These last few weeks have been really busy for me, but I’m really pleased. I had my PhD candidacy oral on November 4th, and it was successful. Now that I’ve finished that hurdle, I can’t wait to get started on the research for my thesis project. I’m just waiting for ethics approval and then I can begin.
For my candidacy exam, I had to prepare a paper based on one of three topics that were given to me four weeks before the paper was due, and six weeks before the oral exam. The topic that I chose was:
What arguments can you provide for focusing on vocabulary use as the underlying variable that may best reflect English language proficiency; how is lexical diversity and distribution measured and which measure (s) is most useful for providing the insights you seek for establishing thresholds for academic success at university both at entry and over time? What are the distal and proximal effects of vocabulary levels on student writing? What link do you expect to make to academic achievement as reflected in GPA over time?
In answering this question, I proposed that there is a rising awareness of the importance of vocabulary in the field of Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). This can be seen in the increasing numbers of presentations being made at conferences on teaching academic vocabulary, as well as the rise in the literature about vocabulary as an key aspect of English language proficiency. This rise in awareness of vocabulary is accompanied by a rise in the populations of non-native English speaking (NNES) students in the English Canadian school system from kindergarten all the way through the post-secondary years. As increasing numbers of immigrants come to the English speaking parts of Canada and enrol themselves, and more especially their children, in local educational institutions, their success or failure seems to hinge on their ability to muster the linguistic resources to cope with an academic load delivered in English. That their educational success is vital to their newly adopted country is obvious. The benefits accompanying a successful educational experience are a worthy goal of immigrants and their children. However, the road to these educational benefits is one fraught with challenges. Vocabulary is one aspect of these challenges that can be isolated and examined with the purpose of developing ways to overcome these challenges and ease the success of NNES students, when all things being equal, it is English language proficiency that is preventing a full expression of their academic abilities at the K-12 and post-secondary level. Vocabulary can be chosen as an area of research and examination as it appears that vocabulary use is an important underlying variable that reflects English language proficiency, especially in writing. Rich or poor vocabulary production has a number of proximal effects on a piece of writing, with a rich vocabulary giving rise to precise and nuanced meaning and cohesion, and a poor vocabulary contributing to a sense of vagueness and awkwardness. The ways to quantify this rich or poor use of vocabulary are numerous, with lexical frequency profiling offering the best insights for establishing thresholds for academic success at university both at entry and over time. Furthermore, once quantified, there is strong evidence that vocabulary and academic achievement are interconnected, as seen in studies carried out on the distal effects of rich and poor vocabulary production in writing on not only individual writing assignments, but also on GPA, positive and negative university experiences, and other measures of academic outcomes.
It is based on the above that I am soon to start my research into vocabulary richness in first year undergraduate writing for both native speaking and non-native English speaking students at the University of Calgary. I raring to go!