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Why do we need EAP word lists? | Michael McCarthy

The EAP vocabulary challenge

If you are like me, and your English for Academic Purposes (EAP) teaching typically consists of a mixed group of students from a variety of language backgrounds and a variety of academic disciplines, then you know how difficult it can be to satisfy everyone’s needs. The pre-sessional PhD student who is going to go on to study cosmic black holes may get frustrated if the teacher spends a lot of time engaging with the special terminology of medicine for another student in the class. It is far more straightforward if you are teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP), the special language needed for groups who share the same discipline, for example a class of marine biologists or a group of town planners.

Given the size of the vocabulary of all our academic disciplines put together, with a total specialist terminology that probably runs into tens of thousands of words, we are faced with what would seem to be an impossible task. However, thanks to the power of corpora (computer-searchable databases of written and spoken texts), we are able to establish a common core of vocabulary which is used across a wide range of disciplines, one that we can use in teaching. You may well already be aware of general English word lists for EAP that are freely available online or which have been incorporated into some of the text books you and your students use. Nonetheless, a general English word list only tells us part of the story, and we need to do more to arrive at something which will genuinely be usable and useful for our EAP students.

A common core?

Looking ahead to my webinar on EAP word lists, let’s consider what a common core vocabulary for EAP might look like. There are different options for exploiting corpora, and each one has PROS and CONS:

  • A straightforward frequency list going from the most frequent to the least frequent words that are shared across many or all disciplines.

PROS: Easy to produce at the click of a mouse if you have lots of academic texts stored in a computer. We can focus on different segments of the list for students at different proficiency levels.

CONS: The list will still be very long, and much of it will be common, everyday words your students already know from general English.

  • A keyword list: this tells you which words are significant and distinct in academic English, when compared with any other type of English.

PROS: More powerful and targeted than a frequency list. We can concentrate on the ‘fingerprint’ or ‘DNA’ of academic English.

CONS: It’s not immediately obvious why a word might score so highly as a keyword. ‘Terms’ is an academic keyword. Is it because universities and colleges break the year up into teaching terms, or is it something else?

  • A list of chunks: chunks are recurring patterns of words. Most corpus software can produce lists of the most frequent 2-word, 3-word, 4-word, etc. chunks in a corpus of texts.

PROS: Chunks are extremely common in all kinds of texts and are fundamental in creating meaning, for example, structuring academic arguments, linking parts of texts, etc. They take us way beyond single words.

CONS: The computer often finds chunks that are incomplete or not easy to understand out of context (e.g. in the sense that).

Is one set of lists enough?

All these different ways of approaching a common core for EAP have pros and cons, as we have seen, and in most cases, it’s true to say that the pros outweigh the cons. But there is another factor, too. Much of a student’s experience of academic life will come through speaking and listening. The students I teach typically must write essays, dissertations and reports, but they also have to attend lectures, take part in seminars and discussions and give presentations. So good academic word lists will consist of different lists for spoken and written EAP, taken from different corpora. Spoken EAP often overlaps in surprising ways with conversational English and yet is still first and foremost concerned with transmitting, creating and sharing academic knowledge. How is that achieved? The big question is: what do we learn from separating spoken and written EAP lists?

Then what?

Even if we build an ideal set of lists, the question remains as to how we can use them. Simply drilling and learning lists is not enough; the real challenge is how to harness the words, keywords and chunks to create continuous texts in speaking and writing. First comes the problem of meaning, so it will be necessary to experience and to practise the common core words and chunks in context; we may find that a particular word or chunk has developed a special meaning in one or more disciplines but not in a wide range of disciplines. It will also be important to exploit technological resources such as links between word lists and online dictionaries and other resources. No one, simple approach will deliver the results we hope to get from word lists, and an integrated approach will serve us best.

If you want to know more about how we use the power of corpora to create EAP word lists, to see some examples from OPAL (the Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon), a new set of EAP word lists from Oxford University Press. And to get some practical ideas for using the lists in your teaching, why not sign up for my webinar?


Michael McCarthy is Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Nottingham. He is author/co-author/editor of 53 books, including Touchstone, Viewpoint, the Cambridge Grammar of English, English Grammar Today, Academic Vocabulary in Use, From Corpus to Classroom, and titles in the English Vocabulary in Use series. He is author/co-author of 113 academic papers. He has co-directed major corpus projects in spoken English. He has lectured in English and English teaching in 46 countries.


