Academic Vocabulary
May12

Academic Vocabulary

As many of you will know, the study at university in an English speaking country you’re likely to need the right TOEFL or IELTS score. And that’s a lot of work. Speaking to some of my international classmates though, I’ve come to realise something. Even though they have an excellent command of English and the right score, they don’t always have the tools for the academic setting. They sometimes lack the relevant vocabulary. Vocabulary that many of us take for granted. So what do they need to study? Endless wordlists to increase their vocabulary to the 20’000 mark or something absurd? Not exactly it would seem. In reading Thornbury’s How to Teach Vocabulary I came across an interesting piece of information I’ve encountered before. The restricted number of word families in use in academic settings. Thornbury has some interesting notes on vocabulary and the book is well worth a read – the whole series is actually! Anyway, he firstly notes that a core vocabulary numbering 2000 of the most frequent word families will account for circa 90% of words in use in many written texts. Add to these 2000 a meagre 570 more word families that have been written about recently as being frequently used in academic texts and the reader will have a bridge a large gap. The 570 most frequent academic word families (found here) are said to cover 1 in 10 of those in use in academic texts. Which may not seem like a lot, but when added to the core of 2000, you’re bound to be on pretty solid...

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Size Matters: Vocabulary

How many words do you know? Something that in reality, I consider to be, err, a stupid question. I don’t really care how many words I know, and it doesn’t really matter how many words I know. What matters is that I know the words that I need. Anyway, watching your vocabulary grow is a motivational tool, so perhaps the question isn’t that stupid. The following is a way of kind of approximating your vocabulary size. I read it maybe 2-3 years ago, and unfortunately, I don’t remember where. Actually, in contrast to the introductory ramble, this is something that I do about once every 6 months or so… just for fun. What you need: 1x paper dictionary, 1x pen and paper, 1x calculator (optional). Original version that I read was something like this: Pick say 20 pages in the dictionary and see how many words you know per page. Find the average number of words you know per page. Multiply this average by the number of pages in the dictionary. Voila… rough approximation of either active or passive vocabulary) ** If you’re not sure, Active Vocab is L1 > L2 and Passive Vocab is L2 > L1 ** Modified version that I’ve used with Korean (but it will work with any language): Pick two pages in the dictionary for each letter of the alphabet and find the number of words you know. Find the average. Multiply average by number of pages in the dictionary. Obviously, the more pages you randomly select, the more accurate it can be. But also, the more pages you select, the more tedious it becomes. Remember, it’s just for fun and not a means of truly assessing your vocabulary. It does however, actually show an increase in figures as time goes by, and seeing these numbers climb gives you the sense that your study is actually paying off, even if you haven’t been able to practice conversation (or similar)...

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Study Materials: The Dictionary Debate

Everyone owns one.. at least one. Or at the very least, has access to one. People that don’t even study languages own one. Dictionary play a pretty major role in the lives of people of all ages. They’re set a standard for us to follow… sometimes we disagree, and sometimes we all get along. So how can language learners make the most of them? I’ll steer clear of the descriptive elements and this will be more prescriptive… No, I’m not telling you that you have to follow it, but these are just some ideas that I’ve had from both my own learning and also from observing my students during class. Paper versus electronic: I love paper books and much prefer them to reading on a screen, that is, with the exception of the dictionary. I much prefer electronic dictionaries. By electronic I mean the portable, dedicated, electronic dictionary and not the web-based dictionary, which I also dislike reading but will use if I really need to. It’s all about personal preference here and relatively straight forward. However, in the class, I prefer my students to have a paper dictionary; they’re less distracting and kids don’t rely on them as much as they do the electronic variety because they actually have to read words (shocking I know!) to find what they are looking for. In any case, weigh up the pros and cons of each and make a decision Bilingual Dictionaries: Fantastic for early learners where they don’t have a base strong enough in the target language to decode the meaning. Very easy to use and make it quick to understand a concept. The problems are that they often lack example sentences, so usage can be a little askew from an over-reliance on them. Also, students need to realise that they should cross-check the vocabulary both ways (both ‘to target language’ and ‘from target language’). This will alleviate some of the issues with usage out of context, but not all… nothing is perfect. Another concern, a minor one… batteries die. But c’est la vie right. Monolingual Dictionaries: Once a learner has a strong base in a language they should, in my opinion, be moving to a monolingual dictionary. This isn’t necessary the fastest way to find the meaning, but it has the highest overall benefit to the learner. They have something to work from and they have to read and decode the meaning in the target language. More exposure equals more learning right? Plus, moving away from an over-reliance of the bilingual dictionary and using it as a crutch can actually hinder learning. Although, there are obviously going to be times when the learner...

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Study Methods: Learning Vocabulary

I think I’m safe in assuming that actively studying vocabulary isn’t very popular for most people. It’s something that is often tedious and associated with rote memorisation. This doesn’t have to be the case as there are a few other popular methods out there. Your best bet is to fiddle around and find out what works best for you. For some, rote memorisation is the most effective. For others, they use a mnemonics, space-repetition software (SRS), word lists, continuous and extensive reading, watching TV with a notebook… the list is endless. This article will mostly look at SRS / flashcards and word lists as continuous and extensive reading needs it’s own place. First up, what is SRS? Well, it’s just some software that simulates old-fashioned flashcards working on the Leitner Box system; that is, your cards start at level 1 and each time you find it easier, you move it up a level until you reach level 5. Level 1 cards are shown more frequently than level 2 cards, and even more frequently than level 3 cards and so on. This ensures that you see cards you don’t fully know more often than cards you have a moderate or complete understanding of that only need to be reviewed. There are a few free programs available online (I have Anki and have used Mnemosyne in the past) and some can even be used via a USB flash drive for portability. Personally, I still prefer the feel of card in my hard, managing my own deck of cards and doing manual repetitions with flashcards, but they are sometimes time-consuming to prepare. SRS software is as easy as typing the words in and hitting save.. so in our fast-food society, perhaps SRS will win. Having said that, you can’t exactly pull out your SRS software in a queue in the bank… so… ? (there may be some portable device versions available, I’m not sure… if anyone knows the answer, please let me know) There are a couple of ways to make flashcards (electronic or traditional). Some people prefer learning just the words. I find this often ineffective. Many people believe that you should learn words in context, so it’s best to have an example sentence or phrase on hand. This way you’re not only being exposed to the word you wish to acquire, but also some useful grammatical usage. Even more useful if it’s a phrase of direct interest to you (this is much like sentence mining in Khatzumoto’s 10000 Sentence Method). This way you’re not only getting the word but also a phrase you can slip direct into conversation. Now for...

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