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Review ~ English for Academic Study: Vocabulary

Very systematic self-study for the first five sublists of the Academic Word List, including training in what EAP students need to know about vocabulary.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Alex Case
English for Academic Study: Vocabulary

English for Academic Study: Vocabulary

Although I’m a fan of Academic Vocabulary in Use (which I reviewed here five years ago), I’ve long been looking for an alternative that is lower level, covers less stuff more thoroughly, and concentrates more on the language that I think the majority of my EAP students really need at this stage – perhaps even something I can recommend to IELTS students too (rather than warning them not to waste their time with it until they’ve passed).

Garnet Education’s English for Academic Study: Vocabulary Study Book takes a very different approach. Firstly, it’s purely for self-study. More importantly, it’s based directly on the General Service List of 2,000 frequently used word families (GSL) and (mainly) the first 300 word families from the Academic Word List (AWL). The AWL contains vocabulary which is common in academic writing but not in the GSL. The GSL words are used to introduce the concepts needed to learn vocabulary (multi-meaning words, word classes, word families, word parts, collocations and word grammar) in the first five units, then these aspects of the first five sublists of the AWL are explored in the last five units. (The AWL is arranged into sublists by frequency, making the first five sublists the most frequent examples of the AWL).

The last five chapters have virtually identical formats and exercise types, with the language getting more difficult as the vocabulary in the sublists gets a bit more obscure. In Task 1 students match 10 to 14 words to their definitions, using examples in context to help them. The sentences and texts giving context are split by topic, such as Environment, Travel and Business and finance in Unit 10. The definitions are given in dictionary format, although as no source is given I guess the author wrote them. This is presumably to train students to use monolingual dictionaries (something that is emphasised throughout the book), but this might have been a good place to show some examples of academic defining of terms. Students then put the same words into example sentences.

In Task 2 students look at multiple meanings of another ten words from that sublist, this time choosing the right dictionary definition for the word in the context given. This provides further useful practice of guessing from context and includes potential student problems such as different meanings in different academic fields, more general and more specific meanings, and different meanings in general English and EAP (without these things being specifically mentioned). There are examples of words where the multiple meanings aren’t really important (because they are actually very similar or because only meaning is important to most EAP students), but I can understand this as the section is also an excuse to introduce 10 words from the AWL. More seriously, there is a danger of students getting distracted by learning definition they don’t need, and so I would have cut it down to two possible meanings much more often than is done in the book.

In Task 3 students check parts of speech of words in their dictionaries and then put the right forms into sentences. Students then do something similar for Word Families in Task 4. Similar kinds of fairly standard exercises then fill tasks 5 and 6, with the only thing being particularly up to date and original about it is the amount of space given to word grammar. Each unit then ends with a list of more specialist vocabulary for areas such as health and science.

As I said above, most of the exercises are fairly good practice of the aspects of vocabulary that are being presented, but much easier to justify simply as a way of getting students to look up the vocabulary in their dictionaries. More thorough introductions to word grammar etc are given in the first five units.

The exercise types in the first five units are fairly similar to the later ones, but they cover the aspects of vocabulary in more detail. For example, after getting students to guess which of multiple meanings a word has from its context, Unit 1 also looks at words that change meaning with their word class (an address/ to address). An exercise I particularly liked is using nouns and verbs to connect ideas (cohesion) in examples like “Supporters of Darwin’s theories believe that human life evolved gradually over millions of years. This belief is strongly opposed by creationists”. Verbs followed by wh- words (doubt whether, explain how) in the Word Grammar unit was totally new to me. Although the words are from the General Service List, the example sentences are generally academic, which is a nice touch.

Teaching the Academic Word List as it stands is by no means universally accepted as the best way of improving vocabulary for academic skills. However, this book shows its main advantage, which is to provide a good excuse to concentrate on a core set of vocabulary, making sure students understand and practise it thoroughly. It is also easy to find other practice such as online exercises for the same words. This does raise the question of whether students could find as much practice for free online. While this is possible for the permanently online, the motivational effect of having a structured book which is manageable enough to work through is probably worth the cover price for most.

This book also shows some weaknesses of the AWL, though. In particular, the exercise where students choose the meaning from the multiple ones available shows some AWL words to be a collection of very specialised meanings which are useless for 70% of students but are used enough by the 30% to have snuck into the list. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why these couldn’t have been edited out of the vocabulary included in the book, and generally an adapted AWL would seem to make more sense than just the first five sublists as they are. The book could well have benefitted from being a bit shorter, or it could have stayed the same length by taking the full AWL and then editing it down. There is also of course also other useful EAP vocab which is not on the list. As this book is written in conjunction with the University of Reading where the author works, I imagine he’d have to undertake a five year research project to justify such choices to his academic colleagues, but personally I would have been quite happy to trust his pedagogic judgement!

Having said all of that, I’m still at least as convinced by this approach of using the AWL as I am by the more directly corpus-based approach of books like Academic Vocabulary in Use, and this book may well leapfrog that title in my list of recommendations for students who are going to be studying in English, at least until a CD ROM or app version appears. I also now have both of those titles on my desk next to me right now, having just finished planning my next Academic Writing class, and I’m guessing they will be staying there for a fair while yet.

Reviewed by Alex Case for TEFL.NET May 2013
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers

One Comment

  • Jonathan says:

    I’ve been using this vocabulary book with my IELTS students for a few years. I love it. I actually use just the first 5 chapters – especially 4 (collocations) and 5 (Word Grammar). My students don’t really need to actually use the AWL as the class is on Writing. So I don’t do chapters 6 to 10. But the early chapters allow me to “teach them how to fish”, so to speak – i.e. explaining to them how vocabulary works. I think this is one of the better/best books out there in this area.

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