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5 ways to use a dictionary for academic writing

Oxford Learner's Dictionary of Academic English book coverJulie Moore, a lexicographer for the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, shares her top 5 ways to use a dictionary to teach academic writing skills.

With my background in lexicography, I’m a big fan of encouraging dictionary skills in the classroom. And as a teacher of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), I’m really looking forward to using the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English with my students.

Rather than teach planned dictionary skills lessons, I tend to slip in dictionary usage at every possible opportunity. In particular, I’ll often send students to the dictionary in a writing skills lesson. Here are my top five areas of academic vocabulary to focus on:

Collocation

One thing that can make student writing sound awkward is an odd choice of collocation. Sometimes a choice that would be fine in everyday English or spoken academic contexts, such as do research stands out as too informal in academic writing, where conduct or undertake research might fit better. Checking a key word in the dictionary will provide students with a number of appropriate academic collocations, not just for the most common meanings of a word, but also sometimes more specialist uses too, e.g. a power = an influential country: a colonial/imperial/sovereign/global etc. power.

Dependent prepositions

A wrong choice of preposition may seem like a trivial error, and in speech it will usually be overlooked. But in academic discourse, where precision is highly valued, frequent minor errors can give the impression of intellectual sloppiness and inaccuracy. Next time your students are handing in a piece of writing, try this quick self-editing activity. Before they give you their texts, get them to go through and underline all the prepositions they’ve used, then identify those that depend on a content word (a noun, verb, or adjective) either just before (on impact, under the influence of) or just after (reliant on, consistent with). Next, they choose a handful (3 to 5) that they’re least confident about and look up the content words in the dictionary. Point out that typical prepositions are shown in bold before examples. They can then correct any errors they find before handing in their work.

Following constructions

You can do a similar thing with the constructions that typically follow particular words (focus on doing, demonstrate how/what …). I tend to highlight examples like this when they come up in class, just taking a couple of minutes to raise students’ awareness of how this type of information is shown in the dictionary, again in bold before examples. Students can then use it as a reference source themselves when they’re hesitating over a construction in their writing.

Parts of speech

EAP students need to develop a particular dexterity in swapping between parts of speech, whether they’re trying to find an appropriate paraphrase or construct a complex noun phrase. As different parts of speech typically start with the same combination of letters, they’re generally together in the dictionary, making for a quick and easy look-up. And to help further, the different parts of speech of many key words are even grouped together in word family boxes, allowing learners to see the options at a glance, including non-adjacent words such as antonyms too, e.g. conclude, conclusion, conclusive, conclusively, inconclusive.

Synonyms

For students writing longer academic texts, repetition of key words can become an issue. Finding a few appropriate synonyms can help to improve the flow and style of their writing enormously. With a class of students preparing for a writing task on a particular topic, you might pick out a few key topic words and get students to look them up in the dictionary to search for possible synonyms. These are shown after each definition, e.g. at practicable you’ll find SYN feasible, workable. Of course, synonyms rarely have identical meanings and usage, so get students to look up the synonyms too and decide which might be substitutable and what adjustments they might need to make grammatically (e.g. vary from x to y, but range between x and y).

By incorporating regular dictionary usage into classroom practice, you raise students’ awareness of the type of information they can find in the dictionary, how they can use it to improve their academic writing and become more autonomous learners. What’s more, by proactively doing something with a word (looking it up, thinking about it, then using it), they’ll also broaden and deepen their vocabulary knowledge.


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Writing their way to the top: Process strategies for English language learners

Teacher writing on whiteboardWhat are some strategies for helping students with academic writing? Alice Savage, Effective Academic Writing co-author, will look at this topic in her upcoming webinar on December 10th. In this article, she presents a task to help build students’ confidence in their writing.

When hikers plan an adventure, they agree to take on a challenge. They understand that it might be hard sometimes, but they also know that if they stick together and have faith in the process, they will make it to their destination. The same is true for writers, particularly writers learning to operate in an academic English context. In my webinar, we will examine the writing process and look at specific strategies and activities that can support English learners along the way.

The following group task is one of several strategies in the webinar. Its aims of community-building and orienting students to process writing techniques can ensure that a class gets started on the right foot.

Objective: To help students build community, confidence and an understanding of the writing process.

Start by putting the students in groups of four and creating roles such as manager, note-taker, writer, dictionary-person, or editor. Tell them that they are going to do a writing task together that shows their combined experience and talent. Then set the following questions:

  • How many languages does your group speak in total?
  • How many years has your group been studying English in total?
  • How many countries has your group traveled to in total?
  • What kinds of writing has your group done in the past?
  • What is a name that fits your group?

Once they have shared information, instruct the writer to turn the answers and notes into a paragraph. Have them start by introducing their group’s name in a topic sentence. Then have them explain why they chose it. They can include answers to the questions or other ideas that come up while they were talking. The teacher can circulate and provide assistance as needed.

When the writing section of the task is finished, the group can work together to edit. The editor, with help from peers, can check for complete sentences, grammar and spelling. As they work, they have an opportunity to see how their knowledge and skills fit with their classmates and to see how they can benefit from or help others later.

To mirror the stages of writing, the task ends with publishing. The groups can post or circulate their finished texts and compare results. The class can identify which group speaks the most languages, has studied English the longest, or seen the most countries. This final stage, in addition to serving as an icebreaker, allows the class to experience one another’s writing as readers. This publishing stage can instill a habit of responding to content that will pay off later during peer feedback throughout the term.

Finally, the teacher can build confidence in the process by leading a reflection on the stages that the groups went through. They can look at generating ideas and developing content, planning, revising, editing, and publishing.

The teacher might then use the opportunity to highlight the activities and aims of each stage. For example, many teachers do not address grammar errors in the early revision stages because students are still shaping content and often cutting or changing sentences. Many students do not automatically anticipate these major revision tasks, so working through revision techniques in an explicit way in a practice activity can foster trust in the process.

The discussion can end with the question, “What do you know now that you didn’t know when you started this assignment?” as a way to finish with a focus on writing as knowledge making. If all goes well, students see the advantages of the writing process and its ability to provide a sequence that allows them to focus at distinct stages. They know their classmates and the writing process better, and perhaps they feel better equipped for the adventure of a new task.

To find out more about improving students’ writing skills, register for the webinar at either 12:00 or 15:00 GMT on December 10th.


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Helping your students to become effective writers

Professor speaking to studentJulie Moore, co-author of the recently launched Oxford EAP Advanced / C1 level, looks at ways of teaching writing skills more effectively. Julie will be hosting a webinar on the same topic on 26th and 27th November.

In ELT, we often talk about teaching the four skills; reading, writing, listening, and speaking. But how much class time do we actually devote to teaching writing skills?

I know that for many years in my own teaching career, my ‘teaching’ of writing skills amounted to little more than five minutes going through a homework task at the end of the lesson. The task might be linked to the topic of the lesson and there might be a bit of useful vocabulary, a few key words or phrases in a nice shaded box, but otherwise, I think my students were pretty much left to their own devices.

I’d then collect in their writing to ‘mark’, largely on the basis of their language, or more to the point, their language errors. I’d use this collected language – much more convenient than the ephemeral spoken language in class – to help decide what areas I might need to revisit in future lessons and to give students individual feedback that there wasn’t always time for in class.

On reflection, I realise that my aim in setting these writing tasks was not really about teaching writing skills, because it involved very little actual teaching and no work on any specific skills. It was really just a chance for me to capture samples of my students’ language in a form that allowed me time for analysis and reflection. Now that’s a perfectly legitimate aim, but I don’t think it really qualifies as “teaching writing skills”.

It was only when I moved into teaching English for Academic Purposes (EAP) to students preparing to study at university, who need to do lots of writing, that I really came across materials and activities that focused on teaching the skills needed to write effectively.

Some of these activities were specific to academic writing, but many are actually about skills that are applicable much more widely to writing in everyday contexts. We do activities around summarising, conveying key information clearly and concisely. There are tasks aimed at structuring more complex information in a logical way (coherence), using language that flows well to make it easy for your reader to follow (cohesion). We look at how to express evaluation, being appropriately confident or tentative (hedging), how to be persuasive, to argue your case, and to engage your reader.

We analyse texts from different genres by expert writers to see what lessons we can learn about their style and approach. I also spend time in class addressing editing and proofreading skills, because in real life, we don’t just hand in a piece of writing to be marked and graded, we use tools and techniques to check and redraft until we’re happy with the final result.

In my webinar, we’ll look at some of these practical techniques and activities that you can use to help your students become more effective writers – whatever their writing aims.

Register now to take part.


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Style and Substance: Teaching EAP at Advanced Level

Lecturer assisting students during classJulie Moore, co-author of the recently launched Oxford EAP Advanced / C1 level, looks at how to prepare students for the challenges of postgraduate study.

A proportion of students arrive on an EAP course with an already very high level of general English, especially those planning to study at postgraduate level. In the class I taught this summer at Bristol University, for example, all the students arrived with a score of 7.0 at IELTS. Yes, they were good, and some of them were clearly very smart cookies, but that didn’t mean they were quite ready to cope with demanding postgraduate courses in law or economics which require a really high level of language skill.

Academic style

One of the most obvious areas in which many of these students fall down is the style of their writing. They may be able to write about simple, everyday topics relatively clearly and fluently, but their style is often far from academic. Their first attempts at writing are more akin to a high school essay, full of short simple sentences, rather informal language and awkward fixed phrases and formulae learnt in high-school English classes.

The task of making their style more academic involves a two-pronged strategy.  Firstly, they need to look at just what it is that academic writers do that makes them sound academic. By analysing specific features in reading texts, they start to get a feel for what academic style is all about. You might, for example, take a short section of a text which you’ve already worked with and get students to first underline all the verbs, then identify and classify the subject of each verb. Chances are they’ll find lots of impersonal, non-human subjects, often expressed as noun phrases – recent research findings show…, more flexible working practices allow… – or where people are subjects, they’re more likely to be presented as a general group, expressed through a plural noun: consumers, critics of this approach, the majority of hospital outpatients, etc.

The next step is to work on transferring these features to students’ own writing. This will involve some nitty-gritty language work on, say, constructing noun phrases, a key feature of academic English that recurs through several units of Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 in the form of academic language boxes followed by practice activities. This process of raising awareness followed by practice helps students to develop the skills to move from:

As new media develop so fast, we are bombarded by a huge amount of information and we don’t even have time to filter them.” (example from a student essay)

To:

With the rapid development of new media, the public are bombarded by a huge amount of information, from news media, TV, social networking and online advertising, which is becoming increasingly difficult to filter.” (edited version rewritten in class)

Content

But style is nothing without substance. At this level, students really need to be challenged cognitively as well as linguistically. In an academic context, what you say is as important as how you say it. So it’s vital to give students real content to work with, not just in receptive tasks, but in productive activities as well. You can’t expect a student to produce an intelligent, well-argued piece of writing if they’re simply coming up with ideas off the top of their head.

Academic writing is not about personal opinions and experiences, it’s about drawing on academic arguments backed up by evidence from sources, and that means writing and speaking tasks based on meaty academic input. For this reason, the writing and speaking modules in Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 all build on authentic input sources on a wide range of topics, from drugs in sport to teamwork in academic research.Students work with these in a structured way towards an output task (an essay, a summary, a discussion or a presentation), incorporating evidence from these sources to support their points at every stage, just as they will be expected to do in their postgraduate studies.

And of course, the added bonus of challenging students intellectually is that it should not only prepare them for their future studies, but also make it more likely that the language they encounter will stick. The deeper mental processing required by these higher-level thinking skills has been shown to aid language acquisition, which makes really stretching these students at the top end a win-win situation.

To find out more about Oxford EAP C1/Advanced, watch Julie Moore’s video interview.


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Academic writing: The magnificent seven

AA044039Ken Paterson is a freelance ELT writer and consultant, and co-author of the Oxford Grammar for EAP. In this post he looks at the grammatical features that characterize academic writing.

At this year’s IATEFL conference in Liverpool, a Polish lecturer asked me how I would have responded to the question an MA TESOL student had recently put to her: what grammatical features were most characteristic of general academic writing? With a coffee in one hand and two minutes to get to the next talk, the best response I could come up with was the rather underhand counter question: is there really such a thing as ‘general academic writing’? On reflection, however, and after a trawl through a broad variety of text-types, I think there are a number of features that recur often enough to be ‘characteristic’. So, if she’s still listening, here – in no particular order – is an attempt at a list.

1. Complex noun phrases

e.g. … a task-driven approach to software design …

Where there is a need to convey information economically, nouns are often pre-modified by adverbs, adjectives and other nouns, and post-modified by phrases and clauses. Typical language includes

  • compound adjectives such as small-scale or free-market, and adverb + adjective combinations like highly sensitive or rapidly growing
  • noun pairs like government measures, market crash or health policy
  • nouns + prepositional phrases such as research into social work practice or an analysis of the relevant data

2. Hedging devices

e.g. Internet Protocol Television is arguably the most interesting new media development.

Hedging devices reduce the strength of statements that, unless we are dealing with indisputable facts, are always open to doubt. Typical grammar includes the use of

  • hedging verbs such as appear, seem, and tend, and adverbs like apparently, approximately and relatively
  • the language of probability rather than certainty: may, might; be likely to; probably
  • hedging expressions like The evidence suggests that …, as a rule; and to some extent

3. Depersonalizing structures

e.g. There needs to be a proper exploration of the causes of the riots.

Depersonalizing structures tend to reassure the reader that the views expressed are the result of analysis rather than prejudice. Typical structures include the use of

  • the preparatory subject It … as in It may be preferable for the newspaper industry to regulate itself.
  • There to suggest that something exists rather than claim it as a personal opinion: There seems to have been a disagreement over the exact date of the discovery.
  • essay, report, evidence etc. as the subject of the sentence: This report focuses on …

4. Passives

e.g. Twelve new species of Peruvian insect were identified by Swiss naturalists in 2011.

With its desire to foreground events, results and processes rather than human agents, it’s not surprising that the passive is fairly common in academic writing. Typical grammar includes

  • passive forms of the modal verbs can, could, must and shouldExporting to a new market could be described as one of the key challenges facing an expanding business.
  • reporting verbs in the structures It + passive verb + that …  e.g. It is estimated that …
  • passive verbs + prepositions such as be associated with, be based on, be composed of etc.:  From its discovery in 1930 until 2006, Pluto was classified as a planet.

5. Particular types of linking language

e.g. Swans, in contrast, appear to mate for life.

The requirement in academic expression for a logical flow means that certain linking devices are more common than in other styles of writing. Typical language for

  • expressing results includes as a result, consequently, therefore, thus
  • expressing contrast includes in contrast, however, on the contrary, on the other hand
  • expressing additional information includes in addition, furthermore, similarly
  • structuring a text includes firstly, subsequently, finally, in brief, in conclusion

6. The frequency of signalling language

e.g. Anders and Silver do not share the same views on the technical aspects of stem cell research. Armstrong (2012) explains why this disagreement matters …

The complexity of an academic text may mean that the reader needs more guidance than would be necessary in other types of prose. Typical language to refer backwards and forwards to specific parts of the text includes

  • this, these, that and those on their own or with nouns that summarize a recent idea, e.g. this phenomenon, these objectives, that argument
  • such, the same; one, both, some etc., e.g. if such a theory (i.e. the one recently mentioned) holds true, then …
  • the former/latter; respectively; above/below etc., e.g. in the preceding section of this report, we attempted to show …
  • modal will/shall to tell readers what they may expect to find further on in the text: In the second part of this report we will argue that new legislation is required to …

7. Particular uses of verb tenses/aspects

e.g. Both studies conclude that a sudden drop in temperature delays the bonding process.

Certain verb tenses/aspects carry specific meaning in academic English. The most typical are:

  • present simple to report research results (as above) and the arguments of other academics (As Steele explains, …) and to summarize articles, chapters etc. (This report considers the effects of … )
  • past simple to describe the procedure in particular experiments/studies as in Bernard (2007) interviewed 146 soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • present perfect to summarize arguments made up to a particular point in a text: The first part of this report has outlined how one-way road systems can be beneficial … and to place emphasis on the strength of current arguments: Keirston (2010) has shown that the onset of Type 2 diabetes can be delayed by …

Other grammatical features such as the frequency of the relative pronoun ‘which’ and the use of the ‘it cleft’ could be mentioned but in the interests of drawing the line somewhere, I’m stopping at seven! As usual, your comments are welcome.

For more information on ‘hedging’ and its use in academic writing, join my webinar ‘Language for hedging in academic English’ on 15 October.