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Four vocabulary challenges for advanced learners | Julie Moore

Classroom learning vocabulary

Teaching vocabulary to advanced learners has its own specific set of challenges and the approaches we use successfully with lower-level classes are not always appropriate for upper-intermediate and advanced groups. Here are four factors it’s worth taking into account if you’re planning a vocabulary activity for a higher level class:

1. Choosing which words to teach

When you start learning a language, it makes sense to learn the most frequently used words first. For learners up to around intermediate level, focusing on the most frequent 2,000-3,000 words in English gives them a core operating vocabulary and enables them to communicate most basic concepts. This core vocabulary can be found in word lists such as the Oxford 3000 and provides an obvious basis for a vocabulary syllabus up to around B1+ level (click here to read my previous blog post about the Oxford 3000). Beyond those basics though, deciding which words to focus on becomes more difficult. There are over a quarter of a million words in English and a scattergun approach that just picks out ‘interesting’ new words from reading texts or selects lists of synonyms around a topic isn’t necessarily the most effective. Building an advanced vocabulary requires a balance of lexis that’s relevant to the individual students’ needs and a stock of general-purpose mid-frequency vocabulary.

2. Narrowing the receptive-productive gap

At lower levels, new vocabulary typically moves quite quickly from a learner’s receptive vocabulary (words they understand) to their productive vocabulary (words they use themselves) simply because they need those basic words and expressions to communicate; they fill a semantic gap. As vocabulary moves beyond the basics though and starts to express subtler nuances of meaning, it becomes easier to avoid using. Take the verb lack, for instance, it will probably be familiar to most learners by about B1 level and they won’t have trouble understanding a sentence like:

The players lack confidence.

In expressing the same idea themselves, however, a learner is more likely to fall back on simpler, more familiar vocabulary:

The players aren’t very confident.

Thus while a learner’s receptive vocabulary may continue to grow, their productive vocabulary often doesn’t keep pace as they find they can get by with tried and tested words and expressions. Narrowing this ever-widening gap involves a conscious effort and an element of risk-taking, but ultimately, it will pay off in terms of a richer vocabulary and an ability to express subtler ideas and opinions more concisely and more elegantly.

3. Teaching about vocabulary

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

You may have heard this proverb. A similar principle can be applied to vocabulary teaching in that as a teacher with limited class time, there are only so many individual words and expressions you can cover in class. However, by teaching learners about how English vocabulary works, you arm them with skills they can apply beyond the classroom to help them grow their vocabulary for themselves. That will, of course, involve teaching dictionary skills and how to use a range of language reference resources. It will also include looking at word formation and typical patterns of usage, and raising awareness of features of vocabulary such as register, connotation, colligation, lexicogrammar, collocation, regional variation, metaphor … the list goes on as the level goes up.

4. Usage is everything

Learning vocabulary is about more than just associating form (spelling and pronunciation) with meaning (denotation). It’s equally important to understand when and how it’s appropriate to use a word or expression in context. This is true at all levels, but as learners go beyond the most frequent vocabulary, which is often fairly neutral in tone, understanding usage becomes more and more significant. When we meet someone with only a basic command of English, we tend to make allowances; we ignore any slightly odd word choices and try to interpret their general message. When an apparently more fluent speaker makes an unexpected choice of wording though, we’re more likely to hesitate over it, to question their intent or to let it colour our impression of them. For example, the use of overly formal word choices might give the impression of someone who’s pompous, distant or unfriendly. Conversely, an overly informal tone might come across as disrespectful, immature or patronising. Depth of vocabulary knowledge – understanding exactly how and when a word is used – then becomes as important as simply adding new items to your mental lexicon.

In my upcoming webinar, I’ll explore these four aspects of teaching vocabulary at advanced levels further and look at some practical ways we can address them in the ELT classroom.

Register for the webinar

Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer, lexicographer and corpus researcher based in Bristol, UK. Her specialist area of interest is teaching vocabulary. She’s worked on a number of learner’s dictionaries and other vocabulary resources, including the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice titles. Julie is also a regular conference speaker and teacher trainer.


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Critical thinking as a life skill | Edmund Dudley

Critical Thinking Skills

Plenty of ELT materials now include prompts and activities designed to foster students’ critical-thinking (CT) skills. I work with teenage students, and two questions that tend to crop up when the heading ‘critical thinking’ appears on the page are 1) What is critical thinking, anyway? and 2) Why do we have to deal with it in the English lesson? By the end of the class I sometimes find that I am asking myself the same questions, too.

The problem, I feel, is that critical thinking is sometimes treated as if it were purely a language skill, whereas in fact it is actually a complex life-skill, which, if properly developed can benefit students in countless real-life situations and interactions.

So what is critical thinking, anyway?

For me, it includes the following key points:

1. The belief that the information we are given should not always be accepted at face value.

This belief is by no means universally held. For all the enthusiasm about critical thinking in ELT at present, we should remember that not everyone agrees that this questioning reflex is necessary or desirable. Few proponents of critical thinking would say that CT is always a virtue, for that matter. It is linked to culture, but also to context. Wherever you are from, you can probably think of a situation when it would be deeply inappropriate to question the information you were given. When used, CT skills therefore need to be used wisely.

2. The idea that there is a difference between comprehension and understanding,

Students who get 100% on the reading comprehension understand the text, right? Not necessarily. Many students get all the information from a text successfully but still miss the big picture. These blind spots occur most frequently when we conflate language comprehension with full understanding, and are satisfied with mere surface comprehension. Knowing the meaning of the vocabulary and the sense of every sentence is sometimes not enough. We sometimes need to get students thinking in a different, more critical way if we want them to understand what they have read more fully.

3. The awareness that we are surrounded both by information and misinformation.

Not all the texts, reports, or indeed images that our students encounter will have been edited and scrutinised for bias and objectivity. This is particularly pertinent to outside-the-classroom situations, especially when dealing with social media posts and unverifiable sources. Being aware of the ambiguity is the first step; having strategies with which to resolve it is the second step. That’s where the teacher can be of assistance.

4. The conviction that understanding is enhanced not only by getting answers, but also by formulating new questions.

Successful learners are the ones with the right questions, not the ones with the right answers.

Why do we have to deal with it in the English lesson?

As a matter of fact, we don’t have to. There is something to be said for being critical of critical-thinking itself, especially in ELT contexts. Nevertheless, here are some of the real-life benefits that I feel can be had from a smart and sensitive use of CT in the language classroom

  • It can help us to become aware of our own biases, and to maintain a sense of balance. 

For example: asking students to argue against their own beliefs in a classroom debate, and then to reflect on the experience.

  • It can help us to develop the capacity for empathy through examining multiple perspectives.

For example: Describe a hypothetical situation to your students, e.g. A laptop is stolen from an unlocked car. Ask students to tell the full story from two perspectives. In the first scenario, the theft must be seen as morally unjustifiable; in the second scenario, however, the theft must be made to seem morally justifiable. (Dudley, 2018:81)

  • It can help us become better at detecting attempts to use language to influence and manipulate.

For example: Find and share instances of texts designed to influence and manipulate – it might be from a news source, advertising, or social media; ask students to find, analyse and share further examples that they have found themselves.

For further thoughts and practical ideas, you can watch my free webinar! Click on the button below to view the recording.

Watch the recording

Edmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher of English with more than 25 years of classroom experience. Based in Budapest, he has extensive experience of teaching EFL at both primary and secondary levels. He works with teachers from around the world as a freelance teacher trainer and as a tutor at the University of Oxford’s ELT Summer Seminar. He is the author of ETpedia Teenagers (2018, Pavilion Publishing) and co-author of Mixed-Ability Teaching (2015, Oxford University Press).


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25 ideas for using unit word lists in the classroom

Teacher and young adult students developing their skills with classroom activities

Many ELT series have unit word lists, either in the student book, or available in the teacher resources. However, few teachers make active use of these unit word lists on a regular basis. In an attempt to address this situation I have produced a set of 25 activities which teachers can easily incorporate into their regular teaching practice.

All of the activities have the following three principles:

  1. they can work with almost any ELT unit word list;
  2. apart from the students having access to unit word list itself, they require only basic classroom resources i.e., pencil, paper, board and marker;
  3. they require no previous preparation from the teacher.
Example from: Smart Choice 2nd edition, OUP

Note: Unless otherwise stated, students need to be looking at the word list to do the activity.

