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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 webinar, I 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.

Watch the recording

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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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.  

Adult learner button
Teenage learner button
Young learner button

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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What does Assessment for Learning look like in the classroom?

What does Assessment for Learning look like in the classroom?

Assessment for learning (AfL) is a catchphrase with which many teachers may be familiar and yet may not feel confident that they know what it means in terms of classroom practice. Here I outline the basic ideas behind it and the kinds of classroom practices AfL may involve.

At heart, it’s what good teachers do every day:

  • they gather information about where learners are in their learning, what they know and don’t know;
  • they help their students understand what, and why, they are learning and what successful performance will look like;
  • they give feedback which helps learners ‘close the gap’ between where they are in their learning and where they need to get to;
  • they encourage learners to become more self-regulating and reflective.

The evidence is that, done well, these practices are among the most effective ways of improving learning and outcomes.

Assessment in this process is essentially informal, the information teachers gather comes in many forms, for example, through classroom dialogue, following up on unexpected answers, or recognising from puzzled looks that the students have not understood. Tests play a part, but only if they are used to feed directly into the teaching and learning process.

What would we expect to see in an AfL classroom?

Diagnostics. There would beevidence of teaching and learning that is active, with students involved in dialogue with their teachers and classmates. This goes beyond simple recall questions and will include seeking out students’ views (‘what do you think….) and giving them time to think about their answers – often with a classmate (‘pair and share’).

Clarity about learning intentions. This requires teachers to be clear about what is to be learned, how the lesson activities will encourage it, and where it fits in the learning progression. They then seek to make this clear to their students by linking it to what they have learned already and showing why it’s important. Expert teachers will use imaginative ways of introducing the learning intentions (‘why do you think we’re doing this?’) rather than routinely writing out the learning objectives.

Teachers will also clarify what a successful performance will look like, so that the learners can see the standard they need to achieve. Teachers may do this by negotiating with the class about what the learners think a good performance might involve (for example: ‘what would you look for in a good oral presentation?’). Another approach may be to exemplify the standard by using examples of work (best as anonymous work from other students). A teacher may give the class two pieces of work, she may then give the class the criteria for assessing the work (no more than two or three key criteria) and ask them, in groups, to make a judgement about their relative quality. This also provides a vital step in being able to evaluate the quality of their own work and become more self-regulated learners.

Giving effective feedback. Providing feedback that moves learning forward is a key, and complex, teaching skill. We know from research that feedback is hard to get right. Good feedback ‘closes the gap’ between a learner’s current performance and the standard that is to be achieved. Some of the key features in quality feedback are:

  1. It recognises what has been done well and then gives specific advice on what step the learner can take next. General comments such as ‘try harder’, ‘improve your handwriting’, or 7/10, do not provide the detail needed.
  2. It is clear and well-timed. The teacher gives feedback in language the learner understands and it is given when it is most useful.
  3. It relates to the success criteria and focuses on the key next steps. We may sometimes give too much feedback if we start to comment on presentational features (e.g. spelling) when these were not part of the learning intention.
  4. It involves action and is achievable.

In all this, the aim of assessment for learning is to encourage our students to increasingly think for themselves, and have the ability and desire to regulate their own learning.

Gordon Stobart is an assessment expert that has contributed to the latest Position Paper for Oxford University Press, ‘Assessment for Learning’. Download the paper today to learn about effective feedback, close the gap between where your learners are and where they need to be, and get access to exclusive professional development events!

Button to download the Assessment for Learning Position Paper.

Gordon Stobart is Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University College London, and an honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford. Having worked as a secondary school teacher and an educational psychologist, he spent twenty years as a senior policy researcher. He was a founder member of the Assessment Reform Group, which has promoted assessment for learning internationally. Gordon is the lead author of our Assessment for Learning Position Paper.


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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.


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