* Post Script to A Defence of simplification: redefining beginner

Wigglesworth, G. & Yates, L (editors): Prospect, an Australian Journal of TESOL Vol.17 No.3, pp69-82, NCELTR , Macquarie Univ. Sydney December 2002

Abstract

This paper compares a newly published set of readers, The Great South Land (Davidson and Court, 2001) for beginner ESL/EFL students with other materials which are described by their publishers as suitable for beginners and, in particular, with those analysed by Nation and Deweerdt in the December 2001 edition of Prospect.

Biodata

Hazel Davidson works part-time in the AMEP programme in Queensland and devotes the rest of her time to writing materials suitable for adult NESB students with literacy problems.  She and co-author, Dorothy Court, have just produced a phonics-based CD English Spelling Vol.1 (2002), also for CSWE I learners.  Hazel has been teaching ESL for some 20 years and has worked in Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland.

 Introduction

Nation & Deweerdt (2001) draw attention to issues of lexical density and complexity for low level learners and use West 's General Word List (1953) to analyse low level readers in the Oxford Bookworms series.  Nation and Deweerdt point out the importance of reading in language learning programmes: '…readers are an essential part of a language learning program if learners of all proficiency levels are to have the opportunity to do incidental language learning through reading.  Unsimplified texts do not allow for this kind of learning at beginning and intermediate levels because they contain too great a density of unknown words and too many different unknown words…'

 Not only would most Australian teachers agree with Nation & Deweerdt's basic premises above, but many would add that readers are also an essential teaching tool for helping those students who cannot read print materials, including those who cannot read in L1.  For many years teachers of CWSE I [1] students within the AMEP [2]  and other programmes have faced constant frustration when they try to find appropriate reading materials for learners at ISLPR [3]  0+ or even 1-.

 Methodology & discussion

For this article an analysis was carried out of the vocabulary used in the three levels (viz., ISLPR 0+, 1- and 1) of The Great South Land (Davidson & Court, 2001).  The Great South Land is a single volume containing three progressively more complex versions of the same subject matter.  Each is 22 pages long and covers early Australian history up to the first permanent European settlement on the continent. The illustrations remain the same while the vocabulary, sentence length and complexity, and detail of content increases with each level; the font size and style also change between the lowest and subsequent levels. 

Following the analysis of vocabulary in The Great South Land, a comparison was made with Nation & Deweerdt's analysis of the Oxford Bookworms' beginner level readers.

 Using Nation and Deweerdt's methodology and terminology, a total word count was done where every word was counted, including those which had been repeated.  Thus the, which occurs 98 times in the highest level text, is counted as 98.  Then a running count was calculated in which multiples of the same word were grouped and counted.  For example, the was counted as one entry.  Finally a count was made of word families where all the variations of a word were counted as one entry.  Here the 44 occurrences of the various forms of the verb to be, for instance, were counted as one entry. Words which fall outside West's first thousand were marked, as were those outside the second thousand.  Proper nouns and numerals were included in the first thousand.  Full lists of words in the three texts are quoted in the appendix to allow teachers who are unfamiliar with, and without easy access to, West's lists, to examine for themselves the vocabulary under discussion.  The appendix lists also show the specific words which are repeated within the texts, along with the number of repetitions of each. (Note: The appendix has been omitted in this website because of formatting complications.  If any reader would like a copy, I will be happy to email it:
email.)

 In this context of extremely low level learners, there are a number of potential problems with West's system.  In West's lists past tenses of verbs are treated as variations on the basic verb forms.  This may be regarded as dubious when dealing with students who have such low vocabularies in English.  A student who knows find may well not recognise found as being in any way related.  On the other hand, students working with a teacher will understand found very readily when the relationship is pointed out.

 Another anomaly of the General Service List when dealing with these very low level learners is the inclusion of base verbs and separate adverbs and prepositions rather than listing phrasal verbs as separate entities.  Look, look for, look at, look after are all treated as look, for, at and after.  As any teacher of very low level students knows, being familiar with look and with after, does not in itself give anything resembling an accurate understanding of look after.  However, to remain consistent with Nation and Deweerdt's methodology, West's system was adhered to.

 Another point at which West's General Service List is clearly not based on the English-learning experience of adult migrants in Australia is that a small number of words which fell outside his first 2000 words are known very early in the language learning experience of adult immigrants to Australia: viz.,  job, kangaroo, vegetable, migrant, refugee.  As this made little statistical difference to the analysis, it was ignored in the tables below.

 In Table 1, the words in each separate level text are analysed under the ISLPR ratings (0+, 1-, 1) of the target audience.  The percentages indicate the proportion of words from the word families in West's categories of first, second or subsequent thousands of words.  Proper nouns and numerals have been included within the first thousand.

