Mastery: A University Word List Reader

November 1999 — Volume 4, Number 2

Mastery: A University Word List Reader

Gladys Valcourt & Linda Wells (1999)
Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xviv + 212
ISBN 0-472-08588-3 (paper)
US $18.95
Cassette tape: ISBN 0-472-00282-1; US $15.00
Teacher’s Manual: pp. ix + 59; ISBN 0-472-08592-1; US $11.95

International students who wish to enter academic programs as undergraduate or graduate students in the United States face considerable hurdles, not least of which is the daunting amount and type of vocabulary they are likely to encounter in their academic fields. Students with advanced proficiency in English may generally be expected to have acquired a minimum productive English vocabulary of 2,000 head words (plus derivatives) along with a larger receptive vocabulary, while an average American undergraduate is estimated to have a vocabulary of about 20,000 words. This wide gap in vocabulary knowledge would seem likely to penalize international students from the beginning by slowing down their rate of reading and compromising their comprehension of study material overall. To address this gap in vocabulary knowledge, Michigan University Press has recently published a new vocabulary text, Mastery, to introduce key academic vocabulary to ESL students. In order to provide a theoretical framework for this text, however, it would first be useful to review some commonly accepted information regarding ESL vocabulary size and type.

Studies of vocabulary reported by Paul Nation (1990) have shown that a basic 2,000-word vocabulary of high-frequency items actually comprises 87% of words in an academic text. A further 800 academic words have been identified which comprise an additional 8% of textual items. Three percent of the remaining words are technical items, which differ from one field to another, generally consisting of 1,000 to 2,000 items, which are usually taught or acquired in the academic program. The remaining 2% of words in any text are considered to be low-frequency words, numbering up to 123,000. Despite the large volume of such items, they may be mentioned only once in a given text and, as such, do not usually merit specific learning. One half of general words and two thirds of all academic, technical, and low-frequency words are derived from Latin, French (through Latin), or Greek, thus indicating the importance of learning the meanings of roots and affixes.

Students who have a good grasp of a basic 2,000-word vocabulary are, therefore, equipped to master the majority of general words in academic texts, although key academic terms might be unknown. Several word lists have been compiled in the last 50 years, the most well-known being West’s General Service List of English Words(1953) which, along with other word lists, is based on high frequency of use, a wide range of use over different types of texts, the needs of the language learner, and the ease of learning. While EFL teachers may be able to predict what vocabulary their students have learned from the use of required textbooks, teachers in Intensive English Programs in the United States generally find wide differences in vocabulary knowledge amongst students from many different countries. Teachers who wish to estimate the size of their students’ vocabulary may find the Vocabulary Levels Test (in Nation, 1990) a useful starting point from which to plan a vocabulary curriculum to meet the learners’ needs. [-1-]

A knowledge of a further 800 academic words can significantly boost the comprehension level of academic texts and activities. Research into academic vocabulary has concentrated on two types of frequency counts, one counting words outside the basic 2,000-word list and the other counting vocabulary items that cause difficulty for international students. Nation combined these word lists into one 800-item University Word List (Xue & Nation, 1984), with the aim of having the list serve as a guide and focus for teachers and as a checklist and goal for students. The University Word List (commonly known as the UWL) consists of vocabulary that students are likely to encounter across all academic fields, concentrating on the language of research, analysis, and evaluation. Students who learn and practice the words on this list before academic study are likely to be able to master the material with more confidence and speed, wasting less time and effort in guessing words or consulting dictionaries than those with only the basic 2,000-word vocabulary. In addition, knowledge of this type of vocabulary is an important factor in achieving the required scores on the TOEFL, which is a prerequisite to entering most academic programs in the United States.

The University Word List, however, is not at first glance user-friendly. It consists of 800 words arranged alphabetically, the only additional information being frequency and range on a scale of 1 to 11. Handing this list out to students and expecting them to master it on their own is likely to result in very little learning and perhaps greater anxiety at the amount of vocabulary needing to be learned. The list requires guidance from the teacher and class practice for it to be successfully integrated into a vocabulary curriculum. This in turn may require considerable time and ingenuity on the part of the teacher and students, since up until now there have been few vocabulary textbooks that deal with this material in other than piece-meal fashion. The most useful textbook in recent years has been Lexis: Academic Vocabulary Study (Burgmeier, Eldred & Zimmerman, 1991), which provides many different activities for academic vocabulary presented through thematic readings. The new textbook, Mastery: A University Word List Reader, based specifically on Nation’s University Word List, promises further help in filling this gap in academic vocabulary learning.

