In July this year, four members of teaching staff from the International Study and Language Institute (ISLI) headed up north to this year’s InForm Conference. InForm is a journal published by ISLI and widely read by international foundation programme professionals across the UK. Its annual conference this year was held at Durham University and its theme was Working with Words: Supporting understanding of discipline–specific vocabulary in IFPs (International Foundation Programmes). Delegates were a mixture of subject-specialists (e.g. Chemistry), English for Academic Purposes (EAP) specialists and Applied Linguists, their common factor being that they are all involved in some way (directly or indirectly) with the teaching and learning of international students on foundation degree programmes. Amanda, Mark, Aaron and Mariama each share their own reflections on the day’s events.
Does teaching discipline specific vocabulary work?
Two thought provoking presentations had me questioning whether teaching discipline specific vocabulary at Foundation level was something of an impossible ideal – both proposing that foundation level students should rather be guided to develop the skills and strategies needed to empower them to go out there and cultivate their own lexicons and mastery of their own subject specific styles. Both these presentations favoured teaching the broader concepts of academic discourse rather than the specific disciplinary nuances, taking the longer term view that our role is to open these students’ minds to global citizenship rather than close them in to specific academic communities.
Mike Groves of Birmingham University, playing devil’s advocate, questioned whether a focus on subject specific vocabulary teaching in the foundation EAP classroom might even be damaging, suggesting we run the risk of placing our students into ‘linguistic silos’ by doing so. While not criticising subject specificity in general, he argued that it might be more helpful to exploit the fact that foundation year students spend half their academic lives being taught the very subjects that we are preparing them for, and that they already have access to rich, subject specific discourse through their content modules. Far better therefore, to encourage them to explore the myriad of online tools available to them (such as Lextutor, word clouds etc.) and use them in informed and disciplined ways.
Elwyn Edwards and Dr Lucy Watson of the University of Southampton had also come to the conclusion that a subject-specific approach doesn’t work; foundation year students are studying too many different subjects to group them usefully in discipline-specific groups.
They have found a novel way around the problem through a new content-based ‘Global Society’ module which aims to teach students to become academically literate and critical thinkers by engaging them in discussions they find interesting and relevant to their lives as global citizens. The module focusses not on teaching specific lexis but rather on teaching key conceptual vocabularies – cross disciplinary concepts such as sustainability, globalisation, capitalism, human rights and development, drawing attention to the ideologies which underpin them. The approach will allow students to function across a broad range of academic discourses (and undergraduate courses) and later in the global marketplace.
By Amanda Fava-Verde, Programme Director, International Foundation Programme, ISLI
Teaching discipline-specific vocabulary can work
What caught my attention most was how crucial discipline-specific vocabulary is to academic success and how expertise in both language teaching and the subject specialism are needed to teach this vocabulary effectively. Many of the talks were by subject-specialists involved in language teaching or language teachers involved in teaching subject-specific English (sometimes referred to as ESAP). One such talk was by Dr Simon Rees of Durham University. Rees is a chemist who has been collaborating with English language teachers to produce an online chemical language test that has produced very encouraging washback effects on chemistry-specific vocabulary acquisition and academic success in Chemistry. Students take this test at the beginning and end of their Foundation course, and poor language test scores were found to be a predictor of poor academic achievement in Chemistry. The test provided a framework for teaching and learning chemistry-specific vocabulary, and it was found that explicit teaching of this vocabulary could enhance both their language test scores and their academic achievement in Chemistry.
Our own experience here at Reading within ISLI and other departments supports these findings. On our English Language for Chemists and English for Science modules, we’ve found that the explicit teaching of discipline-specific lexis has had a positive impact on academic achievement in Chemistry and Food Science. And undergraduate HBS students on our Academic Skills & Language for Finance course (part of the Academic English Programme embedded provision) have responded extremely positively to a strong focus on discipline-specific vocabulary development. Perhaps these findings are not very surprising, but they confirm that teaching discipline-specific vocabulary has enormous potential in helping students access their subject and achieve their full academic potential. They also demonstrate the importance of utilising joint expertise in both language and the target subject. Let’s hope for more such cross-disciplinary collaborations in the future!
