By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville
It was an inconsequential bet. However, as an act which naturally produced a kind of thrill, it was met with my students’ ardent approval. I had gambled that I’d guess what phrase 90% of the class would use in their first sentence of a text summary assignment. I had even conceded that it would not include the author’s name or the title of the text.
“As it turned out,” I won. The legendary and persistent “is about …” was used by everyone in that group except for one student, who, changing the tense, wrote “was about… .”
I often use this mini-game to introduce the concept of academic vocabulary in my writing classes, and I usually follow it up with the question: “Can you think of a brief but more precise expression which can substitute for that phrase?” Typically, students come up with a healthy little list of expressions such as the text presents …, the article discusses…, the author argues that…, etc., which include key descriptive verbs.
So, what are the characteristic features of academic vocabulary?
No doubt, academic vocabulary, regardless of field, is often used to report, to analyze, and to summarize. It is also characterized by a level of formality, by its precision and by its accuracy.
What kind of interactive activity could involve students in producing a written piece with some of those characteristics?
Certainly, reports based on interactive surveys, at least those which
- state the purpose and the method used,
- present results,
- analyze results, and
- draw conclusions
What vocabulary can be used at key points in survey reports?
Students tend to appreciate ready-made lists of vocabulary items that are commonly accepted and are recognized as acceptable in formal, academic writing, and which are keyed to the purpose of a particular writing assignment. I’ve created a table with words and phrases that have worked well for my students and their survey reports.
What features should typify survey reports?
I recently narrowed down my list of essential features to two: they should highlight an opinion or a preference, and they should focus on a change.
Reporting on survey respondents’ opinions allows students to use vocabulary often found in typical academic writing assignments, assignments such as those requiring argumentation, reference to sources, and presentation of other people’s ideas.
Reporting on changes allows students not only to mention the “before and after circumstances,” but also to use vocabulary associated with comparison, perhaps even with causes and effects. Such reporting naturally requires special, formal vocabulary.
How have I used a survey activity with my students?
Example survey: I ask my students to prepare a very short survey (a list of 3-4 questions) about how “nerds” are viewed. They make two copies of their survey. Then they distribute a set of the first to their classmates, and collect them when the students have finished. Next, the group is asked to read the article “America Needs Its Nerds” by Leonid Fridman. Later, a set of the second copy is distributed, completed, and collected for analysis.
After students analyze the results and receive instruction in the organization of survey reports, they move on to the writing. I ordinarily ask my students to use calculators, to create tables or graphs if they wish, and, while composing their reports, to incorporate some of the vocabulary items given in the table.
What approaches do you take to teaching “academic vocabulary”?