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ESL reading textbooks vs.

university textbooks: Are we giving our
students the input they may need?
Don Miller
Northern Arizona University, English Department, P.O. Box 7032, Flagstaff, AZ 86001, United States
Available online 15 January 2011
Developing reading skills in a second language presents learners with many challenges, including lexico-grammatical decoding.
An additional challenge is posed by the different registers of written text and the associated lexico-grammatical features with which
learners must contend. Questioning the efficacy of using non-academic reading texts in university-based intensive English
programs in the United States, the present study is a comparative analysis between the language in texts commonly used in reading
skill development classes (e.g., biographies, newspaper or news magazine articles) and the language in texts more commonly
encountered in introductory undergraduate university classes, represented by a corpus of lower-division university textbook
excerpts. Features compared include Academic Word List (AWL) vocabulary (Coxhead, 2000), nominal modification features, and
surface features associated with readability. Findings suggest significant differences in percentage of AWL vocabulary and use of
nominal modification, but no significant difference in features traditionally associated with readability. The paper proposes that the
sentence internal language in the ESL textbook texts is not representative of language in university textbooks, neither introductory
university textbooks in general nor introductory university textbooks by macro discipline, and that further consideration must be
given to text selection and inclusion of supplemental texts and activities to account for lexico-grammatical differences.
Ó 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Academic reading instruction; University textbooks; University-based intensive English programs
Developing reading skills in a second language (L2) presents learners with many challenges. Among these
challenges, perhaps most obvious is the lexical knowledge learners must develop (Nation, 2006). Another hurdle for
students to overcome is the sometimes complex syntax of the L2 that they are trying to decode (Grabe, 2005). Yet
another perhaps less obvious challenge facing students, a challenge directly related to both vocabulary and syntax, is
the different registers of written text with which students must contend. Depending on their ultimate target language
use goals, students may want or need to read texts from a variety of registers- anything from newspaper reports to
fiction to academic texts- and corpus-based register studies have made quite apparent the salient differences in lexico-
grammatical features present in these different written registers (e.g., Biber, 1988; Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad, &
Finegan, 1999).
As a result of these differences between registers, some teacher/researchers have proposed that, whenever possible,
register-specific instruction should be employed in second language settings (e.g., Coxhead & Byrd, 2007). Such
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Journal of English for Academic Purposes 10 (2011) 32e46
instruction would have the overall aim of preparing students to succeed specifically in their target language use
domain. One potential context for this “language in use” approach might be university-based intensive English
programs, where the target language is becomingly increasingly better defined (Biber, 2006; Biber et al., 1999, 2002,
2004; Conrad, 1996; Hyland, 1994, 1999; Reppen, 2004). Most studies of university language conclude with the
recommendation that findings be used to inform materials development. For example, in a comparison of biology
textbooks with composition course readings and biology research articles, Conrad (1996) found marked differences in
these texts according to the five dimensions identified by Biber (1988), and suggests these findings can aid both
writing and reading skill materials development. Hyland (1999) found significant differences in meta-discourse found
in textbooks and research articles, and similarly suggests this information be used to inform academic English
materials development. In questioning whether corpus linguistics will “revolutionize” grammar instruction, Conrad
(2000) illustrates the major difference in use of certain features (e.g., linking adverbials) across registers. For
example, she notes that, whereas certain classes of adverbials occur frequently in certain types of academic prose,
where authors attempt to lead readers through logical steps to a conclusion, they are much less frequent in newspaper
writing, where such logical steps are not so explicitly marked. She suggests the future will bring register-specific
grammar instruction.
Interestingly, however, and despite compelling evidence of the enormous differences between registers, the wealth
of information we have about university language, and the calls for register-specific instruction, many university-
based intensive English programs use reading materials fromsources that do not reflect those sources that students will
encounter in their target language use domain. An example of this possible mismatch can be seen in a brief review of
three ESL reading textbooks from three popular textbook series used in many university-based ESL programs:
Tapestry Reading 4 (Sokolik, 2000), Mosaic 2: Reading (Wegmann, Knezevic, & Bernstein, 2001), and NorthStar
Reading and Writing Advanced, 2nd Edition (Cohen & Miller, 2003). Of the 75 reading passages in these three
textbooks, the overwhelming majority of texts comes from newspapers or news magazine articles, excerpts from
novels or biographies, or transcribed speeches or interviews. Are such sources providing learners with exposure to
language that they will face in university classes?
1. Second language textbooks vs. target language
There exist numerous examples of comparisons between the content in second language textbooks and target
language. Most of the comparisons have been in the domain of grammar and writing. For example, Hyland (1994)
compares hedging in science articles with the coverage of this feature in ESL textbooks. Countering the notion
that academic discourse is purely informational, devoid of personal stance, Hyland provides several examples of
hedging in scientific research articles (e.g., through use of modals), and notes its importance in developing academic
argument. Further noting the challenge L2 students have with hedging, he analyzed the degree to which this topic is
covered in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) training materials compared with its actual use in naturally
occurring texts. He found such materials widely varying, but generally inadequate in their coverage of this important
In a corpus-based investigation the language in popular ESL grammar textbooks, Biber and Reppen (2002) found
that many of these textbooks present infrequent features and miss frequent features, that the order of presentation of
features does not match frequency of occurrence, and that frequently occurring vocabulary items (specifically, the 12
most common lexical verbs) are rarely used for presentation of features. Similarly, in a critique of grammatical
coverage in Spanish as a foreign language textbooks, Glisan and Drescher (1993) found a large gap between the
grammar used in actual L1 Spanish dialogues and that presented in university Spanish textbooks. Specifically, the
textbooks treated as equally important grammatical features that varied widely in frequency of use, and several
textbooks did not cover certain highly frequent features.
