29 April 2015

It’s only words…

By Dr Ida Fatimawati Binti Adi Badiozaman

“Excuse me teacher, how to say…?”, “Madam, how to write this more formally?”, “Can I use Google translate?”, “Which word should I use from the dictionary to mean the same thing?”

These excerpts are some of the most common exchanges within the academic reading and writing classes that I have taught. They reveal not only the challenges that the learners face as part of their literacy acquisition, but a more pressing concern of their lack of academic vocabulary.  

Vocabulary plays a vital role in language proficiency and literacy development. Studies have indicated that a second language learners’ lexical or vocabulary knowledge could determine the quality of their competency in both receptive (listening and reading) and productive skills (speaking and writing). This is because with adequate lexical knowledge, a learner has sufficient input to partake in productive skills, namely oral communication and written work. Similarly, lexical competence also ensures ability to cope with various types of reading.

Since there are a very large number of words in English, the usefulness of a word is measured by its frequency of occurrence. For this reason, a distinction is made between the high frequency words of the language, as represented by the most frequent 2000 words recorded in the General Service List, and the large number of low frequency words of the language. Additionally there are also specialised vocabulary and sub-technical vocabulary such as the Academic Word List. The Academic Word List refers to words that appear with great frequency in a broad range of academic texts. To achieve reasonable comprehension, 98% of all the words in any text must be known.

It has also been suggested that that knowledge of 10 000 frequent words may be required to cope with the challenges of university study in a second language as it ensures comprehension of challenging academic texts. This is disconcerting since a study by Kaur (2013) which investigated Malaysian pre-degree students’ vocabulary size revealed that the learners have a mastery level of only 1000 to 3000 words, which is far below the minimum level required for tertiary education. A further analysis of 360 Malaysian undergraduates’ vocabulary knowledge revealed that out of the 360 students; only 10% passed the University Word List (UWL) test. Note that the UWL test assesses students’ vocabulary knowledge of academic terms.

There is a strong relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension at all levels of language proficiency. According to Averil Coxhead (2012) who is a Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics (in Victoria University of Wellington) and the author of Essentials of Teaching Academic Vocabulary, for reading authentic texts, a comprehension of a minimum of 3000 written word families is required, including 83% of the Academic Word List. Thus, for learners with lexical weakness, this would severely impact on not only their reading, but also writing competence, which in turn impacts on their ability to fulfil course requirements.

Despite the value of vocabulary in ensuring second language acquisition and subsequent academic performance, the emphasis on vocabulary in the Malaysian education context is often overlooked. There is a lack of explicit vocabulary instruction and vocabulary learning strategies prior to university. This is disconcerting as not only are all subjects taught in English, but also the demands in higher learning institutions often entail written-based assessments, be it in the form of large extended writing (e.g. projects, proposal and reports) or short response essays (e.g. examinations and quizzes). Clearly, as students face increasingly cognitively challenging tasks, the vocabulary demand will intensify.

It is likely that there is a wide lexical gap between students’ vocabulary knowledge and what is demanded in the university academic setting. Possessing limited or insufficient vocabulary can hinder the learning process for university students when they have to listen to academic lectures, give presentations, read and comprehend texts and write papers. In fact, a research done by Gebril and Plakans in 2013 on how vocabulary impacted on students ability to write revealed that a proficiency threshold must be crossed for students to be able to synthesise information appropriately from the source text in their writing.

Clearly, there is a need to diagnose the vocabulary knowledge of learners in order to design and prescribe effective programmes of strategies for vocabulary expansion. The findings would provide potentially useful information for implementing a functional classroom practice which may include promoting explicit vocabulary instruction by focusing on the academic word list and developing independent vocabulary enhancement skills in language classrooms.

Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.” – Wilkins, 1972

Dr Ida Fatimawati Binti Adi Badiozaman is a lecturer with the Faculty of Language and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable atifabadiozaman@swinburne.edu.my