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Where there is well-being… there will be learning

Being a language teacher is not an easy job… I know that now. But, and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, when I first started out as a teacher, I really did think that it was going to be easy. Of course, I knew that I had a lot to learn about the technical side of language teaching, but I was confident that with a little experience, I would be able to master this in time. And when it came to the personal, emotional side to teaching, I was confident that I was a ‘natural’ and that I did not need any real training or work in this area. The point of this confession—and its relevance to my talk—is that I just wasn’t prepared for the long haul, the inevitable bumps in the road. And this lack of preparedness—resulting in feelings of stress and low professional well-being—affected my teaching. There were times when I began my working week feeling like the teacher in this photo.

In my webinar, I want to think about the importance of teacher well-being in the language classroom and consider practical steps teachers can take to enhance their feelings of well-being. I will begin by keeping in mind the words of the famous psychologist Kurt Lewin, who held the view that “There is nothing more practical than a good theory.” This means that I will look at some of the major recent developments in thinking about well-being, and in particular, I want to focus on the concept of mindsets, which is most closely associated with the American psychologist Carol Dweck. Mindsets have been receiving a lot of popular and positive attention in recent years, but most of this has focused on the role of mindsets in learning. In my webinar, I want to turn the tables and look at mindsets in teaching.

At its simplest, the concept of mindsets is based around two distinct worldviews. Some people tend to believe in the fixed nature of humans, that we are all essentially born with certain talents and characteristics and there is little we can do to change them. In contrast, other people see more potential for growth and change; if we work hard enough at something we will eventually succeed. Of course, people may have different mindsets for different areas of their lives, but in education, most of the discussion around mindsets has concentrated on ideas of natural ability and the power to grow through sustained, focused efforts. But what about teachers and teaching? Do mindsets play a role here? I will argue that an understanding of our ‘teaching mindsets’ can help our overall sense of professional well-being.

Teaching is about so much more than the simple transfer of mental knowledge but the interpersonal side to teaching receives relatively little attention, leaving teachers feeling that they lack control or the power to change things. While many teachers are very supportive of growth mindsets for academic learning, they can have very fixed mindsets when it comes to the stressful aspects of teaching. And one reason for this is that we rarely discuss these topics in a way that empowers teachers. One aim of my webinar is to get teachers thinking and talking about what they can do to develop their own growth mindsets. As a concrete example, let’s take the area of time management. One of the major causes of stress for teachers is the feeling of being pulled in several directions, always under pressure to meet deadlines, of simply not having enough hours in the day. However, teachers often see poor time management as a personality feature, just ‘who I am’, and something they cannot change.

I hope to show that there are simple practical steps teachers can take to reduce feelings of stress, to feel more positive and enthusiastic about their work, to essentially change themselves. I also hope to stress the point that thinking about teacher well-being is not an optional extra, but it is an essential responsibility for practicing teachers. Thinking about oneself is not selfish. Professional well-being makes teachers perform to a higher level, it encourages learners to take on bigger challenges, and it results in improved learning outcomes.


ELTOC

Stephen Ryan
 is running a webinar on this topic for OUP’s free English Language Teaching Online Conference in March 2019. Register now to secure your place by clicking here.


Stephen Ryan has been involved in language education for over 25 years and for most of that time he has been based in Japan. He is currently a professor in the School of Culture, Media and Society at Waseda University in Tokyo. His research and publications cover various aspects of psychology in language learning, including the award-winning OUP book Exploring Psychology in Language Learning and Teaching, co-authored with Marion Williams and Sarah Mercer.


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Teaching English to Preparatory Year Programme (PYP) students

PYP student

To be successful at university, students in Preparatory Year Programmes need to improve their language skills in a fairly short amount of time. At a minimum, PYP programmes will prepare students to be able to read the course books, listen to lectures, and take exams in English in their chosen field. They may also need to write essays, discuss issues in seminar discussions, or defend their thesis. However, teachers in these programmes often face challenges related less to language learning and more to motivation.

Goals and aspirations

Although it’s tempting to start with the coursebook on day one of a course – after all, there is so much to get through! – it might be a better strategy to spend some time getting to know students as individuals, and especially getting students to think about their own educational and personal goals for learning English. Once students have an idea of ‘where they are going’ or ‘what they want English for’, teachers can then help them to see how what they learn in class connects to their goals. They can explain the approach they will take and how it will help them on their journey. On another level, when a teacher spends time getting to know their students and sharing information about themselves, the students are more likely to like him/her which may lead them to work harder so that they can please the teacher. A good rapport is an important factor in motivation.

What’s in it for me?

