Past research

Photo by Henry & Co., Unsplash

My research has focused on vocabulary learning, teaching and use. While working as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at National Taiwan University, I developed an interest in coherence in EFL writing.

Vocabulary learning, teaching and use

Which English academic words have more than one meaning?

Learning additional meanings for polysemous academic words happens very slowly both for native and non-native speakers of English, but many of these words appear in students’ readings and lectures and students need to use them in their spoken and written tasks. Given how useful but also challenging polysemous English academic words are, a recent project (Skoufaki and Petrić, 2021) estimates how many English academic words are polysemous. The words in an English academic wordlist which have more than one meaning both according to a learners’ dictionary and a lexical database are considered polysemous. The list of polysemous English academic words provided with the article can be used in research into English academic polysemous words and in academic word instruction/learning.

Idiom learning and teaching

Cognitive Linguistics, a group of linguistic theories, claims – among other things – that metaphors permeate language; for example, the idioms ‘take the high ground’ and ‘fall from grace’ present morality/immorality as being up/down whereas the idioms ‘be squeaky clean’ and ‘dish the dirt on someone’ present morality/immorality as being clean/dirty. Becoming aware of such metaphors can promote idiom learning, which is notoriously difficult. My PhD research compared the effectiveness of idiom instruction methods that made EFL students aware of such metaphors.

For example, in one study two groups of EFL learners were taught idioms, including those mentioned above. Both groups saw the idioms under metaphorical titles such as ‘Being moral is being clean’, ‘’Being moral is being up’, ‘Being immoral is being dirty’, and ‘Being immoral is being down’. One group was also given the meaning of each idiom while the other group was asked to use the metaphorical titles to guess at the meaning of each idiom before this meaning was explained by me, the teacher-researcher. Results suggest that the addition of a guessing task helps learners remember idioms better.

My PhD research also examined the nature of idiom transparency, that is, what makes people think that an idiom ‘makes sense’. This investigation is linked to idiom teaching because if people focus on aspects inherent in an idiom, such as the metaphor it may express or the meaning of individual words in it, then urging EFL learners to pay attention to such aspects of an idiom to memorise it will come naturally to them. Findings suggest that indeed idiom-inherent features contribute to the formation of transparency intuitions.

Vocabulary use and EFL writing quality

EFL writing is often assessed holistically: a mark is given to a piece of writing based on the marker’s overall impression of it. While working at National Taiwan University, I examined whether vocabulary variation (that is, the variety of words in a text) affects the holistic scores that markers give to the writing test-takers produce in the Intermediate General English Proficiency Test, a standardised test of English proficiency in Taiwan. Findings indicate a positive but weak relationship between vocabulary variation and holistic marks.


Coherence in EFL writing

At National Taiwan University, I also worked on the development of an error tagging system for the LTTC English Learner Corpus. Emphasis was placed on discourse coherence errors because they have been neglected in most learner corpora. This research developed my interest in bottom-up approaches to coherence break identification and led to two projects which examined whether an approach to coherence, Rhetorical Structure Theory, can be fruitfully applied to the detection of coherence errors in paragraphs written by Taiwanese EFL learners (Skoufaki, 2009; 2020). Findings suggest textual analysis through Rhetorical Structure Theory can indicate some, not all, coherence errors. Therefore, this finding means that the potential of other discourse theories to detect coherence errors should be examined too, with the ultimate goal to combine elements of different theories to create a hybrid theory with more explanatory power.