This thesis explores Swedish upper secondary school students’ written receptive English academic word knowledge. Academic vocabulary are words that are more frequent in academic than in general discourse without being discipline-specific but frequent across disciplines, for example, however, related, partially and delineate. All the participants belong to study programmes which, according to the curriculum goals (Skolverket, 2013), prepare them for university studies, where English is a common reading language. Despite the university-preparatory goal, the syllabi contain no guidelines about academic English nor academic vocabulary.
The thesis is based on two premises: 1) academic vocabulary is a central component of reading at university, and 2) the curriculum goal of being prepared for university studies presupposes the ability to read literature in English.
The present thesis uses existing and validated tests targeting academic lexis. There are three validity arguments for using academic vocabulary measurements as indicators of students’ predicted academic reading comprehension. First, because reading comprehension largely depends on word knowledge (e.g., Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Grabe & Stoller, 2019), measures of academic word knowledge inform about an essential component of academic reading comprehension. Second, to comprehend an academic text a reader should know 98 percent of the words in a text (e.g., Nation, 2001). In academic texts, approximately 10–14 percent of the words are academic. Thus, without a high degree of academic word knowledge, the 98 percent threshold cannot be reached. Third, if basic word knowledge is lacking, more nuanced knowledge aspects which may be important for academic deep reading are likely lacking too. For this reason, it is worthwhile testing a basic aspect of word knowledge first; to this end, this thesis tests the connection of a word form to its most common meaning.
Based on these premises and validity arguments, the thesis seeks to estimate the academic vocabulary knowledge of students at the beginning and the end of mandatory English instruction. Furthermore, factors that may explain this word knowledge are explored.
The thesis adopts a cross-sectional design where almost 1,000 participants were administered vocabulary tests, questionnaires and a survey of out-of-school English activities. Mainly statistical analyses were used.
The results reveal large variations in academic vocabulary knowledge within and between samples. Significant factors positively related to academic vocabulary are involvement with out-of-school English, age, gender and study programmes. Approximately half of the students leaving mandatory English courses do not reach the minimum threshold score indicating mastery of academic lexis.
Since there are no guidelines in the English syllabi about academic vocabulary knowledge, the outcomes are expected, namely large variations in and, on average, a low level of academic word knowledge. There is a risk that many students falling below the threshold are not sufficiently prepared for taking on university reading tasks. The disruption in constructive alignment between the curriculum goal and the syllabi guidelines should be considered and the thesis suggests a curriculum change where the English mandatory courses for university-preparatory programmes include principled instruction about academic English reading ability of which academic vocabulary knowledge is one central component.