vocabulary building

How to learn academic vocabulary in context

How many words do I need to get the score I need in the TOEFL or the TOEIC?

This is a question often asked, and a difficult one to answer exactly.   The Linguist , Steve Kaufmann recommends that to achieve a score of 750 or higher in the TOEIC the optimum time to sit the test is when a learner has reached a vocabulary of 7 – 8,000 words.  An increase of 100 points in the TOEIC could represent an increase of about 2,000 words in your vocabulary.

Which words do I need?

Although estimating the total number of words in English is a nearly impossible task, the 600,000 definitions in the Oxford English dictionary give an indication that English vocabulary is indeed vast.  Some estimate that 25,000 new words are added to the language each year.

So, where should I start?

There are a number of tools to help with this and one is the Academic Word List.  It was compiled from a corpus of over 400 written academic texts in 28 different subject areas.  The result is a list of 570 academic words grouped according to frequency.

Some ideas for using the AWL.

Just memorising lists of vocabulary is not only boring but also an ineffective way of adding new words to your vocabulary.  The words are much more likely to stick if you learn them in the context , by reading material that you are interested in.
The AWL provides an easy way of finding academic vocabulary in articles on subjects that interest you.  For example lets take a recent article out of The New Scientist, Time to shrink the atomic clock.  Copy the text of the article and paste it into the AWL Highlighter, choose the level of words you would like to study (1 is the most frequent, 10 includes all the words in the list including the least frequent), and click submit.  This will produce a copy of the article with all the words highlighted so you can learn them in context.

To test yourself further, you can come back to the same text a week later, and create a gap-fill exercise based on the words that you learnt.  Paste the text into the AWL Gapmaker, decide whether you would like the list of words to appear as a list at the bottom of the document or not, and click submit.  A free online gapfill exercise will open, testing the exact words you have been working on.

Academic vocabulary in this blog post: academic, achieve, areas, compiled, context, create, definitions, document, estimate, highlighted, indication, submit, task, text.

How well do you know these words?  You can test yourself with a gapfill created using the AWL based on this post.

Academic Word List (AWL)

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The best multilingual online dictionary


Who doesn’t know WordReference.com? It has become so widely used that I risk repetition by featuring it here. But I still remember back to the BWR period of my life (« before Word Reference »), so for any readers who find themselves in that situation, let me introduce to you a multi-lingual dictionary that is simply the best.

It’s nothing much to look at, but don’t let appearances deceive you. It’s a powerful and very reliable online dictionary full of useful features for translation:

  • 14 English to another language pairs (Spanish, French, Italian, German, Russian, Portuguese, Polish, Romanian, Czech, Greek, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and soon Arabic)
  • 5 « to English » pairs (Spanish, French, Italian, German, Russian)
  • other combinations including Spanish to French and Portuguese, French and Portuguese to Spanish.
  • monolingual dictionaries (English, Spanish),  synonym dictionaries and conjugation tables.
  • plugins for Firefox and widgets for your blog.
  • accessible for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

But the feature that keeps me coming back is the forums. When you search for a word, not only do you get a detailed list of usages, audio pronunciation and compound forms, but you also get links to questions that have been posted in the forums relating to how to translate the term. Every translator knows the frustration of looking up a word and not finding a translation that fits. The WordReference community has become so huge that there is a very good chance that someone has already come across the same problem, and may have posted a question about it. Translation dictionaries are valuable tools but can never replace native speaker instinct, which is why the human contact available in the forums of WordReference is so valuable.

There are many online dictionaries available, but I haven’t felt the need to look further than WordReference. What about you – do you have a favourite free online translation tool? Tell us about it in the comments.

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Building vocabulary through spaced repetition

When it comes to vocabulary learning there’s a lot to be said for learning by rote.

At this point a lot of language teachers will probably close this page and never come back.  « Traditional » methods of memorising vocabulary have become very unfashionable.  New words must be learnt in context or not at all!

