What factors affect lexical sophistication in foreign language writing?

Marco Berton, senior lecturer in Spanish

The adjective “sophisticated” is often associated with the idea of something advanced or complicated. As far as vocabulary is concerned, sophistication generally refers to the proportion of uncommon words in a given language sample (Read, 2000: 204), and is calculated by comparing it to an existing frequency list of the target language. Furthermore, when it comes to writing in a second language, a sophisticated lexicon is considered desirable, i.e., becoming proficient in a language also implies development in lexical sophistication. It therefore can be considered a good indicator of learners’ lexical proficiency which, in turn, is a part of their overall proficiency. Sophistication is arguably one of the most investigated features of what is commonly referred to as lexical richness, a construct that has mainly been investigated in L2 English. Our study (Berton and Sánchez, 2023), published in the volume Current Perspectives in Spanish Lexical Development, focuses on lexical sophistication in Spanish, a much less investigated language compared to English. It aims to discover what factors have an impact on lexical sophistication in Spanish as a foreign language when it comes to written production. Besides, being that task-based language teaching is the dominant approach in modern language pedagogy, the role of the type of pedagogic task is investigated. This is aimed at providing valuable information to teachers as to what type of task would possibly result in a higher use of low-frequency words.

It is plausible to hypothesise that the lexical sophistication in a text might depend on the number of words known by the writer. In this line, it seems worth reflecting on what knowing a word actually means. Word knowledge has been defined in different ways, including, for instance, the existence of passive vocabulary and active vocabulary (Nattinger, 1988), that is, the words a speaker understands and those that they can actively produce when needed, as when performing a vocabulary test, for example. Apart from passive and active vocabulary knowledge, a third construct named ‘vocabulary use’ refers to the words deployed in free production. Previous research has shown that, perhaps unsurprisingly, only a portion of the words known passively by a learner are actually available to them actively in vocabulary tests. Moreover, no significant correlation was found between passive vocabulary knowledge and lexical sophistication in free writing in English as a foreign language (Laufer, 1998).

Furthermore, it seemed intriguing to investigate if any effect of passive vocabulary knowledge on lexical sophistication would interact with the type of task at hand (i.e., the written activity that is assigned, as describing a picture or retelling a story in the target language). Different pedagogic task types are considered inherently more or less complex, as they require different mental processes to be completed (Brown et al., 1984). In our study, the participants performed two written tasks, a narrative and a decision-making one, since the latter is considered to be more complex than the former. 62 students were recruited from four Swedish universities, most of them being in the first term of their university studies in Spanish. They were native speakers of Swedish, even if four of them were bilingual in Swedish and another language and four were trilingual. Potential candidates with Spanish or any other Romance language as their additional L1 were excluded to prevent linguistic similarities across languages from biasing the results.

The results from the texts they wrote when performing the pedagogic tasks clearly showed no effect of passive vocabulary knowledge on the lexical sophistication of the participants, but a clear effect of task type. This latter effect did not seem to be mediated by passive vocabulary knowledge, as it was significant regardless the learners’ passive vocabulary knowledge. Since previous studies had already showed that differences in lexical sophistication are to be found only when major differences in passive vocabulary exist (e.g., Laufer and Paribakht, 1998), in a relatively homogeneous group as the one investigated in our study, differences in passive vocabulary knowledge were probably not big enough to translate into differences in lexical sophistication in free writing. However, a decision-making task seems to elicit a significantly higher proportion of sophisticated words in comparison to a narrative task. In this case, it is plausible that the inherent characteristics of an argumentative text, in which the writer is supposed to take position, speculate and provide arguments, intrinsically calls for a more sophisticated vocabulary. We hope that these results will underline the importance of informing teachers’ task selection and task sequencing in the foreign language classroom by raising consciousness about what outcome is to be expected if learners perform a specific task type. More specifically, teachers might decide to vary the selection of task types since they seem to prompt different degrees of lexical sophistication. Getting learners to use low-frequency words in their writing might help them to stably include them in their repertoire and therefore have beneficial effects on their future production. However, some caution is needed, as task complexity should only be increased when learners’ vocabulary is sufficiently developed to carry out more complex tasks effectively. Otherwise, there is a risk of negatively affect their learning process and motivation.


Berton, Marco & Laura Sánchez. 2023. Effects of passive vocabulary knowledge and task type on lexical sophistication in L2 Spanish writing. In Irene Checa-García and Laura Marqués-Pascual (eds.) Current perspectives in Spanish lexical development, pp. 161–186. Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.

Brown, Gillian, Anne Anderson, Richard Shilcock, & George Yule. 1984. Teaching talk: Strategies for production and assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Laufer, Batia. 1998. The development of passive and active vocabulary in second language: Same or different? Applied Linguistics 19(2). 255–271.

Lufer, Batia & Sima Paribakht. 1998. The relationship between passive and active vocabularies: Effects of language learning context. Language Learning 48(3). 365–391.

Nattinger, James. 1988. Some current trends in vocabulary teaching. In Ronald Carter & Michael McCarthy (eds.), Vocabulary and language teaching, pp. 62–82. London: Longman.

Read, John. 2000. Assessing vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


English challenges for recently-arrived students

Una Cunningham, Professor of English Language Education, Stockholm University

Sweden’s municipalities and schools have a great deal of freedom in how they organise their teaching programmes for recently-arrived students, that is students who have lived abroad and now live in Sweden and who have begun their schooling in Sweden after year 1 and who have spent less than four years in Swedish schooling. Students aged 16–19 are able to enter the language introduction programme Språkintroduktionen, which is set up to bring students up to a high enough level in Swedish that they can meet the requirements of the subject of Swedish as a second language for year 9. Additionally, they are offered education in other subjects so they can become eligible to study on national programmes at upper secondary school. This education is, of course, in Swedish, the language the students may just be beginning to learn. And the clock is ticking – students cannot start a programme at upper secondary school if they are too old.

Learning two new languages at the same time

The school subject of English has a central place in Swedish secondary education. By the time they leave lower secondary school, students who have attended school in Sweden from an early age have studied the language for years and may also have achieved considerable proficiency from activities outside of school. Recent arrivals who have not had the opportunity or need to study English previously are at a considerable disadvantage when they come as teenagers to Sweden as they are faced with learning not one but two new languages.

Structural challenges

For the upper secondary schools which receive students into the language introduction programme, this leads to scheduling challenges (Cunningham, 2022). In the subject of Swedish as a second language, schools are able to group students for instruction according to their proficiency level. In fact, this is generally the criterion that decides which class a student is placed in. This does mean that if students are taught in intact classes, all of them will be approximately at the same level in Swedish, but not necessarily in mathematics, or any of the other 12 subjects the students need to be eligible to enter study-oriented national programmes at upper secondary school. In the case of English, the consequence is that teachers will be working with beginners in the same class as those who are expected to pass English at year 9 level, or who have already reached an even higher level.

Other schools I have visited manage to schedule English teaching for language introduction students at up to five levels simultaneously: one class is for beginners working with the learning outcomes for English in school years 1–3, the next for years 4–6 and the rest for years 7, 8 and 9, respectively. This does require many teachers who can teach English, but has the huge advantage that students can easily move between English classes, independently of their in Swedish.

Setting students up for failure

Unfortunately, I have also visited schools where the students’ need for appropriate English teaching is not prioritised. Swedish language development is seen as all important and students who are beginners in Swedish may not be allowed to also join classes at lower levels of English due to “Extra Swedish” lessons being scheduled at the same time as the lower of just two levels of English. In consequence, students are placed in groups for English according to irrelevant criteria, creating an impossible situation for teachers and setting students up for failure.

The consequences of this situation, where students who are able and willing to move into upper secondary education but who have not had the opportunity to meet the criteria for grade 9 English, are left in the lap of the student. Students normally need a passing grade in year 9 English before they can start one of the national programmes at upper secondary school, although exceptions can be made for students who have not been able to study English. Unfortunately, this just means that students need to study both the English courses that are part of their upper secondary programmes and also classes at a lower level. They need to pass English to complete their programme.

Content and language integrated learning

Current thinking in the Swedish National Agency for Education is that recently-arrived students should be taught through a kind of content and language integrated learning (CLIL) known as språk- och kunskapsutvecklande arbetssätt (SKUA) [method to develop knowledge and language], accompanied by multilingual study guidance (Reath-Warren, 2017). This SKUA is based on the work of Gibbons (2015; Nationellt centrum för Svenska som andraspråk, 2023). Training in the use of SKUA is often the only professional development available to teachers in the language introduction programme. The target is that SKUA should be used in every subject. Unfortunately, it is neither appropriate nor reasonable for teachers to attempt to simultaneously teach their students English and to support their Swedish language development. English teachers are not offered other more appropriate professional development in, for example, differentiated instruction, which would be very useful given the extremely heterogenous student groups they sometimes work with.

Swedish is not enough!

In every presentation of the language introduction programme the main purpose is given as developing students’ Swedish. Nonetheless, the students are required to pass up to 12 subjects including Swedish and English to pass into the next level.  English is not always seen as important in language education programmes, but English is a core subject in the Swedish school system for many good reasons. English matters to the students and they need it not only to enter upper secondary school but also to manage and flourish as adults in Sweden and beyond.


Cunningham, U. (2022). Språk och lärande i engelska. In Å. Wedin, Språk, lärande och undervisning, Studentlitteratur (pp. 175–194).

Gibbons, P. (2015). Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning: Teaching English language learners in the mainstream classroom. (2. ed.) Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Nationellt centrum för svenska som andraspråk (2023). Lär dig mer om språk- och kunskapsutvecklande arbetssätt.

Reath Warren, A. (2017). Developing multilingual literacies in Sweden and Australia: Opportunities and challenges in mother tongue instruction and multilingual study guidance in Sweden and community language education in Australia. (PhD dissertation, Department of Language Education, Stockholm University).

Skolverket (nda). Språk- och kunskapsutvecklande arbetssätt i studiehandledning.