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Academic Word List | English As A Second Or Foreign Language | Vocabulary

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TEACHING ISSUES The TESOL Quarterly publishes brief commentaries on aspects of English language teaching. Edited by DANA FERRIS University of California, Davis The Academic Word List 10 Years On: Research and Teaching Implications AVERIL COXHEAD Victoria University of Wellington Wellington, New Zealand doi: 10.5054/tq.2011.254528 & It is 10 years since TESOL Quarterly published, ‘‘A New Academic Word List’’ (Coxhead, 2000; reprinted in Teubert & Krishnamurthy, 2007). The AWL is now widely use
  TEACHING ISSUES The TESOL Quarterly  publishes brief commentaries on aspects of English languageteaching. Edited by DANA FERRIS University of California, Davis  The Academic Word List 10 Years On: Research and Teaching Implications   AVERIL COXHEAD Victoria University of Wellington Wellington, New Zealand doi: 10.5054/tq.2011.254528  & It is 10 years since TESOL Quarterly  published, ‘‘A New Academic WordList’’ (Coxhead, 2000; reprinted in Teubert & Krishnamurthy, 2007).The AWL is now widely used in English for academic purposes (EAP)classrooms in many countries, in a wide range of materials, in vocabulary tests, and as a major resource for researchers. In this article I reflect onthe impact of the Academic Word List (AWL) by looking at commonly asked questions about the list: What is the AWL? Is the AWL useful/adequate for a range of learners’ needs? How can I help students learnacademic vocabulary? What materials using the AWL are available? Andfinally, When are you going to update the AWL?  WHAT IS THE AWL? The AWL is a list of 570 word families. An example of a word family is benefit  , beneficial  , beneficiary  , beneficiaries  , benefited  , benefiting  , and benefits  .The word families in the AWL included stems plus all affixes up to andincluding Level Six of Bauer and Nation’s (1993) scale. The list wasdeveloped using a written academic corpus of 3.5 million running words.The corpus was divided into four discipline areas, arts, commerce, law,and science, each with approximately 875,000 running words. Thecorpus contained 414 texts which were balanced for length as much as TESOL QUARTERLY Vol. 45, No. 2, June 2011 355  possible. It contained textbooks, articles, book chapters, and laboratory manuals. The main aim was that these materials should represent, asmuch as possible, the reading of first-year students at a university (Coxhead, 1998, 2000).Four key principles guided the selection of words for the AWL. First,the 2,000 most frequent word families of West’s (1953) General Service List of English Words  (GSL) would not be included in the count. Thisdecision was made because the purpose of the AWL was not generalEnglish but specifically academic vocabulary. It was a controversialdecision, because the GSL has been criticized for its age. The GSL is yet to be replaced. The three other selection principles were frequency,range, and uniformity. The word families had to occur 100 times ormore in each of the four disciplines of the corpus (frequency), in 15 ormore of the subject areas (range), and over 10 times in the fourdisciplines (uniformity). The AWL is divided into 10 sublists. The first sublist contains the 60 most frequent word families in the AWL, thesecond sublist contains the next 60 most frequent word families, and soon. Coxhead (n.d.) has the headwords and sublists of the AWL. TABLE 1Studies Investigating AWL Distribution in Texts Study CorpusNumber of running wordsPercent cover-age of the AWLCoxhead (2000a,2000b)Fiction 3.5 million 1.4Coxhead (unreported) Newspapers 1 million 4.5Cobb & Horst (2004) Learned  section of theBrown corpus (Francis &Kucera, 1979)14, 283 11.60Hyland & Tse (2007) Sciences, engineering,and social sciences, written by professionaland student writers3,292,600 10.6Chen & Ge (2007) Medical research articles 190,425 10.073Konstantakis (2007) Business 1 million 11.51Coxhead & Hirsh(2007)Science 1.5 million 8.96 Ward (2009) Engineering 271,000 11.3Martı´nez, Beck, &Panza (2009) Agricultural sciencesresearch articles826,416 9.06 Vongpumivitch,Huang, & Chang(2009) Applied linguisticsresearch papers1.5 million 11.17Li & Qian (2010) Finance 6.3 million 10.46Coxhead, Stevens, &Tinkle (2010)Pathway series of second-ary science textbooks279,733 7.05356 TESOL QUARTERLY   On average, the AWL covers 10% of the vocabulary in the writtenacademic corpus it was based on. Table 1 documents the coverage of the AWL in a number of corpus-based studies over the last 10 years.Table 1 illustrates how the nature of a corpus can impact the coverageof the AWL. In these studies, most, if not all, the AWL word familiesappear. Note that the coverage figures of AWL over the variousuniversity-level corpora are consistently around 10%. IS THE AWL USEFUL/ADEQUATE