I really like the theory of learning vocabulary naturally in context, as this mimics the way we acquire our first language as children.  But I wonder if we are not being a little optimistic when we seek to recreate the environment of first language acquisition in the methods we use to teach adults (or adolescents) a second language.

For one thing, children learn very differently to adults.  They are not conscious of learning the way that adults are; learning happens as if by accident.  Adults learn « on purpose », using methods that they have consciously chosen.  We lose a lot of the natural learning capacity of children as we grow older, and need tools to assist us in learning.  Some of these tools can seem quite « artificial » in comparison.  This is why rote memorisation of vocabulary has been so criticised.

Perhaps it is time to rehabilitate vocabulary memorisation.  OK, it’s not very exciting, but a couple of questions might be in order: is vocabulary building in a foreign language worth it?  If we see it as valuable, is it worth some discipline and effort?  Does all learning really have to be « fun »?  Or are we willing to sweat a little bit in order to reach the goal of communicating more effectively in our foreign language?

I am not an expert in second language acquisition theory, but a language learner and teacher.  These observations are based on experience, not research, so it is quite possible that I have drawn some faulty conclusions.  That said I have noticed as an adult learner that although reading in a foreign language is my preferred context for learning new vocabulary, if I don’t note the new vocabulary and have some method for revising it, I don’t learn it.  My considerations from the teaching point of view are much more pragmatic: I find that intentionally teaching vocabulary in context requires a lot of work and preparation that I don’t always have time for.  It’s one thing to organise a reading or listening activity where you just highlight the vocabulary that happens to occur in the material, but this is very  haphazard.  Teaching vocabulary that is « useful » on the other hand (whether from the point of view of word frequency or  the specific purposes for which the learner requires the language) necessitates hours of searching for materials that  contain the target vocabulary.

So I come back again to word lists.  I’ve made it one of my goals this year to increase my repertoire of activities and tools for memorising vocabulary effectively.  In terms of technology, we have already reviewed the online flashcard system Popling.  Today I came across another tool which seems to fit the way my brain works better, so I took it for a test drive.

AnkiThe app. is appropriately named Anki, the verb for « memorise » in Japanese.  It has some similarities to Popling, although its designer seems to have given more thought to how the memory actually works.  It is marketed as a « Spaced Repetition System », and recognises that memorisation is actually work,  not the « learning without studying » that Popling advertises.  The idea behind spaced repetition is that memory loss slows down considerably when a memorised item is reviewed at appropriate intervals.

Anki is obviously a real labour of love.  It is a work in development though. the interface is not quite as sharp, the help a bit limited and I didn’t find it as intuitive to use.

You can create your own flashcard piles or « decks », or import one of a large number of existing decks (contributed by users so of varying quality).  Anki is very definitely oriented toward language-learning, although it could also be put to good use in other disciplines requiring memorisation.  There is a bent toward Asian languages in the list of available decks.

Some of the features:

  • screencasts for a quick introduction to how it works
  • desktop and online synchronisation so you can study anywhere
  • possibility of sharing decks, and for teachers to « push » materials to a number of students at once.
  • intelligent scheduler which allows you to very easily categorise a flashcard according to difficulty.  Anki will calculate the interval between revisions according to whether you remembered the item easily, with difficulty or not at all.
  • flashcards are quite configurable, and Anki can handle very large decks, even up to 100,000 +.
  • a growing directory of plugins
  • Anki it is completely free, although a donation is in order for a truly useful application.

Popling has the advantage of flashing cards up while you are doing other things which is the idea behind « learning without studying ».  Not everyone enjoys such interruptions, however.  Anki requires you to be a lot more intentional, setting aside specific learning times, although you have a lot of freedom to determine how much time you spend and the number of items you want to revise for memorisation each day.

More on Spaced Repetition Systems.

For general information on building vocabulary, I recommend the following resources:

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