The next step in motivating learners is to help them see how the lessons lead to those goals. Students want to know, ‘What’s in it for me?’ and teachers can help by creating lesson aims with a clear context and purpose, and communicating those aims to the students. In this way, students will begin to see the benefit of planned activities and will be more cooperative and motivated. Instead of ploughing through pages, teachers can link activities back to the lesson aims. Of course, in an ideal classroom, students would have some say in what is taught, and would be able to choose topics of interest, but in the absence of that option, letting them know what’s in it for them at least involves them to some extent by explaining what they are going to gain.

Progression

Another piece of the motivation puzzle is related to progression: students are more motivated when they can see their progression as it relates to goals, and when they know what they need to do to improve. This highlights the need for a clear link between lesson aims and ongoing assessment, in-class revision, and quick checks to make sure students are still on target. It also means setting individual student targets whenever possible – once a student reaches a target, another is set. In that way, students have a clear sense of where they are going and what they have achieved.

If you’re interested in learning more, don’t forget to join me in my webinar.  During the webinar, we will first make a case for and suggest activities for helping students identify their own goals and aspirations and consider how English fits into their future version of themselves. We will then look at improving lesson aims to include a context and purpose and make them SMART. Finally, we will look at ideas for making progression and next steps more visible to students. By the end of the webinar, teachers will have a set of tools which will help them in their quest to increase student motivation which will, in turn, give them the incentive to tackle the daunting task of learning English in their PYP year.


Stacey’s webinar will feature content from Headway Plus Special Edition 2nd edition, developed by Oxford especially for PYP classes. The trusted Headway approach combines a perfectly balanced grammar and skills syllabus, supporting teachers in Saudi Arabia to deliver results driven preparatory English tuition.


Stacey Holliday Hughes is a part-time lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and also works freelance as a teacher developer, materials writer, learning resources editor and educational consultant in ELT. She has taught English in the US, Poland, Italy and the UK in many different contexts. Stacey’s main interest in ELT is in maximising student engagement through student-focused learning using traditional and digital tools.  As a teacher developer, she enjoys working with teachers seeking to explore alternative approaches and strategies often in response to emerging classroom issues. Stacey has written a number of blogs, online student exercises and teacher support materials.


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Developing listening skills with storytelling | Gareth Davies

Storytelling in ELT is often seen as the preserve of the young learner teacher. Telling a story with lots of repetition, noises, and action is considered far too childish for teen and adult learners. But stories are in our soul, we grew up with them, remember them fondly and can learn a lot from them, so maybe stories can be part of language lessons for older students.


Why storytelling?

The benefits of grading reading are well documented. Students reading for pleasure at their own level not only improve their reading skill but also their grammar and vocabulary level. But why is so little said about Graded Listening. When we do a listening activity in an English lesson there is always a task to go with it. This listen and answer approach often stresses students, no wonder then that listening is often considered by students to be the ‘hardest’ skill to master. We rarely ask students to just listen for pleasure. We rarely say don’t worry about it; there won’t be a ‘test’ at the end. But could that be beneficial for students? Could it help them to improve their listening skills and their grammar and vocabulary like grading reading does?

Case Study

I’ve been telling stories with students for about three years but at the end of 2018, I spent three months teaching young adults in Japan and decided to do a little experiment.  At least once a week I told them a story. Sometimes I did nothing with it, just told it at the beginning or the end of the lesson and moved on. Sometimes we briefly discussed the story and then moved on. Sometimes I built a lesson around the story. I told the story using actions, pictures and sounds if needed to help with the meaning but still in an adult way. The students enjoyed the stories, and they produced some really excellent work based on them. When I asked them at the end of the course if they could remember the stories, they listed them and took pleasure in retelling them to each other.

Here is some of the feedback that I’ve been receiving from students:

  • ‘Thanks to the storytelling lessons, I got skills for listening, imagination and retelling.’
  • ‘This definitely helped our listening skills…. we could communicate with each other and try to express our thoughts, ideas, and so on.’
  • ‘Those stories let me imagine the view, place, person and a lot of other stuff.’
  • ‘I learnt many expressions, including what I’ve never used to express myself.’
  • ‘It’s motivating to listen eagerly.’
  • Some activities gave me a power of understanding.’

One student even asked me if I could help her to become a storyteller like me!

Activities

The first activity I did after each story was simply to ask students to retell the story to each other. This helped them fill the gaps in each other’s knowledge, developed their understanding of the story, and gave them a chance to ask me questions. Because I had a few artistic students in my class, I encouraged them to draw the story at this stage. Here are three other activities that I will look at in my Webinar.

Newspapers

Ask the students to make a newspaper article for their story. Show them a narrative newspaper story, ask about the features, how the story is told in the newspaper, who is being interviewed etc. Then ask the students to work in small groups to create a newspaper front page based on the story.

