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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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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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5 things you need to know about Academic Vocabulary

Learning vocabulary is about so much more than ticking off words on a list as you manage to match a written word form to a surface meaning or translation. For a learner to say they really know a word, especially if they hope to count it amongst their productive vocabulary, then it takes time, repeated encounters, and digging a bit below the surface. This, of course, is true of all language learners, but for those learning English for academic purposes (EAP) the specific aspects of vocabulary knowledge differ somewhat. In this post, I pick out some of the factors that those teaching and learning academic vocabulary might need to bear in mind:

1. Form & families: With any vocabulary learning, recognising the spelling and pronunciation of a word is generally a starting point and from there, the learner needs to become familiar with inflected forms (plurals, verb forms, etc.). In an academic context, being able to switch between different parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) is also vital. When constructing (or decoding) the longer, more tightly-packed sentences typical of the genre, being able to flip between an adjective and noun form, for example, can make the difference between a smooth, coherent sentence and a slightly awkward, ambiguous one. Abstract nouns (significance, reliability, establishment), in particular, are must-knows for the academic writer. Knowing that reliability is the noun form of the more common adjective reliable is really helpful. Better still is recognising that adjectives ending –able can typically be transformed into nouns ending –ability. And being able to add the appropriate negative prefix (unreliability) might help construct that killer sentence.

2. Meaning(s): We all know that there isn’t a simple one-to-one relationship between form and meaning in English. Many words have more than one meaning; take, for example, table as the piece of furniture or the chart with rows and columns. In academic disciplines, these common words often also have specialist meanings. Some of these are clearly related to the word’s basic meanings (e.g. periodic table, Chemistry), others are further removed (e.g. water table, Geology). For the EAP student, recognizing these specialist uses and compounds is an important part of their learning journey.

3. Collocations & chunks: If students are to use words productively, then they need to understand the kind of words they are used together with: collocations, dependent prepositions and fixed phrases. Again, this is true of all vocabulary, but academic writing has its own set of specialist collocates, the correct choice of which might not just ensure a more fluent, natural style, but might affect the message the writer is trying to convey in important ways.  For example, the difference between being responsible to (the directors are responsible to shareholders) and responsible for (the manager is responsible for the safety of staff) could make all the difference in an academic essay.

4. Grammar: I’ve written before about the importance of understanding ‘word grammar’ in EAP. For example, going back to those key abstract nouns, when you need to ensure that the verb in a sentence agrees with the head noun in a long noun phrase, you need to know whether that noun is countable or uncountable. What’s more, words that are typically uncountable in everyday usage (like behaviour) can be used countably in some specialist academic contexts.

5. Register & connotation: Finally, getting a feel for which words are appropriate to use to convey your intended meaning in a particular context takes time, plenty of reading and noticing. It involves understanding formal and informal words (get vs purchase), strength of meaning (unsatisfactory vs appalling), positive and negative connotations (tough vs challenging) and appropriate terms to talk about potentially sensitive topics (e.g. patients with mental health issues).


Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer, lexicographer and corpus researcher. Her specialist area of interest is teaching vocabulary. She’s worked on a number of learner’s dictionaries and specialist vocabulary resources, including the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice titles. Julie is also an EAP teacher and a teacher trainer.


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Feedback on academic writing – Part Three

proofreading for English language students in EAPThis is the final article of a three-part series on giving EAP students effective feedback. Julie Moore, an ELT writer and researcher, shares some proofreading tips to help students to reduce careless errors and spelling mistakes.

How often do you remind your students to check their work carefully before they hand it in, then despair of all the careless errors and spelling mistakes that still pepper their writing, especially in a world with spellcheckers? But is proofreading your own writing really that easy?

The importance of accuracy

Accuracy in academic writing is particularly valued. In an academic context, an argument or a piece of research that contains errors and inaccuracies will not be seen as credible. Similarly, it can be difficult for subject tutors reading a piece of student writing to judge whether inaccuracies from a non-native speaker student are a product of flawed thinking or simply a result of language weaknesses. A long text full of minor language errors puts pressure on the reader, as they have to keep reprocessing sentences to extract the correct meaning. In this case, it’s easy to lose the thread of the argument or for the writer’s message to get lost, thus detracting from the academic content.

Teaching proofreading techniques

There’s no simple solution to eliminating those frustrating surface errors, but you can help students by explicitly teaching a few techniques they can use to proofread their writing.

A first step is to raise students’ awareness of their own specific weak points. It’s easy to assume that students know where they make the most mistakes, but often their attention is elsewhere. With every class I teach, I have a session where I ask them to bring in as many pieces of writing they’ve had feedback on (from me or other teachers) as possible. I then get them to go through and systematically count up and classify their error types (with articles, prepositions, noun-verb agreement, etc.) They pick out their top 3 or 4 error types and we work on ways that they can systematically search for and identify those errors in their writing.

