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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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Perspectives on Lesson Planning

lessonplanELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes, looks at different approaches to lesson planning and their effectiveness as teaching tools ahead of his webinar on the subject on the 19th and 22nd of January.

Here’s a photograph of a colleague’s lesson plan. It’s written on a piece of note paper taken from a hotel room and was used with a class of students at a business college. In many ways it breaks the rules of what we might call ‘lesson planning’. After all, where are the aims, the timings, the class profile, the anticipated problems and all those other things we expect of a formally written lesson plan? The only thing we can really tell from it is that the lesson had something to do with CV writing.

The lack of detail in this particular lesson is of course because the teacher in question didn’t write it for anyone else to read. As she explains, it was for her own personal use: “I treat lesson plans like shopping lists – I write them at home in preparation for the task ahead and then don’t look at them after that. The helpful part for me is writing it down, not sticking to it.”

I think her ‘shopping list’ approach to planning is probably true for most teachers at a day-to-day level. We don’t have time to write long detailed documents with every step described in detail and – especially if we’re experienced – we don’t need to. As she says above, the ‘writing it down’ is not an end in itself, it’s just part of a longer thought process.

Because most teachers tend to plan in this less formalised way, there is often debate about – and sometimes criticism of – the more formalised type of planning that is expected on teacher training courses or when teachers are formally observed and assessed. Teachers sometimes wonder if the long hours spent writing detailed documents which predict what they might (or might not) do at every stage is time well spent.

I’d argue that on training courses it can be time well spent – especially for new and inexperienced teachers – because it’s a way to develop your thought process. However, I’d question whether a formally prepared lesson plan always has to take the shape of a page with rows and columns that a teacher is expected to fill in and rigidly follow.

In my webinar on this topic, I’ll propose that we take some fresh perspectives on lesson planning by varying our approaches and thought processes at the planning stage. I’ll present some alternative ways to develop lesson planning skills and I’ll demonstrate how visual thinking can help to aid your planning. Participants will also be invited to give their own perspective(s) on lesson planning.

If you’d like to sign up to join John Hughes’ free webinar on the 19th or 22nd of January, please follow the link below. We hope to see you there!

register-for-webinar


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Using tablets in the EFL classroom: Why & How

tablet e-book english language classroomVerissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, joins us today to explore the benefits of using tablets in the language learning classroom.`

Whenever someone mentions using technology in the classroom, my first reaction is “Why?” And that was my recent reaction to using tablets. Why should students use tablets in the EFL classroom? How does it help them learn better? For me, the key is not the technology, it is learning.

Many teachers already use technology in the classroom. Many also use technology to take learning beyond the classroom. In this environment, I was curious about the role of the tablet in the EFL classroom. So, being a teacher trainer with Oxford University Press, I got some e-books, downloaded them onto my tablet and sat down to answer my own question: How do tablets help students learn better?

A few days and many hours later I had an answer; using a tablet can make learning more personal. The teacher can better appeal to the individual learner, to individual interests, individual learning styles, and individual difficulties.

So, knowing why, the next obvious question is “How?” There are many different activities. Here are two to introduce the use of tablets to your students:

  1. Writing their own notes

Students can add their own personal notes to different parts of the coursebook or the lesson. For vocabulary or grammar, each student can write their own sentence relating the language to their lives. 25 students in the classroom will have 25 different sentences. This will make the language relevant to each one, expanding on the work done in class. For a reading or listening text, students can write comments or ask questions, individually interacting with the text.

Classroom activity:

After reading a text, ask your students to use the note and write 5 – 10 important words from the text. One week later, ask them to look at the words in the note. Do they remember how the words relate to the topic? If they do, it confirms their reading ability (and memory). If not, they can go back to the text. They may choose to change some of the words, keeping the total to no more than 10.

Equally, students can write 5 – 10 questions about the text, or 5-10 True/False statements. One week later they can use these as a comprehension exercise as they re-read the text. For me, what is important here is that using a tablet, each student is focusing on their own words, their own sentences, their own questions. They are interacting with the language at their own level, based on their individual needs.

Students can also record comments. Instead of writing 5-10 words or sentences related to a text, students can record the words or sentences related to a picture. Later, they look at the picture and listen to their words/sentences. Since the picture is connected to the topic of a lesson, students learn when they choose the words or sentences, when they record them, and when they listen to them later.

  1. Using the pen tools

Students can use the pen tools to circle, underline, or highlight. In this way, they can focus on specific aspects of a text or language exercise. Again, 25 different students would focus on different words and sentences, personalising their work. For me, the pen tools help students bring out language patterns. Let me give you an example:

Students circle the subject and relate it to the verb, “George and I are”. By highlighting “going to”, students reinforce the “to”, which is something my students easily forget. They can then use another colour to highlight the verb, “throw”. Some students will use the pen to draw an arrow from the subject to the verb.

Classroom activity:

Ask students to do this with the grammatical structures they are learning. This will get them used to using the pen tools. Then, ask them to write sentences about themselves and their life using the structure they are learning. Having highlighted the form of the structure, students will probably make fewer mistakes.

Then, ask them to highlight the different parts in their sentences. This will lead students to notice any mistakes they have made and to be able to correct them.

Conclusion

These are only two activities to get you and your students started. There are many more you can explore as you and your students get used to using tablets in the classroom.

As your students use their tablets, they are personalizing their learning, adding to their lessons. Each student begins from the same starting point, but develops individually, adding their own content, and thus meeting their individual needs and learning preferences.

The key is to focus on learning, to help your students learn better with their


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How digital technology is changing our lives… and our language

DeathtoStock_Medium5Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Collocations Dictionary. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus – a dictionary of synonyms and of the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.

New words that enter the language are a reflection of the way people’s lives are changing. If we look at what is trending, we can see that new technology can bring with it new capabilities. There are wearables – computing devices that you can wear, such as a smartwatch – which are touch-sensitive and may be voice-activated. Superfast broadband and in-app purchase offer new opportunities, but there’s a new distraction in the form of clickbait – that’s a link or headline on the Internet that you just can’t help clicking on. All this can have a profound influence on how people work, enjoy themselves and relate to one another

If we look at new words connected with work we can see several strands, some of them in opposition to each other. Decisions are data-driven. It is important to demonstrate proof of concept. Using agile methodology, getting things right requires an iterative process of refinement and modification. But if that doesn’t work, putting a finger in the air is a less scientific approach, based on guesswork. Or you can put together a mood board with key images and words that best convey the image of the brand.

New technology and new ways of working have an effect on how people feel and how they manage their lives. Always-on devices can make for always-on people who find it harder to draw boundaries between work and home life, public and private. They may worry about their digital footprint, all the information that exists about them on the Internet as a result of their online activities. What kind of information security (or infosec) do companies have in place? Ad blockers screen out unwanted advertisements and are one kind of lifehack – a strategy or technique that you can use to manage your time and daily activities in a more efficient way. At a more profound level, a therapist may teach mindfulness, a concept borrowed from Zen Buddhism, which is a way for body and mind to reconnect.

Technology has transformed some of our leisure activities as well. Game apps and MMOs – massively multiplayer online games – have brought with them a whole vocabulary of their own. Sometimes this means new meanings for old words. Players move from level to level in different virtual worlds. Killing monsters and defeating enemies earn XP (that’s experience points) that help you level up and unlock new features of the game. Fantasy worlds have their own technology: travel by jetpack – a device you can strap on your back that enables you to fly – or do battle with an army of mecha – giant animal robots controlled by people who travel inside them. Hoverboards used to belong to the world of fantasy too, but now you can ride one for real. A real one doesn’t actually hover, of course – it’s a kind of electric skateboard.

Millennials – the generation of people who became adults around the year 2000 – may still be considered digital immigrants. Their children are true digital natives. They have grown up with the Internet and digital technology. They relate to each other in a different way. Online communities are not based around a neighbourhood but around a shared interest or fandom enthusiasm for a particular person, team or TV show, for example. Online friends express themselves digitally, filling their tweets and emails with emoji – small digital images used to express ideas and emotions.

