Project Details

A three-and-a-half-year project exploring the vocabulary, genres and linguistic features of trades language. A collaboration between Victoria University of Wellington and WelTec.


The primary aim of the research project was to describe the trades-specific language used in the automotive technology, carpentry, fabrication and plumbing trades, as well as how this language is taught and learned at institutes of technology and polytechnics in New Zealand.


The project used both qualitative and quantitative methods to investigate trades-specific language.

Qualitative methods included:

  • extensive interviews with trades tutors, trades professionals and trades students
  • observation of classroom, workshop and on-site teaching
  • corpus-based analysis of vocabulary in use.

Quantitative methods included:

  • the building and use of a 1.6 million word corpus of written course materials
  • 200,000 words of student writing
  • a spoken corpus of 450,000 words of classroom/workshop/on-site teaching.

Quantitative corpus methods were used to identify trades-specific vocabulary in course materials and investigate stylistic and grammatical features of student writing.


victoria university

Dr Jean Parkinson

Project contact leader

Victoria University of Wellington
victoria university

Dr Averil Coxhead

Victoria University of Wellington

Emma McLaughlin


Dr James Mackay


Len Matautia

victoria university

Murielle Demecheleer

Victoria University of Wellington




$319,169.00 (excl GST)

$150,000.00 National Project Fund
$169,169.00 Victoria University of Wellington and WelTec

Key Findings

Overall, texts read by the trades students were lexically as demanding as university-level academic texts.

Findings on vocabulary

  • Learners in the trades needed a substantial vocabulary in English to cope with the written texts in their studies.
  • The vocabulary was around 9,000 word families, as well as proper nouns, abbreviations, marginal words and compounds.
  • There was a specialised or technical vocabulary for each of the trades, and that in the written trades texts, as many as one word in three was technical in nature.
  • There was a substantial (over 1,000) multi-word units in carpentry and a large number even in a small text on diesel engines.
  • There were technical multi-word units in carpentry and multi-word units in automotive technology.
  • A high number of technical words in the trades had no equivalent in Tongan.
  • Vocabulary was learned in a variety of ways in the carpentry context, ie, through tutors and learners drawing attention to specialised words in tutor talk and tutor-learner interaction.
  • Additional ways that vocabulary was learned included using glossaries and drawing pictures.
  • Language was a thread woven through the teaching and learning of carpentry, where attention was drawn to the specialised words, integrating the language focus with the learning of the trade.

Findings on language and text

  • Being able to engage in appropriate trade talk was an important part of expression of trade identity.
  • Trades professionals needed to move between registers in talking the technical trades talk with colleagues and adjusting to less technical language when talking to clients.
  • The reading that trades students do was extensive and drew on a range of pedagogical, legal and technical documents.
  • Texts were multimodal, with written text embedded with a wide range of visual elements.
  • Trades students did a range of writing in tests, assignments and professional genres such as the Builders’ Diary.

Findings on visual expression of meaning

  • Trades texts had a high density of visual elements on average.
  • A range of visual elements were found in the texts.
  • The use of visual element varied, with photographs being more common in carpentry and in fabrication.
  • The most commonly used visual elements used were drawings.
  • Photographs were used to represent procedures or processes and consequently, many photographs included people.
  • Two connections between images were identified. The first was a temporal connection where a group of images formed a sequence in time and the second was functional, where images were grouped for a classificatory purpose.
  • The use of multiple representations in the trades investigated was extensive, but limited to certain types of representation.
  • The most common was the representation of artefacts obliquely, for identification purposes and also as section views to develop understanding.
  • The use of images, as well as language, were used in diaries to express a personal identity as a carpenter.
  • Human participants featured in images were depicted as an unremarkable parts of the building site, not as the focus.
  • The focus of photographs was largely the building work rather than the builders themselves.
  • The expression of visual meaning by the writers of the Builders’ Diaries provided evidence that the students, who had no formal training in drawing or photography, shared a cultural understanding of visual meaning and were able to use these understandings to express meaning.

Key Recommendations

Trades vocabulary | Test the vocabulary of learners at the beginning of their study to see how much support they need in reading their texts.

Technical meaning | Make learners aware of the technical meanings of technical words early on in their studies.

Word lists | Use trades-based pedagogical word lists and the abbreviations and proper noun lists in planning to help identify lexical items relevant to a course of study.

Bilingual word lists | Use a bilingual English-Tongan technical word list to support Tongan students for whom English is a second language.

Teaching and learning | Tutors should plan for teaching the technical vocabulary that may arise in the classroom, as well as reflect on strategies they have used, and whether their learners have understood and used the new words.

Resources | Tutors should integrate and support the learning of vocabulary.

Student writing | Spend time on demonstrating use of a more concise style of writing which is less personal and relies on point form during the teaching of the Builders’ Diary.

Expression of visual meaning | Use resources to outline the range of visual meanings that tutors use in course material and share with materials developers.

Vocabulary load | Give learners exposure to written trades texts in order to be exposed more to the technical trades vocabulary.

Vocabulary testing | Test the vocabulary of learners at the beginning of their study to see how much support they need in reading their texts and to ‘walk and talk’ like a builder.

Vocabulary support | Embed vocabulary into existing teaching and learning, so that the learning of the language is integrated with the learning of the vocational content.

Pedagogical word lists | Make learners aware of the technical meanings of words early on in their studies. Do not take it for granted that learners know the technical meaning of everyday words in the trades.

Word development | Give first and second language speakers of English support for the development of this lexis and develop skills in recognising technical words in speaking and in writing.

Vocabulary teaching framework | Use the Nation’s (2013) framework of planning, strategy training, testing and teaching vocabulary within the trades, as well as by ESOL tutors in Institutes of Technology and polytechnics.

Vocabulary planning | Use the framework's pedagogical word list and the abbreviations and proper noun lists to plan and identify lexical items that will need attention during a course of study. Also include aspects of word knowledge, eg, how the words are written, how they sound, their meanings, and common word patterns. Take into account the timeframes of courses and the time that learners have for vocabulary in busy educational programmes.

Vocabulary development | Do not leave technical vocabulary development to chance. Give learners training on how to learn technical vocabulary effectively and efficiently.

Vocabulary testing | Make testing part of the learning objectives of trades courses and carry out assessment during the courses.

Vocabulary teaching | Vocabulary needs to be taught, but do it once all the planning, strategy training, and testing elements are already in place.

Multi-word units in the trades | Use multi-word lists in much the same guiding way as single-word lists. Use the lists as guides for planning for courses, as well as strategy training, testing, and teaching, drawing on Nation’s (2013) framework.

Bilingual word lists | Give bilingual word lists to students for whom Tongan is a first language. Develop the bilingual technical dictionary to include English and Tongan terms, Tongan and English definitions and diagrams illustrating the vocabulary item. Add a technical vocabulary as a glossary to textbooks.

Vocabulary learning in carpentry | Practice and draw attention to the vocabulary used in talk, eg, by developing a tool where tutors can plan for their teaching, and the words that may arise, and reflect on strategies they used and whether their learners are understanding and using the new words.

Glossary development | Update and further develop glossaries, using the pedagogical word lists as a source to draw on. Help tutors develop glossaries using the word lists, as well as a range of simple activities and teaching strategies to further integrate and support the learning of vocabulary.

Literacy research | Carry out more research of reading in the trades, as well as informal talk by students assisting in integrating known and new information.

Builders’ Diary | Share the benefit of the more concise, less personal telegraph pointform style of writing diaries. Make students aware of the stylistic and grammatical features associated with different styles to enhance awareness of the features and facilitate conciseness in writing.

Analogies in trades teaching | Take care when using analogies or developing existing analogies to ensure that the mapping of both attributes and relations is adequate.

Visual expression of meaning | Take opportunities to visually express concepts and meaning. Show students examples of how temporal, spatial and overview-detail image-image relations have been expressed.


The language in the trades education 2017

A comprehensive report outlining the background, methods, findings and implications of this research.

(PDF, 4.2 MB, 135-pages).

  • 9 November 2017
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Create Opportunities to Use the Language

Tutors from a range of trades talk about the ways that they get learners to use the language of the trade and the way this helps to build understanding.

  • 30 January 2018
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Draw Attention to

Tutors explain how simply drawing attention to trade specific language as part of the teaching process can learners to build their trade related vocabulary

  • 30 January 2018
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Trades tutors explain the role that modelling pays in supporting the development of trades related language with some ideas about how to do this in practice.

  • 30 January 2018
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Pre empt and prepare

Ideas to set up before being face to face with the learners are shared from tutors who have had success setting up simple resources.

  • 30 January 2018
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Set up an authentic language environment

Creating a learning environment where the language of the trade is used as it would be on the job is discussed by tutors who use this technique.

  • 30 January 2018
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Support and Explain

Tutors discuss the strategies they use to support learners to understand the more challenging elements of trade specific language.

  • 30 January 2018
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Use First Language in the Learning Process

This tutor explains how he uses the first language of ESOL learners as a strength when supporting them to understand the language of the trade.

  • 30 January 2018
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Building Writing Skills In Trades Training: The Case of Carpentry

A guide and resources for tutors that were designed in response to a number of factors including students avoiding writing in their carpentry diary and skipping class and tutors' concern around writing skill development.

(PDF, 12 MB, 64-pages)

  • 9 November 2017
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Working around the words: Unpacking language learning in vocational training

A guide for organisations who want to see where they are at in terms of embedding and wish to support their staff to develop embedding capability. It includes insights into literacy development in the trades, models and resources for capability development and strategies and resources for tutors.

(PDF, 12 MB, 64-pages).

  • 9 November 2017
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Working around the words

A series of A2 guideline posters for organisations.

(PDF, 10 MB, 8-pages).

  • 9 November 2017
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Information sheet

Language in the Trades - List of Outputs

Language in Trades Education (LATTE) project list of publications, awards, grants, plenary talks and conference presentations (2014-2020)

  • 28 February 2021
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