Teaching professionals in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) often express concern that their students lack sufficiently broad vocabulary knowledge.Therefore, the purpose of this study is to establish baselines that can be used to measure changes in language proficiency among Malaysian students in the future

An adequate vocabulary is a prerequisite to achieving language proficiency and academic
success. This study assessed the vocabulary knowledge of undergraduates at a Malaysian
public university where English is the main medium of information transfer. Two tests from
Beglar and Hunt’s (1999) Revised Vocabulary Levels Tests were used to evaluate the
receptive vocabulary mastery of a purposive convenience sample of 407 undergraduate
students. To elicit productive vocabulary, students were asked to write a short essay on an
academic topic. The tests were supplemented with a questionnaire to investigate specific
aspects of vocabulary acquisition, learning and perceived need for mastery of English
vocabulary. The findings revealed that nearly two-thirds of the students failed to reach the
vocabulary threshold level needed to competently comprehend reading materials in English.
Their mastery of academic vocabulary as measured by the University Word List was
signficantly weaker than their knowledge of general vocabulary. Although there was no
significant difference in the performance of male and female students, there were
considerable differences in mean test scores of different fields of study, with students from
the fields of Language and Communication and Pure and Applied Sciences recording the
highest mean scores on both tests. The sample included students from all six semesters of
undergraduate study, but there was no clear pattern of progress in vocabulary mastery.
Overall, the performance of the Malaysian students did not match that of ESL/EFL
undergraduates in other non-English speaking countries, such as China and Germany.
Lexical analysis of the essays confirmed that students who possessed a larger vocabulary
produced greater lexical variety in their writing; however, approximately half of thewriters
derived more than 80 per cent of all the words they wrote from the 1000 most frequent
English words .
Students exposure to academic English remains relatively high, although there is little
evidence that students acquired higher level vocabulary through incidental exposure to
English in academic settings. Although the overwhelming majority of students recognized a
need to improve their vocabulary, few took active steps to do so and relied on passive
activities such as watching English movies. Students with better vocabulary mastery
expressed more concern about the need to enhance their vocabulary .
The research has implications for pedagogical practice, future research and language policy:
 It is recommended that vocabulary should be given more emphasis in all university
courses, especially in English courses, and that the Vocabulary Levels Tests can be
used as a quick and easy way to test English proficiency.
 Future research could investigate the effect of limited language proficiency on
academic achievement in English-medium universities. A study also needs to
investigate the coping strategies used by lecturers and students to overcome weak
mastery of English academic vocabulary.
 The implications on employability of graduates is also a matter of concern for policy
[email protected]

Published: 11 Feb 2014

Contact details:

Chief Information Officer (CIO)

Institute of Research, Development and Commersialisation (IRDC) Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) Shah Alam, 50450 Shah Alam Selangor Malaysia

News topics: 
Content type: