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The art of juggling: developing the language learner’s vocabulary

Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994.  She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus, and today looks at why and how language learners use a thesaurus ahead of World Thesaurus Day on January 18th.

The word ‘thesaurus’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘treasure’ or ‘storehouse’ and the traditional thesaurus is a kind of storehouse of language. Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases lists over 70 synonyms for fast, including zippy, fleet and nimble-footed. The editors have made no judgement about how useful each word is. The thesaurus marks words that are particularly formal or informal, but otherwise gives no information about how to use each word. The purpose of a thesaurus such as Roget is to remind native or expert speakers of the language of words they already know, but cannot quite bring to mind. It does not teach.

The needs of language learners are rather different. Even if they use a smaller thesaurus than Roget, with fewer synonyms, they may still not know which word to choose, without information on the exact meaning and use of each word. The result? According to teachers we interviewed, ‘Even high-level students use the same basic words again and again.’ ‘They need to be able to juggle synonyms.’ What information, precisely, do learners need to help them with this juggling act?

No two words are exactly the same

Consider the following pairs of sentences:

I used a very simple method to obtain the answer.

I used a very easy method to obtain the answer.

This encyclopedia is designed for quick and easy reference.

*This encyclopedia is designed for quick and simple reference.

I didn’t find it easy to persuade them to come.

*I didn’t find it simple to persuade them to come.

Say what you need to say, but keep it simple.

*Say what you need to say, but keep it easy.

In the first pair, either sentence sounds fine. But in the three following pairs, the second sentence sounds increasingly odd. Why is this? There are two main reasons: first, it is a question of meaning; and secondly, of collocation. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines each word thus:

easy not difficult; done or obtained without a lot of effort or problems

simple not complicated; easy to understand or do

These are good, brief definitions, which do in fact get at the essential difference between the words, as well as the essential similarity. Nonetheless, probably for most learners looking up simple, it is the similarity and not the difference that will register. So what is the difference? The definition of simple in the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus expands a little on the Oxford Advanced Learner’s definition to explain in what way something simple is ‘easy to understand or do’:

simple easy to understand or do because it contains very few, very basic parts or actions

There is also a note which clearly and simply compares and contrasts the two words, explaining exactly that difference between ‘not difficult’ and ‘not complicated’ which the Advanced Learner’s hints at but does not have space to explain.

Some of the collocational differences also become more intelligible: you can find something easy (or not!) according to your nature; but you keep something simple, according to its nature.

A more expressive vocabulary

There are two main ways in which students can improve their knowledge of synonyms. In the first place, they need to distinguish better between words they already partly know. Secondly, they need to learn new words. Consider these interesting sentences:

It was interesting to learn about daily life in Roman times.

The documentary makes interesting viewing.

We had an interesting discussion over lunch.

The book is an interesting adventure story.

The word interesting here may not fully convince you that these things are interesting. A far greater level of conviction is conveyed simply by substituting another word for interesting:

It was fascinating to learn about daily life in Roman times.

The documentary makes compelling viewing.

We had a stimulating discussion over lunch.

The book is a gripping adventure story.

Learners at upper-intermediate level may well have encountered some of these words in their reading. But how can they really access such words when they need them and become confident enough to use them?

A traditional thesaurus, as we have seen, does not really offer much help. Fascinating, compelling, stimulating and gripping can substitute for interesting in the contexts above, but not in all contexts, and they mostly cannot substitute for each other. What learners need is not just lists of synonyms, but a true dictionary of synonyms, a combination of thesaurus and learner’s dictionary. This is exactly what is offered by the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus.

Look up any word and you will find a manageable group of 4-10 near-synonyms, all defined, but with the differences in meaning and usage carefully explained and illustrated with plenty of example sentences. Learners using this thesaurus can be much more confident of choosing exactly the right word.

Learning more words will not be completely easy, but it will improve your writing.

Let’s rephrase that: acquiring a broader vocabulary is never going to be completely painless, but it will enrich your writing.

