Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Corson (1997). The learning and use of academic English words (Graeco-Latin academic vocabulary)

Corson, D. (1997). The learning and use of academic English words. Language Learning, 47(4), 671-718.

Corson's basic argument is that familiarity with the Graeco-Latin academic vocabulary of English is essential to academic success; however, many learners from some sociocultural backgrounds do not get exposed to this vocabulary outside school, and have difficulty aquiring this vocabulary inside schools. (p.671)

All other things being equal, students achieve formal entry to academic institutions largely because their life experiences outside schools give them widespread informal entry to the meaning systems valued inside educational institutions (p674)

Academic meaning systems, in particular, have been shaped by the special culture of literacy over several millennia. They are the world's most influential meaning systems. In English speaking cultures, their history has much to do with the development in Britain ofa rather exclusive culture ofliteracy which later spread to newly British-founded or -colonized parts of the world. This culture ofliteracy became institutionalized in formal education, where high value was placed on the daily use of Latin for all spoken purposes and on the rigorous study of Greek. It then became the basis for a greatly enlarged English vocabulary drawn directly from those languages. (p676)

Academic Graeco-Latin words are mainly literary in their use. Most native speakers of English begin to encounter these words in quantity in their upper primary school reading and in the formal secondary school setting. So the words' introduction in literature or textbooks, rather than in conversation, restricts people's access to them. (p677)

Olson, like Vygotsky (1962), reckoned that "to be literate it is not enough to know the words; one must learn how to participate in the discourse of some textual community" (1994, p. 273): People need to know the rules of use to put words to work. Learning the rules of use comes from talking about texts whose meaning systems embed the signs to be learned, especially words that are unfamiliar in form and meaning. (p684)

Evidence confirms that after children's earliest years, their vocabulary growth is related to the ability to handle greater morphemic complexity. This development is also associated with greater language knowledge (Clark & Berman, 1987; Clark, Hecht, & Mulford, 1986; Hancin-Bhatt & Nagy, 1994). Different word types and differences in knowledge of morphology affect the growth of vocabulary. In general, derived words (e.g., driver, happiness) seem to be acquired later than either inflected words (e.g., walking, fastest) or compound words (e.g., lampshade). But polymorphemic words come even later still. (p688)

Graeco-Latin words in English tend to be opaque, even for most L11angnage users. For ESL users, they tend to be opaque if the learners have had no experience with their etymology when learning English or came from a language background greatly removed structurally from Latin and Greek. These words also have a very low frequency of use in most people's everyday discourse. In summary, the attributes ofGraeco-Latin word difficulty are as follows: They are usually non-concrete, low in imagery, low in frequency, and semantically opaque. (p696)

In the long run, however, knowing the meaning of an academic word is knowing how to use it within an appropriate meaning system. So the key achievement in word learning is knowing where the word fits within its own meaning system and being able to use it in a motivated way to take an active part in that particular meaning system. (p700)

Natural language conversations with native English speakers, linked to instructional exchanges, seem the best means for stimulating the learning and the use of academic vocabulary (Crandall, 1997; Singleton, 1997). (p704)

The best language learning environment in schools would also develop students' critical language awareness. In the context of this article, this would involve developing their critical awareness ofthe use and functions of academic Graeco-Latin words. It is certainly important for novice users to know that sometimes these words can be used negatively, as instruments of unnecessary formality or to exercise power (Corson, 1995). Making this critical kind oflanguage awareness available to students would help strip away some of the unwanted rules of use that these words have acquired over time: rules of use that exclude people from interaction; rules of use that create a high status for the word user that is not justified by the context; and rules of use that offer a means of language evaluation that is not required by the subject matter. (p710)

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