A need for “controlled vocabulary”: Excessive paraphrasing in EAP teaching

In response to an email on the BALEAP, British Association of Lecturers in English for Academic Purposes mailing list, discussing a case of an EAP student who had paraphrased too much, resulting in inappropriate writing:


Most international students in the UK (and I’m guessing most EAP students globally) will study physical or social sciences, rather than humanities, and in the target context of science writing there’s a drive toward “controlled vocabulary” – identify one term to be used for a concept, and keep using it. So you see e.g. the APA Dictionary of Psychology, trying to present a 1-1 relation between concepts and terms, with the hope that psychologists will write about “wellbeing” and mean the same thing, instead of using it with different meanings, or using a different word but meaning the same thing. This makes the writing more repetitive and less fun to read than news editorials, but it makes academic communication more efficient – e.g. literature reviews are much easier if most people are using the same term – allowing researchers to focus on the ideas.


EAP writing assessment seems to sometimes have a tension between wanting to test students’ vocabulary range – a desirable skill – and wanting to test their ability to write with controlled vocabulary – another desirable skill. I’ve seen some cases where there seems too much focus on the former, getting students to write with lots of synonyms. This leads to wasted extra effort on the part of the writer (and the reader), to achieve a level of self-paraphrasing unsuitable to the target context. It’d be better to have greater focus on lexical accuracy in academic writing assessment, even teaching students to use the controlled vocabulary resources from their future/current discipline; lexical range would be more emphasised in reading and listening, as well as traditional vocabulary tests where deemed appropriate.

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