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Making Vocabulary Activities that Stand Out | Nick Michelioudakis

I have always felt that we teachers we are a bit like cooks – thinking about what we are going to serve our children the next day, worrying about how varied their diet is, the ingredients etc. Increasingly, however, I feel there is a problem with the way we approach our task: do we worry far too much about the nutritional value of our meals? The result is that our dishes are bland and our students go ‘Oh, not that again’. And what is our response? ‘But it’s good for you’.

In this short article, I would like to argue that if we have a sound knowledge of spices (psychological principles) we can select activities which are both nutritious and tasty – by which I mean useful and fun.

Activity 1: ‘Colour in the Passage’ Look at this activity. What could be wrong with it? The teacher has been teaching her class about adjectives (see the first paragraph) and now she has given them a consolidation activity where they have to fill in the gaps (see the second one).

‘One sunny day, my little puppy jumped onto our red couch and played with his fun new toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so lively and excited, so full of life. Soon, my playful puppy yawned. He was an exhausted puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his soft, round bed. Soon my sleepy puppy was snoring away’.

‘One ……… day, my ……… puppy jumped onto our ……… couch and played with his ……… new toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so ……… and ………, so full of life. Soon, my ……… puppy yawned. He was an ……… puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his ………, ……… bed. Soon my ……… puppy was snoring away’.

[ playful / sleepy / sunny / excited / round / fun / little / soft / exhausted / lively / red ]

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the activity is bad, but it’s just not interesting enough. You get all your vitamins, but you can just picture the expression on the students’ faces.

Now, what if we were to tweak it a little? What if we were to give students the paragraph without the adjectives OR the gaps and we asked them to add some colour to it (‘What is the puppy like?’ / ‘What is the bed like?’ / ‘How was the puppy feeling?’).

‘One day, my puppy jumped onto our couch and played with his toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so full of life. Soon, my puppy yawned. He was a puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his bed. Soon my puppy was snoring away’.

Students might then come up with something like this:

‘One day, my lovely puppy jumped onto our long, comfortable couch and played with his new, stuffed toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so excited and care-free, so happy and full of life. Soon, my cute puppy yawned. He was a young puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his cosy, warm bed. Soon my adorable little puppy was snoring away’.

Principle 1: The IKEA Effect. Why is the latter activity better than the previous one? The answer is that students are free to imagine the scene for themselves and to add something of themselves to the task. They are free to invest. Psychologists have discovered that when we work on something ourselves we endow it with special value; that’s why we so often think the salad we make is so much better than the fancy risotto someone else has prepared (though of course others may well disagree). Activities where students can contribute something or better still, make something themselves are likely to be better than ones where they simply manipulate language. The moral: get students to create things.

Activity 2 – ‘AQBL’:  Let us say that (for some reason best known to yourself) you have been teaching your students vocabulary related to cars, car engines, and car characteristics in general. To practice the vocabulary, you do a drill where students in pairs practice asking each other questions. You give them the second table, so they have to come up with the vocabulary themselves when constructing the questions.

Top Speed 230 km/h
Acceleration 7 sec (0-100)
Fuel Capacity 68 litres
Consumption 9 litres/100 km
Engine Output 180 HP
Boot Capacity 640 litres
Reliability Rating 7 / 10
Performance Rating 9 / 10
  …… km/h
   …… sec (0-100)
  …… litres
  …… litres/100 km
  …… HP
  …… litres
  ……  / 10
  ……  / 10

So the interaction might go like this (S1: Prospective Buyer / S2: Car Salesman):

S1: What is this car’s top speed?

S2: It’s 230 km/h.

S1: And what about its acceleration?

S2: It goes from 0 to 100 km/h in 7 seconds.

S1: I see. How much petrol does the tank hold?

S2: Its fuel capacity is 68 litres.

S1: Does it have a powerful engine? ….etc.

By now you know what my objection is going to be… But what if we were to tweak the activity a little? The new activity is called ‘Answer the Question Before Last [AQBL]’. When S1 asks a question, S2 says nothing; when S1 asks the second question, S2 answers the first one (!) etc. etc. For example:

S1: What is this car’s top speed?

S2: (…says nothing)

S1: And what about its acceleration?

S2: It’s 230 km/h.

S1: I see. How much petrol does the tank hold?

S2: It goes from 0 to 100 km/h in 7 seconds.

S1: Does it have a powerful engine?

S2: Its fuel capacity is 68 litres…. etc.

Principle 2: Incongruity. I am prepared to bet money that students are going to like the second activity far more than the first one. The principle behind it is that of ‘Incongruity’. Psychologists have discovered that when things unfold the way we expect them to, our brain switches to autopilot; we almost fall asleep, a bit like that puppy in the previous activity, and consequently, we learn very little. However, if something unexpected happens, then our brain goes ‘Ooops! What was this?’ and then we are wide awake, we pay attention and we remember things (no wonder advertisers love this idea!). To get your students to pay attention, break the script – get them to do something unexpected!

Five New Recipes for your Vocabulary Cookbook: So this is the idea behind my upcoming webinar. I hope to demonstrate five activities which both help our students learn vocabulary better and which stand out in some way. Each task will help illustrate a principle of Psychology which I believe is worth bearing in mind when cooking our Lesson Plans.

Here is an extra insight: How can you tell if your idea has worked? Well, how do you know if your dishes taste great? If the diners are licking their fingers, you know your food is good. Similarly, you know an activity is good if, when it is over, the students want to keep going.


Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has travelled and given seminars and workshops in many countries all over the world.

He has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles in which he draws on insights from such disciplines as Marketing, Management and Social Psychology and which have appeared in numerous newsletters and magazines.

His areas of interest include Student Motivation, Learner Independence, Teaching one-to-one, and Humour.


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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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25 ideas for using unit word lists in the classroom

Teacher and young adult students developing their skills with classroom activities

Many ELT series have unit word lists, either in the student book, or available in the teacher resources. However, few teachers make active use of these unit word lists on a regular basis. In an attempt to address this situation I have produced a set of 25 activities which teachers can easily incorporate into their regular teaching practice.

All of the activities have the following three principles:

  1. they can work with almost any ELT unit word list;
  2. apart from the students having access to unit word list itself, they require only basic classroom resources i.e., pencil, paper, board and marker;
  3. they require no previous preparation from the teacher.
Example from: Smart Choice 2nd edition, OUP

Note: Unless otherwise stated, students need to be looking at the word list to do the activity.

  1. Which words do you know (before starting the unit)? – Individually, before starting the unit, students put a tick (✔) on the right next to all the words they know.
  2. What is your favorite word? – Individually, each student identifies their favorite word from the list. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  3. Which ones are similar to words in your own language? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify all the words that appear to be similar to words in their own language. These could be cognates or false cognates. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  4. I don’t like this word because… – Individually, each student identifies a word from the list that they don’t like. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  5. Rapid underlining – The teacher chooses between 5 and 10 words from the unit word list and calls these out quite quickly. Individually, students listen, find and underline these words in the list. Students then compare and check that they have found the correct words.
  6. Find the word in the unit – The teacher chooses a word from the word list and calls this out and the students need to find the word in the unit of the course book. This can be done as a race.
  7. Which is the most useful word? – Individually, each student identifies from the unit word list the word they think is the most useful. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  8. How many of the words are things you can touch? – In small groups, students identify how many of the words in the unit word list are things that can be touched. The teacher elicits and discusses. There might be many different ways to interpret this and can lead to interesting discussion.
  9. ‘Killing’ vocab items – In small groups, students decide on 3 words they want to eliminate from the unit word list and which will not appear in the next test. The teacher then elicits from each group the 3 words they chose. The teacher writes these words on the board and identifies which 3 words are the most frequently chosen from all the groups. The teacher promised not to include these in the next test. (Dudley, E. & E. Osváth. 2016. Mixed-Ability Teaching. OUP)
  10. Rapid translation – In pairs, students take it in turns to choose a word from the unit word list. The other student has to try to give the translation in their own language.
  11. How many have you seen today? – In small groups, students identify how many of the words in the unit word list are things / concepts / actions they have seen today. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  12. Identify the words from a definition – The teacher chooses about 5 words from the unit word list and then one word at a time tells the students a definition of each word. Individually, students look at the list and underline the words they think the teacher is describing. The teacher elicits, checks and discusses.
  13. How many have 3 syllables? – In small groups, students identify how many words have 3 syllables. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  14. Which word is the most difficult to pronounce? – Individually, each student looks at the unit word list and identifies the word they think is the most difficult to pronounce. The teacher elicits and helps students pronounce the words they chose.
  15. Bingo – Individually, students choose any 5 words from the unit word list and write these on a piece of paper. The teacher reads and crosses off words at random from the list until a student has crossed off all of their 5 words and calls out ‘bingo’.
  16. How many words have the stress on the second syllable? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify how many words are stressed on the second syllable. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  17. Which is the most difficult word to spell? – Individually, each student looks at the unit word list and identifies the word they think is the most difficult to spell. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  18. Test your partner’s spelling – In pairs, one student looks at the unit word list and chooses 5 words and dictates these to the other student (who is not looking at the list). After the dictation of the 5 words the students both look at the list and check the spelling.
  19. The teacher can’t spell – The teacher choices 5 words and spells these aloud to the student but makes a deliberate spelling mistake in 2 or 3 of the words. Students listen while looking at the word list and try to identify which words were misspelled.
  20. Quick spelling – In pairs, students take it in turns for one student to choose a word and spell it aloud quickly to other student. The second student tries to say the word before the first student has finished spelling it aloud.
  21. Which word has the craziest spelling? – Individually, each student decides which word, in their opinion, has the craziest spelling. The teacher elicits the words from the students and the class identifies which word was the most frequently chosen.
  22. Which are the 3 longest words? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify the 3 words with the most of letters. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  23. Guess my word – In pairs, students take it in turns to choose a word from the unit word list. The other student needs to ask yes/no questions to work out the word.
  24. Can you make a sentence using 4 of the words? – Individually, each student makes a sentence using any 4 of the words from the unit word list (combined with other words to create coherent sentences). Students then compare and decide which sentence they like best.
  25. Which words do you know (after finishing the unit)? – Individually, after finishing the unit, students put a tick (✔) on the left next to all the words they now know. They can compare this with the number of words they knew before starting the unit and see their progress.