By Aaron Woodcock, Teaching Fellow in English for Science and EAP, ISLI
Let the data do the talking
The InForm conference has always been an active forum for sharing ideas and opinions, but I was particularly delighted this year with the number of talks that openly shared data, results and feedback. In some cases this showed clear trends, in others interpretation was open to discussion and in all cases sharing of data provided additional insight.
In his opening keynote, Associate Professor of Linguistics Michael McCarthy presented analysis of the high frequency keywords ‘point’, ‘terms’ and ‘sense’ in discipline-specific sub-corpora. This showed differences in academic language used by lecturers in different disciplines and clearly illustrated the potential for using spoken academic corpora analysis for tailoring English teaching material for specific disciplines.
Hannah Gurr from the University of Bristol shared student feedback on her foundation English Link class for Mathematics. After hearing of her innovative approach to teaching the course, which involves plenty of interaction including online quizzes and videos, we might expect a rave response from the students to all aspects of the course. Hannah presented the responses in their raw form, and while largely positive, some students still would rather more academic teaching and seem not to value the additional English teaching as much as we might expect. This is something many of us find when teaching our International English or Academic Skills modules despite trying to make it relevant to the student’s subjects, and Hannah’s open sharing of feedback was very welcome in enabling discussion on this.
Sandra Strigel from Newcastle University gave an interesting presentation on raising linguistic awareness of teachers through Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). The intended outcome is often to make sessions more interactive; moving away from extended periods of one-way presentation of information from tutors to students. The feedback that Sandra presented certainly showed that teachers adopting this approach became more aware of language issues and the student experience, as well as being more reflective. What was equally interesting was the information that was missing, and Sandra openly highlighted that the long term impact of this approach on student attainment has not yet been looked at in the studies she’s aware of. So, while it may be relatively straightforward to evaluate different teaching methods in terms of student experience, perhaps the real challenge is evaluating in terms of attainment.
It’s exciting to hear of the research that’s happening. The frank and open presentation and discussion of findings is of great value to the IFP community, particularly as it enables individuals to draw their own conclusions.
By Dr Mark Peace, Senior Academic Tutor IFP, ISLI, Chair of InForm Editorial Board
Using learning technologies can boost academic success
A number of presenters at the conference showed how using learning technologies effectively can enable students to learn discipline-specific vocabulary in order to overcome language barriers that can prevent them from understanding taught content. Moreover, learning technologies also prime students to employ study skills and criticality (transferable skills which facilitate learner autonomy and ultimately foster wider academic success).
Teaching discipline-specific vocabulary characteristically involves helping students notice the meaning, use and form of language then record and memorise it effectively; here, I felt the conference presenters provided a broadening outlook on how learning technologies can facilitate the learning of vocabulary and encourage proactive, reflective and motivated students. Hannah Gurr from the University of Bristol showed how the online tool Quizlet was notable for the way in which it helps her and, more importantly, how it can enable students themselves to tailor the learning of vocabulary to individual needs. Moreover, it gives students the scaffolding they need to prioritise what to learn and to break learning down into manageable chunks.
Corpus websites are not often designed with lower level language learners in mind, and so it was good to hear about more student-centred online platforms that can help students analyse language patterns specific to their chosen discipline. Dawn Knight (Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Cardiff) has co-created WordWanderer, which promises to be a user-friendly way for students to examine different aspects of discipline-specific vocabulary. Visual learners in particular are likely to find it helpful. Megan Bruce of Durham University demonstrated how centres that build a corpus based on academic texts written within their own institutions can then create tailored corpus–based teaching and learning activities, which can help students focus on the key features of subject-specific academic writing. This also lends well to giving students a sense of belonging to their academic community. Both sessions, like many others, helped to frame stimulating discussions on how to give students more meaningful practice as well as a sense of ownership over their learning both in and outside the classroom.
By Mariama Sheriff, EAP Pre-sessional Tutor (ISLI, summer 2016) and Foundation Tutor at the University of Oxford Brookes.
It may seem, on the surface at least, that there’s little consensus on how best to support the learning of discipline-specific vocabulary. However, lack of consensus tends to lead to diversity of opinion, experimentation and debate, as illustrated by this blog post. As long as this is open, evidence-based and T&L-driven (which it was at InForm 2016), IFP students here at Reading and around the UK can only benefit.