  1. Which words do you know (before starting the unit)? – Individually, before starting the unit, students put a tick (✔) on the right next to all the words they know.
  2. What is your favorite word? – Individually, each student identifies their favorite word from the list. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  3. Which ones are similar to words in your own language? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify all the words that appear to be similar to words in their own language. These could be cognates or false cognates. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  4. I don’t like this word because… – Individually, each student identifies a word from the list that they don’t like. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  5. Rapid underlining – The teacher chooses between 5 and 10 words from the unit word list and calls these out quite quickly. Individually, students listen, find and underline these words in the list. Students then compare and check that they have found the correct words.
  6. Find the word in the unit – The teacher chooses a word from the word list and calls this out and the students need to find the word in the unit of the course book. This can be done as a race.
  7. Which is the most useful word? – Individually, each student identifies from the unit word list the word they think is the most useful. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  8. How many of the words are things you can touch? – In small groups, students identify how many of the words in the unit word list are things that can be touched. The teacher elicits and discusses. There might be many different ways to interpret this and can lead to interesting discussion.
  9. ‘Killing’ vocab items – In small groups, students decide on 3 words they want to eliminate from the unit word list and which will not appear in the next test. The teacher then elicits from each group the 3 words they chose. The teacher writes these words on the board and identifies which 3 words are the most frequently chosen from all the groups. The teacher promised not to include these in the next test. (Dudley, E. & E. Osváth. 2016. Mixed-Ability Teaching. OUP)
  10. Rapid translation – In pairs, students take it in turns to choose a word from the unit word list. The other student has to try to give the translation in their own language.
  11. How many have you seen today? – In small groups, students identify how many of the words in the unit word list are things / concepts / actions they have seen today. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  12. Identify the words from a definition – The teacher chooses about 5 words from the unit word list and then one word at a time tells the students a definition of each word. Individually, students look at the list and underline the words they think the teacher is describing. The teacher elicits, checks and discusses.
  13. How many have 3 syllables? – In small groups, students identify how many words have 3 syllables. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  14. Which word is the most difficult to pronounce? – Individually, each student looks at the unit word list and identifies the word they think is the most difficult to pronounce. The teacher elicits and helps students pronounce the words they chose.
  15. Bingo – Individually, students choose any 5 words from the unit word list and write these on a piece of paper. The teacher reads and crosses off words at random from the list until a student has crossed off all of their 5 words and calls out ‘bingo’.
  16. How many words have the stress on the second syllable? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify how many words are stressed on the second syllable. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  17. Which is the most difficult word to spell? – Individually, each student looks at the unit word list and identifies the word they think is the most difficult to spell. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  18. Test your partner’s spelling – In pairs, one student looks at the unit word list and chooses 5 words and dictates these to the other student (who is not looking at the list). After the dictation of the 5 words the students both look at the list and check the spelling.
  19. The teacher can’t spell – The teacher choices 5 words and spells these aloud to the student but makes a deliberate spelling mistake in 2 or 3 of the words. Students listen while looking at the word list and try to identify which words were misspelled.
  20. Quick spelling – In pairs, students take it in turns for one student to choose a word and spell it aloud quickly to other student. The second student tries to say the word before the first student has finished spelling it aloud.
  21. Which word has the craziest spelling? – Individually, each student decides which word, in their opinion, has the craziest spelling. The teacher elicits the words from the students and the class identifies which word was the most frequently chosen.
  22. Which are the 3 longest words? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify the 3 words with the most of letters. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  23. Guess my word – In pairs, students take it in turns to choose a word from the unit word list. The other student needs to ask yes/no questions to work out the word.
  24. Can you make a sentence using 4 of the words? – Individually, each student makes a sentence using any 4 of the words from the unit word list (combined with other words to create coherent sentences). Students then compare and decide which sentence they like best.
  25. Which words do you know (after finishing the unit)? – Individually, after finishing the unit, students put a tick (✔) on the left next to all the words they now know. They can compare this with the number of words they knew before starting the unit and see their progress.

For regular tips, tricks, and resources to help your students improve, subscribe to our monthly Teaching Adults e-newsletter!


Philip Haines moved to Mexico from England in 1995, and currently works as the Senior Academic Consultant for Oxford University Press Mexico. He has spoken internationally in three continents and nationally in every state in Mexico. Philip is the author/co-author of several ELT series published in Mexico.


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World Oceans Day | Teaching Resources

World Oceans Day teaching resources

World Oceans Day, June 8th, is a time when people all around the world do something to show their appreciation for the world’s oceans.

We are all connected to the oceans in some way.