Barbieri and Eckhardt (2007) focused their comparison on the treatment of direct and indirect reported speech in ESL
grammar and writing textbooks as compared with the TOEFL 2000 Spoken and Written Academic Language Corpus
(T2K-SWAL) and the Longman Spoken and Written English Corpus (LSWE). They found what they consider important
deficiencies in the ESL textbooks, most notably the lack of discussion of register-specific use of these features.
ESL listening and speaking texts have been found to be equally lacking. For example, Gilmore (2004) demon-
strated how service encounter dialogues in ESL oral communication textbooks pre-1997 differed from naturally
occurring interactions in several notable ways, including turn-taking patterns, lexical density, number of false starts
33 D. Miller / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 10 (2011) 32e46
and repetitions, pausing, and frequency of overlapping and back-channeling. He notes that more recent textbooks are
incorporating some of these features, but still have a way to go.
On balance, Harwood (2005) critiques some conclusions drawn from “compare-ESL textbooks-to-corpora” studies
like those mentioned above. In defense of EAP materials developers, Harwood questions whether comparison corpora
are indeed appropriate. For example, as students must write in a variety of genres, is a corpus based solely on expert
journal writing a useful and appropriate comparison?
Far fewer studies have investigated the language of ESL reading textbooks. Most reviews of such texts to date have
tended to focus on the thematic, rather than the linguistic, content, or to the reading skill-building activities included.
Others, such as Hamp-Lyons’ (1982) review of seven EAP reading texts, also include comments on features such as
overall layout. Crossley, Louwerse, and McCarthy (2007) is a notable exception in that it does discuss explicitly the
linguistic features of ESL reading texts. However, in contrast to the current study, the issue of focus in their study was
a comparison of simplified vs. authentic language.
Finally, and quite pertinent to the present study, Biber, Conrad, Reppen, Byrd, and Helt (2002) note that, while
much linguistic analysis has been conducted within certain subregisters in academic writing (e.g., scientific research
articles), much less analysis of university textbooks has been done. They emphasize the importance of such study, as
university textbooks are a primary source of interaction students have with the university. With specific reference to
English for academic purposes, they note that “practice materials need to integrate patterns of language forms that are
typically used for particular functions at the university” (p. 42).
This brief review of studies investigating ESL materials reveals three key points. First, there indeed appears to be
some mismatch between some instructional materials and the target language, and acknowledging this observed
mismatch has the potential for improving instructional materials. Second, in evaluation of ESL materials, it is clear
that we must carefully consider measures (e.g., comparison corpora) upon which we are gauging our evaluation so that
conclusions drawn are indeed fair and useful. Finally, and perhaps most critical to the current study, few studies have
focused on ESL reading materials, and none of these studies has compared lexico-grammatical features of commonly
used advanced-level ESL reading material with those found in target-register reading material.
This last point is crucial in that we have yet to determine the degree to which the language in commonly used ESL
reading texts truly matches the language in the academic texts students will encounter. Numerous studies have shown
salient differences in distribution patterns of lexico-grammatical features between academic writing as a register (i.e.,
including subregisters such as textbooks and research articles) and each of the broad register categories of texts that
often make up many ESL textbooks (e.g., newspaper articles, fiction, biography). Biber et al.’s (1999) Longman
Grammar of Spoken and Written English is perhaps the most comprehensive of such studies. Thus, notable lexico-
grammatical differences between certain ESL reading texts and university textbooks can perhaps be expected.
However, it is also clear that there is lexico-grammatical variation within registers (e.g., see Conrad, 1996 and Hyland,
1999 for discussions of differences between university textbooks and professional research articles; Biber, 2008 for
discussions of variation in different genres of fiction and different newspaper sections). Thus, there exits the possi-
bility that the actual texts ESL materials developers have selected from “non-academic” sources do not differ from
university textbooks in significant ways.
Further, it has yet to be demonstrated empirically that lexico-grammatical features of training texts are important
for academic reading skill development. However, despite the lack of empirical evidence, it can be argued theoret-
ically that the presence or lack of lexico-grammatical features in training texts may indeed have some effect. In terms
of vocabulary, for example, Schmitt (2001) has suggested that a base of 10,000 words is needed for a reader to have
a reasonable chance of understanding an academic text. In response to this figure, Grabe (2009) suggests it is
unrealistic to expect learners to learn any more than 2000 words per year through direct instruction, and proposes that
the only chance an ESL student has of developing this 10,000-word base, outside of spending years in an intensive
English program, is through exposure to the “needed” words in the context of reading (p. 273).
It can also be argued that students may be affected by the syntactic structures that they are exposed to during
reading instruction. Grabe (2009) notes the importance of syntactic awareness in disambiguation, referent tracking,
and default processing (e.g., constituent ordering expectations) in reading comprehension. Many L1 studies have
demonstrated this importance. For example, Williows and Ryan (1986) found a significant correlation between
grammatical sensitivity, or grammatical processing, and reading comprehension in grades 1, 2 and 3. They suggest an
interactive-compensatory model of reading in which, at early stages of development, readers rely more heavily on
syntactic cues to compensate for a smaller vocabulary or slower word-recognition processes. If such a model applies
34 D. Miller / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 10 (2011) 32e46
to developing L2 readers, these learners may be at a double disadvantage as they may not yet have the syntactic
resources to compensate for limited vocabulary resources.
If ESL readers are reading “non-academic” texts with at least some significant lexico-grammatical differences, can
they develop the grammatical sensitivity, or syntactic awareness, that they must automatize in order to be successful
academic readers? Grabe (2009) asserts that if students are to attain “fluency and automaticity with syntactic proc-
essing.they need extensive exposure and practice in reading and exploiting relevant and appropriate texts.” (p. 216).
Ellis (2002) provides an extensive reviewof studies related to Grabe’s assertion, studies noting the relationship between
input frequency and language acquisition. Central to Ellis’s argument is that input frequency is related to several,
interconnected areas of language acquisition, namely lexical, syntactic, and discourse comprehension acquisition. That
is, language learners develop complex algorithms of probability based on exemplars, and then use this information in
processing and using language. If this is in fact the case, it seems to followlogically that the nature of the exemplars, and
the frequency with which a learner encounters them, would directly affect processing of novel utterances. At least part
of what constitutes what Grabe refers to as “relevant and appropriate texts,” then, might be understood as the degree to
which training texts share lexico-grammatical features with target texts, and thus, serve as effective exemplars.
The central question of the present study, then, returns to the importance of using register-specific material in
reading skill instruction for academically oriented ESL students: How might development of lexico-grammatical
decoding skills in non-academic texts facilitate or interfere with development of those needed for decoding academic
texts? Answering this question requires two steps: 1) identification of any salient lexico-grammatical differences
between academic texts and registers commonly used in ESL reading programs, and 2) determination of the effect that
these differences might have on academic reading skill development.
The present paper takes this first step, at least partially; that is, it seeks to identify salient lexico-grammatical
differences between texts in ESL reading textbooks and those in the target register (i.e., academic textbooks) that may
have an effect on academic reading skill development. The following two research questions are addressed:
1. Do the texts used in popular ESL reading textbooks expose academically oriented students to the type of
language that they will face in their introductory university classes?
2. Does the language in popular ESL reading textbooks compare more favorably to certain academic macro
disciplines than to others?
2. Method
2.1. Selection of features for comparison
Because of the numerous ways in which texts can differ (e.g., topic, rhetorical organization, levels of cohesion), it
was necessary to delimit features to be compared. Features investigated for this study fell into three categories:
Table 1
Features chosen for comparison.
Percentage of words from the Academic Word List
Compression features:
Post-nominal modification:
Noun þ finite relative clauses
Noun þ modifying prepositional phrase with “of”
Noun þ modifying participial (past and present)
Pre-nominal modification:
Attributive adjectives (including past and present participial attributive adjectives)
Noun þ noun sequences
Lexico-Grammatical Features often associated with complexity and readability:
Word length
Sentence length
35 D. Miller / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 10 (2011) 32e46
vocabulary, compression features, and features commonly associated with complexity and readability (see Table 1
below). Following is a brief description of features selected for each category as well as a discussion of the moti-
vation for selection.
2.1.1. Vocabulary
At least some of the words students must be able to comprehend for successful reading of university textbooks are
likely those from Coxhead’s (2000) Academic Word List (AWL), a list of the 570 most frequently occurring word
families in academic writing. Thus, comparison of vocabulary was based on average percentage AWL vocabulary in
reading texts. Significant differences in use of AWL vocabulary between the ESL reading passages and university
textbooks might suggest ESL students are receiving either inappropriate or insufficient vocabulary input.
2.1.2. Compression features
Syntactic features chosen were inspired by several works of Biber (1988) whose seminal multi-dimensional
analysis has led to a form, discourse function, and register-specific treatment of grammar (Biber et al., 1999) and
further multi-dimensional analyses focused on academic registers (e.g,. Biber et al., 2002; Biber, 2006). One of his
more recent works (Biber, 2008; Biber &Gray, 2010), a corpus-based investigation into the accuracy of popularly held
notions about characteristics of academic writing, suggests that academic writing favors reduced, compressed forms to
densely package information as efficiently as possible. Many features chosen for the present study were those found to
be employed by academic writers to achieve this information packaging efficiency, typically around the noun phrase.
Though it has yet to be demonstrated empirically, it is possible that such linguistic compression, which is charac-
terized by lack of explicitness, places unique cognitive demands on readers, and thus may be a source of challenge for
readers switching fromnon-academic training texts to academic texts. For example, compression features investigated
require a reader to identify the constituent being modified by a prepositional phrase (e.g., a verb, a head noun, another
constituent within a noun phrase), the agent of a participial modifier, or the relationship between two constituents in
a noun þ noun sequence (e.g., composition, content, source) (Biber et al., 1999). This task is likely even more
challenging when multiple modification structures are used within a single noun phrase. ESL readers who do not
consistently face such syntactic structures during their language development may struggle to develop efficient, fluent
(i.e., automatic) processing of these features.
2.1.3. Readability/complexity features
Two additional features were chosen to assess the degree to which surface features (i.e., sentence length, word
length) differ between ESL textbook passages and university textbooks. These features commonly appear in popular
measures of readability (e.g., Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level, Fry Readability Formula) or sentence complexity (Bardovi-
Harlig, 1992), and are thus often used to determine appropriacy of training and assessment materials. The rationale for
such measures is that longer words may demand more decoding of inflections, and longer sentences provide space for
more clauses and intricate clausal and phrasal embedding, again demanding more of a reader. Significant differences
in sentence and word length might suggest that students are not receiving input at an appropriate level of lexico-
grammatical complexity. Table 1.
2.2. The corpora
2.2.1. ESL reading textbook corpus
The ESL Reading Textbook Corpus was composed of 75 reading passages from three advanced-level ESL reading
textbooks. The textbooks were selected from three of the top-selling series from three of the top U.S. ESL publishers:
Pearson-Longman; Heinle and Heinle; Mc-Graw Hill. Popularity was determined based on the researcher’s personal
experience in multiple university-based intensive English programs in the United States, and confirmed in telephone
and e-mail correspondence with publisher representatives and intensive English program directors. Further, each of
these textbooks is from textbook series noting- either in the texts themselves or in other marketing material- that they
have an “academic” focus. Below are statements about each of the books chosen (emphasis added).
1. “Stimulating reading selections .prepare students to read and comprehend a variety of academic texts” (from
Tapestry 4: Reading, Sokolik, 2000).
36 D. Miller / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 10 (2011) 32e46
2. “Materials and tasks based on academic content and experiences” (from Mosaic 2: Reading, Wegmann et al.,
3. “The NorthStar series focuses on building academic English skills” (from NorthStar Reading and Writing:
Advanced 2nd Edition, Cohen & Miller, 2003).
Reading passages in each text were scanned and saved as separate files. All files were tagged for part of speech
using the Biber Tagger (Biber, 1988). Table 2 below provides details of the contents of the corpora in terms of number
of passages, mean length of passages, and total words from each textbook.
2.2.2. University textbook corpus
A comparison corpus of 252,100 words was designed to represent a substantial component of reading students
would encounter in their first two years of university study: university textbooks. Though, as has been noted,
university students encounter a range of written text types in the course of their academic lives (e.g., department
brochures, university catalogues, course syllabi; Biber, 2006; Biber et. al, 2002, 2004), it has also been noted that
textbooks are the primary source of written input students receive, especially during their first two years of university
study (Carkin, 2001, 2004). Thus, 28 texts were selected from the ETS, T2K-SWAL textbook subcorpus. The texts
were excerpts from 28 lower-division textbooks from 18 different subdisciplines, representing the six macro disci-
plines comprising this corpus (see Table 3 below). These excerpts had a mean length of 9043.79 words
(SD ¼ 1659.31). All texts in this corpus were previously tagged for part of speech using the Biber Tagger.
2.2.3. University textbook disciplinary subcorpora
To investigate the extent to which the language in the ESL texts matched that of different disciplines (i.e., research
question #2), three subcorpora were culled from the University Textbook Corpus: the Humanities Textbook Corpus,
the Social Science Textbook Corpus, and the Natural Science Textbook Corpus. The composition of these three
corpora can also be seen in Table 3.
2.3. Analysis
Features in each text were identified semi-automatically using three programs. The percentage of Academic
Wordlist words (Coxhead, 2000) was identified using Vocabprofile, VP English v.2.9 (Cobb, 1994; Heatley & Nation,
Table 2
Contents of the ESL reading textbook corpora.
Corpus # of passages Mean length (SD) Total words
Northstar advanced 20 857.30 (433.16) 17,146
Tapestry 4 27 1005.48 (698.21) 27,148
Mosaic 2 28 910.82 (430.63) 25,503
Total 75 e 69,797
Table 3
Contents of the university textbook corpus.
Major discipline # of texts Subdisciplines represented Total words
Business 4 Accounting, marketing, economics 29,700
Humanities 6 English literature, history, philosophy, art history 56,300
Natural science 6 Botany, chemistry, ecology, geology 53,600
Social science 7 Psychology, anthropology, sociology 75,300
Education 2 Curriculum and instruction, elementary education 18,600
Engineering 3 Computer science, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering 18, 600
Total 28 252,100
37 D. Miller / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 10 (2011) 32e46
1994). Word length (characters/word) and sentence length (words/sentence) were determined using the Microsoft
Word readability tool. Finally, all other features were identified through concordance searches of tags using Mono-
Conc Pro 2.0, and were normed to frequency of occurrence per 1000 words. Mean scores were then calculated for
feature distribution in each (sub)corpus.
2.3.1. ESL texts vs. university textbooks
A ManneWhitney U Test (nonparametric analog to Independent Samples T-test) was conducted for each of the
features of interest. Alpha was set at .004 to account for the 12 comparisons being made (i.e., p ¼ .05/12).
2.3.2. ESL texts vs. university textbooks by discipline
Because of the small number of text samples representing the three academic macro disciplines (Humanities:
n ¼ 6; Natural Science: n ¼ 6; Social Science: n ¼ 7), no inferential statistics were run for this comparison. Instead,
simple frequency of occurrence per 1000 words was reported for each feature in each corpus.
3. Findings and discussion
Following is a discussion of findings for the ESL textbooks vs. University Textbooks comparison, divided into the
three categories investigated: vocabulary, compression features, and readability/complexity features. This section
continues by presenting linguistic characteristics of the language in the ESL reading textbook corpora and proposing
functional analyses of these characteristics. Finally, results are presented for the comparison of ESL textbooks to
University Textbooks by macro discipline: Humanities, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences.
3.1. ESL texts vs. university textbooks
Results from ManneWhitney U Tests (Table 4) suggest statistically significant differences between the language in
the university textbook samples and the language of ESL reading textbooks on nine measures: percentage of AWL
vocabulary, word length, total attributive adjectives, present participial attributive adjectives, past participial attrib-
utive adjectives, post-nominal past-participial modifiers, nounenoun sequences, noun þ modifying of prepositional
phrase, and nominalizations. Further, all of these significant differences, except for word length, had large effect sizes.
Table 4
Means (SD), ManneWhitney U test results, and effect size for features compared.
Features ESL texts University textbooks ManneWhitney U p Effect size (Cohen’s d)
Readability features
Sentence length 18.68 (3.84) 18.61 (3.34) 1012.500 .781
Word length 4.74 (.54) 5.02 (.35) 549.000 .000 .62
% AWL vocabulary 4.78 (2.23) 8.40 (3.14) 322.000 .000 1.35
Nominal modification
Postnominal modification
Finite relative clauses 8.28 (4.55) 8.40 (2.62) 979.000 .599
noun þ of prepositional phrase 20.83 (2.77) 30.94 (8.87) 455.000 .000 1.54
present participial 1.73 (1.83) 2.47 (1.16) 676.000 .005 .48
past participial 1.21 (1.61) 3.71 (2.61) 351.000 .000 1.15
Prenominal modification
present participial 1.27 (1.43) 4.07 (2.19) 227.000 .000 1.51
past participial 1.49 (1.47) 5.24 (2.61) 175.000 .000 1.77
attributive adjectives 46.74 (16.21) 64.94 (16.48) 426.000 .000 1.11
noun þ noun sequence 20.41 (12.37) 36.25 (15.01) 451.000 .000 1.15
Nominalization 39.68 (17.84) 59.61 (16.28) 424.000 .000 1.18
38 D. Miller / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 10 (2011) 32e46
Table 4 reports the mean and standard deviation for each feature as well as the results of the ManneWhitney U Test.
Effect sizes, using Cohen’s d, were calculated for all differences reaching statistical significance.
3.1.1. Vocabulary
The most straightforward feature compared was percentage of AWL vocabulary. Not surprisingly, the university
textbooks excerpts were found to make significantly more frequent use of items from the AWL than were the texts
from the ESL Reading Textbook Corpus. As can be seen from Table 4, on average, only 4.78% of the total running
words in the ESL texts are from the AWL, as compared to an average of 8.80% of total running words in the university
textbook samples.
Though the percentage differences may appear small, if these percentage differences are translated into words per
page, the difference in input becomes apparent. Assuming a page of text is approximately 400 words, this would mean
that the ESL textbooks have, on average, approximately 15 fewer AWL words per page than do university textbooks. It
is possible, then, that the ESL textbooks are providing students neither the exposure to the range of academic
vocabulary nor the number of encounters with academic vocabulary that they may need to develop successful
comprehension of university textbooks.
Just as important as the percentage of running words classified as AWL is the range of the 570 words families in the
AWLand the number of encounters with thesewords provided.. That is, howmany of the 570 wordfamilies would a learner
be exposed to through the texts in an ESL reading textbook? Assuming an ESL class was able to cover all texts in one of
these three ESL textbooks, students would be exposed to between 248 and 391 of the 570 AWL word families (depending
on the textbook), between 2.06 and 4.23 times each. Further, in each of the textbooks, the AWLwords are nicely distributed
among the 10 AWL sublists, approximately 60% from the first five sublists, and the remainder from the last five.
3.1.2. Compression features
Another key area of interest was the set of features writers employ to efficiently package information within noun
phrases. Of the nine compression features investigated, seven were found to have statistically significant differences,
and in all cases, the university textbook texts had significantly more occurrences of these features than did the ESL
textbook texts.
These findings are in line with those from previous studies demonstrating that a large amount of information in
academic writing is transmitted within the noun phrase through various modification structures (e.g., Biber et al.,
1999; Biber, 2008). Examples below illustrate heavy use of nominal modification in the university textbook
corpus. For each example, core constituents in the matrix clause are bolded: head noun in subject is simply bolded,
main verb is bolded and underlined, and object or complements are bolded and italicized. Attributive adjectives are
italicized, post-nominal modification is marked with {}, and separate constituents of post-nominal modification are
further distinguished through [].
1. One of the major ways {in which a river breaks apart and erodes rock} is by slow abrasion {[of the bottom] [by
the sand and pebbles it carries]}. (geology textbook)
Of the 28 words in example sentence 1, only four are not involved in nominal modification, the subject, the
verb, and the subject complement: “ by.abrasion”. If one considers the multiple propositions packaged
in this sentence, the efficiency of nominal modification becomes apparent.
Rivers break apart and erode rock.
This happens in many ways.
Some of the ways are more common/effective (major) than others.
One common/effective way is by abrasion.
This abrasion is slow.
The abrasion happens on the bottom.
The abrasion is caused by sand and pebbles.
Rivers carry pebbles and sand.
Also striking in the academic textbook excerpts is the variety of modification types and levels of embedding that
can occur within a single sentence. Example 2 below illustrates how simple and participial attributive adjectives and
39 D. Miller / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 10 (2011) 32e46
post-nominal prepositional phrase and participial modifiers can be embedded into one clause, and how a single noun
phrase may contain multiple layers of modification. This example also illustrates the challenge a reader, and
particularly an L2 reader, might have in untangling, and determining relationships between, the multiple propositions.
2. A common instance {[of this kind [of flow]]} is the slow movement {[of thick syrup] [over a pancake], [with
strands [of unmixed melted butter] [flowing in parallel but separate paths]]}. (geology textbook).
The informational purpose of textbooks provides many contexts in which such heavy nominal modification is
found. Avery common context is definitions. As lower-division textbooks function as an introduction for novices into
a particular subject area, the parameters of key terms in the subject area must be carefully defined. Such explication is
often realized through complex nominal modification, as in examples 3 and 4 below.
