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Birthday Activities For English Language Learning

Birthday Activities

Did you know the Queen of England has two birthdays? Her actual birthday on the 21st of April, but she also has an official birthday in June.

Party planners prepare! We’ve created some fun activities to mark the occasion, that you can use year-round for celebration-related vocabulary and grammar! From vocabulary matching to party planning, we’ve got birthday activities for all ages. Get your students in the party mood! Continue reading


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What is a core vocabulary?

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

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

The Oxford 3000TM: then and now

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

Frequency vs. relevance

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

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

A core vocabulary as a starting point

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

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


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

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




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Teaching Grammar: Classroom Choices Q&A with Charlotte Rance

It was such a pleasure to meet so many teachers from all over the world in my recent webinar ‘Teaching Grammar: Classroom choices’. If you missed the webinar, you can watch the recording here in our webinar library.  

The webinar gave us the opportunity to look at some of the choices we make as teachers when planning and delivering our grammar lessons, and it was very interesting to hear your experiences and ideas.

Of course, along with sharing your experiences and ideas, there were also plenty of interesting questions, many of which
we didn’t have the time to answer. This blog post is here to try and answer some of those.

Is it OK to use L1 to teach grammar?

Firstly, I think it is important to remember that for many teachers this is not an option. Perhaps you don’t speak your students’ first language, or you teach in a multilingual classroom where there isn’t a common first language. Maybe you work in a school where there is an ‘English only’ policy, and you are not allowed to use L1. In these situations, the teacher has no choice but to use English to give instructions, explain language and check new concepts, and this is done successfully, even if it sometimes might take longer than expected.

But for those of you that do have the option to use L1, is it OK to do so? In my opinion, even if you are teaching in a monolingual classroom where you do share a common language with your students, it is best to use English as much as possible. You are the students model for English, and exposing them to as much English as you can will only benefit them. However, this does not mean that using L1 can’t be beneficial for the students.

If I am teaching in a monolingual classroom I do not ban my students from using L1. In fact, it can be a useful teaching tool for checking meaning and understanding, and quickly overcoming confusion. For example, in a monolingual classroom I often encourage my students to discuss pair work activities in their L1. This allows me to monitor and check their understanding of the language point easily. Another way in which L1 can be useful for grammar teaching is through quick translations. Let’s say that we have been teaching ‘used to’. Asking students to quickly translate a sentence can be a very efficient way to check that they have understood my explanations.

When is the best moment to correct new grammar and how can we help students to correct their own grammar mistakes?

When deciding when and how to correct your students’ mistakes it is important to think about the purpose of the activity that the students are completing: are you expecting accuracy or fluency? If the focus is on accuracy, then it is important to address any mistakes at the time, while mistakes that are made during fluency-based activities can be noted down and corrected later, perhaps in the last five minutes of the lesson, or the next time you see the students.

When it comes to self-correction, remember that in order to correct themselves students need to know the correct answer. Self-correction requires a deep awareness of the language point, so before you try to encourage it you need to be sure that they will be able to do so. The best way to encourage self-correction is to highlight that an error has been made, and give your students time to think about it.

Firstly, we need the student to notice the mistake. This can be done in a number of ways, for example gestures, facial expression, or a question such as “I’m sorry?” or “What was that?” If the student is confident with the grammar point, then they may well be able to self-correct immediately. However, most students will need a little more support to self-correct. This can be done by reminding them of the rules, by saying something like: “remember, regular verbs need an ‘–ed’ ending in the past tense”, or “which tense do we use when we are talking about something that happened yesterday?” By prompting our students in this way, we are helping them to remember what they have learned, and giving them the time to think about the answer.

What can we do if our students don’t see a point in learning grammar?

While there are many students who are motivated and interested by learning grammar rules, there are just as many who find spending time on language structures boring and would rather ‘just talk’. Whichever side of this your students fall on, I find that it is better to put the focus on the function of the language that you are teaching.

Thinking about the function of a language structure gives the students a valid reason to learn it. For example, if we tell our students that we are going to learn how to talk about our life experiences, they are likely to be more interested than if we say: “Today we are going to learn the present perfect”. Using too much technical language in the classroom can be scary and boring for our students, but the idea of getting a new ability in English, especially if it is relevant to their needs, should help them to understand the point of learning grammar.