Did you know:

  • Oceans cover over 70% of the earth’s surface
  • Ocean plants and organisms create most of the oxygen we breathe
  • Oceans absorb carbon dioxide, helping to regulate our climate
  • Many of our medicines come from the oceans

Our oceans bring countless benefits to our lives, and now you can bring those benefits to your classroom!

Our freely available lesson plans give you the tools to celebrate World Oceans Day with your students. These lesson activities encourage students to develop their vocabulary, to collaborate, and to speak about current issues.  

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These resources are available via the Oxford Teacher’s Club.

Not a member? Registering is quick and easy to do, and it gives you access to a wealth of teaching resources.


Found these resources useful? How did they work for you? Share your experiences with our teaching community by leaving a comment below, or by tweeting us using the handle @oupeltglobal!


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My IATEFL Conference 2019 experience! | Nick Manthei | Aysu Şimşek

The OUP Turkey team at IATEFL 2019

I close my eyes and imagine a place where I can meet hundreds of teachers from different places on earth, with different backgrounds, with different interests and with the same passion: learning and sharing. I open my eyes and see this place is real, like my very own self that meets these teachers and shares with them the same enthusiasm for teaching. This place is the wonderfully orchestrated 53rd IATEFL Conference 2019 held in Liverpool.  The location of the event was right on the water with beautiful views of the coastline. Overall, approximately 3,000 attendees participated in over 500 talks! In these sessions, fellow colleagues presented their findings from their part of the world and discussed how it could be adapted to the participant’s home country.  It was Aysu’s first time at IATEFL and Nick’s third, and both of us eagerly await next year’s conference.

Nick was fortunate enough to fly early to Liverpool and attend the special interest group on Learning Technologies. Here participants discussed how technology and feedback can be used to assist English language learning.  After a great presentation on defining what feedback is and what it should be, the audience was shown several technologies that are currently being used in the classroom. This included uses of Artificial Intelligence and Screen Caption technology.  During the conference, we attended several Teacher Training sessions, two of which stood out. One particularly memorable session focussed on using Lego to enhance teaching and learning, and another focussed on Assessing through Games.

Aysu has been into poetry since she could remember for her own pleasure, but for the past couple of years, she has been interested in using poetry in the ELT classroom. You can imagine her excitement at joining a poetry session with Doris Suchet to hear her ideas, poetry is another way to find out about one’s own, and certainly a great way to connect with others. 

The Oxford Test of English

Oxford University Press’s Oxford Test of English Launch Event was a huge success. It was held in the beautiful Tate Liverpool Museum where many gathered to celebrate this new endeavour.  The Oxford Test of English is a computer adaptive general English proficiency test certified by the University of Oxford. Nick was at the party and met several teachers eager to access this test for their students, enabling them to access further education.

The thing we will probably remember the most though was the people we met and interacted with. All the presenters were incredibly generous and approachable. We met so many teachers from around the world and learned about their students and working conditions. Conversations with teachers from Nepal, Russia, England, Thailand, Kosovo, Brazil, the Netherlands, Greece, China, and Bulgaria all helped to shape our knowledge of ELT globally, as well as help us to reflect on our own situation in Turkey.

One final note

Throughout the conference, this snippet from Alice in Wonderland haunted us:

The Hatter asks ‘Have I gone mad?’ and Alice answers ‘You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret, all the best people are.’

I believe we, as the people attending IATEFL, are all ‘bonkers’ like ‘all the best people are’ because we are the living proofs that we can create a world that is equal, inclusive, kind, hungry for learning, and open to sharing.


Nick Manthei is a full-time teacher trainer for Oxford University Press. He has previously taught in Istanbul and Izmir. He recently finished his Master’s degree in Education at Endicott College on International Education with an ESL Concentration. Nick has an optimistic outlook on Education in Turkey and the world and gives real examples of how education can be made better starting with the most important person in the school: the teacher.


Aysu Şimşek is a passionate advocate of continuing professional development. After graduating from Istanbul University with joint honours in American Culture and Literature with Theatre Criticism and Dramaturgy, she embarked on her own teaching career. As a teacher, Aysu had the fortune to work in supportive teaching teams and personally benefited from the valuable guidance of mentors. Now in her role with Oxford University Press, Aysu meets and supports teachers from across Turkey and is proud to be an active member of a global community of dedicated educationalists. She is a holder of a CELTA qualification, has co-written articles for Modern English Teacher magazine and TEA Online Magazine.