The importance of vocabulary at tertiary level

  • Ruth Scheepers
Keywords: Vocabulary size, Productive vocabulary knowledge, Measurement of vocabulary, Vocabulary Levels Test, South African university students, Gender, Course


This study investigated first-year students’ vocabulary knowledge using a test of ‘controlled productive ability’ used by Laufer and Nation (1995) in their study of lexical richness in writing. This test, and its later versions, is based on the view that vocabulary consists of various levels according to frequency of occurrence (Laufer and Nation, 1999: 35). The study explored the  relationship between students’ productive vocabulary knowledge and their course of study and gender, and the relationship  between their productive vocabulary knowledge and their academic performance. Findings revealed that course of study and gender were indicators of vocabulary knowledge, with Literature students performing better on the Vocabulary Levels Test (VLT) than their Law counterparts, and women outperforming men at all levels. Correlations revealed a robust relationship between overall knowledge of vocabulary and academic performance. Multiple regressions showed that Level 3 (5000-word level) and Level 4 (University Word List [UWL]) were predictor variables for Literature and Law students respectively. These levels are significant in illuminating the link between vocabulary knowledge and academic performance, as measured by examination scores.

Keywords: Vocabulary size; Productive vocabulary knowledge; Measurement of vocabulary; Vocabulary Levels Test; South African university students; Gender; Course


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eISSN: 0259-9570