October 3, 2017
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Roy Scott Douglas, BC TEAL, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

This past March, I had the honour of being chosen to represent the association of British Columbia Teachers of English as an Additional Language (BC TEAL) during the Best of Affiliate Sessions at the TESOL 2017 International Convention & English Language Expo in Seattle, Washington, USA. I had first made this presentation at the BC TEAL annual conference in April 2016, and I am happy to now offer a summary of my presentation in the TESOL Affiliate News.

The presentation explores the breadth of vocabulary knowledge thresholds that support engagement in first-year university reading and writing tasks for students from linguistically diverse backgrounds who are studying in English. My interest in this topic was first sparked by an encounter I had with a student while I was teaching at a university in Japan. I was walking across campus one day, and I spotted one of my students looking upset and crying. When I went to check on her, her distress seemed to be caused by the book in her hand. It was 1984 by George Orwell. She had to read the actual unabridged version of the book for an English literature class. However, it wasn’t the dystopian image of life in the book that was causing her distress. Rather, it was her struggles to make meaning of the text. When I had a peek inside, I saw a sea of translation. Reading, for her, had become a belaboured act into which all of her cognitive effort was being put in order to decode a critical mass of unknown vocabulary. When she asked for advice, I started to give her a number of suggestions, such as trying to guess the meaning of unknown words from context, skipping the unknown words to get the general gist, and noting unknown words to go back later and look up in an English learner dictionary. However, with each piece of advice, I could see that it was not going to help her with her immediate need to read and understand 1984 in order to write a book report. Rather, she needed to know more words in English before the strategies I was suggesting would be more useful. Thus, I began to think more about how much vocabulary students need to engage in a reading text as well as to produce a piece of writing.

Horst (2013) has suggested 2,000 high-frequency word families as being a first step towards covering 80–85% of the words students might encounter in a reading text. For Horst (2013), this is the core vocabulary in a language, and she has pointed out that not having access to these high-frequency word families is a considerable barrier to reading. However, knowing 2,000 high-frequency word families in English is just the first step. I suspect that the student I encountered in Japan probably did know around 2,000 word families, although perhaps not a comprehensive representation of 2,000 high-frequency word families (Horst, 2013). In fact, when I examined an excerpt from 1984 using the vocabulary profiling tools on www.lextutor.ca, I found that 2,000 high-frequency word families did cover 81% of the running words in the text. Unfortunately, 81% coverage wasn’t enough to unlock understanding. Rather, 81% coverage still resulted in frustration, difficulty making meaning, and a conscious and belaboured act of reading. Thus, more words appear to be needed.

It has been suggested that, for instructional purposes (i.e., reading supported by a teacher), students need to understand around 95% of the words they encounter in a text (Laufer & Ravenhorst-Kalovski, 2010) and for independent reading purposes, students need to understand around 98% of the words they encounter in a text (Hu & Nation, 2000; Laufer & Ravenhorst-Kalovski, 2010). For supported instruction, students need about 4,000–5,000 word families to cover 95% of a text (Laufer & Ravehorst-Kalovski, 2010). Thus, if students are familiar with 4,000–5,000 word families, they would typically encounter one unfamiliar word in about every 20. For independent reading, students need about 8,000–9,000 word families to cover 98% of a text (Hu & Nation, 2000; Laufer & Ravenhorst-Kalovski, 2010). This level of coverage would mean that students would typically encounter one unknown word in about every 50. The implication is that the more words students know, the better those known words will facilitate comprehension of a text and free up the cognitive resources to engage with the content of a text. Instead of focusing just on decoding unknown vocabulary, with a critical threshold of lexical understanding, students can devote their cognitive resources to reading practices such as finding connections with and between ideas, making inferences, recognizing bias, and evaluating arguments.

Having explored suggested lexical thresholds for teacher-supported and independent reading (Hu & Nation, 2000; Laufer & Ravenhorst-Kalovski, 2010), I started to wonder about the breadth of vocabulary knowledge students use when they first begin their postsecondary studies. Investigating first-year university writing (Douglas, 2013), I created a corpus of satisfactorily rated first-year university essays on a range of general topics. In my corpus, I found that in an average first-year university essay, around 3,200 word families covered 95% of the words used; around 5,300 word families covered 98% of the words used; and around 11,700 word families covered almost all of the words used. As with reading, the idea is that the more words students have at their fingertips for productive use in writing, the better those words will facilitate expression and free up the cognitive resources needed to fully engage with the essay topic. For example, students with wider sets of vocabulary at their disposal may be better able to demonstrate awareness of register and genre, communicate ideas with greater precision, self-evaluate their writing, and revise and edit their work.

Bringing all of this together, it seems that a wider range of vocabulary is required for receptive reading purposes as students enter university compared to the range of vocabulary required for productive purposes. However, if students do have a certain level of vocabulary knowledge, it appears that they will have a critical mass of understanding that facilitates the employment of reading and writing strategies, such as guessing the meaning from context or using circumlocution for unknown words. Knowing enough vocabulary (95% coverage with support and 98% coverage independently) also has the potential to facilitate students accessing the common underlying proficiency they have related to their academic language abilities in their first language (Cummins, 1981) when encountering less frequent words in reading or requiring more precise vocabulary choices to express meaning in writing.

Of course, vocabulary is only one variable of many, and, in this case, this presentation has only considered breadth of vocabulary knowledge (number of word families students know) as opposed to depth of vocabulary knowledge (how well those word families are used). Other aspects, such as syntax, context, background knowledge, cultural knowledge, and individual learner characteristics may be at play when it comes to reading and writing skills. However, these lexical thresholds do point to some target goals for focusing vocabulary learning to promote automatic understanding of higher frequency vocabulary to release the cognitive resources that facilitate better engagement with overall textual demands.

Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. In California State Department of Education (Ed.), Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework (pp. 3–49). Los Angeles, CA: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center, California State University, Los Angeles. Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED249773.pdf

Douglas, S. R. (2013). The lexical breadth of undergraduate novice level writing competency. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 16(1), 152–170. Retrieved from https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/CJAL/article/view/21176

Horst, M. (2013). Mainstreaming second language vocabulary acquisition. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 16(1), 171–188. Retrieved from https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/CJAL/article/view/21299

Hu, M., & Nation, P. (2000). Unknown vocabulary density and reading comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language, 13(1), 403–430.

Laufer, B., & Ravenhorst-Kalovski, G. C. (2010). Lexical threshold revisited: Lexical text coverage, learners’ vocabulary size and reading comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language 22(1), 15–30.

Scott Douglas is an assistant professor of teaching English as an additional language in the Faculty of Education on the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. He is also the editor of the BC TEAL Journal.

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October 2017