For regular tips, tricks, and resources to help your students improve, subscribe to our monthly Teaching Adults e-newsletter!


Philip Haines moved to Mexico from England in 1995, and currently works as the Senior Academic Consultant for Oxford University Press Mexico. He has spoken internationally in three continents and nationally in every state in Mexico. Philip is the author/co-author of several ELT series published in Mexico.


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Why do we need EAP word lists? | Michael McCarthy

The EAP vocabulary challenge

If you are like me, and your English for Academic Purposes (EAP) teaching typically consists of a mixed group of students from a variety of language backgrounds and a variety of academic disciplines, then you know how difficult it can be to satisfy everyone’s needs. The pre-sessional PhD student who is going to go on to study cosmic black holes may get frustrated if the teacher spends a lot of time engaging with the special terminology of medicine for another student in the class. It is far more straightforward if you are teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP), the special language needed for groups who share the same discipline, for example a class of marine biologists or a group of town planners.

Given the size of the vocabulary of all our academic disciplines put together, with a total specialist terminology that probably runs into tens of thousands of words, we are faced with what would seem to be an impossible task. However, thanks to the power of corpora (computer-searchable databases of written and spoken texts), we are able to establish a common core of vocabulary which is used across a wide range of disciplines, one that we can use in teaching. You may well already be aware of general English word lists for EAP that are freely available online or which have been incorporated into some of the text books you and your students use. Nonetheless, a general English word list only tells us part of the story, and we need to do more to arrive at something which will genuinely be usable and useful for our EAP students.

A common core?

Let’s consider what a common core vocabulary for EAP might look like. There are different options for exploiting corpora, and each one has PROS and CONS:

  • A straightforward frequency list going from the most frequent to the least frequent words that are shared across many or all disciplines.

PROS: Easy to produce at the click of a mouse if you have lots of academic texts stored in a computer. We can focus on different segments of the list for students at different proficiency levels.

CONS: The list will still be very long, and much of it will be common, everyday words your students already know from general English.

  • A keyword list: this tells you which words are significant and distinct in academic English, when compared with any other type of English.

PROS: More powerful and targeted than a frequency list. We can concentrate on the ‘fingerprint’ or ‘DNA’ of academic English.

CONS: It’s not immediately obvious why a word might score so highly as a keyword. ‘Terms’ is an academic keyword. Is it because universities and colleges break the year up into teaching terms, or is it something else?

  • A list of chunks: chunks are recurring patterns of words. Most corpus software can produce lists of the most frequent 2-word, 3-word, 4-word, etc. chunks in a corpus of texts.

PROS: Chunks are extremely common in all kinds of texts and are fundamental in creating meaning, for example, structuring academic arguments, linking parts of texts, etc. They take us way beyond single words.

CONS: The computer often finds chunks that are incomplete or not easy to understand out of context (e.g. in the sense that).

Is one set of lists enough?

All these different ways of approaching a common core for EAP have pros and cons, as we have seen, and in most cases, it’s true to say that the pros outweigh the cons. But there is another factor, too. Much of a student’s experience of academic life will come through speaking and listening. The students I teach typically must write essays, dissertations and reports, but they also have to attend lectures, take part in seminars and discussions and give presentations. So good academic word lists will consist of different lists for spoken and written EAP, taken from different corpora. Spoken EAP often overlaps in surprising ways with conversational English and yet is still first and foremost concerned with transmitting, creating and sharing academic knowledge. How is that achieved? The big question is: what do we learn from separating spoken and written EAP lists?

Then what?

Even if we build an ideal set of lists, the question remains as to how we can use them. Simply drilling and learning lists is not enough; the real challenge is how to harness the words, keywords and chunks to create continuous texts in speaking and writing. First comes the problem of meaning, so it will be necessary to experience and to practise the common core words and chunks in context; we may find that a particular word or chunk has developed a special meaning in one or more disciplines but not in a wide range of disciplines. It will also be important to exploit technological resources such as links between word lists and online dictionaries and other resources. No one, simple approach will deliver the results we hope to get from word lists, and an integrated approach will serve us best.

Click here for a collection of four different word lists that together provide an essential guide to the most important words to know in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP): OPAL (the Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon).

Watch Michael’s webinar to find out more about the power of corpora to create EAP word lists. See some examples from OPAL, and get some practical ideas for using the word lists in your teaching.


Michael McCarthy is Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Nottingham. He is author/co-author/editor of 53 books, including Touchstone, Viewpoint, the Cambridge Grammar of English, English Grammar Today, Academic Vocabulary in Use, From Corpus to Classroom, and titles in the English Vocabulary in Use series. He is author/co-author of 113 academic papers. He has co-directed major corpus projects in spoken English. He has lectured in English and English teaching in 46 countries.


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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.