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Academic Vocabulary in Use

I am reviewing this book not as an expert on EAP (English for Academic Purposes), but rather as a teacher who occasionally has to teach it while concentrating most of the time on other types of ESP. As this includes situations like giving students advice of academic writing despite having studied Physics and therefore writing […]
Reviewed for Teflnet by Alex Case

I am reviewing this book not as an expert on EAP (English for Academic Purposes), but rather as a teacher who occasionally has to teach it while concentrating most of the time on other types of ESP. As this includes situations like giving students advice of academic writing despite having studied Physics and therefore writing nothing longer than 1500 words at university, I was therefore in real need of a compact book to help me and my students. Hopefully reading this review will not only give people a good idea of what this book is like for a non-expert to use, but will also persuade people who think they aren’t expert enough to write reviews for us here on TEFL.net reviews that nothing could be further from the truth!

Academic Vocabulary in Use is the latest in the “…in Use” series that started with the bestselling English Grammar in Use (often known as “Murphy’s”) many years ago. As the topics of the books in the series have progressed from grammar to vocabulary, pronunciation and then more specialist subjects like Marketing and Technical English, some parts have improved but the basic two page spread with presentation on the left hand page and practice on the right format has remained the same. The things that had been introduced over the years in the series and remain here include presentation and practice in longer texts, advice on study skills, more emphasis on collocations, and real examples based on corpora. The last two factors are taken even further in this book, and are perhaps the thing that strikes you most as you flick through and then use it. As is often the case with the results of analysing the data from a language corpus, many of the results are counterintuitive and from reading about 40% of the pages in detail I came up with a list of 50 or so words and phrases that I had no idea were common in academic English and so I might have missed out on teaching (or even knowing myself in a few cases) if I hadn’t had access to this book.

Academic Vocabulary in Use has 50 units divided into 6 sections: “Working with academic vocabulary”, “Word combinations”, “At academic institutions”, “Ways of talking about…”, “Opinions and ideas” and “Functions”. The book starts with a four page introduction (“To the student and the teacher”) and ends with 6 pages of “Reading and Vocabulary”, a guide to phonemic symbols and an answer key.

The introduction suggests that all students do the first nine units and then use any of the others they think are useful in any order. Those nine units are “What is special about academic English?”, “Key nouns”, “Key verbs”, “Key adjectives”, “Key adverbs”, “Phrasal verbs in academic English”, “Key quantifying expressions”, “Words with several meanings” and “Metaphors and idioms”. The left hand presentation pages use formats like tables, tips, example sentences from the Cambridge International Corpus with important words and phrases in bold and/ or underlined and explained, longer texts with explanations underneath, and “Error Warnings”. Most of the rest of the book repeats these same formats. Unlike the original English Grammar in Use and some of the Vocabulary titles in the series, there is little use of pictures to illustrate meanings. As is also true in the rest of the book, there is more information on collocations than I have seen in other self-study vocabulary books. There is also a fair amount of information given on opposites, different parts of speech and different meanings of words, and these are also repeated throughout the book, especially in the second section on “Word combinations”.

The third section, “At academic institutions”, is a nice break from the heavy subjects of the rest of the book. The book explains the UK and US academic systems, how to apply for a course, different courses you can study, study skills and online learning. These units include the obvious vocabulary like “entry requirements”, “submit”, “lectures”, “freshman” and “assignment”, and things I would never have thought of teaching like “rote learning”, “hybrid/ blended course”, “extra-curricular” and “sorority”. In fact, “sorority” was one of the fair few things I didn’t properly understand about the US education system that this book cleared up for me (a British English native speaker). Whether that is a good or a bad thing as far as its use by students goes is something I will come back to later in the review.

Exercise types in the fourth section include sentence transformations, filling in tables, filling in missing words from various kinds of clues, doing maths puzzles (in a unit on Numbers), answering factual questions (in Statistics), making sentences more formal and academic, choosing correct words and finding vocabulary in texts. The last type of exercise is used throughout the book, is not something I remember from other books in the “…in Use” series I have reviewed, and gives an indication of how carefully the authors have thought about inculcating good study skills in the students rather than just filling their heads with language. Most of the other exercise types mentioned above are also used throughout the book, with matching up sentence halves being another popular one that is used once every 6 pages or so. More interesting variations like the maths puzzles mentioned above, a joke, a crossword and a text on Bob Dylan come up fairly infrequently.

The book continues with two more sections, including other useful chapters like “Reporting what others say” and “Describing change” and a few ones that are surprising when you first see them but then make perfect sense like “Evaluation and emphasis”. The Reading and Vocabulary sections then train students to find even more useful vocabulary themselves with exercises based on picking vocabulary out of texts on the psychology of having friends, the geology of Australia etc. The reference sections then give more details on formal and informal academic vocab, numbers, UK and US academic vocab, spelling variations, word formation and abbreviations, with two to four pages per topic. The Key gives a few tips on why particular answers are wrong or right, but is mainly a simple list of answers and more help on this might have been useful. The ten page index also works as a pronunciation guide (with “Standard British Pronunciation”).

