Empowering Educators and Students With the Academic Spoken Word List

December 18, 2017 Victoria White


In today's globalized world, clear communication and understanding are critical to advancing knowledge and research. However, language often becomes a barrier to international collaboration and SuperStock_1589R-8674.jpglearning, especially in academia. Language Learning authors identified this challenge and recently published The Academic Spoken Word List to help bridge the language gaps for English second language learners in higher education. I recently spoke with authors Dr. Thi Ngoc Yen Dang (Victoria University of Wellington), Dr. Averil Coxhead (Victoria University of Wellington), and Dr. Stuart Webb (Western University) about the significance of their study.

Q. What is the Academic Spoken Word List (ASWL) and who are its intended users?

Dang: It is a corpus-based word list that was developed to help second language learners to enhance their comprehension of academic speech in English-medium universities. It includes 1,741 words that these students are likely to encounter often in a wide range of academic disciplines and speech events.

Coxhead: To me, the ASWL is a welcome addition to a major gap in academic vocabulary research.  It supports learners and teachers in decisions on which words are important to learn for university level speaking preparation, and tells us more about the vocabulary in English at tertiary level.

Webb: Second Language Learners can study the ASWL to better understand lectures, seminars, and tutorials. It should have great value in English for General Academic Purposes programs as a resource to help prepare students for university and college studies.

Q. Why was the ASWL needed?

Dang: It was important to develop the ASWL because second language learners need to compehend both their reading materials and academic speech to achieve success at English-medium universities. And research has shown that vocabulary knowledge is closely related to comprehension. So, it is crucial for English for General Academic Purposes Programs to help their learners master the words that they are likely to encounter often across academic settings. While there are a lot of word lists to support students’ comprehension of academic written English, not much is available to help them comprehend academic spoken discourse.

Coxhead: The research on written academic language, such as the AWL (Coxhead, 2000) and the AVL by Gardner & Davies (2014), is helpful for working with written texts, but the ASWL is targeted at spoken academic texts. The ASWL also addresses working with learners at different levels of proficiency, which is something that is not often seen in word list research.

Webb: Much of the support available for second language learners preparing for study at English-medium universities has been devoted to helping them understand academic written text. This is really important because reading makes up a large part of academic study. However, support for comprehension of academic speech is also necessary, and resources in this area have been lacking. The ASWL fills an important need here, and may contribute to greater focus on preparing students to understand academic speech.

Q. What are the key features of the ASWL?

Dang: The Academic Spoken Word List is innovative because it is adaptable to learners’ knowledge of general vocabulary. The Academic Spoken Word List was developed as a complete list, but was then divided into four levels according to different vocabulary sizes. Learners may be able to recognize 92%-96% of the words in academic speech with the aid of this list. Creating the four levels for learners at different stages of lexical development allows teachers and learners to avoid repeatedly targeting known items.

Coxhead: One key feature of this word list is that it is based on a very large spoken academic corpus, and carefully tested on other corpora. Each academic spoken corpus consisted of 13 million words. To our knowledge this is the largest academic spoken corpus that has ever been created.

Webb: The ASWL was designed to represent the vocabulary that occurs in four kinds of academic speech—lectures, seminars, labs, and tutorials. Given the size and composition of the two academic spoken corpora, it is expected that the ASWL can represent the words that students are likely to encounter in their academic studies. The composition of these corpora, the ASWL and its sub-lists are publicly accessible via the Open Science Framework and the IRIS digital repository.

Q. How can you use the ASWL?

Dang: The ASWL can help with setting vocabulary learning goals to improve L2 learners’ comprehension of academic speech. In the article, we have proposed a learning sequence for different groups of learners. This sequence incorporates the Academic Spoken Word List and Nation’s (2012) BNC/COCA word frequency lists. Depending on learners’ current vocabulary levels and their specific learning and teaching context, teachers and learners can use the sequence as a guide to set long-term vocabulary learning goals for learners.

Coxhead: The ASWL research can be used to highlight the importance of vocabulary in spoken academic English for teachers and learners.  The more we know about the vocabulary that learners will encounter in their studies and be expected to use in speaking, the better. Paul Nation’s Four Strands (2007) is a great way to think about vocabulary in EAP courses, and the ASWL can be used in each strand.  See Paul’s (2016) book Making and Using Word Lists for Language Learning and Testing for more.

Webb: The ASWL should be treated as a guide rather than a requirement for learners and teachers to follow. Although the ASWL is presented as a decontextualized word list, this does not mean that these words should be learned and taught solely through decontextualized methods. Knowing a word involves learning different types of vocabulary knowledge. Thus, it is important for teachers and material designers to create activities and materials that allow students to repeatedly encounter these words in speech and use them in different contexts related to their target subject areas. This will help learners to acquire, consolidate, and expand on their knowledge of these words in a meaningful way.

Q. Where do we go from here in this area of research?

Dang, Coxhead, and Stuart: Academic spoken English is an underexplored area of vocabulary research. So, the development of the Academic Spoken Word List has provided a useful basis for future research. Some potential follow-up projects that would be useful are:

• Developing spoken word lists for different disciplinary areas to serve the need of learners in ESP and ESAP programs and Academic Written Word List using the same approach as the ASWL.

• Examining other features of vocabulary in each speech event as well as in other kinds of discourse types (e.g., office hours, conference presentations).

• Developing a test that measures knowledge of the ASWL.

• Examining the words that are likely to be used together with the ASWL words.

• Investigating how word lists like this can be integrated into teaching and learning, and evaluating the success of any such integration.

Dang.jpg Coxhead.jpg Webb.jpg

L-R: Dr. Thi Ngoc Yen Dang (Victoria University of Wellington), Dr. Averil Coxhead (Victoria University of Wellington), and Dr. Stuart Webb (Western University).


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