Tuesday, December 4, 2012

GSAAL Journal Club: Incedental Vocabulary Through Reading

Applied Linguistics and TESOL students at GSAAL Journal Club.

In this week's Journal Club for the NAU's Graduate Student Association of Applied Linguistics (GSAAL) group, we discussed an article that looked at the incidental vocabulary learned through an ELT course book. Ph.D. student Anna Gates led the discussion on the following article:

Matsuoka, W., & Hirsh, D. (2010). Vocabulary learning through reading: Does an ELT course book provide good opportunities? Reading in a Foreign Language, 22, pp. 56–70.

Anna opened the discussion by asking the following questions: As teachers, do you feel the textbooks you have used in our own teaching have provided guidance in what vocabulary to teach? Or,  have you thought before about what kind of vocabulary the textbook is providing your students?

Most of the the teachers mentioned that the activities provided in our textbooks leave much to be desire and and often contain no systematic approach to the vocabulary used in the texts. For us, this means we end up having to supplement the textbook with activities and materials of our own.

The Study and Discussion

The study looked at the text book New Headway Student’s Book Upper-Intermediate (Soars & Soars, 2005). In our group discussion we mentioned how it seemed strange that this was a text book that none of us had heard of. The study seemed to provide little rationale for why they chose this particular textbook. Although it could be this textbook is common in universities in Australia, where the study took place. It would have been more helpful if this had been mentioned in the study.

There were two different research questions considered in the study:

1. What are the vocabulary demands of reading an ELT course book?
2. What vocabulary learning opportunities are provided in an ELT course book?

What the researchers wanted to find out was how many repetitions and occurrences occurred in the text. This study was also a case study of only one text, which is a limitation pointed out in through our discussion.

The researchers built a corpus of 45, 000 words from the text. Then they created different vocabulary lists that fit into 6 different vocabulary lists, such as the Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000) and the GSL. Some of us found it somewhat odd that this study used the GSL, especially since it is based on West's (1953) work. But the convenience of these lists through Tom Cobb's website is probably part of the reason for this popularity despite the GSL being so dated.

Anna mentioned how they identified the 187 words that fell into those categories and put them into increasing frequency, then divided this number by six. So every 31st word on the list was the one they were going to look at. This seems to have not been much of a random sample, as Anna pointed out.

The program used in this study was the Range software, which Tom Cobb's website has adapted.

Results from the study showed that 83.1 % of the words fell within the first 1K word list, while 6.9% fell in the 2nd 1K word list. Only 2.1% fell within the AWL. The authors of the study point out the pre-teaching of AWL words would allow for students attaining more than 95% coverage of words in the chapters of the text, that is provided students already knew the words from the 1K and 2K list.

Anna pointed out that the textbook used in the study did not provide a lot of opportunity for acquiring new academic words. This might critique might be applicable to other coursebooks, but it was pointed out that this might be changing due to the influence of corpus linguistics and publishers attempts to provide a rationale for sequencing content to better cover the AWL. Still, our own impressions as teachers is that some of these publishers could do a lot more to help address the teaching and integration of vocabulary. Most teachers commented that the textbooks they are using generally make an attempt at covering AWL words, but how they go about doing this varies and is not always effective.

A further limitation of the study we discussed was that it is not apparent how much of the text students actually read. One teacher pointed out that even after almost a semester of reading from a course text, students in her class still didn't understand the meaning of a word that had occurred in numerous chapters. So it would seem that there are a lot of assumptions being made about how much noticing of vocabulary is occurring through incidental exposure, not to mention whether students are actually reading a portion of the text that includes the vocabulary words. I pointed out that a common way that teachers use to get at reading comprehension (other means such as graphic organizers are more appropriate) is through the use of comprehension questions, which problematically result in students scanning for the answers in the text. This means it is unlikely students will actually read all of the text, which makes incidental vocabulary learning through a course textbook questionable.

As I'm currently teaching an advanced reading and vocabulary course in the IEP, I felt this article was effective for eliciting some great discussion about the lack of vocabulary gained through reading course texts. It reaffirmed to me that as a teacher I need to bring in supplementary vocabulary materials and explicit instruction because the textbook publishers are not likely to make vocabulary the priority it needs to be.


Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 213–238.

Soars, L., & Soars, J. (2005). New headway student's book (Upper–Intermediate). UK: Oxford University Press.

West, M. (1953). A general service list of English words. London: Longman, Green & Co.

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