3. Genetics, then, also involves the study {[of how the genetic makeup [of an organism]] influences its physical
and behavioral characteristics]}. (psychology textbook).
4. The study {[of the evolution] [of our species]} suggests the nature {[of the circumstances] [under which
adaptive behavior first emerged]} and those circumstances {[that have been important for its continued
expression to the present time]}. (psychology textbook).
Noun þ noun sequences are yet another nominal modification feature prevalent in the university textbook
excerpts but comparatively lacking in the ESL reading texts examined. Such sequences are an extremely efficient
method of information packaging in that the writer does not have to make explicit the relationship between the
nouns; instead, such relationships are left to the reader to infer. For this reason, however, this method of pre-
modification is potentially problematic for readers, and likely L2 readers in particular. Biber et al. (1999) presents
the wide variety of relationships there may be between constituents in a noun þ noun sequence. The examples
below from the university textbook corpus illustrate a few such noun þ noun sequences. Relationships become
even more complicated as noun þ noun sequences extend to three or more constituents.
wildlife management (ecology)
mixture components (chemistry)
separation process unit (chemistry)
specialty apparel businesses (management)
public school finance system (education)
business portfolio analysis calls (management)
3.2. Readability/complexity features
Somewhat surprisingly, no statistically significant difference was found between the ESL reading texts and
university textbook excerpts in terms of sentence length. A significant difference was found between the corpora in
word length, though the mean difference was minimal: less than one letter per word. These findings appear to
contradict those of Biber (1988), who found sentence and word length (i.e., longer sentences and words) to be salient
characteristics of academic writing as compared with other written registers. However, it must be noted that the texts
in the ESL reading textbooks are too few to represent the entire registers to which they belong (e.g., newspaper, news
magazines, biographies). Rather, they are a small sample, purposefully selected by materials developers for use in
ESL classes. It is quite possible that at least one criterion upon which texts were selected was their “readability” score,
which would likely have been based primarily on measures such as sentence and word length. Based on these surface
features, it may appear that these selected ESL texts are approximately equally “readable” with academic texts, and
thus, provide appropriate models of similar complexity. However, a consideration of the following sentences will
likely raise questions about the efficacy of such conclusions.
5. “In the depth of Grisha’s eyes as in two dark mirrors she saw herself as she must have appeared to him e a rich
world traveler.” (from “Grisha has Arrived” by Tanya Filanovsky, in ESL text, Mosaic 2) (Total words: 25;
Flesch-Kincaid grade level ¼ 9.2)
40 D. Miller / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 10 (2011) 32e46
6. “In short, the whole process is carefully designed to limit your exposure to harmful radiation so that its diag-
nostic benefits can be utilized (from lower-division university chemistry textbook, T2K-SWAL corpus). (Total
words: 23; Flesch-Kincaid grade level ¼ 14.9)
Though a popularly-used readability measure, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, identifies example sentence 5 as
nearly six grades more “readable,” (i.e., sentence 5 is appropriate for students in 9th grade, whereas sentence 6 is
appropriate for university students) it is clear that such a designation is overlooking complexity not captured by
a calculation of sentence length and word length. Example 5 is not an overly long sentence, nor are the vocabulary
items uncommon. However the propositional and structural complexity of this sentence requires much of a reader.
First, readers must understand several embedded figurative propositions. They must realize that Grisha’s eyes are
being compared to mirrors and that the narrator is looking deeply into them and seeing a reflection of herself. In this
“reflection,” the narrator is coming to understand how Grisha sees her. A reader must also determine the core clause
constituents as she (subject) þ saw (verb) þ herself (object, reflexive pronoun) þ as she must have appeared to him
(verb complement) þ a rich world traveler (another verb complement), and that all of this was seen through the
analogy of eyes as mirrors.
Compared to example 5, the overall proposition expressed in example 6 appears much more straightforward: A
process was designed for safety and diagnostic purposes. The sentence, though, does include challenging features. The
passive verb in the main clause, for example requires a reader to infer who or what the actor was, and the passive in the
subordinate clause requires a reader to infer who can make use of the benefits, as well as what benefits are being
Another notable difference between example 5 and example 6 is the vocabulary. Example 5 includes frequent
vocabulary (85% from K1, 0% from K2 or AWL, offlist: Grisha, mirrors, traveler), but requires readers to comprehend
the figurative use of and relation between these lexical items. In contrast, difficulty in example 6 is likely posed by less
frequent lexical items (60% from K1, 4% from K2, 20% from AWL, offlist: diagnostic, radiation).
Clearly, each example sentence above, drawn from a different text type, appears to present a reader with
substantial, though quite different, cognitive demands. As others have done previously (e.g., Bruce, Rubin, & Starr,
1981; Heilman, Collins-Thompson, Callan, Eskenazi, 2007; Zakaluk & Samuels, 1988), I would argue that drawing
readability conclusions based solely on these surface measures is perhaps unhelpful. These two sentences provide
additional support for this concern.
3.3. The language of ESL reading textbooks
If the language in the university textbooks appears to include features previously identified as characteristic of
academic writing in general, what linguistic features are characteristic of the ESL reading texts, and what are the
functions of these features? Though, as noted above, texts from the ESL reading textbooks come from a variety of
sources, the vast majority appear to share a common trait: they are narratives. Many are excerpts from biographies,
autobiographies, or works of non-fiction, all of which make heavy use of narration. In many of these narratives, much
of the propositional information tends to occur in adverbial clauses and phrases (examples 7 and 8), expressing
information about the time, place, and manner in which actions happen.
