Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Academic Lexis and Disciplinary Practice: Corpus Evidence for Specificity

Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Academic Lexis and Disciplinary Practice: Corpus Evidence for Specificity

Article excerpt


The presence of unfamiliar words and expressions in academic texts is a serious obstacle to students reading in a second language. EAP has responded to this challenge by taking the view that there is a common core of academic vocabulary which is frequent across an academic register. This paper briefly considers this view by examining the range, frequency, collocation, and meaning of items on the Academic Word List (AWL) in a large multidisciplinary corpus. Our corpus analysis shows that individual lexical items on the list often occur and behave in different ways across disciplines and that words commonly contribute to 'lexical bundles' which also reflect disciplinary preferences. Our findings question the widely held assumption that there is a single core vocabulary needed for academic study and suggests that teachers should assist students towards developing a more restricted, disciplinary-based lexical repertoire.

KEYWORDS: Academic Word List, vocabulary, lexical bundles, disciplinary writing, specificity


Reading in English is consistently shown to be of great concern to Non-Native English speaking students at tertiary level (e.g. Hyland, 1997; Littlewood & Liu, 1996) and understanding previously unencountered 'technical' vocabulary and 'difficult words' appears to cause the greatest trouble (Evans & Green, 2007). A key component of successful language learning is therefore control of the routine patterns of expression (Wray, 2000) and "semi-technical vocabulary" (Farrell, 1990) which students encounter in their disciplinary reading.

The response of materials writers and curriculum developers working in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) has largely involved 'register targeting' by seeking to identify lexical items which are reasonably frequent in a wide range of academic genres but are relatively uncommon in other kinds of texts (Coxhead & Nation, 2001). This vocabulary is seen as contributing an important element to an 'academic style' of writing and being 'more advanced' (Jordan, 1998) than the core 2,000 to 3,000 words that typically comprise around 80% of the words students are likely to encounter in reading English at university (Carter, 1998; Nation, 1990). Vocabulary, in other words, is typically seen as falling into three main groups (Nation, 2001):

1. High frequency words such as those included in West's (1953) General Service List of the most widely useful 2,000 word families in English, providing coverage of about 80% of most texts.

2. An academic vocabulary of words which are reasonably frequent in academic writing and comprise some 8% to 10% of running words of academic texts.

3. A technical vocabulary which differs by subject area and covers up to 5% of texts.

First year undergraduate students are said to find academic vocabulary a particularly challenging aspect of their learning (Li & Pemberton, 1994) because, unlike technical vocabulary, it serves a largely supportive role and items are "not likely to be glossed by the content teacher" (Flowerdew, 1993: 236). Many of these words also occur too infrequently to allow incidental learning (Worthington & Nation, 1996), encouraging researchers and teachers to develop vocabulary lists for the direct teaching of these terms. Teachers have been assisted here by the findings of corpus-based inventories, the most widely used being the Academic Word List (AWL) (Coxhead, 2000; Coxhead & Nation, 2001). This contains 570 word families (the base word plus its inflected forms and transparent derivations) seen as essential for students irrespective of their chosen field of specialization. The 3,112 individual items in this inventory do not occur in West's general service list and were fairly frequent in a corpus of 3.5 million words of academic genres and across a range of disciplines in the arts, commerce, law, and sciences (Coxhead, 2000:221). …

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