What are the takeaways from all this – that is, the important facts, points or ideas to be remembered? Only that language and communication are endlessly fluid and inventive. Dictionary editors need to be constantly on the alert for new words and phrases and new uses of old words, monitor them carefully and then make a judgement: is this a genuine new expression that is going to catch on and deserves a space in the dictionary? Technology and the Internet have transformed this task, as they have many other jobs, and enabled dictionaries to get closer to the cutting edge of language change than ever before. See here for the full list of words and expressions added to www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com in December 2015.


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Online Learning Platforms: Helping your students engage

Learning onlineLindsay Warwick offers four ways to persuade students to make use of an online learning platform. Lindsay Warwick is a teacher and trainer at Bell and a materials writer. She is co-author of the forthcoming Milestones in English A2 and B1+ Student’s Books, publishing in January 2016.

Many English coursebooks come with access to an online learning platform full of material to help learners develop their language skills further. These can be particularly beneficial for academic English learners who need to achieve a certain level of English within a limited time period. But I wonder how many students (and teachers) fully exploit these materials.

For me, the greatest benefit of education technology is that it provides learners with the opportunity to extend learning beyond the classroom, work at their own pace and at a level appropriate to them. Online learning platforms allow all of those things as well as provide a tool for students and teachers to keep a record of progress made. Essentially, they allow learners to have more ownership of their learning which helps them learn better. According to Benson (2011), “controlling one’s own learning processes is an essential part of effective learning”.

However, encouraging students to use such a resource is not always easy as some students overlook the value of it. I’d therefore like to suggest four ways to help those students appreciate this value better and encourage them to fully exploit the resource.

Persuade the teacher, persuade the student

I believe that before students can be convinced, their teacher needs to be convinced. Once the teacher sees the benefits, they can encourage students to do the same. One possibility is to explore the platform as a class together. Students can familiarise themselves with the platform, with their own learning goals in mind. As Dudeney and Hockly (2007) say, when using educational technology “Your learners’ needs, likes and learning goals need to be taken into account”. By getting students to critically analyse the platform, the benefits will be more apparent to them. The class can also discuss limitations and how those limitations can be dealt with.

Make connections

Research suggests that better outcomes are achieved when online learning and face-to-face learning happen together (Vega, 2013) and linking the two in some way adds more importance to the online platform. Learners will be better encouraged to do online tasks if they have to bring some kind of feedback on the tasks to class e.g. their view on something said in a recording or two new words they learnt. With speaking tasks, the online material could help students prepare for the actual speaking task done in class, rather than recording it at home and emailing it to the teacher. And students could be asked to peer correct each other’s writing work in class.

Set regular deadlines

Some teachers link online material to the course through assessment, making completion of online tasks compulsory. While this can motivate students to do tasks, it can also result in students leaving all the tasks until the very last minute to satisfy course requirements. This means students neither use the online tasks to develop their skills throughout the year nor use the results of the tasks to help inform future learning. As a result, teachers may want to set regular deadlines on the platform.

Give students choice

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, asking students to make choices about their learning helps them to develop autonomy. “For learners to become more autonomous they must recognize their own preferred ways of learning, and students have to make conscious decisions about what works for them” (Painter, 2004). By giving students the opportunity to choose which material to study and when, they can feel more motivated to do the tasks and learn more about their learning preferences. For some students, however, too much choice can be overwhelming and so a choice of two or three sets of tasks each time may be a good place to start.

To sum up, online learning platforms offer much potential and the above suggestions can help learners to see this potential. There will always be students who choose not to participate but this is also part of being autonomous. There will also always be students who will exploit the material and learn from it with encouragement from the teacher.

Please note that not all titles are available in every country. Please check with your local office about local title availability.

Bibliography and further reading

Benson P, Teaching and Researching: Autonomy in Language Learning, 2013

Dudeney G & Hockly N, How to teach English with technology, Pearson, 2007

Painter L, Homework, Oxford University Press, 2003

Stanley, G, Language Learning with Technology, Cambridge University Press, 2013

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