7. Even though he was dog tired after long days at the mine, Dad would still pitch batting practice to me in the
backyard when he got home from work, beginning from the time I was four years old. (from “Time in
a Bottle”, NorthStar Advanced, originally published in Sports Illustrated, 1994).
8. The thing sailed in a beautiful arc, then settled on a fence post, a ringer, just the way you never can do it when
you try. (from “Gotta Dance: A Short Story”; NorthStar Advanced).
Many of the remaining articles found in the ESL reading textbooks are from popular newsmagazines, such as
Newsweek or Psychology Today, or from newspapers. Popular newsmagazines often make use of narratives in
an attempt to personalize an issue. Narratives can be used as a method of framing an issue, often in the
introduction and sometimes the conclusion of an article (example 9) or in the body of an article as illustrations
(example 10).
41 D. Miller / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 10 (2011) 32e46
9. Ann Miscoi had seen her father and her uncle die of organ failure in their mid-40s. So she figured she was lucky
to be living when she turned 50 last year. The trouble was, she felt half dead.” (from “A Revolution in Medicine,”
Mosaic 2; originally published in Newsweek, 2000).
10. Tara met Abe at a party. She was instantly attracted to the tall, lean man with a faraway look in his eyes. Abe,
who had been standing alone, was delighted when Tara approached him.” (from “Finding Real Love,” Mosaic
2; originally published in Psychology Today, 2001).
As for the newspaper articles in the ESL reading textbooks, though Biber et al. (1999) found newspapers to be
comparable to academic prose in terms of heavy nominal modification, differences found in the present study may be
related to the type of newspaper articles chosen by ESL textbook writers. That is, whereas the major categories of the
newspaper subcorpus that Biber et al. analyzed for their study included a variety of expository article types (e.g.,
foreign/world news, sports, politics, and business/economics), articles chosen for ESL reading textbooks appear to be
personal interest feature stories containing substantial sections of narrative. The narrative hook in these articles may
serve a variety of purposes. For example, narrative may provide a personal anecdote to establish expertise related to or
rationale for an opinion (example 11). Alternatively, and similar to its use in popular newsmagazines, narrative may be
used to introduce and personalize an issue (example 12).
11. Years ago, when I was a young assistant professor at Harvard Business School, I thought that the key to
developing managerial leadership lay in raw brain power. My thinking gradually became tempered by living
and working outside the United States and by serving 7 years as college president.” (from “A Lifetime of
Learning to Manage Effectively,” Mosaic 2, originally published in the Wall Street Journal, 1983)
12. Sabine Contrepois well remembers the day two years ago when she explained to her high school class how the
Vietnam War eventually spilled into Cambodia. Suddenly, Meak, an Asian girl in the front row, burst into tears.
"I asked her what was wrong," Mrs. Contrepois recalled. "She said her father was shot the day the Khmer Rouge
took power in Cambodia in 1975. She and her mother spent years in concentration camps before they escaped
through Thailand. There was absolute silence in the classroom." (from “In One School, Many Sagas,” NorthStar
Advanced; originally published in The New York Times, 1994).
3.4. ESL texts vs. university textbooks by macrodiscipline
Research question 2 asks whether the language in the ESL texts compares more favorably to certain disciplines
than to others. Figs. 1e3 illustrate how the features of interest compare between ESL texts and university textbooks in
three separate macro disciplines: Humanities, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences. Overall, the ESL texts differed
with the university textbooks in each macrodiscipline in similar ways, but there was some variation in howpronounced
the differences were between the ESL texts and each macrodiscipline. Following is a discussion of this variation.
AWL Vocabulary
(percentage of total running
Sentence Length (avg.
number of words per
Word Length (avg. number of
letters per word)
ESL Texts
NatSci TB
SocSci TB
Fig. 1. Percentage of AWL vocabulary and readability/complexity features by corpus.
42 D. Miller / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 10 (2011) 32e46
3.4.1. Vocabulary
As Fig. 1 illustrates, the ESL texts differed most with Social Science textbooks with respect to percentage of
total running words classified as AWL vocabulary (ESL texts: 4.78%; Social Science texts: 9.88%). It must be
noted, however, that the smaller percentage of difference with Humanities (7.42% AWL) and Natural Science
(7.39% AWL) textbooks does not necessarily reflect greater similarities in vocabulary. Rather, a great deal of
difference can be seen in the percentage of the non-AWL words. Whereas approximately 76% of running words in
ESL textbooks are classified as General Service List 1000 (compared to 70.87%e72.88% in the three macro
disciplines), Humanities and Natural Sciences evidenced the largest percentage of offlist (i.e., not previously
classified) words (15.7% and 16.15%, respectively). A great deal of this distributional difference is likely accounted
for by the prevalence of terminology in the sciences (e.g., words naming or describing chemicals and chemical
processes, geological formations or processes, or biological names for flora, fauna, anatomy and physiology) or, in
the humanities, by terms referring to particular historical periods or to descriptions of styles, techniques or
movements throughout art history.
3.4.2. Readability/complexity features
As with the comparison between ESL texts and university textbooks in general, no meaningful differences are
apparent in sentence or word length.
3.4.3. Compression features
At least in terms of features investigated, the ESL texts differed most with Natural Science textbooks. As can be
seen in Figs. 2 and 3, these difference were most pronounced with respect to participial modification and noun þnoun
sequences, and, by a very small margin, modifying prepositional phrases with of. The ESL texts differed most with
Humanities textbooks with respect to occurrence of attributive adjectives, nominalizations, and prenominal present
participial modifiers.
