Thursday, September 06, 2007

AWL washed up?

I have a good deal invested in the Academic Word List (AWL). I have developed a lot of materials based on it and even spent many hours writing definitions and collecting example sentences for the AWL words (available on the Simple English Wiktionary). I have done so because I found the arguments for such a list compelling, because I believed the AWL was well designed, and because the results struck me as having good face validity. Many students have come back to me after beginning their post-secondary studies and said how valuable the AWL has been to them. (I woul also note that our program is small and we do not have the ability to stream students by major.)

But this past June, Ken Hyland and Poly Tse published an article in TESOL Quarterly called 'Is there an "academic vocabulary"?' Here's the abstract:

This article considers the notion of academic vocabulary: the assumption that students of English for academic purposes (EAP) should study a core of high frequency words because they are common in an English academic register. We examine the value of the term by using Cox-head's (2000) Academic Word List (AWL) to explore the distribution of its 570 word families in a corpus of 3.3 million words from a range of academic disciplines and genres. The findings suggest that although the AWL covers 10.6% of the corpus, individual lexical items on the list often occur and behave in different ways across disciplines in terms of range, frequency, collocation, and meaning. This result suggests that the AWL might not be as general as it was intended to be and, more importantly, questions the widely held assumption that students need a single core vocabulary for academic study. We argue that the different practices and discourses of disciplinary communities undermine the usefulness of such lists and recommend that teachers help students develop a more restricted, discipline-based lexical repertoire.


I wondered if the Hyland & Tse study's results had anything to do with the small corpus size. Their corpus is only 3.3 million words, somewhat smaller than Coxhead's 3.5 million-word corpus. Nowhere do they examine whether their results are statistically significant and I'm afraid that my stats are not up to the task either. But there's a much larger corpus that we can compare results against to see if the findings hold up: the British National Corpus using the VIEW interface.

At one point, Hyland & Tse write,

Table 6 shows the main meanings for selected words with different overall frequencies in the AWL together with their distributions. The first four are from our high frequency list, with occurrences above the overall mean, and show that even where uses are very frequent, preferred uses still vary widely, with social science students far more likely to meet consist as meaning "to stay the same" and science and engineering students very unlikely to come across volume meaning " a book or journal series" unless they are reading book reviews.

Where they talk about consist as meaning "to stay the same", they are referring to the word family and, I assume, to the words consistent and consistently. Here is the relevant data from Table 6.

WordsMeaningNat sciEngSoc sci

ConsistStay same34%25%55%

made up of66%75%45%
(As published, 'stay same' for Eng is 15, but all other numbers sum to 100%, so I assume it's a typo).

So, what happens when we look at the same numbers in the BNC?

WordsMeaningNat sciEngSoc sciPolit & law

ConsistStay same36%28%48%49%

made up of64%72%52%51%

The range drops from 30% to 20% but is still notable. I'll poke around a bit more and see what I turn up.


Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Reynolds,

Like you I have invested a considerable amount of time developing online exercises in Academic Vocabulary, largely based on the AWL. And like you my reaction on reading the Hyland and Tse article was "Thanks a bunch!" (or words to that effect).

I have unsuccessfully searched around in your blog for a follow-up to your original posting. I'd be most interested to know if you have gone any further on this?

My online exercises are posted on the website of Frankfurt International School at:
Academic Vocabulary

(not quite finished yet)

Paul Shoebottom

Brett said...

Hi, Paul

I wrote to Ken Hyland, about a number of the points in the paper. He was quite gracious in his reply and said, among other things, "Please don't get us wrong. We agree that the AWL is a truly impressive piece of work and probably helpful for general EAP purposes and early levels of study. It does not, however, provide EAP students with a universal 'semi-technical' vocab irrespective of discipline."