 A number of things are clear from this table: 

·                     That the number of actual words used in The Great South Land texts is small (far smaller than in even the easiest of the Oxford Bookworms) and increases from one level to another. 

The total number of words is, of course, only partly a function of the progress through the three texts from the simplest to the most difficult.  Another factor in the total number of words is the length of the texts, which in this case is 22 pages at each level.  However, as all practising teachers are well aware, total text length is one of the important factors which makes a text readily accessible or more inaccessible to learners, and the authors of The Great South Land have taken this, as well as the actual choice of vocabulary, into account in their writing.  In effect, learners are strongly discouraged by the prospect of a long text.  The CSWE documents also take text length into consideration in assessment criteria.  For example, CSWE I Competency 9, Can read a short information text, specifies five pieces of information 'of mostly content words ie few grammatical words', whereas CWSE II Competency 10, Can read a short information text, specifies 200 to 250 words, while the CSWE III information reading competency requires a text of 300-350 words.

·                     That the number and proportion of very common words which are likely to be known to the readers, is very high but decreases as students progress from one level to the next in The Great South Land texts.  This is an important factor for students' reading.  As Nation and Deweerdt point out,  'Unsimplified text has too many of its running words outside most second language learners' vocabulary knowledge, so that readers with a limited vocabulary meet an unknown word in every few running words…'.

 Table 1

The Great South Land Summary of Vocabulary Use

 

0+

%

1-

%

1

%

Total number of words in text

282

 

565

 

1282

 

Running total

142

 

220

 

403

 

No. of word families

127

 

190

 

330

 

Subsets of word families:

 

 

 

 

 

 

1st 1000 incl. proper nouns & numerals

115

90.5%

165

87%

271

82%

2nd thousand

10

8.0%

17

9%

36

11%

Over 2000

2

1.5%

8

4%

23

7%

Totals

127

100 %

190

100%

330

100%

 Finally the word repetitions were tabulated (Tables 2, 3 and 4) to provide some indication of the amount of support from within the text for new vocabulary items.  As Nation and Deweerdt explain, students encounter difficulties when  'unknown words make up a very large group of words, most of which occur only once in the text.  A large number of texts would need to be read before many of them were met again.  For learners of English with a vocabulary smaller than 2000 words, most unsimplified text is just too difficult and does not provide the conditions necessary for learning through meaning-focused imput.'

 In tables 2, 3 and 4 the left-hand column gives the number of times individual words are repeated in the texts and the subsequent columns show how many words in each category (proper nouns, West's first thousand words, etc) are repeated. So, of the 127 word families in the lowest level Great South Land text (ISLPR 0+), 51 (40%) are repeated (Table 2).  Of the 190 word families in the middle level (ISLPR 1-), 86 (45%)  are repeated (Table 3).   In the highest level text (ISLPR 1) 168 (51%) of the 330 word families are repeated (Table 4).  Thus a slightly higher level of support is provided as the texts increase in difficulty.

 Table 2

The Great South Land ISLPR 0+  word repetitions

 

Proper nouns

1st 1000

2nd 1000

over 2000

Total

x2

2

19

1

1

23

x3

3

9

1

 

13

x4

 

2

 

 

2

x5

 

2

 

 

2

x6

 

4

1

 

5

6+

1

5

 

 

6

Total

6

41

3

1

51

 Table 3

The Great South Land  ISLPR 1-  word repetitions

 

Proper nouns

1st 1000

2nd 1000

over 2000

Totals

x2

3

29

1

2

35

x3

1

12

1

1

15

x4

 

  8

1

 

  9

x5

1

  4

 

 

  5

x6

1

  1

 

 

  2

6+

2

17

1

 

20

total

8

71

4

3

86

 Table 4

The Great South Land  ISLPR 1  word repetitions

 

Proper nouns

1st 1000

2nd 1000

over 2000

Totals

x2

4

45

7

4

60

x3

3

14

3

 

20

x4

3

24

1

2

30

x5

1

12

 

1

14

x6

 

  9

 

 

  9

6+

4

28

3

 

35

total

15

132

14

7

168

 The running count figures in Table 1 (142, 220 and 403) compare with a running total of 4743-5890 in the lowest level, and 5511-7960 in the second level, of the Oxford Bookworms series analysed in Nation and Deweerdt.  The Oxford books are longer that The Great South Land but, as was stated above, this length is recognised by teachers as an additional deterrent to reading for beginners and perhaps this factor of text length would warrant further systematic investigation in the future.

