March 2013
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Preferred Vocabulary Self-Collection Strategies of EAP Reading Students
Randall S. Rebman, Northern Arizona University

The amount of vocabulary that English for academic purposes (EAP) students need in order to comprehend academic texts often far exceeds what they can acquire during the time they spend in an intensive English program. Nation (2006) estimates that learners require knowledge of 8,000–9,000 word families for 98% coverage of the words that occur in academic texts. To address EAP students’ need for a larger vocabulary, it has been suggested that EAP reading curricula include both explicit vocabulary instruction and incidental exposure to vocabulary through extensive and intensive reading (Grabe & Stoller, 2011). Yet even when these curricular approaches are implemented, learners are still likely to come up short of the vocabulary knowledge that they need for successful reading comprehension.

Self-Collection Techniques in EAP Reading

Grabe (2009) suggests that reading teachers can help learners take control of their own vocabulary learning through the use of vocabulary learning strategies, or self-collection techniques. Self-collection techniques typically include keeping a vocabulary notebook, creating flashcards, and reviewing word lists. Computer-assisted language learning also provides word-collection options through web 2.0 platforms and mobile applications. The use of self-collection techniques has received criticism for being decontextualized and unrelated to actual language use. Nation (2001) argues, however, that direct vocabulary learning through techniques such as word cards can help with learning aspects of word knowledge not addressed in learning vocabulary from context. Collocations, parts of speech, and form and meaning connections are examples of aspects of word knowledge that can be covered by self-collection techniques.

As a second language (L2) reading teacher, I am interested in helping students explore the use of vocabulary learning strategies that assist them in acquiring multiple aspects of word knowledge. Grabe and Stoller (2011) recommend that teachers expose learners to a variety of techniques for learning and reviewing words on their own. Through this exploratory process, students can be led to discover the word collection techniques that they prefer the most. Grabe and Stoller encourage teachers to engage in action research projects to determine L2 readers’ self-collection technique preferences. The results of such a project are likely to influence the sequence in which teachers introduce vocabulary learning techniques in future teaching. In addition, monitoring the choice of different aspects of word knowledge (collocations, synonyms, definitions, etc.) that learners use through their self-collection techniques can help teachers make decisions about what types of techniques are more appropriate for learning certain aspects of a word.


The two-semester action research project that I am conducting and will present at the TESOL 2013 Convention adapts Grabe and Stoller’s (2011) action research guidelines. This study is carried out at a university intensive English program in the southwestern United States. The participants involved in the first semester of the study were 18 students enrolled in an advanced EAP reading and vocabulary course. In the first semester, the self-collection techniques used by the class were vocabulary notebooks and flashcards.

As part of the action research project, students are given explicit instruction on a self-collection technique and then multiple opportunities to experiment with the technique over a 2-week period. At the beginning of each week, students are directed to choose five words from their assigned reading passages and use the assigned self-collection technique to attempt to learn the words. Throughout the week, classroom instruction provides opportunities for students to practice the technique and connect it with speaking and writing activities, vocabulary games, and partner-assisted quizzing.

A semistructured interview is administered for each self-collection technique following each 2-week instructional period. Upon the conclusion of the course, students are given a questionnaire and ranking form adapted from Grabe and Stoller (2011) to determine students’ self-collection technique preferences and the reasons for their decisions. A teaching log is used as an additional source of data to document observations and reflections related to the use of classroom activities that integrate vocabulary self-collection techniques.


From the class of 18 students, 11 were interviewed on their use of self-collection techniques. Some interviewees demonstrated an awareness of how some vocabulary collection techniques are more effective than others. One student reported that using a vocabulary notebook was better than “I write down a word again and again. This was the old way I used to learn new words.” This response demonstrates the importance of introducing students to different self-collection techniques and asking them to compare their effectiveness for learning different aspects of word knowledge with techniques that they might already use.

Not all the students who were interviewed, however, saw the usefulness in using self-collection techniques for their EAP coursework. Rather, a number of students felt vocabulary should only be collected when it relates to their major. As one student explained, “When I read something about my major, Business, there are many words . . . I try to write on the flashcard if I can go and look through them later.” That some of the students felt self-collecting words in their EAP coursework would not be beneficial for their later university classes highlights the misconceptions students possess about vocabulary frequency information. Although students in this study were directed to collect words from the Academic Word List, they didn’t seem to understand that they were likely to encounter these words again, beyond the immediate classroom context.

In addition to the findings already discussed, my presentation at the TESOL Convention in Dallas will report on the results from the questionnaire and ranking form, interview results following the piloting of the computer application Quizlet, and data from the teaching log. Because this study is ongoing at the time of this writing, limited results are reported here.


Implications from this initial analyses of the collected data suggest that it is necessary to raise EAP readers’ awareness of the usefulness of particular self-collection techniques beyond the EAP classroom. If students are to become more autonomous in their vocabulary learning, then they need to see how self-collection techniques can apply to contexts beyond just the language classroom. Training students on how to locate frequency information on the words they encounter should also be a necessary part of teaching the use of vocabulary self-collection techniques (McCrostie, 2007).


Grabe, W. (2009). Reading in a second language: Moving from theory to practice. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. L. (2011). Teaching and researching reading (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Longman.

McCrostie, J. (2007). Examining learner vocabulary notebooks. ELT Journal, 61, 246–255.

Nation, I. S. P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Nation, I. S. P. (2006). How large a vocabulary is needed for reading and listening? Canadian Modern Language Review, 63, 69–2.

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ALIS Business Meeting
The ALIS business meeting will take place on Thursday, March 21st from 5:00 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.  See the convention guide for location details. We hope to see you all there!!
ALIS Academic and Intersection Presentations
The ALIS Academic session, Practicalities of Teaching Academic Reading and Writing, will be held on Thursday, March 21st from 1:00pm – 3:45pm. Our Intersection session, Applied Linguistics and IEP Teaching Essentials of Academic Skills, will be held on Saturday, March 23rd from 10:00am – 11:45am. See the convention guide for location details.