FOR A RANGE OFLEARNERS’ NEEDS? The purpose of the AWL was to help teachers of EAP classes to set goals for their students’ vocabulary learning. Pre-university EAP classesin New Zealand are typically made up of learners from different language backgrounds and various subject areas. The AWL has been thesubject of some discussion in the literature recently, in terms of whetherthere really is a general academic vocabulary. Hyland and Tse (2007)suggest that some of the words in the AWL have different meaningsdepending on the subject area. They argue that teachers need to helpstudents deepen their understanding of the nature and behavior of  words in specific academic disciplines. It is good to see such researchthrow light on the behavior of AWL words in context. Future researchneeds to be based on more balanced corpora that represent a widerrange of subjects within a university. More work is also needed toestablish whether words really are very different across different subject areas. For example, is theory  in biology not related at all to theory  inpsychology (Nation, personal communication, 17 January 2011)? A study by Coxhead (2011) illustrates how secondary teachers show keenawareness of everyday words occurring in everyday texts as well in morespecialized texts and raise awareness for their students of a specializedmeaning of an everyday word in their subject area (such as weight  inphysics). A number of subject-specific vocabulary lists have been developedrecently to address the needs of particular learners (e.g., Wang, Liang,& Ge, 2008; Coxhead & Hirsh, 2007; Ward, 2009; Chung, 2009). Thisresearch tends to approach specialised vocabulary in different ways. Oneis to use the GSL and AWL as base lists and build subject-specific listsfrom there (e.g., Coxhead & Hirsh, 2007). Another approach is to start from scratch, as Ward (2009) does with his basic list of engineering words. Teachers need to take these different starting points into account because the same words could occur in different lists. Cell  , for example,is one of the most common words in both Wang et al.’s (2008) medical word list and Coxhead and Hirsh’s (2007) science list for EAP. TEACHING ISSUES 357   Another use for the AWL is in testing. The Vocabulary Levels Test contains a section using the AWL (see Schmitt, Schmitt, & Clapham,2001; Coxhead, 2006; Nation, 2001; Schmitt, 2010). Other morepedagogically oriented work, such as Murphy and Kandil (2004), looksat the AWL and pronunciation. In learner corpora research, we see a callfrom Paquot (2007) for an AWL that is more productively oriented,based on the language that learners themselves produce. For more onthe AWL in the context of other vocabulary research, see Nation and Webb (2010) and Schmitt (2010). HOW CAN I HELP STUDENTS LEARN ACADEMIC VOCABULARY?  Just as the AWL was compiled in a principled way, it is important that any teaching and learning of vocabulary from lists (and in general)needs to be done in a principled way. Coxhead (2006) contains adiscussion on acquiring new words and working with the AWL using aprincipled approach. Nation’s (2007) four strands create a balanced vocabulary program. These four strands are meaning-focused input (that is, learning through reading and listening), meaning-focused output (learning through writing and speaking), language-focused learning(e.g., deliberate study of pronunciation, spelling, meaning, andgrammar), and fluency development. There should be equal opportu-nities for learning vocabulary across all of these strands. Any teachingactivity should actively engage learners in working with target vocabulary that matches one of these strands. See Hirsh and Coxhead (2009) formore on working with the four strands and vocabulary lists.One of the problems with developing a word list is that some learnersand some teachers focus solely on working with the list alphabetically,for instance, starting at  abandon  and ending at  widespread  . Along the way,they meet strings of words that look similar, such as commence  , comment  , commission  , and commit  . See Nation (2000) on the dangers of learning words that look similar, and help on how to avoid these difficulties. Another problem is that students might never find the words in context in materials they are reading. They also might never practice the wordsin any meaningful way. For example, learners might focus only on thespelling and meaning of words, but not on using the words themselves inspeaking and writing.The question of the AWL and lower-level EAP students has becomemore frequent in the last few years as universities in countries such asNew Zealand, Australia, and Great Britain receive applications fromlanguage learners with lower levels of proficiency than in previousdecades (Neil Harris, personal communication, 7 January 2011). 358 TESOL QUARTERLY 
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