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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue D ::: February 04

Some Findings on the Academic Vocabulary Skills of Language-Minority Community College Students

by Maricel G. Santos
"The vocabulary first of all, especially when it's long words, it gets me confused and it make me feel like if I don't understand one word, then I wouldn't understand the other ... that would [make] me stop, like ok, this is getting me crazy!"

This comment was made by Louie (a pseudonym), a 20-year old Vietnamese community college student, when asked what he found most challenging about reading his academic textbooks. Louie's frustration with the vocabulary demands of his college reading is likely shared by many language-minority students who are making the transition from English as a second language (ESL) coursework to content courses designed for native English speakers. For students who are new to a content area such as psychology, technical words like cognitive, dissociation, and psychoanalysis present a challenge. For students who are not yet proficient reading academic texts, academic words - such as nonetheless, illustrate, and proportion, that are commonly used in textbooks across a range of subject areas (Nation, 1990; Coxhead, 2000) - may also be unfamiliar. While the meanings of technical words are often reinforced by class lectures and discussions, students may be expected to already know the meanings of academic words (Farrell, 1990). Knowledge of academic words has been found to differentiate academically well-prepared from under-prepared college students from all backgrounds (Kuehn, 1996).

Many adult English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) practitioners recognize the link between reading comprehension and vocabulary growth (Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Nagy, 1988). However, it's not always clear which words we should teach language-minority students to prepare them for college-level reading. In a study of typical community college textbooks, I found that one out of every six words, or roughly 16 percent of the words in the textbook sample, were academic words (Santos, 2000). This proportion confirmed for me the importance of this area of word knowledge in college reading, particularly in light of research indicating that readers often struggle to read independently when about two percent of the words in a text are unknown (Carver, 1994). The prevalence of academic vocabulary in college reading material is one of the reasons I decided to focus my doctoral dissertation on the academic vocabulary skills of language-minority community college students. The language-minority students in the study were either enrolled in advanced ESOL classes or in their first semester taking regular content courses at a community college in urban New England. In this article, I describe the general design of the study and highlight some findings that may help adult basic education (ABE) and ESOL practitioners understand how academic words can be taught and learned effectively. 

The Study
There were two parts to my study. In part one, I administered an academic vocabulary test called the University Word Levels Test (Beglar & Hunt, 1999) to the community college students. The sample included language-minority students in advanced ESOL, language-minority students in introductory psychology classes, and native English-speaking students enrolled in the same introductory psychology class. These data allowed me to examine how the academic vocabulary knowledge of language-minority students compared to that of native English-speaking students and to explore student characteristics that might be related to differences in academic word knowledge. In part two of my study, I worked with a focal group of 10 language-minority students. I interviewed them about their reading habits and perceptions of academic reading. I also examined the kinds of strategies the students used to figure out unknown words in an academic text and probed how well they knew academic words. My analysis of vocabulary assessment and interview data yielded several observations. I highlight four trends here:

1 The native English-speaking students exhibited stronger academic vocabulary skills than the language-minority students in introductory psychology classes who, in turn, performed better than the language-minority students in advanced ESOL classes. This is not a surprising finding: we would expect language-minority students to still be developing their English vocabulary knowledge. However, there was a narrower gap in performance between language-minority students enrolled in introductory psychology classes and their native English-speaking peers than between language-minority students in introductory psychology classes and language-minority students in advanced ESOL classes. This is encouraging as it suggests that these language-minority students, who have 'transitioned' beyond the need for ESL classes, have indeed developed their academic vocabulary skills.

2 On average, General Educational Development (GED) recipients demonstrated slightly weaker academic vocabulary skills than high school graduates, a trend observed for both language-minority and native English speaking students. This gap in academic word knowledge, however, was most marked among language-minority students enrolled in introductory psychology. This finding may provide some basis for directing vocabulary instructional services to language-minority students who are GED recipients and enrolled in mainstream courses.

