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Focusing on vocabulary for academic writing

shutterstock_522965368Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer and lexicographer based in Bristol, UK. Her main interests are in vocabulary teaching and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). She worked on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and Oxford EAP (C1). She was also involved in developing and writing the new
Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books. When she’s not at her desk, she enjoys speaking at ELT events and teacher training.

When it comes to helping students with academic vocabulary, the range of words and phrases they might encounter in the course of their academic studies is huge and can be somewhat daunting. So when we were putting together the new Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books, we decided quite early on that the most useful area to focus on would be productive vocabulary: that is the words and phrases that students are actually likely to use in their own writing.

For all learners, indeed all speakers of a language, their productive vocabulary – the words they actively use regularly – is a subset of their receptive vocabulary – the words they recognize and understand passively. As teachers though, we often forget this distinction and vocabulary lessons can end up a mixed bag of new words and those that are already familiar, words that students are likely to use and those they may only come across occasionally. Concentrating on just the vocabulary that students are most likely to use in their writing can help to tune out some of the ‘noise’ and create more realistic, focused vocabulary-learning goals. In this post, I’ll share just three of the criteria we used to help achieve this aim.

1. Realistic models

It’s often said that the best way to improve your vocabulary is to read as much as possible. For students of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), it’s true that reading and noticing the vocabulary used by academic writers is important in developing their receptive vocabulary, but published academic texts may not always provide the best model for studying productive vocabulary. Published texts written by professional academics, such as textbooks or academic articles, are a different genre from the type of texts typically produced by university students as part of their coursework. So it’s perhaps not surprising that recent research has shown that even good student writers use a much narrower range of academic vocabulary than ‘expert’ academic writers (Durrant, 2016). That’s not to say that they’re somehow substandard, the requirements of the two genres are just different. So studying a published academic text won’t necessarily provide a realistic, or even a useful, model for the student wanting to improve the vocabulary they use in their own writing. Examples of good student writing will display a much more appropriate range of vocabulary that an EAP student might realistically hope to emulate.

2. The receptive to productive shift

We often tend to think of vocabulary teaching as being all about new words, but actually, much of the lexis that will help learners to improve their academic writing is likely to already be part of their receptive lexicon. As language users, we naturally tend to stick to the words we’re most familiar with when we’re speaking or writing, because we feel confident and comfortable with them. For many learners, encouraging them out of that comfort zone just means pushing them to use words and phrases that are already familiar from their reading. Extending a student writer’s productive vocabulary range isn’t always about introducing ‘difficult’ words, it’s often apparently simple words and expressions (on the whole, by far, in terms of, etc.) that will help improve their writing style and make their texts more readable.

3. Activities for production

After we’ve identified what vocabulary items to focus on, the next step is to design practice activities. It’s natural to start by checking comprehension, but if we want learners to start using lexis, we soon need to move onto more productive practice. This is where we run into the distinction between controlled productive vocabulary – words which learners can produce when prompted, say within a gap-fill activity – and free productive vocabulary – which they produce spontaneously in their own writing (see Laufer, 1998). If learners are to expand their free productive range, they need plenty of opportunities to get a feel for how to use words and phrases in context; playing around with phrasing, collocation and different forms of a word in a ‘safe’ environment where it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes, not in that high-stakes, assessed essay. Short writing tasks that encourage experimentation can help bridge that gap between the gap-fill and the essay.

Durrant, P. (2016) To what extent is the Academic Vocabulary List relevant to university student writing? English for Specific Purposes 43
Laufer, B. (1998) The Development of Passive and Active Vocabulary in a Second Language: Same or Different Applied Linguistics 19 (2)

**There are extra practice activities to accompany the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books available online, including a number of short free writing tasks.

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A Framework for Communicative Speaking

shutterstock_297003296Tony Prince is a NILE trainer and has been Programme Manager for Presessional and Insessional courses at the University of East Anglia. Today he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar, A Framework for Communicative Speaking, and discuss clear communicative speaking for ELLs. 

Opening digression – Problems and solutions

Often what we see as a problem in the environment, actually has its roots in ourselves.

‘I keep getting interrupted when I’m trying to work.’

Well maybe that’s because you’re afraid to say no when someone asks you for help, or to challenge an ‘urgent’ email that threatens to take hours out of your planned schedule.

Before you protest – explaining how ‘I really don’t understand your context’ – recognise that the beauty of you being the problem (and by you I mean we, including me), is that you are the solution as well.

You may not have control of your options, but you do have the power to choose. There is always a choice, no matter how limited.

To the point – Taking control

What does this have to do with Speaking?

Frequently when students express frustration with their speaking, they frame it as a problem with the environment.

‘People don’t give me time to think.’

‘My classmates don’t let me speak, they just talk.’

Some re-frame this as a problem with themselves:

‘I can’t think quickly enough.’

‘I don’t feel good interrupting other people.’

But few have the insight to see themselves as the cause and the solution:

‘I need to find ways to give myself extra time to think. I wonder what phrases I could use? Should I use gesture more? Maybe it’s my expression. Perhaps I need to make it more clear that I’m thinking.’

‘What is it about me that finds it so uncomfortable to interrupt others. Are there any methods that I could use which would feel easier for me?’

Most frequently, in conversations with students about issues they’re having with their studies, I have to try and get them to understand themselves better: to take more control over what they do and how they do it.

Me: ‘It seems to me, watching the conversations, that you’re happier listening. You don’t show any signs of frustration. You sit back from what’s being said.’

Student: ‘Really?’

Me: ‘That’s how it seems.’

Student: ‘Oh. So what should I do?’

Me: ‘Well why do you think you do that?’

Student: ‘I don’t know.’

Me: ‘Well I’d say that’s what you need to find out.’

Or with a lower level student

Me: ‘You watch people speak.’

Student: ‘Yes?’

Me: ‘Why?’

Student: ‘I think slow.’

Me: ‘Why no sound?’

Student: ‘Sound?’

Me: ‘Next time, watch other people. Listen! Tell me what sound. Also think. Why no sound you?’

This is a difficult approach – for both teachers and students to take. But one of the ‘Elephants in the room’ when it comes to communicative teaching, is that what we are encouraging is intensely personal. The issues that students have with communication are often rooted in their own character. Yet much though we may know our students as individuals few teachers are willing to ask students to reflect more about what it is about themselves that is preventing them from communicating, and to suggest that such reflection is at the heart of improvement.

The webinar

You may be wondering – finally – what this has to do with the webinar that I’m going to be conducting – ‘A Framework for Communicative Speaking’.

During this webinar I’m not going to be suggesting that teachers become psychologists, or even coaches – that’s for another blog post, and webinar.

The objective here is to set out a framework that can provide students with more choice in how carry out the speaking tasks in class. The framework organizes functional language around Bloom’s taxonomy, allowing students (and teachers) to vary the cognitive demands of the speaking they do.

The intention is to provide a resource that encourages student reflection on their speaking problems by providing them with more choice as to how they (and the teacher) structure a speaking task.

Reflection + choice (on how to respond to reflection) = improvement.

If you’d like to attend this free webinar with Tony, please click on the register button below.



Re-purposing the writing process for beginner ELLs


Trio Writing authors Alice Savage and Colin Ward offer 6 practical activities to help your beginner level students write successfully in English.

For native speakers, a writing process that starts with a plan and ends with sentence-level editing makes sense.  However, non-native writers have different challenges, especially at the introductory level.  Fortunately, process writing is not set in stone.  We can adapt it to suit our students’ needs.

The first step is to identify those needs. Lower level ELLs need language, lots of it, and early on.  They may also need extra support in meeting the expectations of target language readers.

The following classroom activities offer options for tweaking the standard writing process.  They are meant to be flexible, working tools that can be used individually or together depending on the unique characteristics of a class and its goals.

1. Front-load with language

Students who sign up for a low level English writing class bring very little language with them, so it makes sense to start with vocabulary and grammar, but which vocabulary and grammar?  Fortunately, the prompt itself points the way.

For example, in a beginning writing class, the prompt What does your country look like? suggests the target language.  The vocabulary elements might include mountains, beaches, rivers, a desert, and other place nouns.  Adjectives such as green, tropical, tall, beautiful would also be helpful. The grammar lesson might include the plural –s and There is/ there are.

Pulling all these elements together can already feel like an uphill climb; however, the lesson can be made more efficient if the language is taught in chunks. Consider using images to teach beautiful mountains, tropical beaches, or a large desert.  Then set up activities that allow students to mix and match to create new patterns such as the following:

Use the words to make phrases about your country.  Add a for singular, and –s for plural. Then fill in the chart below.


In the example above, students practice vocabulary and grammar to produce accurate sentences that are ready to go when it is time to write a paragraph about their country.

The activity can also be extended by eliciting additional adjectives and nouns related to the students’ own contexts.

2. Conference at the point of need

One on one conferencing is generally helpful for all writers, but it can be adapted to suit the particular needs of ELLs.  Multi-lingual writers may need more direct guidance if they are to meet the expectations of L1 readers. A simple checklist can provide both focus and flexibility for this task.  In the example below, developed for a two-paragraph assignment, the teacher may comment on all items, but targets only one for the conference.  This focus keeps the revision manageable for the low level English learner.

Conferencing Checklist


  • The assignment indicates the student has gone off topic, and the conference will focus on planning for a new draft.
  • Paragraphing might include options for rearranging content to develop ideas and shape them into paragraphs.
  • Language focuses on vocabulary, grammar, mechanics and/or other syntax issues.
  • Ideas discusses ways that a strong student might stretch their skills by elaborating or even adding an additional paragraph.

3. Share the revision process

Peer interaction helps English learners develop both language and writing skills.  The following activities can be implemented during conferencing or any stage of development where students need review or practice. The first partner activity below practices grammar and vocabulary, while the second focuses on paragraph awareness.

Grammar Puzzles


Collaborative Writing


4. Repurpose peer review

Students can sometimes treat peer review as an error hunt, but peer readers can play other roles as well.  For example, why not make the reader more of an active listener by asking questions to help the writer clarify ideas?


Teachers can also set a quick and motivating publishing stage by having writers exchange final drafts and directing them to simply enjoy and respond to one another’s ideas. This gives beginning writers the chance to have their final draft read without being evaluated.


Even beginners can write a paragraph or two when the process is tweaked to meet their needs. By going a little lower, a little slower, and rethinking the writing process from the perspective of language learners, it’s possible to help students succeed from the very beginning.

All materials adapted from Trio Writing by Alice Savage and Colin Ward, Oxford University Press

An earlier version of this article first appeared on englishendeavors.org.  If you’d like to read more ideas for the English language classroom, click here.


How to enhance reading comprehension of non-fiction academic texts

Reading notebookEsther Geva and Gloria Ramírez will be presenting webinars on 11th and 12th May where they will be discussing how to enhance reading comprehension of non-fiction academic texts.  You can find out more and sign up here.

In today’s Information Age, we are flooded with unprecedented amounts of written information, which needs to be processed quickly and effectively. In secondary school, English as a second language (EL2) teachers have the responsibility of preparing their pupils for post-secondary levels of schooling and for the workplace in today’s information economy. Language teachers face the challenge of helping their EL2 students develop sophisticated reading skills.

A solid EL2 reading instruction program is grounded in empirical evidence that can help us answer questions of what, why, and how for successful teachers of EL2 in contexts where English is the dominant language of the society, as well as in those where it is a foreign language. For these reasons, we will consistently make links between research and teaching throughout this webinar.

We will present detailed summaries of important classroom-based research on different aspects of EL2 reading. We will also provide Classroom Snapshots and Activities. Classroom Snapshots demonstrate the different concepts and how they work with different EL2 learners and different EL2 teaching situations  for teaching EL2 reading. The activities will offer you opportunities to interact with the presenters to gain a better understanding of issues and topics that are addressed in this Webinar.

We will begin by inviting you to reflect on your current beliefs about reading comprehension in both first language (L1) and second Language (L2). Then we will provide a general discussion of the complexity of reading comprehension, and highlight the main factors that are involved in EL2 reading comprehension. This will be followed by a discussion of the different skills needed to extract meaning from text, with a special focus on how to enhance reading comprehension of non-fiction, academic texts. You may find that some of your beliefs are just that- beliefs.

The last part of this Webinar is devoted to individual differences. We examine the challenges that different EL2 readers may experience depending on their age, the characteristics of their L1, their prior experience with reading in their L1 and L2, and the type of text they are reading. For example, we will examine issues related to EL2 reading of adolescent immigrants who have solid reading skills in their L1 and adolescent immigrants who had little formal instruction. The Webinar will end with a brief discussion of the possibility that some EL2 learners are also challenged by a learning disability and require additional program adaptations.

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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.


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.


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.