This short activity from Oxford EAP Advanced is really useful for highlighting and discussing practical proofreading techniques:

feedback_academic_part3

 

It amazes me every time how many of them don’t have their computer spell-check set to English!

Dictionary skills

With a background in lexicography, I’m a big fan of teaching dictionary skills and encouraging students to use a dictionary and thesaurus both when they’re writing and when they’re checking their work. In class, I jump at any opportunity to turn to the dictionary to demonstrate to students how they can use it to check not just meaning, but collocations, dependent prepositions, following clause structures, etc. I’m particularly looking forward to using the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English with my classes which focuses specifically on the academic uses of words.

I also try to find time to introduce students to using a thesaurus. Often when they try reading something they’ve written aloud (a useful technique for checking that a text flows), they notice they’ve repeated a particular word or phrase too often. I point students in the direction of the Oxford Learner’s Thesauruswhich explains the similarities and subtle differences between sets of synonyms, helping them to choose an appropriate alternative to avoid those awkward repetitions.

Armed with a few simple tools and techniques, I hope that by the end of their EAP course, my students are better equipped to improve their academic writing style and to tidy up their own final drafts. Many of them are incredibly bright cookies in their own disciplines and I’d hate for them to let themselves down with a few awkward collocations or misplaced prepositions!

This article first appeared in the March 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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Feedback on academic writing – Part Two

Teacher helping adult studentThis is the second article of a three-part series on giving EAP students effective feedback. Julie Moore, an ELT writer and researcher, shares her thoughts on how teachers can encourage students to act on feedback.

In my last article, I wrote about how overwhelming it can be for new student writers to get back a piece of writing covered in feedback. They can often feel like getting their writing up to scratch is going to be such an uphill battle that they just give up and ignore the feedback altogether. I suggested that by giving less feedback and breaking it down into more manageable chunks, students can focus on a specific area at a time and make realistic progress. With my own EAP students last summer, I started off by focusing on the content of their writing, ignoring language errors and giving feedback on whether they’d answered the question, whether they’d provided sufficient support for their arguments, or whether their overall message was clear.

Copy-editing

Once we’d established what they were expected to write, I turned next to the how. Many students new to EAP arrive with what I describe as a high-school style of essay-writing. That is, their language is rather simplistic: it is not sophisticated enough to communicate the more subtle details and perspectives involved especially at higher levels of academic study. The purpose of teaching students to write in a more academic style is not to make them sound more ‘fancy’ or ‘impressive’, but to give them the tools to do justice to their subject knowledge and ideas. Explaining the why of features of academic style is as important as demonstrating the how.

Group feedback

As you read through writing that a class has handed in, you’ll often find that a particular task has thrown up the same issue for a lot of students, in which case, group feedback is the most efficient way to address it. One rule I always try to stick to is to work on the feedback activity before I hand back students’ individual writing. That way you’re more likely to have their attention, they’re not so caught up in their individual feedback and more concerned about some other feature you’ve mentioned on their paper.

One problem for my students centred around the use of impersonal language in academic writing. In early writing tasks, many of them were still using a lot of personal pronouns to refer to people in general (we, you):

If we restrict access to media like internet for young people, it is possible that they will find another way to gain related information.

So I started off with this example from a student essay on the board (anonymously) and asked who the ‘we’ referred to. Of course, the class came back with various different answers – society, the government, parents, ISPs – so identifying the problem for themselves (i.e. vagueness). Next, we looked back at the text we’d read as input for the writing task (from an academic textbook) and picked out the subject of each sentence. We found that these were invariably noun phrases (often plural nouns to refer to specific groups), thus identifying how expert academic writers deal with this situation. Then in small groups, students looked at some more similar examples from their own writing, identified the problem in each case and suggested rewrites.

Responding to feedback

As well as staging group activities to highlight problems and features, I also tried to get students to engage more actively with individual feedback. So I’d focus on two or three key errors in a piece of writing and frame my feedback in the form of a question to be answered. I then asked students to email me their rewrites of just the highlighted sentences. For example, this was an exchange with a business studies student just after we’d been talking about hedging and the appropriate use of confident and tentative language:

Student’s first draft: This paper demonstrates how the main management methods…

My feedback comment: Is demonstrate the best verb here – a little too confident?

Student redraft: This paper attempts to argue that the main management methods…

My feedback: Great! This is really good and sounds just right for a student writer.

By making feedback a collaborative process between student writer and you as editor – rather than a passive one – you can help students to better understand why we use certain linguistic features in academic writing and hopefully, help them to find their own voice as a novice academic writer.

In my next article, I’ll talk about teaching proofreading techniques to help students polish up their final draft.

This article first appeared in the February 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.