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Sunday, February 22, 2009

word power

Do your students understand your lectures? Can they understand their textbooks? New research by Associate Professor Dr Nor Azni Abdullah and Associate Professor Dr Hj Ahmad Mazli Muhammad from the Academy of Language Studies found that 57 per cent of respondents needed more vocabulary to facilitate reading proficiency in particular and academic achievement in general. This finding is not surprising given that most university text-books are written for native speakers of English who have a vocabulary of up to four times as large as the average Malaysian university student who learns English as a second language (ESL).

Anyone who has mastered the 2000 highest frequency words of general English is able to communicate adequately in an English speaking environment, but general English is not sufficient to ensure success in university content courses. Students are also more likely to know technical vocabulary than academic vocabulary. Technical, discipline-specific vocabulary usually amounts to fewer than 1000 words per subject and students become familiar with these words through class lectures and discussions. On the other hand, they are expected to already know the meanings of academic words or to acquire such vocabulary from reading their textbooks.
Little is known about the vocabulary skills of Malaysian students. Even less is known about the extent to which they have mastery over the very significant portion which falls into the category of “academic vocabulary”. The purpose of this research was to measure the vocabulary proficiency of a sample of UiTM students.

Beglar and Hunt’s (1998) Revised 2,000 Word Level Test and Revised University Word Level Test were adopted as the test instruments for the study. Test items were drawn from two vocabulary lists: the 2,000-word level General Word List (GWL) consists of the 2,000 most frequently occurring words in the English language, and the University Word List (UWL) contains 800 word families. Words in the UWL occur frequently in academic texts over a wide range of disciplines and account for between 8 and 10 per cent of all words in academic texts. Typical words include: accompany; formulate; objective; major; indicate. Each test consisted of 27 items; a score of 23 correct answers is considered the minimum needed for effective comprehension of textbooks.

The findings of the research are as follows:

General Word List (GWL):


Scores ranged from a minimum of 12 correct to a maximum of all (27) correct, with a mean score of 23.97 (SD 3.58).

Slightly more than one-quarter (25.4%) of subjects scored fewer than 23 items correct.T

he items that were most frequently incorrect were: victory (35.8%); admire, burst (28.4%); stretch (20.9%); and root (17.9%).

University Word List (UWL):


Scores ranged from a minimum of 9 correct to a maximum of all (27) correct, with a mean score of 20.97 (SD 4.26).

More than one-half (57.5%) of subjects scored fewer than 23 items correct.The items that were most frequently incorrect were: instance (53.7%), implicit (53%), civic (45.5%), accumulate (41.8%), and inspect (41%).

Subjects found the UWL more difficult than the GWL, with an average of 3 fewer correct answers on the UWL than on the GWL.

There were high correlations between vocabulary tests and SPM English scores and MUET scores, suggesting that entry-level vocabulary knowledge had remained relatively unmodified. In other words, exposure to English as the medium of instruction had not significantly improved students’ vocabulary.

The research highlights the need for lecturer intervention as many students have inadequate mastery of vocabulary to cope with academic tasks, including the basic task of reading their text books. Without intervention, such as focusing on academic vocabulary in content courses as well as in English courses, the academic environment will not provide students with sufficient opportunities to enrich their academic vocabulary. Lecturers can also encourage students to develop their vocabulary by learning word meanings from independent reading.

While the implications for vocabulary instruction are obvious, the solution to this issue ultimately demands an appropriate institutional response. Policy makers and curriculum designers need to ensure that English language support for students remains a priority so that they can fully benefit from the academic instruction that is provided for them.

Further information:
The researchers have received a FRGS grant to extend their study to public and private universities nationwide. They can be contacted via nor_azni@hotmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

The complete academic word list can be found at:

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