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Investigating specialized vocabulary in English: A review

Aaron James, Graduate College of Education, Temple University

Dr. Averil Coxhead of Victoria University of Wellington delivered an outstanding and informative lecture on “Investigating Specialized Vocabulary in English” at the Temple University Japan campus on February 19, 2011. The presentation was well-organized and based on firm theoretical foundations as well as including research data from relevant studies. These studies attested to critical areas to which language teachers should be exposed and made aware of while providing instruction to students or teachers who wish to build technical vocabulary in specialized fields.
I found much of the detail in the talk enlightening and pragmatic. Vocabulary building is a cornerstone of oral proficiency in language acquisition, and Coxhead elaborated on this particular domain for participants who are pursuing formal study of TESOL. Accordingly, one of the major strengths of her address was in first defining specialized vocabulary, and then providing a 4-step scale to compile a word list for a specific vocation being taught or studied. Coxhead’s graduated system identifies certain characteristics of vocabulary items that are relative to their functionality and specificity in a technical or professional discipline and it is therefore of interest to students and teachers alike. This strategy could be put to immediate practical use for all those currently teaching EFL in academic English programs. Coxhead followed this with even more useful techniques for developing an academic word list (AWL), and discussed many principles that should be considered when organizing such a system. She included further studies, in particular one by Ward (2009), to support, through research data, the applicability of doing corpus studies in order to create and organize an AWL. This information could be used to enhance a teacher’s proficiency in classroom delivery, or even more importantly, be integrated into standard curricula or syllabi for programs in English for various purposes.
Lastly, another powerful insight presented in the lecture, was the need to teach metaphors in English for Academic Purposes classes. Coxhead showed explicitly how failure to closely review this dimension of English for students can lead to issues concerning comprehensibility in the skills of listening and reading, not to mention during normal discourse. Additionally, Coxhead spent some time discussing the nature of metaphors, such as whether a metaphor is positive or negative. Moreover, she suggested that certain components of metaphors, such as nuances and functions, were essential for students to learn. This is of particular interest to me because I have noticed a dearth of such material within my own curriculum. My interest was piqued by the idea of doing further academic study into effective methods of teaching this aspect of idiomatic English. She enticingly left all present with several burning questions which might prove to be an interesting focus of future research for scholars or students, namely, “Is metaphor a specialized vocabulary in and of itself?” and “When everyday words take on a new meaning like monitor, field, or burn (a CD), when do you teach the specialized meanings?” These may not be areas requiring extensive studies, but they are definitely worth considering when determining whether relevant vocabulary to include in a specialized language compilation is warranted.
In conclusion, it was an outstanding seminar overall. Coxhead was engaging, witty, and showed an infectious passion for her research. I was completely satisfied with the idea of constructing a methodology for teaching vocabulary, and I will certainly seek to attain more knowledge about the efficacy of teaching specialized vocabulary to those with specific professional goals in mind.
Coxhead, A. (2011). Proceedings from Distinguished Lecturer Series: Investigating specialized vocabulary in English. Tokyo: Temple University.
Coxhead, A. (n.d.). The Academic Word List. Retrieved from <>.
Ward, J. (2009). A basic engineering English word list for less proficient foundation engineering undergraduates. English for Specific Purposes,28(3), 170-182.

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