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5 Thanksgiving Resources for your Classroom

shutterstock_6453091Thanksgiving, a national holiday celebrated for the most part in North America and Canada, falls on Thursday November 26th this year. This holiday is seen as a day to give thanks, traditionally for the harvest of the previous year. Traditionally this holiday is spent with family and it is traditional to have a special meal to celebrate the occasion. To help mark Thanksgiving for our English language teachers, we’ve created some free resources for download and use in your classroom, designed for language learners of mixed abilities.

These worksheets were produced by our own Oxford teacher-trainer, Stacey Hughes. To see more of Stacey’s work on the blog, click here.

Free worksheets:

Cultural Perspectives – A high-level worksheet designed for intermediate level language learners and above, this explores the history of Thanksgiving and how the narrative of the story can change when viewing the event from different perspectives.

Giving Thanks – This is a multi-level activity sheet which covers suggestions for both young learners as well as adults – suggestions for both low level learners of English as well as intermediate upwards.

Thanksgiving Menu – A ‘fill in the blanks’ interactive work sheet designed for young learners and pre-intermediate language learners.

Thanksgiving Webquest – A Thanksgiving-themed information gathering exercise suitable for intermediate level learners and upwards.

What’s for Dinner? – Two activity sheets designed for elementary upwards, the first matching exercise could also be suitable for some young learners.


Happy Thanksgiving to all of our teaching community that celebrate the holiday!


10,000 hours of English – how do you teach yours?

students critical thinkingToday, we feature a post from a guest blogger. Irina Lutsenko is a teacher of English from Saint Petersburg, Russia. Over her 10 years in the profession, Irina has taught teenagers, university students and adults. The courses she has taught include General English, Business English, IELTS preparation and TOEFL preparation. In this post, Irina explores how learning English can be much more than just following a course book, and how to fit ‘extra hours’ of English into the learning practice. 

Being a teacher of English, I deal with piles of course books on a daily basis. Course books are really engaging these days, and I inevitably draw a lot of inspiration from them. Sometimes, a single sentence can start a long train of thought. In this post, I’m exploring one such instance, which led to a surprising realization! Lesson 9A in English File Intermediate (Third Edition) centers around the topic of luck. In this lesson the students read a text called ‘A question of luck?’ which explains why certain people become extraordinarily successful, and what factors contribute to their success.

Have a look at the final paragraph of the text:


I don’t know about the specific number – 10,000 hours seems a little excessive! – but the theory behind it makes a lot of sense for language learning.

When deciding to embark on the journey of learning English, many students pin their hopes on the teacher and the course book. Unfortunately, just going to classes and following a course book is not enough. You do need to put in a lot of extra hours to become a successful language learner.

So how can you increase the amount of time you spend on English?

We’ll need to do a little maths here. Let’s say you have English classes twice a week and each class is one and a half hours long. That’s three hours of English a week. If you don’t do anything else – that’s just three for you. However, you can (and should) add the following:

Do your homework. That’s at least one hour per week. I love giving my students ‘enormous’ (in their words) homework. That’s at least one to two hours more. Add: three hours.

Start your day with a TED talk. These are short – 15 minutes on average, which gives you around two hours more per week if you start every day from listening to a TED talk. Add: two hours.

Read or listen to something in English on your way to work / school. Read a book if you go by metro or listen to an audio book if you go by car. Optimistically speaking, your way to work / school takes 30 minutes, multiply it by 2 and then by 5. Add: five hours.

Watch a series and/or a film in English. Most episodes of most series are only 20-30 minutes long. One episode each day multiplied by five working days gives you two and a half hours. At the weekend, watch a film. Add: four and a half hours.

Do some speaking. Find an English-speaking partner online, speak to your friends, join a Speaking Club. Add: one and a half hours.

Let’s throw in an additional hour for times when you check some vocabulary and/or make notes. Add: one hour.

Adding these together comes to seventeen additional hours of English – plus three hours of classes with a teacher. Combined, they total twenty hours of English a week!

It is overwhelmingly obvious that students who put in twenty hours of English a week will be more successful than those who put in just three. The extra hours – tens turning into hundreds, hundreds turning into thousands before you know it – they truly work wonders!