 Nation and Deweerdt's more detailed analysis is of Dracula, a text in Oxford's second level of simplified readers with a running count of 5511-7960 from 556 word families.  For the sake of comparison with The Great South Land , it is a pity that their figures do not include an Oxford first level text. Moreover, in their tabulation the words in the first thousand are not separated from those in the second, but rather all words in the first two thousand are lumped together which, one could speculate, possibly implies that a significant proportion of the words belong in the second, rather than the first, thousand words, even allowing for the fact the a large proportion of words in almost any text come from the first thousand words.

 These limitations notwithstanding, the contrast between the text analysed by Nation and Deweerdt and The Great South Land is fairly clear.  By far the greatest proportion of word families in Davidson & Court's readers (90.5%, 87% and 82%) come from the first thousand list.  In other words, the Oxford readers are a great deal more challenging than The Great South Land, at least in vocabulary demands on the students. 

 In a small informal study two years ago the writer conducted vocabulary tests (Nation, 1983 ) on a CSWE III AMEP class and found that all the students with one exception had vocabularies within the 2000 word range; that is, at a level which Nation and Deweerdt describe as beginner.  Anecdotal evidence would suggest that CSWE I students probably have a vocabulary of, at most, a few hundred words.  If this is indeed the case, and it would seem likely from the ISLPR descriptors quoted earlier taken in conjunction with the CSWE documents' rating of CSWE I students at ISLPR 0 to 0+ , then the use of beginner readers with running counts of over 5000 words (e.g., Dracula above) would be inappropriate.

 Conclusions

1. Implications for future research

a)      It would be useful to investigate formally the vocabulary range of a statistically significant population of students at the end of CSWE I Phase I and again at the completion of Certificate I.  While this task would be very time-consuming as it would need to be conducted orally on a one-to-one basis so that decoding limitations were not confused with vocabulary knowledge, it could yield valuable information for writers and publishers whose target market is at CSWE level I.

 b)      As stated above, the issue of text length for students with various ISLPR ratings, could be another potential area for useful further research activity.

 2. Implications for classroom teaching practice:

a)      While the writer of this report strongly supports the general premises expounded by Nation and Deweerdt, there are dangers for Australian teachers of CSWE I students taking at face value publishers' labels of beginner on reading materials.  These texts are likely to be far, far above the heads of Australian adult immigrant beginner learners.  While experienced teachers are well aware of this, practitioners new to the field can be lulled into a false sense of security by the publishers' descriptions and then find their students way out of their depth with the chosen reading materials.

 b)      The scarcity of truly low level materials leaves already overworked teachers with a choice between writing their own materials or using available texts which are either too difficult for their students, or which are written for five and six year olds and therefore inappropriate in language and subject matter. 
Consequently, there is a strong need for more reading material at the level of The Great South Land. Yet reading materials providing continuous, interesting and stimulating text for adults at this level are extremely rare, either because no publisher believes there is a market or because writers are intimidated by the difficulty of writing anything coherent at this extremely low level.

 Both of these conclusions will no doubt merely confirm the opinions of countless teachers of CSWE I students, but will hopefully give weight to their frequently re-iterated requests for more appropriate reading materials for AMEP and other students at ISLPR levels 0+ to 1.

 References

Davidson, H & Court, D 2001. The Great South Land, Sydney: NCELTR

Davidson, H & Court, D 2002. English Spelling CD, Vol. 1, Brisbane published privately, distributed by The Language People, langpeop@dovenetq.net.au

Nation, ISP 1983. 'Testing and teaching vocabulary' Guidelines, 5, 1:12-25

Nation, ISP and Deweerdt, JP 2001. 'A defence of simplification' Prospect, 16,3: 55-67

New South Wales AMES, 1998. Certificates in Spoken English I & II, Sydney NSW Adult Migrant English Service

Oxford Bookworms, OUP (Series, various dates)

West, M 1953. A general service list of English words. London: Longman, Green and Co.

Wylie, E & Ingram, DE 1995 (revised 1999). International Second Language Proficiency Ratings (ISLPR): General proficiency version for English, Brisbane: Centre for Applied Linguistics and Languages, Griffith University.



[1] Level I  of Certificate in Spoken and Written English, (New South Wales AMES, 1998) which is the curriculum document specified for the AMEP (see below).

[2] Adult Migrant English Program, Department of Immigration, Multicultural & Indigenous Affairs' English courses for on-arrival adult migrants in Australia.

[3] International Standard Language Proficiency Ratings (formerly the Australian Second Language Proficiency Ratings) is a 12-level proficiency scale, with subscales for speaking, listening, reading and writing.  The scale and associated assessment instruments are used to rate students on entry to the AMEP and at articulation points within the Program.

Students at  0+ level on the scale are 'able to operate in a very limited capacity within the most immediate, predictable areas of need, using essentially formulaic language'. At 1- level they are 'able to satisfy immediate, predictable needs, using predominantly formulaic language'.  Students at level 1 are 'able to satisfy basic everyday transactional needs'.




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