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Using Corpora for EAP Writing Development

The challenges of academic writing in ESLMaggie Charles has taught English for Academic Purposes for more than thirty years and was consultant and contributor to the Writing Tutor in the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

Do you spend hours looking for appropriate EAP examples?

Do you sometimes struggle to answer when your students ask, ‘Can I say…?’ or ‘Is there another word for…?’.

As EAP teachers, we encounter such problems on a daily basis and this where a corpus can help. But where can you find a suitable corpus of academic texts?

The British National Corpus (BNC), available here, covers both spoken and written language and has an academic component. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is similar in content. These corpora are very large: the BNC contains 100 million words in total (16 million academic), while COCA holds 450 million words (81 million academic). Another freely available resource is The British Academic Written English Corpus (BAWE), which contains over 6 million words of high quality student writing. The examples I’ve used here come from The Compleat Lexical Tutor, which provides several smaller academic corpora. For teachers and students of EAP these corpora provide a huge store of examples of academic English as it is actually used.

What sort of help can a corpus provide? The corpora above come with their own built-in software, called a concordancer. To consult the corpus, you type in a word or phrase and the concordancer searches the corpus and presents every instance with its context in a line on screen. The search item appears in the centre, with a few words either side. Here is part of a concordance on emphasis from a 6+ million word general academic corpus. I’ve selected and sorted the lines by the first word to the left to show some useful adjective-noun combinations.

EAP1

My student wrote this:

Brown (2010) put high emphasis on the failure to distinguish between permanent and temporary shortages.

Studying the concordance showed her that the combination high emphasis wasn’t present in the corpus and gave her three possible alternatives (great, particular, special).

Concordance data like this has many applications in teaching writing. At the pre-writing stage, the concordance above can be used to help students notice collocations and chunks of authentic language which they can use in their own writing e.g. placed/laid great/particular emphasis on or with special/particular emphasis on. You can also make a concordance on key terms from the students’ own writing topic, which will retrieve phrases that are frequently used when discussing the topic. By studying the concordances, students can identify typical phrases associated with the topic, which reduces their reliance on literal translation in their writing.

At the post-writing stage, using concordances makes it easy to construct short tasks to deal with problems that have arisen in students’ texts. You can make concordances on two contrasting terms to focus students’ attention on important differences. The concordances below come from the BNC medicine corpus (1.4 million words) and highlight the difference between increase in and increase of. Most corpus software allows you to make gapped concordances so that you can check students’ understanding of the teaching point.

EAP2

You can use concordance data in many ways: before class you can prepare tasks for your students or check your own intuition about academic language; in-class you can ask students to study concordances on paper or respond to student queries as they write; after class you can supply short concordances to individual students or devise class tasks to deal with more general problem areas. Studying concordances either individually or in class helps students notice grammatical and lexical patterning and improve their own writing.

In addition to gapped and ungapped concordances, corpora can also provide sentence length examples, lists of collocates and short extracts. You don’t have to worry about making up examples or spend time reading through multiple sources to find suitable texts. Using an academic corpus in your students’ field(s) you can just input an appropriate search term and quickly retrieve a wealth of material.


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Changing classrooms for the better – the Hornby Scholarship

hornbyscholarVuyokazi Yolanda Makubalo has been involved with the teaching of English as a Second Language (ESL) in South Africa for 20 years. In 2015, she was awarded a scholarship from the Hornby Educational Trust to study for an MA in English Language Teaching at the UK’s University of Warwick. Vuyokazi gives us an insight into her work in South Africa, and how she sees her studies benefiting not only herself but also the teachers and children of her home country.

My career in ESL began in 1995 as an English Second Language teacher at Toise Senior Secondary School, a rural school in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. During the twelve years there, I worked as the Subject Head for English at my school and a Cluster Leader in my circuit. In 2008 I welcomed and embraced a promotion in another district, Grahamstown, as the District English Subject Advisor where I continued to work with 32 English High School teachers.

My job as an English Subject Advisor is to see to the curriculum delivery of the English syllabus. To achieve this, I visit schools to monitor the implementation of the syllabus. It is during these visits that I might take note of a recurring challenge in the teaching of English, for instance, and, based on this, I organise in-service training to remedy the situation for the teachers. When I cannot assist I call upon the Provincial Office. It is at such times that I feel most aware that I really need to develop my mastery of teaching the subject of English.

I am not the only English Subject Advisor from South Africa who has the honour of being granted an A. S. Hornby Scholarship. My colleague, Shaike Francis Sefalane, is taking the same course. He is also the vice-president of the Eastern Cape English Educators’ Association (ECEEA) which I also belong to. The ECEEA allows us to reach out to almost every English teacher in the province to share experiences and knowledge. As English Subject Advisors, we are connected to all the other advisors in the province, leading all English teachers in both the Further Education and Training and General Education and Training bands in the province at large. Our coming to the United Kingdom is part of a Provincial plan to send Subject Advisors to the UK to study for a Masters in English Language Teaching and, most importantly, to go back and share the knowledge with colleagues. The Hornby Scholarship has made this possible for us.

The 2015 cohort of Hornby scholars come from 10 different countries and everyone is so proud of where they come from. We have all come to the United Kingdom to study so we can go back home to share knowledge and make things better. The sharing of diverse experiences from our 10 different contexts, embracing each others’ cultures, and exposure to world languages are some of the things that make this group most interesting. But, best of all is the formation of relationships across the world! Today I know I have a friend in Bangladesh, Sudan and so on. I have even enjoyed some of the most delicious dishes from Bangladesh. It is all exactly what I wanted and wished for!

It  has been a life-long dream that one day I would come to the United Kingdom, the ‘Motherland of English’, where most of all the literature I ever read and taught comes from, and to receive my English Masters here! I feel so blessed and for that I will forever be grateful to the man who made it all possible,  A. S. Hornby. Truly, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me as it had afforded me the opportunity to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace, see the very first edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, walk on William Wordsworth’s Westminster bridge and visit many other places of interest to an English practitioner.

A wonderful and so-true quote from our Nelson Mandela reminds us that, “Education is  the great engine of personal development. It is through education that a daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mine worker can become the head of a mine, that a child of a farm worker can become a president of a country.” Through the Hornby Scholarship we can also change the fortunes of the children in our classrooms for the better. My main focus is the disadvantaged child in our less advantaged schools, the one whose parents cannot afford to give her the opportunity to go to the affluent schools where she can learn ‘better English’  taught by ‘native English teachers’. I see it as one of my duties to ensure that, in every less advantaged and not so well-resourced school, such a child can also receive such quality English teaching that will see her having an equal share in the opportunities that the world offers. We all deserve that much. Our children’s future should not be defined by their backgrounds. Working closely with their teachers, we can ensure that their future is as bright. I want to believe that this is one of the core goals of the Hornby Scholarship that through exposure to well-taught English, the future of every disadvantaged child in the world is brightened.

To hear more about Vuyokazi’s story, watch her video interview on our YouTube channel. You can also hear from other Hornby Scholars Urmila Khaled and Shaike Francis Sefalame.

 The Hornby Educational Trust was created in 1961 by A S Hornby, an English-language specialist best known for producing the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, published by Oxford University Press. The Trust’s activities include providing scholarships in the UK for people from developing and transitional countries, funding schools and workshops around the world, and maintaining an alumni network.


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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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#IATEFL – Pronunciation to Go: learning to learn from the dictionary

Teacher helping dyslexic studentMark Hancock, co-author of the English Result series introduces his forthcoming IATEFL talk on the keys to developing students’ use of dictionaries and important features that can support independent learning.

Proverbial wisdom tells us that if you give someone a fish, they can eat for a day, but if you teach someone to fish, they can eat for a lifetime. It’s a message about the long-term value of learning new skills and becoming independent. A similar thing could be said about pronunciation and dictionaries. Each time you teach a learner to pronounce a word, their English benefits a little, but they remain dependent on you. If, however, you can show your learners how to teach themselves the pronunciation of a word using the dictionary, they can improve their own English independently for ever more.

The dictionary is an immense resource, containing information about all the English words a learner is ever likely to need. In learners’ dictionaries, pronunciation information has traditionally been provided using phonemic symbols based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Nowadays, however, with the advent of online dictionaries, there are also recordings of all the headwords, accessible at the click of an icon – a wonderful resource.

It is well worth helping your learners get familiar with the IPA symbols, even though there is now an audio option. It’s a great learning investment for the following reasons:

– A knowledge of the phonemic symbols enables you to ‘see inside’ the pronunciation of the word, like an x-ray. You can see exactly what sounds are in there – and what sounds are not. Furthermore, these x-rays help you to see similarities and differences between words. For instance, your student may not be able to hear the difference between hit and heat, but they will definitely be able to see that the transcription is different.

– The ear is not always a reliable source of information. You can hear the word calm, for instance, and believe that you are hearing an L because it’s there in the spelling. When you see in the phonetic transcription that there’s no /l/, it makes it official somehow.

– The audio recording is only the voice of one person at one time. You don’t know which features of their pronunciation are essential and which are just one-off idiosyncrasies. For example, if the speaker places a glottal stop after the /k/ in document, the learner doesn’t know if this is a feature that they need to copy, or just a feature of that individual’s speech. The transcription shows it not to be essential.

If you can help your learners to be comfortable in the company of phonemic symbols, you are doing them a lasting service, because it will give them a more complete access to the information in the dictionary. It’s not that they have to memorize all the symbols – many dictionaries have a running footer across all the pages with a key to them. So it’s just a case of them getting to know the symbols little by little, as they use them.

Stress information is also provided in the transcription, by a vertical dash like an apostrophe. This is superscript for primary stress and subscript for secondary stress. If a dictionary entry does not have a transcription of its own, then these stress marks are shown in the headword itself. It’s very important for learners to become familiar with this method of marking stress.

The dictionary also provides stress information beyond single word level, for compound words, phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions. Compare, for example, the different stress patterns in the following pairs:

compound nouns:               ‘roller blind – ve”netian ‘blind

phrasal verbs:                       “look ‘on (observe) – ‘look on (regard as)

idiomatic expressions:        ‘one of these days –  one of those ‘days.

Due to the limitations of the WordPress editor, we cannot display the stress markings correctly. The single mark should be subscript (secondary stress) and the double one should be superscript, but single (primary stress).

Encourage your learners to look out for these stress markings, and try reading out loud the example sentences in the dictionary using the stress as indicated.

We do of course need to recognize the limitations of dictionaries for pronunciation work at the level of connected speech. Dictionaries, by their nature, are more focused at word-level features. However, the 9th edition of the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary (OALD9) does take a step towards remedying this situation by providing pronunciation guidance for common spoken functional exponents. For instance, under the headword invite, there’s a box of exponents for inviting and responding to invitations, along with recordings of these, and even a short video of an interaction. The OALD9 also includes videos of students giving model answers in some typical speaking exam scenarios, and these exemplify some of the prosodic features of longer stretches of speech.