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Vocabulary in your students’ writing: the Bottom Line

WritingCheryl Boyd Zimmerman is the series director of Inside Writing and vocabulary consultant for Q: Skills for Success. In this article, she takes a look at vocabulary development in the classroom.

Isn’t it obvious?  In order to write well, we need to know a lot of words, and we need to know a lot about each word so we can use it to say what we mean.  In fact, without the knowledge of many words, our writing is stymied – or should I say crimped? impeded?  blocked? snookered? A word choice transmits not only meaning, but tone and subtleties of meaning such as familiarity or distance, precision or vagueness, certainty or ambiguity, earnestness or light-heartedness and more.  For academic writing, this becomes especially challenging. In order to communicate as I intend, I need to know the ways in which words vary and then I need a wide variety of words from which to make my choices.

Why isn’t vocabulary development included in every writing class?  Perhaps we underestimate the difficulty of this task and prefer to spend precious classroom time on other issues.  Or perhaps we don’t know how to integrate word learning into writing in a way that is relevant to the writing task.  But by not spending time developing our students’ vocabulary, we are hindering their writing development and academic success.

This article suggests some techniques that address vocabulary development at each stage of the writing process: pre-writing, drafting, revision and editing, and gives you the bottom line when it comes to explaining the role of vocabulary to your students.

Pre-writing

This is the stage in which we gather ideas, develop thoughts and analyze the writing task.  First, what type of writing (genre) is to be used:  newspaper article? persuasive essay? summary? blog?  This helps sort through the topic, choose how to focus attention and be clear about purpose and audience.  Next, focus on finding a topic and exploring it with a purpose in mind. Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. To help students with both genre identification and topic development, use high-interest readings to provide clear models and to spawn ideas.

A focus on vocabulary can illuminate the topic and guide the planning.  Pre-writing activities with a lexical focus might include:

  • Brainstorming:
    • Students read the writing prompt or a short passage about the topic, and identify 1-2 words that stand out as central to the topic. For each one, students generate as many related words in 5-10 minutes without censoring themselves.
    • Pairs or small groups compare lists, and explain their choices, keeping the topic and genre in mind. Encourage students to share words and add to their lists.
  • Freewriting:
    • Students write non-stop for 5-10 minutes about whatever comes to mind that might relate to the topic, again without censoring themselves. Next, students reread what they wrote and circle words that seem important to what they want to say. Include words that describe facts, important names, opinions and feelings.  Include synonyms that are related words in different registers.
    • Using these selected words, describe your plans to a partner.
  • Paragraph Analyses:
    • Select a paragraph that is written in the same genre or on the same topic as the assignment. Provide copies or project on a screen.  Read  together as a class, drawing attention to vocabulary with questions such as:
      • Which academic words are used here?
      • Which everyday words are used here?
      • Focus on one well-used word at a time; what is behind the author’s choice of each word? Select another paragraph and repeat this activity. Pairs work together to answer the same questions as above.  Compare answers.

        Bottom Line for Your Students
        Different types of writing use different types of words.  Even very academic papers don’t use a large number of academic words, but they use them effectively.   Academic texts contain an average of 10% academic words (Coxhead, 2006).

Drafting Stage

In this stage, vocabulary activities can evolve from a focus on meaning to a refinement of meaning, always related to whom you are writing for and why you are writing.

  • As your students begin their first draft, refer to the words they identified during prewriting. Organize the way these words relate to each other as they develop their first draft.
  • Return to the source text for the assignment or other relevant articles on the same topic. Identify words that stand out to your students as interesting and important to the message.  Use these words in the writing.

    Bottom Line for Your Students
    Word learning doesn’t just mean to learn new words, but also to learn to have confidence to use words that you recognize but don’t use often.  Writing gives you a chance to use partially-known words and to build your knowledge of these words.

Revision Stage
The revision stage is a time to check that your students’ writing responded to the prompt, and that it focused on the purpose and audience as intended.  Examples of doing this with a focus on vocabulary include:

  • Ask your students to re-read the prompt and then re-read their papers. Do they address the prompt? Are there any words in the prompt that can be added to their papers for the purpose of congruity?
  • Read through the papers and look for vague words (good; nice; very). With purpose and topic in mind, change them to be more specific and clear.

    Bottom Line for Your Students
    A study of 178 university professors found that the greatest problem with the writing of non-native speakers in their classes was vocabulary.  They said vocabulary (more than grammar) kept them from understanding the meaning.  (Santos, 1988)  Your word choices are very important.

Editing Stage

The editing stage can be used as a guided opportunity to check for details of word-use including subtleties of meaning, lexical variety, grammatical features, derivatives and collocations. With this stage, students work with a final or near-final draft.  Guide students to read through all or part of the paper, focusing on one task at a time.

  • Lexical variety: Did they over-use any words?  Did they repeat the same word in the same sentence?
  • Noun use: Check their accuracy: Are they plural? singular? countable?  uncountable?
  • Verb use: Do they “agree” with the nouns in plurality? Check for verb completion.  Do the verbs need to be followed by an object?  Do they need a “that clause?”
  • Academic word use: Underline each academic word used.  Has the student used them correctly?  (when in doubt, check a dictionary)  Do they have enough? Too many?

    Bottom Line for Your Students
    You may have been taught to focus on grammar when you edit your paper, but grammar and vocabulary often overlap. Take time to focus on individual words; do they say what you mean and say it accurately?

Please leave your ideas in the comments below.Writing instruction and word learning belong together.  These are some examples of ways to engage vocabulary development in writing. As you reflect on your writing classroom, what else can you add about vocabulary and writing?

References

Coxhead, A. (2006).  Essentials of teaching academic vocabulary.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Santos, T. (1988). Professors’ reactions to the academic writing of nonnative-speaking students. TESOL Quarterly 22(1), 69-90.


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Academic Language and School Success

Student raising hand in classCheryl Boyd Zimmerman is the series director of Inside Reading, Second Edition and Inside Writing. In this article, she describes the characteristics of academic language that pose challenges for English learners and proposes several essentials to include in the classroom. 

Academic language has been referred to as a “power code” in academic and professional circles; those unable to use it are at a social and academic disadvantage (Corson, 1985). As teachers, many of us are so fluent in academic and colloquial varieties of English that we flip back and forth with little thought. We adapt to the language of a formal lecture or a job interview, for example, and don’t think about the adjustments we make when using language in other settings. To help learners master academic varieties of English, we need to first raise our own awareness of the differences. What is academic language? Which characteristics are especially different from less formal varieties? Then we can consider: How can we help learners acquire academic language?

What is academic language?

The language of school is different from the “language of home” because its purposes are different. School introduces new ways to interact with people, different types of written text and new ways to relate with the world. Therefore, for learners of all ages, a school textbook or lecture will include features such as abstraction, authoritativeness, rich and complex meanings and technicality (Schleppengrell, 2010). To facilitate these functions, academic English contains features such as embedded sentences, passive voice, technical vocabulary (the words used in one discipline such as science or math) and more general academic vocabulary (words that are frequent in all content areas, but less frequent in everyday language).

Both technical and academic vocabulary are rare in non-academic settings; therefore, learners don’t have enough exposure to “pick them up” unless they have a lot of encounters with people who use them. Technical words are challenging in part because they often have everyday meanings that are different from the meaning in the content area (mean and constant in math). Academic words are challenging because by nature they feature multiple meanings (primary election vs. primary purpose), subtlety of meaning (consider the subtle differences between survive and live), and one word with several parts of speech (system, systematically, systematize and systematic).

How can we help learners acquire academic language?

Academic language is not likely to be easily “picked up” in the same way that colloquial language is because of its technical nature and its infrequency. The essentials for learning it include adequate exposure, personal involvement along with authentic practice, direct vocabulary instruction, and an environment in which situated academic language is used and learners see its place in their futures.

Essentials for Academic Language Learning

Examples of Classroom Strategies

Adequate exposure
  • Write one academic word on the board each day (include its word family members). Use it often throughout the class in instructions, comments, questions, etc.
  • Don’t over-simplify vocabulary; use repetition and synonyms instead of omitting difficult words
Learner involvement and authentic practice
  • In class discussions, revisit course material by focusing on short segments of interesting content with activities such as word-contrast discussions (“Which informal word could you use in place of terminate here?”) and paraphrasing (“Can you re-state that sentence using termination instead of terminate?”)
Direct vocabulary instruction
  • Scaffolded instruction needs to draw attention to language forms
  • Technology (e.g., See an online lexical tutor for resources including glossed readings with hypertext, tools to create content rich exercises, frequency lists and much more)
A motivating situated learning environment
  • Research indicates that learners are motivated when shown that the material is relevant to their future (Hirai, Borrego, Garza, & Kloock, 2010)

Keep in mind that learners are not always as enthused about words as teachers might be; we need to communicate that academic language is an asset worth an investment.

References

Cobb, T. (n.d.) Complete lexical tutor. http://www.lextutor.ca
Corson, D. (1985). The lexical barOxford: Pergamon Press.
Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list.  TESOL Quarterly, 34, 213-238.
Hirai, D.L., Borrego, I., Garza, E., & Kloock, C.T. (2010). Academic language/literacy strategies for adolescents: A “how-to” manual for educators. New York: Routledge.
Schleppegrell, Mary J. (2010). Language and mathematics teaching and learning. Language and Mathematics Education: Multiple Perspectives and Directions for Research, pp. 73-112. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing


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Making the most of e-books for academic skills

Woman with e-book readerSean Dowling, an Educational Technology Coordinator, talks about his experience of introducing tablets into the classroom. Sean will be hosting a webinar on the topic of making the most of e-books for academic skills on 14th and 19th November.

Over the last five years, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) in the United Arab Emirates have systematically introduced laptops into the teaching and learning environment. Now, all students are expected to have a laptop in class. In addition, last year, the use of iPads was introduced in the university preparatory programme. With all students having some form of computing device, it made sense to change from using paper-based books to e-books. So after trialing e-books last semester, this semester saw a full implementation of e-books across the system. All 19,000 students are using only e-books. In total, almost 150,000 e-books have been bought this semester.

I believe that this has been the biggest rollout of e-books anywhere in the world. As an educational technology coordinator at HCT, I have been responsible for making this e-book initiative go as smoothly as possible. With the e-books being delivered over eight different vendor platforms, and with so many titles involved, this has been quite a struggle at times.

So why put up with the struggle? What are the real benefits of using e-books?

Moving to a paperless learning environment is certainly one. And seeing my eleven-year-old daughter heaving an overloaded bag to school every day, it would definitely make sense to have all textbooks in digital format stored on lightweight, portable computing devices. After all, most students now need to use some form of computing device for their schoolwork. But, somewhat surprisingly, we have had a large number of students complain about their e-books. Surely this tech-savvy generation of students would prefer e-books; but, no, they want it on paper! I think the reason for this lies behind the quality of current e-books. They are difficult to read and even harder to annotate, particularly on less mobile computing devices.

However, there are some e-book platforms that are very exciting and interactive. Without doubt, the Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf is one of these and is at the cutting edge of e-book technology; feedback from both instructors and students has been very positive. This video shows some of the great features:

Having been using and evaluating e-books for almost a year now, Oxford University Press have asked me to run two webinars on making the most of e-books for academic skills. In the webinar, I will start with a general discussion on e-books, outlining the reasons for using them and how they can enhance students’ learning. As part of this lead-in discussion, Puentedura’s (2006) SAMR model [Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition] will be introduced to show how technology in general, and e-books in particular, can be introduced into the teaching and learning environment to enhance students’ learning. Then, based on the SAMR model, you will be shown specific examples of how to use academic skills coursebooks from the Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf with your students, including Q: Skills for Success, Effective Academic Writing and Inside Reading.

However, despite these e-books providing students and instructors with an exciting learning experience, there is still room to do more, especially at the modification and redefinition stages of the SAMR model. In the final part of the webinar, I will make suggestions of how to not only improve the actual learning activities in the e-books, but also look at ways in which the content can be used as a springboard into more constructivist, collaborative activities.

Please join me for the webinars on either 14th or 19th November.

References

Puentedura, R. (2006). Transformatiom, Technology, and Education. Presentation given August 18, 2006 as part of the Strengthening Your District Through Technology workshops, Maine, US.
Puentedura, R. (2011): Thinking About Change in Learning and Technology. Presentation given September 25, 2012 at the 1st Global Mobile Learning Conference, Al Ain, UAE.