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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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Look who’s talking! Getting very young learners to speak in English

Children in playgroundGabby Pritchard, co-author of the forthcoming Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips for encouraging your Kindergarten children to communicate in English.

From the moment toddlers begin to discover the exciting world around them, they begin to acquire the language they need to express their curiosity and be understood by others. They very quickly learn to use simple questions to find answers. What? Where? When? How? and Why? become favorite words as they explore how their world works.

So, how can we create a classroom environment that encourages young children to continue their exploration of the world through a new language? Here are some ideas.

1. Begin with questions

Use posters, photographs, toys and real objects to stimulate children’s curiosity about a new topic. Let them feel the objects. Ask plenty of questions: What can you see? What’s this? What color is the…? How many…? Where is…?

Use the same questions every time you introduce a new topic so the children become familiar with them. As they gain confidence, encourage the children to ask some questions of their own too.

2. Cooperative learning

Organize children into small groups to carry out simple investigations and experiments, play language games, act out stories and complete craft activities.

By working cooperatively, your children will find they need to talk about how to complete tasks, assign roles and solve problems. They will also develop their social skills, such as learning to share and turn taking.

Always encourage children to use polite language when working alongside each other. Phrases such as: Let’s play with the… Please pass the… and You’re welcome are very useful phrases. They will help children develop respect for others and form positive relationships. Try teacher trainer Freia Layfield’s idea for a role-play activity that teaches children valuable life skills while getting them to talk in English.

3. Get more from stories

Young children love to immerse themselves in the world of make-believe. Using stories in class provides a great basis for getting children to talk about motivation, consequences and feelings.

Read aloud, or play audio recordings of, short, simple stories. Then ask questions to get the children to think carefully about the characters and events. The questions should encourage a deeper understanding of how and why things have happened.

You can begin by asking simple questions, for example, Is the giant happy? Are the bears angry? Then move on to more probing questions: Why is Jack scared? Why are the bears angry?

When the children have explored a story, encourage them to work in groups to act out the story using props. You may be surprised by how much more enthusiastic the children are, and how much more they put into their acted versions of the stories, once they have explored the meaning thoroughly.

4. Show and Tell

A great way of rounding up a topic and reinforcing what children have learned is to set up group or class projects. These can include:

  • topic-related craft activities
  • hands-on tasks such as growing plants or preparing snacks
  • recording activities such as making graphs of class preferences or talents
  • bringing to class a favorite toy or book to talk about.

Start ‘Show and Tell’ sessions by talking with the children about what they are going to produce, getting them to contribute ideas about how they will do this and the sorts of equipment they will need to complete the project. Get the children to work together to produce different parts of projects where possible. If they need to work individually on a project, prepare sets of materials for groups to share, to encourage them to observe others and discuss ways of working in order to produce the best results.

Finally, have the children present their work to the class, to other classes, or even to their parents. This will help build confidence in their ability to express themselves and give them a real sense of achievement.

For a simple way to introduce the idea of Show and Tell to your kindergarten class, visit the page on ‘Teaching 21st century skills with confidence’ for another video tip from Freia Layfield. It comes with a free worksheet that you can download from the Oxford Teachers’ Club (it’s quick and free to register).

We’d like to hear from you

Please do share your experiences of getting children talking in class – we would love to hear about them. You can use the comments box below this blog.

Would you like more practical tips on developing communication and other 21st century skills with your Kindergarten children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.


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Giving the learners a ‘pragmatic shock’ in the pronunciation classroom: a voice-based activity

Arizio Sweeting has taught and trained in Brazil, Macau, New Zealand and now Australia, where he works for the Institute of Continuing & TESOL Education at the University of Queensland (ICTE-UQ). Here he describes an activity that focuses on the use of students’ voices for delivering messages to others.

“Listen to me. Listen to me! I have a voice!” says Colin Firth as King George VI in the King’s Speech (2010). Like Firth’s character, language learners also have a voice and their voice is much more than sounds; it is also the representation of their personality. As Berry (2003) emphasises the ‘voice is …the outward expression of [the] inner self, a sort of channel from inside to outside, and is therefore a very particular expression of [one’s’] personality” (p. 6). Thus, it is time for the pronunciation classroom to start providing learners with more than traditional focus on phonemic symbols, charts, lists of minimal pairs and articulation diagrams, but with voice and pragmatic awareness practice such as in the activity I wish to suggest below.

It is called Say It Like You Mean It and it follows Copeman’s (2012) premise of ‘fake it till you make it’ (p. 22). In this activity, learners rehearse and focus on the use of their voice for delivering ‘difficult’ messages to others, such as telling someone that they have bad breath or that the colour of their shirt is ugly. An important consideration, however, is that the aim of this activity is not to encourage learner insensitivity, but to familiarise the learners with their ‘voice image’ i.e. the way their voice is perceived by others (Berry: 2003: 22). In general, the main objective of the activity is for learners to receive a ‘pragmatic shock’ which can trigger off self-awareness of ‘voice image’ and pragmatics.

In class, give the learners a message card each and get them to practise saying the message in their own minds without showing them to others. The learners then mingle and fire these messages to each other in conversations on a given topic e.g. their plans for the weekend.

Once this is done, conduct a class discussion on the learners’ reactions and try to covers the following points:

  • their thoughts and feelings about the experience
  • how their voice sounded when they delivered the messages
  • the words they used
  • the various reactions to the messages

After that, do some work on vocabulary and register by writing an example of a message up on the board e.g. You are a liar and get the learners to suggest improvements for it e.g. I hope you don’t mind me saying that, but I don’t think you’re telling me the truth. Focus the learners on pronunciation here too.

Now, get the learners with the same messages to work in groups and improve register. Give the learners time for rehearsal by getting them to practise in different corners of the classroom. Play some background music for relaxation.

Finally, the learners find new partners to make conversations and re-deliver the messages. Then, do a wrap-up discussion with the class on the second delivery and check if the learners have noticed any changes in communication.

As Thornbury (1993:127) points out by quoting Wilkins, ‘too many teachers have been trained to believe that pronunciation involves little more than a list of sounds… The practice of sounds in isolation is of limited value’ (Wilkins, 1972,1978: 59). Therefore, I hope this article can contribute with an example of a possible change of practice for the pronunciation classroom.

References:

Copeman, P. 2012. ‘Performing English: Adapting actor voice training techniques for TESOL to improve pronunciation intelligibility’. English Australia Journal 27.2.
Berry, C. (2003) Your Voice and How to Use it. The Classic Guide to Speaking with Confidence. Virgin Books Ltd.
Thornbury, S. 1993. ‘Having a good jaw: voice-setting phonology’. ELT Journal 47.2 Oxford University Press.
Wilkins, D. 1972, 1978. Linguistics in Language Teaching. London: Edward Arnold.

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Content and Language Integrated Learning in action

Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English second edition takes a look at CLIL and how it can be used in the classroom.

What is CLIL? It means Content and Language Integrated Learning. (Have you noticed how we seem to love acronyms in language teaching? The list seems never-ending: TBL; PPP; CLT; TTT! Can you identify them?).

The idea is simple. Other subjects in the curriculum are taught and learned in a language, which is not the mother tongue. By weaving together a foreign language and the curriculum content from other subjects we aim to provide a rich learning experience for children.

There are a number of ways in which CLIL has been interpreted but the bedrock of the idea is this: children are not focused on learning language per se. They are focused on the content of the lesson.

I think that this definition from Nixon continues to be valid: “the study of a non-language subject through the medium of a major world or regional foreign language” (Nixon, J., 1988).

CLIL is not a newcomer to the world of language teaching; you can see that from the date on that quote. It’s been around for some time. It is an aspect of language teaching which I think has gained strength and continued to develop since Nixon wrote those words.

What does CLIL mean in practice? Let’s look at a concrete example taken from a coursebook. Remember that this is how we have interpreted CLIL and blended it into our material. There are other variations and possibilities.

The topic area for this CLIL lesson is very relevant in many parts of the world at the present time: uses of water!

In the CLIL lesson on this topic children learn about what we use water for. They look at how much water is used for each activity. They learn how to measure a quantity of water. They learn how to make a water meter. In terms of the syllabus these are more related to science than to language.

But out of this would spring language. For example, “Having a shower”. Then how we measure quantities of water in litres: “6 litres”, “30 litres” etc. On top of that how much water we need for each activity: “You need 4 litres of water”.

As you can see, the language that children are using naturally springs out of the topic area. Talking about uses of water demands certain vocabulary and structures. There is a real communicative purpose. This is in contrast to choosing which vocabulary and structures children should learn and finding a topic that comes out of it. In other words they will be using language communicatively and therefore learning it.

This can sometimes lead to a challenge for teachers (it was certainly a challenge for me when I was first introduced to CLIL). How should the language syllabus be ordered? For example, when do you think the present simple passive (it is + past participle) should be introduced to children?

A more traditional syllabus would look at the complexity of the structure and would introduce it later rather than sooner. But that syllabus is ordered on the complexity of the structure rather than on the complexity of its meaning/use. “It’s made of plastic”, to describe a toy is not conceptually complex. Linguistically it’s a nightmare (if you look at its component parts). Or do you disagree? At what age do you think children can cope with this piece of language? At what age group do you think we first introduced this language in our coursebooks?

CLIL is an attempt to combine content and language to make an engaging and useful lesson. In a CLIL lesson children are ticking CLIL-appropriate areas: content; cognition; communication and community. Children are engaging in learning about something, learning to do something, learning to express it and how it relates to a community.

Do you think taking a CLIL approach to language learning is more beneficial than selecting the language and building an exercise around it?

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Translation in language teaching and learning

Guy Cook, author of the award-winning applied linguistics book Translation in Language Teaching, presents his arguments for re-establishing translation as an essential part of modern language teaching and learning. Guy will be hosting a Global Webinar on this topic on 26th and 31st October 2011. You can find out more information and register to attend here.

Using translation is surely a natural and obvious means of teaching someone a new language. It has lots of good effects. It can be used to aid learning, practise what has been learned, diagnose problems, and test proficiency.  In any case, teachers can’t stop students translating – it is such a fundamental basis for language learning.

Translation is also useful skill in itself. And not just for professional translators and interpreters. In multilingual societies and a globalised world, translation is all around us as an authentic act of communication: from families, schools, hospitals, courts, and clinics, to business meetings and the United Nations. We find it in notices, labels, menus, subtitles, news interviews and many other places.

In addition, it allows learners to relate new knowledge to existing knowledge (as recommended by many learning theories), promotes  noticing and language awareness, and highlights the differences and similarities between the new and existing language. Many people also find the tackling of translation problems intellectually stimulating and aesthetically satisfying. In addition, it helps create and maintain good relations between teacher and student, facilitates classroom management and control, and allows students to maintain their own sense of first language identity, while also building a new bilingual identity. It does not seem to impede efficient language use – many students who began their studies through translation go on to become fluent and accurate users of the new language.

So what is wrong with it? Given all these apparent advantages, it seems most peculiar that the mainstream literature on language pedagogy and second language acquisition, has routinely dismissed translation as a desirable component of language teaching and learning for over a hundred years – without research, reasoning or evidence. Is there perhaps some other reasons that translation has been villainised in this way?

In my webinar next week, I shall be asking what happened to translation, and why. I shall be making a case for reinstating translation as a major component of language teaching and learning. Whether you agree or disagree, I hope you will join us, tell us of your own experiences, and put forward your own views.

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