Could you recommend any books for teaching grammar?

If you are looking for a great teacher reference book, then you can’t go wrong with Michael Swan’s ‘Practical English Usage’ (OUP). This was on my CELTA recommended reading list, and since then it has saved me on many occasions! The latest edition is also available online, which I am sure will help with any sticky situation in the classroom.

When it comes to teaching materials, for school-aged learners I really like Grammar for Schools (OUP) because it provides lots of communicative grammar practice. For older students I like ‘Language Practice’ by Michael Vince because I find it works well in the classroom and as a self-study guide.


Author

Charlotte Rance is a freelance teacher trainer and educational consultant based in Brighton, UK. She has been working in the English Language Teaching industry for over a decade, and her key areas of interest are young learners and the use of stories and reading as a tool for language learning. Her main goal as a trainer is to provide practical advice and strategies that teachers can implement in their lessons.


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(Reads, reading, has read): 5 smart tips for teaching grammar through extensive reading

extensive reading teenagersNigel A. Caplan, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute in the United States and the co-author of Q: Skills for Success and Inside Writing. In this post he provides some useful tips for teaching grammar skills through your reading program.

We often encourage language learners to read for pleasure, read for comprehension, and read for vocabulary. But reading is also an excellent way to learn and practice grammar. It is important for teachers and learners to recognise that grammar is not a separate skill divided into discrete chunks (or textbook chapters!), but rather the resources which make meaning in a language. In other words, grammar is everywhere, and everything a learner does with the language is an opportunity to improve their grammar.

Here are some activities you can suggest to your students to help them discover the grammar of their reading beyond the classroom walls.

1. Read for meaning first and grammar next

We have limited attentional resources as we read, so it is natural to read first and foremost for meaning. However, language learners benefit from multiple readings of the same text. So, once they have understood the text and checked the meaning of any important new vocabulary, encourage your students to read all or part of the same text again and pay attention to the language use.

2. Start with verb tenses

One of the most interesting questions readers can ask is which tenses are used in the text. This will tell you a lot about the type of text you are reading. For example, we would expect to find a lot of present tenses in scientific texts because they describe facts and phenomena, but a sudden shift to the past tense might indicate a discussion of the history of an idea or a particular scientist. Meanwhile, historical texts unsurprisingly use mostly past tenses, but they may nonetheless contain present tense verbs to discuss the current significance of past events.

Also encourage your students to look for less frequent verb tenses; if there’s a present perfect progressive verb, why is it used? Could the writer have chosen a different tense?

3. Learn the grammar of new vocabulary

We want learners to notice new and useful vocabulary when they read, but the context of the text is an opportunity to learn more about the word than its meaning. When encountering a word, in particular a word that the student understands but doesn’t yet use, ask questions about its use in the sentence. For a noun, is it countable or uncountable? What verb goes with it? For a verb, is it transitive or intransitive? What prepositions go with it? What kinds of nouns are its subject? This approach will encourage learners to see words in collocations and phrases, which will expand both their receptive and productive vocabularies.

4. Play with the Grammar

Grammar is a system of choices, and for every choice a writer makes, there are others which could be made. These choices are worth exploring.

We can encourage learners to rewrite texts using alternative grammar patterns. For example:

  • If the writer repeats the same nouns a lot, could pronouns be used instead?
  • If there are many short sentences, how could they be combined?
  • If an advanced text uses a lot of reduced clauses, what would the full (finite) clause be?
  • If the text is academic, how could you rewrite it for a different audience, such as magazine readers?
  • If it’s written in a less formal register, what changes would you make for formal, academic writing?

The last example exercise benefits both reading comprehension and writing development. Readers of sophisticated and academic texts, such as those in Q: Skills for Success, may need to “unpack” long noun phrases and reduced relative clauses in order to understand the structure and ideas.

Meanwhile, when writing for academic purposes, students can draw on the techniques they see in their reading, such as nominalisation, demonstrative pronouns (this, those), and reductions.

5. Keep a Grammar (B)Log

In order to develop their grammar, students need to notice the language they are reading and internalize it, not just move on to the next page, show, or app. A great way to develop independent study skills is to have students keep a grammar log, journal, or blog to complement their extensive reading.

In my classes, I ask students to post an entry on the discussion board in our learning management system in which they write about an interesting phrase or sentence that they’ve read. They have to either explain the grammar or ask a question about it (I don’t allow them to focus only on word meanings: there are dictionaries for that!). I then encourage students to answer their peers’ questions before I provide an answer. Students might wonder why a verb has a third-person ending, why an uncountable noun has been unexpectedly used in the plural, what a new clause connector means, or what a pronoun refers to. This works at all proficiency levels! Most importantly, the grammar log helps students develop the habit of looking for new and interesting structures while reading, and the discussions allow for the kinds of negotiations over language that can promote acquisition.

These simple techniques can be used for homework or self-study to turn any reading activity into a grammar lesson! If you try these with your students, let me know in the comments how they worked.

Get a sneak peek at the exciting free resources being made available for Q: Skills for Success from August, including new Skills Videos and a new Extensive Reading program in which every unit has been matched with a free, downloadable chapter from Oxford Graded Readers.


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40 Years of Practical English Usage

The challenges of academic writing in ESLMichael Swan, author of Practical English Usage, joins us on the blog today to review his IATEFL talk this year all about the new, fourth edition of PEU and its new features and organisation. If you were unable to attend this year’s conference, we hope you enjoy this post!

The history

PEU started as a card index with explanations and examples of typical problem points, based on my experience of students’ difficulties. I created this primarily for new teachers at the school where I worked, who often had trouble dealing with their students’ mistakes and questions,  They found (as teachers still do) that systematic grammars are not always the best kind of reference material for clear and adequate explanations of single problems. The ‘one answer to one question’ formula which (up to a point) characterises usage guides is much more user-friendly.

Later I turned the card index, greatly expanded, into a book, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1980. Teachers and advanced students found it helpful, and a second edition followed in due course. This benefited considerably from feedback from users, from advice from British and American grammarians, and from my own continuing research.

By 2005 there had been enough developments in English to justify a third edition. The existence of better and more accessible corpus evidence for usage made possible a number of improvements, and I took the opportunity to add some more general ‘background’ entries on such matters as correctness and language variation.

Why a fourth edition?

English continues to develop and change, and a usage guide needs to keep pace. I had also built up a fair number of revision notes over the intervening ten years, and I was glad of the opportunity to make further clarifications, additions and corrections. (Nobody ever gets everything right the first time, or the second, or the third!) After consultation with users of the previous editions, I also decided it was time to make an important change in the book’s organisation.

Reorganisation

In the first three editions, the 600-odd numbered entries were arranged in alphabetical order of title. This dictionary-like formula works well in a native-speaker usage guide, which deal mostly with word problems. It is less satisfactory in a guide dealing with learners’ problems, since these are largely grammatical. Related topics get separated, so that while ‘countable and uncountable nouns’, for example, are listed under C, other noun problems are found under N. More seriously, only the major topics can be found by an alphabetical search; smaller topics (the majority) come inside entries that don’t begin with ‘their’ letter. (So, for instance, the use of singular and plural verbs with decimals and fractions, or the British-American difference in the meaning of ‘first floor’,  are covered in the entry on ‘numbers’, not under D or F.) This means that in practice people using the book generally locate the information they need by going to the very complete index at the back.

In the fourth edition, the entries are still separate, dealing as far as possible with single problems or small groups of problems.

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However, the entries are now arranged by topic. The grammatical entries have been brought together into 28 main Sections, which together constitute a complete students’ grammar:

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Each Section is introduced by general notes on the topic and a list of typical learners’ problems:

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Word-formation and vocabulary are dealt with separately in three more Sections, including an A–Z list of nearly 380 word problems:

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Now online

Practical English Usage is now also available online, along with the new edition of the accompanying Diagnostic Tests, which help learners and their teachers to see which parts of PEU need to be studied.