The ESL textbooks compare most favorably to Social Science textbooks with respect to most compression features
investigated. Caution must be taken in drawing strong conclusions from this finding, however. It must be noted that,
though these differences are perhaps less pronounced than the difference between ESL texts and either Humanities or
Social Science texts, the differences remain quite pronounced. With the exception of relative clause and post-nominal
modifying present participial, which evidenced little difference, the compression features still occur anywhere from
37% to 208% more frequently in the Social Science texts than in the ESL texts.
Finite Relative
Noun +
modifying of
prep. Phrase
Noun + Noun
ESL Texts
NatSci TB
SocSci TB
Fig. 2. Frequency of occurrence of five compression features by corpus.
43 D. Miller / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 10 (2011) 32e46
4. Conclusions, implications, and limitations
The purpose of this study was to examine the extent to which the language in texts often used in university-based
intensive English program reading classes matches that in target language texts: undergraduate introductory text-
books. Findings from the present study suggest that there are indeed some clear, pronounced lexico-grammatical
differences between texts in some ESL textbooks and lower-division university textbooks, both in general and by
As noted above, the many lexico-grammatical differences found between the ESL reading textbooks and the
university textbook excerpts, both in general and by macro discipline, may be attributed to the fact that they are of
entirely different text types, with entirely different purposes. The high frequency of nominal modification features in
the university textbook excerpts is in line with their expository nature; conversely, the heavy use of adverbials and
interactional features in the ESL textbook texts is in line with their narrative nature. Further, these “non-academic”
ESL texts provide learners with a great deal fewer exposures to AWL vocabulary than they will encounter in university
textbooks. Such findings have potential implications for materials design, selection and supplementation as well as
instructional focus for reading classes.
Materials designers may want to consider the degree to which the texts that they choose match target texts with
regard to the features used in the current study as well as other features that might evidence important differences.
They might also design activities that raise awareness of salient lexico-grammatical features of the target texts and
provide practice with decoding these features. ESL reading teachers would also be well-served to be aware of any
differences between training and target texts and provide any necessary supplemental materials and activities to
expose students to target lexico-grammatical features.
Further, additional focus on AWL vocabulary would serve students well for introductory coursework in any of
these disciplines, though perhaps somewhat more so for introductory Social Science courses. Because of the relative
infrequency of AWL vocabulary exposure in ESL texts, an instructor might make a point of highlighting these words
when they are encountered in training texts. They may also consider providing additional opportunities for students to
encounter these words in other texts and vocabulary exercises. Further, instructors might make note of those AWL
word families that students are not exposed to in these texts, and perhaps provide opportunities for exposure to these
words through direct instruction or suggestions for independent study.
Finally, both materials designers and ESL reading teachers should recognize that, as findings fromthe present study
suggest, there appears to be some disciplinary variation in lexico-grammatical features preferred in university text-
books. However, caution must be taken in concluding that the types of reading texts often used in ESL reading classes
would expose students to language more similar to one macrodiscipline than to another, as the language in each
macrodiscipline differs from ESL texts in notable ways. That said, awareness of possible disciplinary variation is key,
as the most common situation in university-based intensive English programs in the United States is that the students
enrolled will most likely encounter textbooks from a variety of disciplines in their post-ESL classes as they fulfill
present participial
prenominal past
present participial
postnominal past
ESL Texts
NatSci TB
SocSci TB
Fig. 3. Frequency of occurrence of participial modification by corpus.
44 D. Miller / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 10 (2011) 32e46
undergraduate general studies requirements. Thus, teachers should ensure that their students are exposed to textbook
writing from this range of disciplines so that students have experience decoding features that, while perhaps common
to most disciplines, may be even more common in certain disciplines.
In conclusion, it must be noted that this brief analysis of ESL reading textbook language is in no way intended to be
an indictment of academic ESL reading textbooks. Unquestionably, three textbooks cannot be considered represen-
tative of such a varied genre. Further, this analysis is not intended to cast aspersions on the three ESL textbooks
analyzed. These textbooks are extremely popular in university-based intensive English programs for a reason: they
provide a range of high-interest, challenging texts accompanied by excellent reading strategy and vocabulary
development exercises. These three texts merely provide a sample of written registers often used in university-based
intensive English programs in the United States. Further, it must be noted that the texts in the ESL textbooks analyzed
may indeed be representative of some of the reading students may encounter during their degree programs. English
classes may require students to read literature; history classes may require students to read biographies; articles from
popular media such as newspapers and news magazines may find their way into a variety of university classrooms.
Clearly, however, the language in these texts is not representative of a significant component, if not the majority, of the
language in the reading that undergraduates will face: textbooks (Carkin, 2001, 2004; Johns, 1997).
Without question, second language textbook development and selection are complicated tasks. By no means does
this paper suggest that decisions in these undertakings be based solely on lexico-grammatical features, nor does it
suggest that advanced-level, academically oriented ESL students read only university textbooks in their ESL classes.
However, if further research does in fact determine an effect for lexico-grammatical features in training texts on
academic reading development, perhaps more comprehensive consideration is required to ensure we are indeed
providing our students with the input they need.
I would like to thank the Applied Linguistics faculty at Northern Arizona University for their review of this
manuscript, and in particular, Dr. Douglas Biber, Dr. Randi Reppen, Dr. Fredricka Stoller, and Dr. Kimberly
McDonough, as well as the three anonymous reviewers for their detailed and helpful feedback on early drafts of this
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