Level of English at CUHK 'is very worrying'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 July, 2005, 12:00am

Students entering university with a vocabulary of less than 3,000 words - other institutions expected to be just as bad

Chinese University students know fewer than 3,000 English words, which is 'woefully inadequate' for academic study, according to a report.

The results of the survey of 155 first-year undergraduates' English vocabulary were revealed at the South China Morning Post's Teachers' Forum last Saturday.

Research supervisor Arthur McNeill, director of CUHK's English Language Teaching Unit, said the results were 'very worrying' and cited international research, including a 1989 study by Professor Batia Laufer of the Department of English Language at the University of Haifa in Israel, that indicated about 5,000 English words were required to guarantee comprehension of university reading material.

'I am alarmed to find that students are entering university knowing fewer than 5,000 words,' he said. He expected similar results in other universities as CUHK students had comparatively high use of English scores in Form Seven.

'This is a sad result and woefully inadequate. The vocabulary goals need to be much higher,' he said, adding that the average native English-speaking student was conservatively estimated to know at least 20,000 words.

With fewer than 3,000 words, students would have difficulty using English for academic study. While they could still get their degrees by developing coping strategies for the words they did not know, their limited vocabulary would hinder more fundamental understanding of their subject.

To read fluently, students needed to know 95 per cent of the words used in a text, Dr McNeill said.

He urged teachers to help students learn more vocabulary. He estimated that Hong Kong students learned an average of just 300 new words a year - one tenth of the number learned by native English speaking students.

Teachers should be bolder in the texts they used. 'Texts are like nutrition: the food of language learning. If you give students pizza every day they might be happy but they know it isn't a balanced diet,' Dr McNeill said.

Students' lack of spoken English was also a problem when they entered university. 'They are not understanding familiar words when they hear them. They need an enormous expansion of vocabulary, and more sentence-level grammar,' he said.

The survey, conducted by Amy Chui Sze-yan using Nation's (2001) Levels Test, found while most students knew most of the words at the 2,000 most-frequently-used-words level, on average they knew fewer than half at the 3,000 level and fewer than a third at 5,000.

'Their performance at the 10,000 level was particularly disappointing, with typical average scores of 8 per cent,' Dr McNeill said.

'Students who know fewer than 3,000 words can be expected to find many of their academic texts difficult to understand. At any rate, their reading speed is bound to be curtailed if they encounter many unfamiliar words,' he said.

Students in the Early Admission Scheme did better. They knew almost half the words at the 5,000 level. Dr McNeill said this was probably due to their extensive reading.

Chris Wardlaw, Deputy Secretary for Education and Manpower, who attended the forum, said the study confirmed the need for 'higher expectations, better teaching and learning and more assessment of progress'.