If you weren’t already convinced by the pedigree of the series and publisher, the fame of the authors and the prodigious size of the Cambridge International Corpus, hopefully the description of the book above has shown you that the book is packed full of useful and often-used academic vocabulary, including some that would have been easy to ignore without the scientific methodology of using a corpus to search for it. Unlike the Technical English and Business books in this series, every page could be useful for almost any student. As the book is not big on interesting exercises, use of pictures, or up-to-date teaching methodology (its approach is basic PPP, without even much of a discovery approach or the needs analysis and diagnostic testing necessary to make it an ESP approach), its content is obviously its main strength. It is also, however, a sign of its weaknesses.

I didn’t have time to count how many academic English words and expressions the book includes, but the index contains about 1500 words and expressions. For a student who was “good intermediate level” (as suggested on the back of the book) but had never studied academic English or other subjects in English before, I would imagine at least 70% of these words would cause some kind of problem, though this depends at lot on L1 as lots of formal and academic English is similar in Romance languages. Some of that language is, in my opinion, only of use to Advanced learners (e.g. “shed new light on”, “evoke”, “denote” and “nuance”) and even then only for comprehension rather than something they should produce as the practice exercises ask them to. There were even a few things I didn’t know.

If, for the sake of argument, we take 1000 words as the number of words and expressions explained in the book that they didn’t know before picking it up, what are the chances they will know all, most or the most important of them by the time they put the book down? The authors are certainly right to emphasize that students need to do lots of their own reading and study outside of this book, because I can’t see how this book could help most of my students to learn the most useful vocabulary otherwise. Unless they were very motivated, the repetitive and slightly dull vocabulary exercises and sheer amount of vocabulary to learn without much of a guide to which is most needed for productive use and which only needs to be understood or is only of use to the higher level students would soon overwhelm any students who just desperately want the bare minimum they need to get an IELTS 5.5. in reading. Their tendency to fall asleep on trains, libraries, cafes and even classrooms every time they are asked to read something in a non-interactive way also makes the left hand page of explanation possibly only of use to them if they do the exercises in a Test Teach Test way, doing the exercises first and then reading the explanation before they try it again and then check their answers- a method that is not suggested anywhere in the book. To be honest, it would surprise me if Michael McCarthy’s and/ or Felicity O’Dell’s first choice was the PPP methodology used here, as they would have had little option but to use this format given the success of the other books in the “…in Use” series, but this could also be an example of the recent trend in TEFL to concentrate more on what we teach than on how we teach it- one of those things that seem to happen periodically in the history of ELT. My complaints about collocations exercises being boring is also certainly not limited to this book.

I found this book was very useful for me as a teacher wondering what language could be useful for IELTS and other EAP students, both in terms of the chapter headings, types of language covered and specific words and phrases. After teaching the parts of the language from the book that I chose, usually with my own material partly based on this book or on things I found in IELTS etc textbooks, I then found the exercises in the book to be useful homework practice, especially if chosen for specific students who were very motivated or needed extra help on one particular point. If I gave one two page spread from this book every week, though, the students quickly became unmotivated and overwhelmed with the amount of vocabulary. As I usually do when reviewing a self-study book, I also gave the book to a few students to take home and study on their own, giving half of them advice on how to use it and leaving the others to do their own thing with it. The reaction was generally keenness followed by confusion on what section to concentrate on next or getting overwhelmed by the large amount of new vocabulary with little recycling. This was not helped by some very difficult exercises and exercise instructions that even I had to concentrate when reading to understand.

This is a fine reference book, and any teacher of EAP or anyone who writes the next generation of textbooks and self-study EAP books will need a copy on their desks. Whilst I hope that those future writers put a bit more emphasis on how the language is taught and practiced than is in evidence here, I don’t know of any such book as yet and so this will also be the first choice for many students, especially ones who are already regularly reading and/ or writing academic texts, who are at least IELTS 6 level, have a lot of guidance from a teacher or who are very motivated.

A couple of other little points:
– Students will need a good dictionary to make the best book of this book, which I guess is a good thing if it forces them to buy one.
– It seems that a disproportionately large percentage of the “Error warnings” are based on typical errors of speakers of Romance languages, especially Spanish. Many of them would not be particularly useful for my present Japanese and Korean speaking students.

Authors: Michael McCarthy and Felicity O’Dell
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Components: Self-study vocabulary book

Reviewed by Alex Case for TEFL.NET August 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers


  • DS says:

    Very useful indeed.

  • Anne says:

    Thank you for your report. I found it most helpful. I teach English as a second language and sometimes I have to help with IELTS.

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