Newspaper storytelling activity.

Prequel or Sequel?

Ask them to write a prequel or sequel to the story. Talk about films like Star Wars or Harry Potter. How did the story move on? Then, ask the students to think about the story and how the characters would develop in 5, 10, or 15 years’ time. Put them in small groups and ask them to write their new versions of the story.  

Prequel or Sequel storytelling activity.

Twitter

Get them to write a twitter feed for each of the characters. This is a bit more complicated to set up, but it worked like a charm. First you need to break the story down into factual components. Then, ask them to think how each character would respond to the event and how they would update their twitter feed. Ask them to write the Tweets and then put them in order to create a Twitter version of the story.

Twitter storytelling activity.

The last lesson

In my last lesson with the students, I asked them to tell me a story from Japan. I put the students into groups and gave them time to plan and then asked them to tell me the story. Their renditions were fun, enthusiastic and brought a tear to my eye.

I genuinely believe that listening for pleasure has a place in language learning and storytelling can give students a chance to listen to something that is enjoyable and understandable, and this takes the pressure off listening.


Webinar

Gareth Davies is running a webinar on this topic with Oxford University Press in March 2019. Click the link below to register, it’s free!

See you there!


Gareth Davies is a writer, storyteller, teacher, and teacher trainer based in Cardiff. He has been in the ELT industry for 23 years teaching in Portugal, the UK, Spain, and the Czech Republic. Recently he has been teaching and storytelling in Japan. Since 2005, Gareth has worked closely with Oxford University Press, delivering teacher training and developing materials. Gareth is also an examiner for the new Oxford Test of English and Trinity College, London. Outside of teaching, Gareth is an author of fiction, a poet and a storyteller. His first novel “Humans, Being”, will be published by Cinnamon Press in April 2019. He is interested in developing creative writing and story-telling ideas for the classroom.

Visit Gareth’s website: www.gareththestoryteller.com


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What is a core vocabulary?

It’s very difficult to say exactly how many words there are in the English language because it depends how you count them and, of course, language is changing and growing all the time. But even at a conservative estimate, there are well over a quarter of a million distinct English words. That makes the task of teaching vocabulary to learners of English seem a rather daunting one.

Thankfully, Zipf’s Law comes to our rescue. This states that a handful of the most frequent words in the language account for a disproportionately large chunk of any text, either written or spoken. The top 2000 most frequent words, in particular, make up somewhere around 80% of most texts. That makes frequency a good rule-of-thumb indicator of the words we should probably focus on teaching first.

The Oxford 3000TM: then and now

With this aim in mind, the Oxford 3000 word list was first put together back in 2005. Since then, the list has been widely used by learners, teachers, syllabus designers and materials writers to help them choose which vocabulary is worth spending most time over. Fourteen years on, however, it was time for an update. The new Oxford 3000 has had a thorough revision including a new look at the criteria for inclusion and the use of new frequency data based on a much larger and more up-to-date corpus.

Frequency vs. relevance

Whilst frequency is the guiding principle behind choosing which words to include on the list, it doesn’t quite work as a basis for selection on its own. That’s in part because there are a surprising number of words that describe basic things in the world around us and that learners would expect to learn quite early on that actually wouldn’t qualify for a top 3000 on frequency alone. So, words like apple and passport, for example, probably wouldn’t make the cut.

Thus, the new Oxford 3000 balances frequency with relevance to the average learner. As well as how common they are, the list compilers took into account whether words are typically used to talk about the kinds of themes and functional areas common in an ELT syllabus, and the types of tasks and topics needed in English exams.

A core vocabulary as a starting point

It would be wrong, however, to assume that 3000 words will be enough on their own for a learner to read and communicate successfully in English. The Oxford 3000 aims to provide a core vocabulary, that is, a solid basis that students can build around.

At the lowest levels, words on the list are likely to make up the bulk of the learner’s repertoire. So, for an A1 learner, for example, 90% of their vocabulary might consist of basic core words. As learners progress and want to read about and express a wider range of ideas, though, while they will still rely heavily on that core, they will also need to supplement it with vocabulary from other sources. The Oxford 3000 aims to provide a core vocabulary for learners up to roughly B2 level. By this stage, more and more of the vocabulary they acquire will reflect the unique interests and needs of each individual learner.


Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer, lexicographer and corpus researcher. She’s written a wide range of ELT materials, but has a particular passion for words and always gets drawn back to vocabulary teaching. She’s worked on a range of learner’s dictionaries and other vocabulary resources, including the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice titles.

Click here to access the Oxford 3000, Oxford 5000 and Oxford Phrase List.