Integrating video content in the EFL classroom with International Express – Part 4

ievideopart4Fancy livening up your classroom with some ready-made video activities? This is the final part of a series of four articles in which Keith Harding and Rachel Appleby share ideas for using the stunning new International Express video material. Each unit of the course features a video directly related to the unit topic. Here, Rachel offers ideas for using the clip from Upper Intermediate Unit 6 – PleaseCycle, which focuses on conditionals.

Before you watch

Try out some of these ideas to get your students thinking before they watch.

1. Discussion

You can focus on cycling from a number of angles, for example, you can think of it as a sport, a relaxing activity, or a method of commuting. Or you could discuss cycling equipment, safety issues, or infrastructure (for example, cycle paths). Find out quickly, open-class, how many of your students…

a. own a bike

b. cycle regularly (why/why not?)

c. participate in biking activities

2. Decide if these statements are true or false:

a. There are more bicycles than residents in the Netherlands.

b. In Groningen (in the Netherlands), the station has ‘parking’ for 1,000 bikes.

c. Spain has over 100 bike-sharing schemes.

d. The ratio between the number of cyclists in a city, and the number of bike-car accidents, is in inverse.

e. An adult regular cyclist has a fitness level of someone 20 years younger.

3. Brainstorm benefits and barriers

Move the discussion more closely to the video content by focusing on the benefits of and barriers to cycling. Put students into two groups: one group brainstorms the benefits, the other the barriers. Elicit 1-2 ideas per group, for example:

Benefits: keeping fit; saves on petrol

Barriers: you may need a change of clothes; lack of cycle paths

4. KWL Chart

Again, before they watch, you could do this with the audio. It’s an idea that works well with most listening or reading texts. Ask students to fill in a “KWL” chart: this looks at “what I know already, what I want to find out”, and – later – “what I’ve learnt”. Ask them to complete the first two sections alone (Know and Want), and then compare with a partner. Then, finally complete the third section (Learnt) afterwards (see exercise 8). This is very student-driven, as they are effectively making their own comprehension task.

5. Check key words

Tell the students they are going to watch a video about a new London scheme which aims to get as many people cycling to work as possible. Before watching the video, check students understand, and can pronounce, the following:

a. workforce

b. initiative

c. portal

d. gamification

While you watch

To maximize the learning opportunities, you need to set tasks for the students to focus on. The following exercise is taken from the video worksheet that comes with the International Express Teacher’s Resource Book DVD. All the worksheets are also available for free here. You just need your Oxford Teachers’ Club log-in details to view them.

6. Multiple choice


After you watch

7. Quick questions

Ask students for an immediate response.

What did they think?

Would they like to be involved in such a scheme?

Would PleaseCycle work for their company? Why/Why not?

How competitive would they be?

Would they encourage their company to register, and log their trips on the app?

8. Return to the KWL Chart

Go back to the KWL chart (see exercise 4) to check and complete part three.

Refer back to the “benefits” and “barriers” lists they brainstormed too.

9. Going into more detail

Before playing the video again, ask students what they can remember about Aegus Media, and Stravel. Both are mentioned in the video. Watch the video again, asking students to take notes about each company. Afterwards, let them compare notes in small groups.

Use the following questions to focus their ideas:

a. What did Aegus Media achieve using PleaseCycle?

b. How was their success measured?

c. What plans are there for Stravel?

10. Create a proposal

Each small group should imagine they are working together at a company. They need to create a proposal to convince the company managers to start using PleaseCycle.


Ex. 2

a. T

b. F: 10,000

c. T

d. T

e. F: 10 years

Ex. 6

1. a

2. c

3. c

4. b

5. c

6. b

7. a


Inductive and deductive grammar teaching: what is it, and does it work?


Used from Pixabay, with permission under Creative Commons licence

Jon Hird, materials writer and teacher trainer, discusses inductive and deductive grammar teaching, comparing and contrasting the two, and debating the pros and cons of their use in the classroom ahead of his webinar on the topic on April 28th and 30th.