Mastery is recommended as a text for intermediate to high-intermediate ESL/EFL students, and the theoretical framework is based on the need for students to develop a large sight vocabulary. This reflects the following current trends in vocabulary instruction and the practical concerns of integrating them into the text:

  • Adding explicit vocabulary instruction to inferring activities: Deducing meaning through attention to contextual clues (top-down strategies) is combined with finding meaning through explicit knowledge of word parts, word relationships, grammar, and other lexical information (bottom-up sub-skills).
  • Building a large academic sight vocabulary: Students are exposed to approximately half of the academic terms in the University Word List, 265 implicitly and 135 explicitly. Nation’s VocabProfile software program was used to ensure that each reading passage contains a minimum of 30 basic and academic words. (VocabProfile compares texts against word lists of the high frequency words of English and can be downloaded free of charge from [-2-]
  • Integrating new words with known words: In order to help students link new, isolated vocabulary items to existing information, the text emphasizes the activation of background knowledge, conceptual web activities, and semantic mapping.
  • Providing repeated encounters with new words: The target vocabulary is recycled and reviewed throughout the text so students can learn its different grammatical forms, registers, associations, and collocations in a variety of contexts.
  • Promoting a deep level of processing: Requiring the student to use a vocabulary item to relate to other words or ideas, including personal topics, in different types of exercises promotes a deeper level of processing and consequent better learning.
  • Facilitating imaging and concreteness: Several learner strategies in the text encourage the linking of vocabulary to concrete images and experiences through the use of audiovisual materials such as illustrations, videotapes, and Internet activities.
  • Using a variety of techniques: To accommodate individual learning styles and strategies as well as to address different instructional objectives, a variety of exercise types for implicit and explicit learning of vocabulary is included in the text.

The framework for the introduction and subsequent review of vocabulary in Mastery is a series of authentic short readings (1-4 pages) grouped around the achievements of well-known Americans. Although the largely autobiographical or biographical readings are not likely to be found in academic textbooks, they nonetheless serve to contextualize the target vocabulary effectively as well as to expose students to relevant aspects of American culture. The nine chapters in the text introduce key academic vocabulary through the life experiences of well-known figures in American life: Lee Iacocca (business, innovation, automobiles); Maya Lin (civil rights, architecture); Roberto Clemente (baseball, acculturation); Maya Angelou (African-Americans, literature); Cesar Chavez (migrant workers, unions); Gloria Steinem (feminism, women’s rights); Georgia O’Keeffe (art, communication); Carl Sagan (science, astronomy); and Colin Powell (American Dream, the military). Unfortunately the vocabulary that is highlighted in the readings is not the academic vocabulary from the UWL, but items that are idiomatic, of low frequency, or of cultural reference, all of which are annotated at the bottom of the page. The 15 target words in each chapter are given no special recognition in the texts, thus causing difficulty in locating them. Moreover, it is not clear where the 265 implicitly introduced words fit into the framework of the text, beyond the mention of them in the introduction of the Teacher’s Manual and a page reference in the UWL appendix. [-3-]

The main part of each chapter is devoted to explicit vocabulary study, which includes the following exercise types: vocabulary preview, word parts, antonyms, analogies, synonyms, associations, word relationships, compounds, derivatives, word meanings, word meanings in context, collocations, constructing sentences, and semantic mapping. Each chapter also ends with communication activities to promote active vocabulary use through reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Speaking is addressed through formulaic dialogues, natural conversations, role-play, and formal oral presentations, and writing exercises range from formal academic writing to creative writing practice. An accompanying audiotape providing listening practice contains the target words, a short reading from each unit, and recordings of all the listening activities, which include comprehension questions, listening and summarizing practice, and dictations. There are also review units after chapters 3, 6, and 9, which consist of word matching or word completion exercises.

An accompanying Teacher’s Manual provides teachers with an introduction to the theory of vocabulary acquisition, a bibliography of articles on vocabulary learning, explicit directions for the exercises and class management, listening scripts, and lists of supplementary teacher resources for each chapter, along with useful address information for each listing. The student’s textbook also contains the University Word List with highlighted vocabulary items from the textbook (but no indication of frequency), an answer key for all the exercises, information on creating individualized vocabulary cards or a vocabulary notebook, and instructions for the self-study student.

Mastery certainly provides academically focused students with a much-needed vocabulary textbook, and in most respects it should address their needs adequately. However, the focus of the text for intermediate and high intermediate learners seems somewhat unrealistic, although level definitions can vary widely from one institution to another. Since the University Word List seems most suited for study at the advanced level, after the acquisition of the basic 2,000 words and just before embarking on academic studies, readings chosen to reflect this level and the type of readings likely to be encountered in university textbooks would have been more appropriate. However, since only half of the words on the UWL have been presented in this text, there is an opportunity for the authors to provide an additional textbook geared to a higher level of English proficiency.

In recent years, the study of vocabulary has tended to be integrated into other English language courses and dealt with as it occurs. Therefore, students may not be exposed to enough of the vocabulary that they need, or not have enough practice or repetition to retain and produce it. However, students often report that their greatest language deficiency is in vocabulary and that this deficiency permeates every other aspect of their learning in English. A textbook such as Mastery, designed to improve academic vocabulary for university-bound students, responds to their needs both for passing the TOEFL and for successful academic study. [-4-]

Note: The following word lists can be accessed on the Internet:

The University Word List:
The General Service List:


Burgmeier, A., Eldred, G., & Zimmerman, C. B. (1991). Lexis: Academic vocabulary study. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Nation, I. S. P. (1990). Teaching and learning vocabulary. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

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

Xue, G. & Nation, I. S. P. (1984). A university word list. Language Learning and Communication, 3, 215-229.

Helen Huntley
West Virginia University

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