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The Vocabulary – Grammar Continuum: A third approach to activity design

The Vocabulary-Grammar Continuum: A third approach to activity designAlice Savage and Colin Ward are professors of ESOL at Lone Star College – North Harris in Houston, USA.  This article is adapted from their presentation ‘Beginning Writing Students and the Vocabulary-Grammar Continuum’ at the 2014 International TESOL Conference in Portland, Oregon.

Words are powerful things. When we look at research-based word lists, such as the General Service List or the Oxford 3000, we come across many useful words that can inform our teaching of vocabulary in the classroom.  We know these words are the most important for our students to learn. Yet, from the perspective of the student, the task of acquiring these lists of words can be daunting.

One challenge is length.  How can students learn hundreds, or even thousands, of words when learning only a select few at a time?  And once new words are introduced, how can they be internalized without a sufficient amount of recycling and repurposing?

Another and more interesting challenge is meaning.  Meaning turns out to be a complicated notion when dealing with high-frequency words. For example, the Oxford 3000 includes three main categories. The first includes content words such as red, car, fast, which are obvious and easy to teach. The meaning is sharp and clear, so it can easily be demonstrated with a white board, a photo or pantomime.

The second category includes grammar words.  The words so, is, the, of, and their high frequency siblings hold a prominent position on the list and yet resist attempts to be neatly defined as solitary words. These worker bee words have become so directly associated with specific functions that they have become grammar (Larsen-Freeman, 2013).  Their place on a word list is obvious, and they get much treatment in grammar syllabi.

Then there is a third more elusive category, which we call shadow words. Words such as join, thing, important and place are extremely useful but difficult to teach because they hide in the shadows of other words.  Rather than being specific in meaning like the content words, shadow words tend to be abstract, vague, and flexible. They may not call attention to themselves, but they are important because a great number of other words like to partner with them in collocations. (Schmitt, 2000).

As a result of their accommodating nature, shadow words can be very useful when taught in phrases. For example, become is quietly helpful.  Phrases such as become an engineer, become friends, or become rich illustrate the supportive nature of become. When become is taught with other words, learners can better pick up the meaning of both. Become does not like being alone. It needs friends.

Shadow words can also have multiple personalities.  They take on different meanings depending on their context.  Have appears on high-frequency word lists because it collocates with so many other words—have fun, have a sister, have to leave, have an idea, have enough money—yet each pairing has its own personality.

So, in looking at all these different types of words that populate high frequency word lists, it becomes clear that vocabulary is not just one thing.  While some words can meaningfully stand alone, many of the most common words prefer to be in groups. These words unleash their full power when paired with other words in collocations (word partners), lexical chunks (groups of commonly occurring words that include grammar), and prefabs (fixed expressions that allow students to frame ideas by slotting in different vocabulary) (Hinkel, 2004).

Perhaps it is possible to conceive of teaching language a third way, not to present vocabulary lists, word form charts, and grammar items separately but together on the same continuum.

There are many benefits to this approach.  If students are exposed to words in these groupings, they have more opportunities to gather and use words in their natural environments. Furthermore, these distinct environments can help classroom participants make decisions about which meaning or meanings to focus on (Hyland, 2004).  For example, play means one thing when talking about children and toys, and another when used in an academic setting as in, Teachers play a role in helping students choose vocabulary.

Teaching words in phrases also mitigates the difficulty of learning parts of speech because students see adjectives being used before nouns, and nouns as objects of verbs or the subjects of sentences. They can establish cognitive hooks for storing the words in the same manner in which they will be used (Schmitt, 2000).

Finally, words in phrases maximize vocabulary learning by providing whole unit chunks of meaning that clarify individual words at the same time.  A list of 12 phrases includes more language than a list of 12 individual words.  For example, the lexical chunk blew snow in our faces can be visually depicted in one go while teaching 5 different words, including content words, shadow words, and grammar words.

The following example activities demonstrate how vocabulary and grammar can support each other in providing useful language for specific writing tasks. While each activity has a specific aim, the basic structure can be adapted for different topics and purposes.

Activity Type: Categorizing

Activity Type: Manipulating chunks 

Activity Type: Flow Charts

Having students attend to the boundaries beyond individual words can begin to help them see vocabulary and grammar on a continuum and may be one approach to making vocabulary learning more meaningful and efficient.  Collocations, lexical chunks, and prefabs can be used to introduce not just content words, but also grammar and shadow words.  Through scaffolding, students can then learn how to mix and match these words to produce new lexical strings.   They will see that words are not just dynamic, but do in fact have many friends.

