, too, of course, but these are the ones I’m more familiar with. You might also be interested in Introducing Course Design in English for Specific Purposes (Routledge).  

References

  • Armstrong, P. (2010). Bloom’s taxonomy. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [23 March 2021] from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/ 
  • Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 213–238.   http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3587951 
  • Laufer, B. & B. Rozovski-Roitblat. (2015). Retention of new words: Quantity of encounters, quality of task, and degree of knowledge. Language Teaching Research, 19(6), 687–711. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362168814559797
  • Maas, C. & C. Resch. (2020). Keynote: From general to academic: making materials for EAP vocabulary teaching and learning. IATEFL Voices, 277, 5–7. 

Woodrow, L. (2017). Introducing course design in English for specific purposes. Abingdon: Routledge.

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