There are two main ways that we tend to teach grammar: deductively and inductively. Both deductive and inductive teaching have their pros and cons and which approach we use when can depend on a number of factors, such as the nature of the language being taught and the preferences of the teacher and learners. It is, however, perhaps generally accepted that a combination of both approaches is best suited for the EFL classroom.

Some agreement exists that the most effective grammar teaching includes some deductive and inductive characteristics.
– Haight, Heron, & Cole 2007.

So what is deductive and inductive grammar teaching? In this blog, we will first take a look at the underlying principles of inductive and deductive reasoning and then look at how this applies to grammar teaching and learning. We will then briefly consider some of the pros and cons.

Deductive and inductive reasoning

Deductive reasoning is essentially a top-down approach which moves from the more general to the more specific. In other words, we start with a general notion or theory, which we then narrow down to specific hypotheses, which are then tested. Inductive reasoning is more of a bottom-up approach, moving from the more specific to the more general, in which we make specific observations, detect patterns, formulate hypotheses and draw conclusions.


Deductive and inductive grammar learning

These two approaches have been applied to grammar teaching and learning. A deductive approach involves the learners being given a general rule, which is then applied to specific language examples and honed through practice exercises. An inductive approach involves the learners detecting, or noticing, patterns and working out a ‘rule’ for themselves before they practise the language.

 A deductive approach (rule-driven) starts with the presentation of a rule and is followed by examples in which the rule is applied.

An inductive approach (rule-discovery) starts with some examples from which a rule is inferred.

– Thornbury, 1999

Both approaches are commonplace in published materials. Some course books may adhere to one approach or the other as series style, whereas some may be more flexible and employ both approaches according to what the language being taught lends itself to. Most inductive learning presented in course books is guided or scaffolded. In other words, exercises and questions guide the learner to work out the grammar rule. The following course book extracts illustrate the two different approaches. The subsequent practice exercises are similar in both course books.

jonhird1 jonhird2
Q: Skills for Success Listening and Speaking Level 3                        New Headway 4th Edition (Elementary)

Which approach – pros and cons?

First and foremost, it is perhaps the nature of the language being taught that determines if an inductive approach is possible. Inductive learning is an option for language with salient features and consistency and simplicity of use and form. The basic forms of comparative adjectives, as shown above, is an example of this. Conversely, teaching the finer points of the use of articles (a/an, the) inductively, for example, would most probably be problematic. The metalinguistic tools that the learners will need to accomplish the task is also a factor.

However, the learner-centred nature of inductive teaching is often seen as advantageous as the learner is more active in the learning process rather than being a passive recipient. This increased engagement may help the learner to develop deeper understanding and help fix the language being learned. This could also promote the strategy of ‘noticing’ in the student and enhance learner autonomy and motivation.

On the other hand, inductive learning can be more time- and energy-consuming and more demanding of the teacher and the learner. It is also possible that during the process, the learner may arrive at an incorrect inference or produce an incorrect or incomplete rule. Also, an inductive approach may frustrate learners whose personal learning style and/or past learning experience is more in line with being taught via a more teacher-centred and deductive approach.

While it might be appropriate at times to articulate a rule and then proceed to instances, most of the evidence in communicative second language teaching points to the superiority of an inductive approach to rules and generalizations.
– Brown, 2007

Nevertheless, while there are pros and cons to both approaches and while a combination of both inductive and deductive grammar teaching and learning is probably inevitable, an inductive approach does seem to be broadly accepted as being more efficient in the long run, at least for some learners. Would you agree with this?

If you’d like to join Jon Hird for the free webinar discussing this topic at length on April 28th or 30th, register below or follow the link for further details.

Register for the webinar




Brown, H.D. (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching. Pearson Longman.

Haight, C., Herron, C., & Cole, S. (2007). The effects of deductive and guided inductive instructional approaches on the learning of grammar in the elementary language college classroom. Foreign Language Annals, 40, 288-309.

Thornbury, S. (1999). How to Teach Grammar. Pearson.


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