 

References

Hinkel, E. (2004).  Innovative and Efficient Construction Grammar.  Selected papers from the 21st International Symposium on English Teaching.  English Teacher’s Association, Republic of China (ETA-ROC), Taipei, 51-59.

Hyland, K. (2004).  Genre and second language writing.  Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2013).  Transfer of Learning Transformed.  Language Learning 63:Suppl. 1 pp. 107-129 Language Learning Research Club, University of Michigan
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9922.2012.00740.x

Schmitt, N. (2000).  Lexical chunks.  ELT Journal, Volume 54 (4), 400-401. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Savage, A. & Ward, C. (in press). Trio Writing.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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Vocabulary in your students’ writing: the Bottom Line

WritingCheryl Boyd Zimmerman is the series director of Inside Writing and vocabulary consultant for Q: Skills for Success. In this article, she takes a look at vocabulary development in the classroom.

Isn’t it obvious?  In order to write well, we need to know a lot of words, and we need to know a lot about each word so we can use it to say what we mean.  In fact, without the knowledge of many words, our writing is stymied – or should I say crimped? impeded?  blocked? snookered? A word choice transmits not only meaning, but tone and subtleties of meaning such as familiarity or distance, precision or vagueness, certainty or ambiguity, earnestness or light-heartedness and more.  For academic writing, this becomes especially challenging. In order to communicate as I intend, I need to know the ways in which words vary and then I need a wide variety of words from which to make my choices.

Why isn’t vocabulary development included in every writing class?  Perhaps we underestimate the difficulty of this task and prefer to spend precious classroom time on other issues.  Or perhaps we don’t know how to integrate word learning into writing in a way that is relevant to the writing task.  But by not spending time developing our students’ vocabulary, we are hindering their writing development and academic success.

This article suggests some techniques that address vocabulary development at each stage of the writing process: pre-writing, drafting, revision and editing, and gives you the bottom line when it comes to explaining the role of vocabulary to your students.

Pre-writing

This is the stage in which we gather ideas, develop thoughts and analyze the writing task.  First, what type of writing (genre) is to be used:  newspaper article? persuasive essay? summary? blog?  This helps sort through the topic, choose how to focus attention and be clear about purpose and audience.  Next, focus on finding a topic and exploring it with a purpose in mind. Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. To help students with both genre identification and topic development, use high-interest readings to provide clear models and to spawn ideas.

A focus on vocabulary can illuminate the topic and guide the planning.  Pre-writing activities with a lexical focus might include:

  • Brainstorming:
    • Students read the writing prompt or a short passage about the topic, and identify 1-2 words that stand out as central to the topic. For each one, students generate as many related words in 5-10 minutes without censoring themselves.
    • Pairs or small groups compare lists, and explain their choices, keeping the topic and genre in mind. Encourage students to share words and add to their lists.
  • Freewriting:
    • Students write non-stop for 5-10 minutes about whatever comes to mind that might relate to the topic, again without censoring themselves. Next, students reread what they wrote and circle words that seem important to what they want to say. Include words that describe facts, important names, opinions and feelings.  Include synonyms that are related words in different registers.
    • Using these selected words, describe your plans to a partner.
  • Paragraph Analyses:
    • Select a paragraph that is written in the same genre or on the same topic as the assignment. Provide copies or project on a screen.  Read  together as a class, drawing attention to vocabulary with questions such as:
      • Which academic words are used here? (See examples here).
      • Which everyday words are used here?
      • Focus on one well-used word at a time; what is behind the author’s choice of each word? Select another paragraph and repeat this activity. Pairs work together to answer the same questions as above.  Compare answers.

        Bottom Line for Your Students
        Different types of writing use different types of words.  Even very academic papers don’t use a large number of academic words, but they use them effectively.   Academic texts contain an average of 10% academic words (Coxhead, 2006).

Drafting Stage

In this stage, vocabulary activities can evolve from a focus on meaning to a refinement of meaning, always related to whom you are writing for and why you are writing.

  • As your students begin their first draft, refer to the words they identified during prewriting. Organize the way these words relate to each other as they develop their first draft.
  • Return to the source text for the assignment or other relevant articles on the same topic. Identify words that stand out to your students as interesting and important to the message.  Use these words in the writing.

    Bottom Line for Your Students
    Word learning doesn’t just mean to learn new words, but also to learn to have confidence to use words that you recognize but don’t use often.  Writing gives you a chance to use partially-known words and to build your knowledge of these words.

Revision Stage
The revision stage is a time to check that your students’ writing responded to the prompt, and that it focused on the purpose and audience as intended.  Examples of doing this with a focus on vocabulary include:

  • Ask your students to re-read the prompt and then re-read their papers. Do they address the prompt? Are there any words in the prompt that can be added to their papers for the purpose of congruity?
  • Read through the papers and look for vague words (good; nice; very). With purpose and topic in mind, change them to be more specific and clear.

    Bottom Line for Your Students
    A study of 178 university professors found that the greatest problem with the writing of non-native speakers in their classes was vocabulary.  They said vocabulary (more than grammar) kept them from understanding the meaning.  (Santos, 1988)  Your word choices are very important.

Editing Stage

The editing stage can be used as a guided opportunity to check for details of word-use including subtleties of meaning, lexical variety, grammatical features, derivatives and collocations. With this stage, students work with a final or near-final draft.  Guide students to read through all or part of the paper, focusing on one task at a time.

  • Lexical variety: Did they over-use any words?  Did they repeat the same word in the same sentence?
  • Noun use: Check their accuracy: Are they plural? singular? countable?  uncountable?
  • Verb use: Do they “agree” with the nouns in plurality? Check for verb completion.  Do the verbs need to be followed by an object?  Do they need a “that clause?”
  • Academic word use: Underline each academic word used.  Has the student used them correctly?  (when in doubt, check a dictionary)  Do they have enough? Too many?

    Bottom Line for Your Students
    You may have been taught to focus on grammar when you edit your paper, but grammar and vocabulary often overlap. Take time to focus on individual words; do they say what you mean and say it accurately?

Please leave your ideas in the comments below.Writing instruction and word learning belong together.  These are some examples of ways to engage vocabulary development in writing. As you reflect on your writing classroom, what else can you add about vocabulary and writing?

References

Coxhead, A. (2006).  Essentials of teaching academic vocabulary.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Santos, T. (1988). Professors’ reactions to the academic writing of nonnative-speaking students. TESOL Quarterly 22(1), 69-90.


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Teaching English with e-books from Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf

teaching English language with e-books and tabletsShaun Wilden, a freelance teacher trainer and expert in online tutoring, shares his advice for teachers new to using digital coursebooks in the classroom and offers practical guidance for getting the most from the Oxford Learners’ Bookshelf.

Part 1 – Preparing for your first lesson

If you’re starting to teach with digital, tablet based coursebooks for the first time, you may be wondering how best to get your students off to a good start. With this is mind here is the first in a series of blog posts to help you get started. Following the few key steps outlined below before you start, will have you facing your first digital coursebook lesson with confidence and a clear sense of what you are going to do and achieve.

Preparing the tablets

If your school is providing the tablets, make sure that the IT person who looks after the tablets has downloaded the free Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf app (OLB). If students are bringing their own, they’ll need to download the app themselves. For iPad go to the App Store, for Android tablets go to Google Play.

Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf app

Ideally, the e-books will have been downloaded onto the tablets before the first lesson. They are quite large files, particularly the ones with audio and video, and can take a while to download. Your students can start looking at the books as soon as they start downloading, but it may take a while before any audio or video is available.

If the tablets are ready before the class, do check your own and some of the students’ tablets are working well before your first class. This gives you a chance to go back to the IT person to sort out any hiccoughs.

Getting to know your new coursebook

Tap on the cover of the book you want and it will open. If you compare it to the paper-based version of the book then you’ll notice the content is the same. Now you can breathe a sigh of relief as you realise all those wonderful lesson plans and activities you used last year are still relevant.

I can hear you muttering, how are they still relevant, we’ve gone digital. Well, the second point to remember is that you are not going to use the tablet all the time. Most of use wouldn’t use a paper coursebook for the whole lesson so why would we change that? As I am sure you have heard before, the coursebook is one of the many tools at the disposal of the teacher, digital or not. To maximize language learning we want to encourage interaction as this leads to communication so sometimes, perhaps more often that you currently think, you’ll be asking the students to switch off the tablet. Therefore those lovely laminated cards you have to prompt discussions are still going to make an appearance at some point.

So what are the differences? Rather than turn the page, a swipe changes it. Pinching can enlarge a picture or a text, something you can’t do with paper. Remember that when you want the students to look in more detail at a photo or when the student who has visual impairments needs a bigger script.

As a I talked about in a previous blog post, for most books listening is inbuilt and some even have video. Play around, click on some of the icons on the page and see what happens. As I say to my students, you can’t break anything. By the end of your playing make sure you also know how to input text into exercises. Now think about how you are going to show your students how to do these things, will you simply let them click and discover? If you have a projector in your class, do you know how to connect your tablet so that students can see your screen? If you have Apple TV or Google Chromecast, do you know how to reflect your screen so all can see?

There is of course one other feature that you need to get to grips with, the interactive tool bar.

OLB interactive tool bar

You should see it on the screen a grey bar to the left of a page. To open it, tap the white arrow and it will appear. Personally I use this as part of the orientation process in the first lesson. So let’s move on and think of that.

Student orientation

Tablets ready, book downloaded, time for the first class. We’ll assume that the school’s administration has already gone over how they are to be used with the parents and students. So you’re entering the room tablets at the ready. I tend to prefer students sitting in groups when using tablets so I arrange desks into islands rather than in rows.

If you do this make sure everyone has sightline to the board. The first thing I would do is leave the tablets to one side. It is after all the first lesson of the year, time for students to tell you what they did in their holidays and get out their mobile phones to regal everyone with photos of whichever exotic location they spent their vacations in. Remember that students are used to doing things on their phone as most probably are you.   There is already a digital know-how to tap into. But bear in mind that it would be wrong to assume that students have touched a tablet before and therefore know how to use it. So before we get going on the digital books we need to discover what they know. In true traditional classroom style, what better way to do this than a ‘find someone who’ exercise. You know the one I mean, students have a set of statements that they walk around the class turning into questions and searching for someone who answers yes.

Here are some (for an iPad) that I show on a screen and get students to do:

Find someone who:

  1. Can switch the tablet on
  2. Take a screenshot
  3. Search the iPad
  4. Mirror the iPad through apple TV
  5. Turn up the volume
  6. Turn up or down the brightness
  7. Lock the screen’s orientation
  8. Take a photo
  9. Open an app
  10. Close an app

Give students time to circulate and try and find people. Do feedback with the class, now is a good time to hand out the tablets so students can teach each other. This is where sitting in islands aids peer teaching. You can ‘check’ students are getting comfortable with the tablet by walking round to each island, offering advice and helping as necessary.

After this task, I get the students to put the tablets down, give them some paper (yes paper!) and ask them to come up with a list of rules / limits for classroom use of tablets. These include factors such as staying on task, not downloading apps (though hopefully your IT person has locked down the wi-fi or added a content filter).   This is like making a class contract but not simply covering rules about punctuality and homework.

It is now time to launch the digital coursebook and start getting the students used to the tools. If you need the students to make their own accounts to download the books then walk them through it using your tablet on a projector. If the books are already there, then get them to log in and start getting them used to the tools. It’s perhaps best not to go over them all in one lesson so as not to overload. On my tablet I project a word cloud of some of the tools like this:

Word cloud

(made with the Word Art app)

Get the students to switch on their tablets and tell them how to find their coursebook in OLB. They then work together to identify the features named in the wordcloud. When you’re ready to check the answers, switch your tablet to display the book and ask students to name the tools. If you are projecting onto a whiteboard you can of course write the name of the feature next to the tool.

So that’s it, I hope that’s helped you overcome any first lesson dread. When you think it about it, starting with a digital coursebook is not that different from any lesson using a new coursebook.   At first preparation time might increase but it will improve as you get more familiar with your material, the same as it would with when using the new coursebook. Often in a first lesson, a teacher does an orientation quiz and here it’s not different though we’re orientating to tools not the book itself. What’s more as I mentioned earlier, a lesson using a digital coursebook doesn’t have to be dominated by the book. Here we spoke, collaborated, mind mapped and perhaps most importantly we got the students communicating in English.

Right, now that’s the first lesson under your belt, time to get ready for the next one, which we’ll look at in the second post.


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Feedback on academic writing – Part Two

Teacher helping adult studentThis is the second article of a three-part series on giving EAP students effective feedback. Julie Moore, an ELT writer and researcher, shares her thoughts on how teachers can encourage students to act on feedback.

In my last article, I wrote about how overwhelming it can be for new student writers to get back a piece of writing covered in feedback. They can often feel like getting their writing up to scratch is going to be such an uphill battle that they just give up and ignore the feedback altogether. I suggested that by giving less feedback and breaking it down into more manageable chunks, students can focus on a specific area at a time and make realistic progress. With my own EAP students last summer, I started off by focusing on the content of their writing, ignoring language errors and giving feedback on whether they’d answered the question, whether they’d provided sufficient support for their arguments, or whether their overall message was clear.

Copy-editing

Once we’d established what they were expected to write, I turned next to the how. Many students new to EAP arrive with what I describe as a high-school style of essay-writing. That is, their language is rather simplistic: it is not sophisticated enough to communicate the more subtle details and perspectives involved especially at higher levels of academic study. The purpose of teaching students to write in a more academic style is not to make them sound more ‘fancy’ or ‘impressive’, but to give them the tools to do justice to their subject knowledge and ideas. Explaining the why of features of academic style is as important as demonstrating the how.

Group feedback

As you read through writing that a class has handed in, you’ll often find that a particular task has thrown up the same issue for a lot of students, in which case, group feedback is the most efficient way to address it. One rule I always try to stick to is to work on the feedback activity before I hand back students’ individual writing. That way you’re more likely to have their attention, they’re not so caught up in their individual feedback and more concerned about some other feature you’ve mentioned on their paper.

One problem for my students centred around the use of impersonal language in academic writing. In early writing tasks, many of them were still using a lot of personal pronouns to refer to people in general (we, you):

If we restrict access to media like internet for young people, it is possible that they will find another way to gain related information.

So I started off with this example from a student essay on the board (anonymously) and asked who the ‘we’ referred to. Of course, the class came back with various different answers – society, the government, parents, ISPs – so identifying the problem for themselves (i.e. vagueness). Next, we looked back at the text we’d read as input for the writing task (from an academic textbook) and picked out the subject of each sentence. We found that these were invariably noun phrases (often plural nouns to refer to specific groups), thus identifying how expert academic writers deal with this situation. Then in small groups, students looked at some more similar examples from their own writing, identified the problem in each case and suggested rewrites.

Responding to feedback

As well as staging group activities to highlight problems and features, I also tried to get students to engage more actively with individual feedback. So I’d focus on two or three key errors in a piece of writing and frame my feedback in the form of a question to be answered. I then asked students to email me their rewrites of just the highlighted sentences. For example, this was an exchange with a business studies student just after we’d been talking about hedging and the appropriate use of confident and tentative language:

Student’s first draft: This paper demonstrates how the main management methods…

My feedback comment: Is demonstrate the best verb here – a little too confident?

Student redraft: This paper attempts to argue that the main management methods…

My feedback: Great! This is really good and sounds just right for a student writer.

By making feedback a collaborative process between student writer and you as editor – rather than a passive one – you can help students to better understand why we use certain linguistic features in academic writing and hopefully, help them to find their own voice as a novice academic writer.

In my next article, I’ll talk about teaching proofreading techniques to help students polish up their final draft.

This article first appeared in the February 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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10 Ways to Ensure That Your Quiet Students Never Speak Out in Class

woman_holding_finger_to_her_lips_shhAngela Buckingham, language teacher, writer and teacher trainer, introduces her upcoming webinar on 24th & 26th September entitled: “Oral Error Correction in the English Language Classroom.”

As part of my role as a teacher trainer, I have observed many ELT lessons over the years: some given by new and inexperienced trainees, others by experienced members of staff who have been teaching language for many years. One area that interests me is the teacher response to learner mistakes in a lesson and what steps are taken towards oral error correction. Even if we haven’t thought about this consciously, our stance is usually writ loud and clear. What is evident to the observer is that teacher attitudes to learner mistakes can have a profound impact on behaviours in class.

Here’s my Top Ten list for ensuring that your quiet language students will be even quieter, simply by adopting some or all of these simple classroom techniques:

  1. Always correct every error you hear
  2. Ensure that you correct in a stern way; Do Not Smile
  3. Make sure that you never praise your learners for answers given in incorrect English
  4. Don’t give thinking time – where possible, make sure you supply the answer yourself
  5. When learners do answer, respond to the language only, not to the content of the response
  6. Spend most of your lesson facing the board, computer, or looking at the textbook. Avoid eye contact with your students
  7. Ask questions to the whole class but always accept early answers from the most confident students, who should get the answer right
  8. If a student is hesitant, don’t give them time to finish. Show in your body language that you are bored listening to their attempts
  9. Seize every error as a teaching opportunity – don’t move on until everyone in the class is absolutely clear what the mistake was
  10. Be prepared to interrupt your students’ interactions at any time, so that they are using Perfect English

Or… you might want to think about doing things differently.

Error correction in the language classroom is important – my students definitely want to be corrected, and can feel irritated if they aren’t. But for teachers, what to correct, when to correct, and how to go about it are issues we grapple with on a day-to-day basis.  How can we help our learners in an encouraging way?

In my upcoming webinar we’ll explore how to categorise oral language errors and examine strategies for dealing with them, as well as evaluating practical ideas for immediate use in class.

Join the webinar, Oral Error Correction in the English Language Classroom on 24th and 26th September to find out more.

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