3 Language-minority community college students with greater breadth of academic word knowledge also demonstrated greater depth of academic word knowledge. In other words, students with larger English vocabularies were able to identify more possible meanings and uses for words than students with smaller English vocabularies. Depth of academic word knowledge is important because words often have multiple meanings depending on the contexts in which they appear (Nagy, 1995; Read, 1998). (For example, the word field can be used as in "to plant corn in a field" or as in "the field of medicine" or "to field questions from the press.") Knowing only one meaning might hamper students' reading comprehension: previous studies have shown that learners will cling to a familiar meaning even when the meaning does not fit the broader context of the reading material (Huckin & Jin, 1987). These findings suggest that deepening students' understanding of words they already knew - not just teaching them more words - would be a productive route to vocabulary development (Lewis, 2000).

4 Finally, language-minority students with relatively stronger academic word skills were not consistently better at inferring word meanings in context than students with relatively weaker academic word skills. On the other hand, students with weak academic word skills were generally unsuccessful in their attempts to figure out word meanings in context. In other words, good academic vocabulary knowledge does not guarantee successful inferencing, but without it, successful inferencing is less likely. This is likely because students who do not know enough of the surrounding words in an academic text will struggle to infer the meaning of a particular word (Stahl, 1999). I found this to be true for language-minority students in both advanced ESOL classes and mainstream content courses. This suggests that students will need to continue strengthening their word inferencing skills even after they have transitioned into mainstream classes.

There appear to be a range of academic word skills (e.g., breadth of word knowledge, depth of knowledge, word inferencing skills) that can help focus academic word learning and teaching. With these findings, I hope to provide an empirical basis for prompting new thinking in the ABE/ESOL field about the need for and nature of academic vocabulary instruction for college-bound language minority students. 

Anderson, R. C., & Freebody, P. (1981). "Vocabulary knowledge." In J. Guthrie (ed.), Comprehension and Teaching: Research Reviews (pp. 77117). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Beglar, D., & Hunt, A. (1999). "Revising and validating the 2000 Word Level and University World Level Vocabulary Test." Language Testing, 16(2), 131-162.

Carver, R. (1994). "Percentages of unknown words in text as a function of the relative difficulty of the text: Implications for instruction." Journal of Reading Behavior, 26(4), 413-437.

Coxhead, A. (1998). "A new academic word list." TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 213-235.

Farrell, P. (1990). Vocabulary in ESL: A Lexical Analysis of the English of Electronics and a Study of Semi-technical Vocabulary. Dublin, Ireland: Centre for Language and Communication Studies. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED332551)

Huckin, T. & Jin, Z. (1987). "Inferring word meanings from context: A study in second language acquisition." In F. Marshall (ed.). ESCOL'86. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Department of Linguistics.

Kuehn, P. (1996). Assessment of Academic Literacy Skills: Preparing Minority and Limited English Proficient (LEP) Students for Post-secondary Education. Fresno, CA: California State University, Fresno. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED415498)

Lewis, M.(ed.) (2000). Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach. London: LTP.

Nagy, W. (1988). Teaching Vocabulary to Improve Reading Comprehension. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Nation, I. (1990). Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Read, J. (1998). "Validating a test to measure depth of vocabulary knowledge." In Kunnan, A.J. (ed.). Validation in Language Assessment: Selected Papers from the Seventeenth Language Testing Research Colloquium, Long Beach. (pp. 41-60). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Santos, M. (2000). Analyzing Academic Vocabulary and Contextual Cue Support in Community College Textbooks. Unpublished qualifying paper, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA.

Stahl, S. (1999). Vocabulary Development. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

Wiley, T. G. (1993). Access, Participation and Transition in Adult ESL: Implications for Policy and Practice. Washington, DC: Southport Institute for Policy Analysis. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED421897)

About the Author
Maricel G. Santos is a research associate with the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL). Her research and teaching interests include second language vocabulary development, academic language proficiency, and the instructional needs of L2 learners making the transition from language-based instruction to academic content instruction.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL