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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 upcoming webinar, I’ll 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.

Register for the webinar

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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How digital technology is changing our lives… and our language

DeathtoStock_Medium5Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Collocations Dictionary. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus – a dictionary of synonyms and of the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.

New words that enter the language are a reflection of the way people’s lives are changing. If we look at what is trending, we can see that new technology can bring with it new capabilities. There are wearables – computing devices that you can wear, such as a smartwatch – which are touch-sensitive and may be voice-activated. Superfast broadband and in-app purchase offer new opportunities, but there’s a new distraction in the form of clickbait – that’s a link or headline on the Internet that you just can’t help clicking on. All this can have a profound influence on how people work, enjoy themselves and relate to one another

If we look at new words connected with work we can see several strands, some of them in opposition to each other. Decisions are data-driven. It is important to demonstrate proof of concept. Using agile methodology, getting things right requires an iterative process of refinement and modification. But if that doesn’t work, putting a finger in the air is a less scientific approach, based on guesswork. Or you can put together a mood board with key images and words that best convey the image of the brand.

New technology and new ways of working have an effect on how people feel and how they manage their lives. Always-on devices can make for always-on people who find it harder to draw boundaries between work and home life, public and private. They may worry about their digital footprint, all the information that exists about them on the Internet as a result of their online activities. What kind of information security (or infosec) do companies have in place? Ad blockers screen out unwanted advertisements and are one kind of lifehack – a strategy or technique that you can use to manage your time and daily activities in a more efficient way. At a more profound level, a therapist may teach mindfulness, a concept borrowed from Zen Buddhism, which is a way for body and mind to reconnect.

Technology has transformed some of our leisure activities as well. Game apps and MMOs – massively multiplayer online games – have brought with them a whole vocabulary of their own. Sometimes this means new meanings for old words. Players move from level to level in different virtual worlds. Killing monsters and defeating enemies earn XP (that’s experience points) that help you level up and unlock new features of the game. Fantasy worlds have their own technology: travel by jetpack – a device you can strap on your back that enables you to fly – or do battle with an army of mecha – giant animal robots controlled by people who travel inside them. Hoverboards used to belong to the world of fantasy too, but now you can ride one for real. A real one doesn’t actually hover, of course – it’s a kind of electric skateboard.

Millennials – the generation of people who became adults around the year 2000 – may still be considered digital immigrants. Their children are true digital natives. They have grown up with the Internet and digital technology. They relate to each other in a different way. Online communities are not based around a neighbourhood but around a shared interest or fandom enthusiasm for a particular person, team or TV show, for example. Online friends express themselves digitally, filling their tweets and emails with emoji – small digital images used to express ideas and emotions.

What are the takeaways from all this – that is, the important facts, points or ideas to be remembered? Only that language and communication are endlessly fluid and inventive. Dictionary editors need to be constantly on the alert for new words and phrases and new uses of old words, monitor them carefully and then make a judgement: is this a genuine new expression that is going to catch on and deserves a space in the dictionary? Technology and the Internet have transformed this task, as they have many other jobs, and enabled dictionaries to get closer to the cutting edge of language change than ever before. See here for the full list of words and expressions added to www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com in December 2015.


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Animal Talk: Animal-related adjectives in the English language

The origin and use of animal adjectives in English language

Image courtesy of Kapa65

Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at the origins and use of animal-related adjectives in English.

The names of animals are probably among the first things learnt by a student of a language, yet knowing the names of animals doesn’t always help when it comes to their associated adjectives—in fact, sometimes it can be downright confusing.

Most of the formal adjectives that relate to animals are not derived from the common English names but are taken instead from the Latin name of each animal. So when you are talking about things to do with dogs, you use the adjective canine (from the Latin word canis) and when you are talking about things to do with horses, you use the adjective equine (from the Latin word equus). There is one of these Latin-derived adjectives for just about every animal you can think of, and some of them can be quite obscure even to native speakers. (Not many dictionaries bother to record ‘murine’, which is the Latin-inspired adjective that refers to mice, or ‘vespertilionine’, which refers to bats.)

In a few cases the Latin name of an animal is similar to the common English name, and so it is easy to guess the meaning of adjectives such as elephantine. In most cases, however, there is not an obvious connection between the Latin-derived adjective and the English noun.

Yet the common names of animals also give rise to adjectives: ‘horsey’, ‘doggy’, ‘catty’, ‘fishy’, and ‘ratty’ are perfectly respectable—if somewhat informal—English words. A few of these can be used to refer to the animals themselves, so you can talk about ‘a doggy smell’. On the whole, however, they are more likely to be applied to people or things that exhibit qualities associated with animals.

In fact, it is possible to identify two distinct groups of adjectives that are formed from the common names of animals. Adjectives formed by adding the combining form -like to the name of an animal are usually neutral or even positive in tone (depending on the typical associations of the animal involved). Someone who moves in a stealthy manner might be called ‘catlike’, while a gentle person might be ‘lamb-like’. A more negative example is the use of ‘ostrich-like’ for people who ignore what is going on about them (a term that comes from the ostrich’s proverbial habit of burying its head in the sand).

On the other hand, adjectives formed by adding the suffixes -y or -ish to the names of animals are predominantly negative: someone who is catty tends to say unkind and spiteful things about other people; someone who is sheepish is embarrassed because they have done something wrong; someone who is sluggish moves slowly and lazily; spidery handwriting has long, thin strokes that appear unattractive; someone who is waspish is aggressive and bad-tempered.

So if you come across an adjective that looks as though it is derived from the name of an animal, the first thing to be aware of is that these words usually don’t refer to the animals themselves: people might be sheepish, but sheep are not. It is also worth noting that when these words are used to describe people, the comparison is often not a complimentary one.


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All at Sea: Nautical metaphors in the English language

Oil painting of old naval ships

Image courtesy of Blirk.net

Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at the origins of several nautical metaphors still used in English today.

Learning English might be easier if people would actually say what they mean. Unfortunately English-speakers often express ideas in terms of a metaphor rather than by a literal description. So when we talk about being ‘all at sea’, we do not literally mean that we are out in the ocean, but rather that we are unsure about what to do, as though we were drifting on the water without the reassurance of firm ground beneath our feet.

Metaphors can be difficult enough to decipher even when you are familiar with the objects of comparison. In many cases, however, metaphors refer to things that are rarely, if ever, encountered any more. We still talk about something that is briefly successful as a flash in the pan, even though this refers to an old type of gun in which gunpowder made a flash in a compartment called a ‘pan’ when it was primed before firing. The original point of the comparison is now forgotten, but the idiom survives.

The same is true of many words and expressions that originally referred to sailing. Great Britain is an island nation; in the days before air travel, mastery of the sea was essential to the nation’s defence and trade. In modern times ships play a less important role, and they tend to be powered by engines rather than sails. Yet many expressions derived from sailing remain embedded in the English language. Knowing this may shed light on some apparently obscure terms.

A flagship, for example, was the most important ship in a fleet, which carried the fleet’s admiral and flew his flag. In modern English, however, the word is more likely to be used as a metaphor, so a company’s flagship store is the one that has the most importance and prestige. A mainstay was originally a rope that supported the main mast of a ship, but now is a metaphor referring to any person or thing that provides crucial support, as in tourism is a mainstay of the economy.

The influence of sailing can also be seen in some idiomatic phrases. To sail close to the wind refers to the risky practice of attempting to fill a ship’s sails with wind without losing control of it. This phrase is now used as an idiom: if you tell someone that they are sailing close to the wind you are warning them that they are doing something that is dangerous or possibly illegal. To batten down the hatches literally refers to closing the entrances to the lower part of a ship when a storm is expected, but metaphorically refers to any preparation to withstand a period of difficulty. If a ship has run aground and is unable to return to the water, it is said to be high and dry, an expression we also use to refer to a person who is left in a difficult situation without any assistance.

Some similar phrases have now lost all their original associations with sailing. It may come as a surprise to learn that under way, meaning ‘in progress’, was originally a nautical phrase meaning ‘in motion’. Another example is by and large: to the old sailors, this meant ‘in all conditions’, whether sailing into the wind (sailing by) or with the wind (sailing large), but it is doubtful whether many current English speakers are aware of this when they use the phrase to mean ‘in general’.


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The Sounds of Silence – silent letters in English words

Silence sign

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at the presence of silent letters in English words and the problems they cause for spelling.

Learning to speak another language is hard enough, but students of English have to deal with further issues when they come to the written form of the language, and they soon find that English words do not always look exactly how they sound. In a previous post I looked at the presence of double letters in some words as one of the causes of spelling difficulty. In this post I will look at another: the presence of ‘silent’ letters in some words.

Why should knot be spelt with a ‘k’ when it is pronounced the same as not? And when we come to words such as knight and yacht we might begin to suspect that some letters are being entered for no other reason than to make it more difficult for non-native speakers to write the language.

Just as we found when looked at double letters, the explanation for these silent letters usually lies in the history of a word. In words such as answer and walk, the silent letters were sounded in early forms of English, but as the language developed over many centuries it became easier to pronounce the word without sounding a particular letter. The sound changed but the silent letters remained as a ghostly (note the silent ‘h’) reminder of the original sound.

Other words were borrowed from languages that use sound patterns that seem unnatural to English speakers, and so the sound of the word was changed to something they found easier to say. This is why we don’t pronounce the first letter of pneumonia (which was borrowed from Greek) or the last letter of sheikh (which was borrowed from Arabic).

Silent letters can certainly be awkward, but I can offer a few tips for dealing with them.

Firstly, note that some silent letters are actually not silent in related words. So it will help learners to remember the silent ‘g’ in sign if they can relate it to signature or the silent ‘n’ in condemn if they know condemnation. Secondly, some silent letters reveal themselves when you break down a word into its basic parts. The silent ‘p’ in cupboard (and the entire spelling of the word) can be seen if you think that this piece of furniture was originally a ‘cup board’. Similar cases include extraordinary (extra + ordinary) and shepherd (she(e)p + herd).

Thirdly, note that if one word contains a silent letter, related words will have the same silent letter. So the silent ‘c’ that appears in ascend is also found in the related words ascent, descend, and descent.

As a last resort, for words that learners find especially difficult, you can make up a memory aid or mnemonic (note the silent opening letter!) to spell out the word. One of my favourites is that you spell rhythm from the initial letters of the sentence ‘rhythm helps you to hear music’.

Know any more?