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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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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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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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Don’t give up on idioms and phrasal verbs!

Using idioms and phrasal verbs in ESL

Image courtesy of PixelAnarchy

Stuart Redman, teacher trainer and OUP author, introduces his upcoming webinar on 30th September entitled: “Don’t Give Up on Idioms and Phrasal Verbs.”

Teachers often have strong views about teaching (or not teaching) idioms and phrasal verbs. Read through a cross-section of views below. Which statements do you most identify with? Are there any that you strongly disagree with?

‘I tend to steer clear of idioms and phrasal verbs for low-level learners. They have other priorities, and I don’t want to confuse the students too much.’

‘I teach phrasal verbs and idioms as they come up, even to low-level learners; for example, they need to understand items like ‘write it down’ or ‘take it in turns’ as part of the classroom language I use.’

‘I teach quite a few phrasal verbs, but I don’t really teach idioms. They don’t seem to crop up very much in the course books I use.’

‘Generally speaking, the students I teach are learning English for academic purposes, so I don’t teach many idioms and phrasal verbs because they’re too informal. I just stick to teaching more latinate vocabulary, because that’s what they need for reading, essays and that sort of thing.’

‘I’m quite confused about how to organise the teaching of idioms and phrasal verbs. I always go over the grammar of phrasal verbs, but after that, I’m not sure how to go about it in a systematic way.’

‘I often focus on idioms associated with parts of the body, for instance, ‘have a chip on your shoulder’, ‘put your foot in it’; or animal idioms such as ‘let the cat out of the bag’ and ‘the black sheep of the family’. It’s always fun, so that helps students remember it.’

‘When I studied English at school, we used to learn long lists of phrasal verbs organised by the root verb, for example, ‘take in, ‘take out’, take over’, etc. As a student I found this quite confusing and I felt overloaded.’

‘It’s all very well teaching idioms and phrasal verbs, but the big problem is how to practise them. I think students get bored by just doing gap fill exercises, and that’s the kind of thing I come across most often.’

‘I don’t bother much with teaching idioms because a lot of learners tend to use them inappropriately or they just stand out like a sore thumb.’

Look again at the statements. Can you find fourteen idioms and phrasal verbs, not including the examples given in inverted commas, e.g write it down and take it in turns?

During my upcoming webinar we will look at ways of organising and contextualizing idioms and phrasal verbs for teaching purposes. We’ll also be looking at material from the Oxford Word Skills series and the Oxford Learner’s Pocket series.

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