Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


IELTS Speaking Practice: Part 3 – What’s the word?

shutterstock_323995139Louis Rogers is a freelance author and senior academic tutor at the University of Reading. He has worked in a number of countries and taught in various contexts ranging from young learners to Academic English. Louis is co-author of Oxford EAP B1+, Foundation IELTS Masterclass, Proficiency Masterclass and Intermediate and Upper Intermediate Skills for Business Studies. In the third and final installment of his IELTS series, he explores range of vocabulary and lexical resource in the IELTS speaking test. 

What’s the word?

This lesson helps students in any section of the speaking test by focusing on one element of the marking criteria in particular – lexical resource. Some of the key indicators used by markers in this category are the variety of words used, the adequacy and appropriacy of the words used and the ability to circumlocute (get round a vocabulary gap by using other words) with or without noticeable hesitation. Obviously, the first ones are long term goals. For example, it takes students a long time to build up a wide range of lexis and to understand the subtleties of the appropriacy of word choice. However, the last one is something that can be frequently practiced even with a limited range of lexis.

Forgetting a word or not knowing a word is something learners come across from day one, however how they deal with this varies greatly. Under test conditions it can lead, in the worst cases, to students completely freezing and forgetting everything else they wanted to say. Even when it is not so obviously noticeable it can mean that students start to pause and hesitate excessively. Frequently practising how to deal with this situation can build students’ confidence and mean that they do not panic as much in the exam.

The activity here practices this skill and at the same time recycles some of the target lexis of the course. In this case the target lexis comes from the first three units of Foundation IELTS Masterclass. However, simple cards and the same staging can easily be created using any course.

Activity cards


Copy and cut up the cards so that you have one set for every four students in the class. Put students into groups of 4 and divide each group into A and B pairs. Pair A will need to time one minute. In pair B, one of the students takes a card and tries to describe the words on the cards to their partner. They cannot say the words on the cards. The B pair can monitor to check the other pair is not cheating. Their partner must try to guess the words their partner is describing. At the end of one minute they get one point for each word correctly described. The pairs then swap roles so that Pair B is timing and Pair A is describing. You can continue this activity until all the cards have been used or after a fixed time of ten minutes. The fixed time would give each student two turns at describing the words without saying them.



Vocabulary gap-fills: from testing _____ teaching

shutterstock_225810664Philip Kerr is a teacher trainer and materials writer with over 30 years of experience in ELT. He lives in Vienna where he is part of the team that has developed the Oxford English Vocabulary Trainer. He joins us today to explore the ________ of gap-fills.

The potential of gap-fills

When it comes to vocabulary learning, gap-fills are everywhere. But do they have a place in communicative language learning? They are often criticized for being boring and for promoting only a passive knowledge of words. It is not unreasonable to see them as better suited to testing than to teaching. Research, however, may cause us to rethink.

Learning new words involves a degree of memorization. For new words to be stored in their long-term memories, learners will need to be exposed to them many times. The best-known way of making this possible is through the use of flashcards. Flashcards work best when they are used with increasing intervals of time between each period of study (i.e. one hour later, then one day later, the one week later, etc.). This is known as spaced repetition.

We also know that this kind of memorization works best when learners are not simply given words and their definitions or translations, but have to generate the word they are trying to remember. The most usual way of doing this is to get them to fill in gaps.

The value of gap-fills, then, is greatest when they are used repeatedly, and not just once. Unfashionable though it is, repeated practice testing is known to work[1]. In vocabulary learning, a gap-fill repeated a number of times is likely to lead to more learning in the same amount of time than a more creative or imaginative exercise, such as getting students to make up sentences including the target word[2].

Exploiting gap-fills

I’m not suggesting, of course, that teachers simply ask their students to do gap-fill exercises again and again. That really would be too dull! The exercises need to be rewritten so that the target words are presented in new contexts. This approach is taken by the Oxford English Vocabulary Trainer, a vocabulary learning app which uses spaced repetition and gap-fills. But for teachers and students who are not using technology like this, there are a number of simple things that can be done. Here are a few suggestions:

  • After completing a gap-fill exercise, tell the students to translate it into their own language. Collect in these translations, and, in a subsequent lesson, get the students to translate them back into English.
  • Return to a gap-fill exercise some time after the students have already done it, and give it to them this time orally.
  • Select a gap-fill that the students have already done. Write it on the board (it doesn’t matter if your writing is not very legible). Tell the students that their task is to memorize all the sentences and, to do this, they must read the sentences aloud, in order and repeatedly. After about a minute, begin making more or less random swipes across the board with the board cleaner. All the time, the students should continue memorising / reading aloud. Continue making swipes with the cleaner until very little of the exercise is still visible.
  • Select four or five gap-fills that the students have already done. Write the page numbers of these exercises on the board and give the students an impossibly short time limit (for example, five minutes) to do as many of these tasks as they can. (You’ll need to make sure that the answers are not still written in their books.) The activity should be managed as a game: who can complete the most items?
  • Select two or more gap-fill exercises that the students have already done and return to them some time later. With different students working on different exercises, get them to copy out the exercises on sheets of paper, but tell them to gap different words from the original. Ideally, they should gap collocating words or dependent prepositions. The papers are then passed around the classroom to be completed.

Gap-fills and feedback

As with any language learning activity, learners will benefit from getting feedback[3] – not just on what was right or wrong, but why incorrect answers were incorrect. And, after getting this feedback but without being given the correct answer, they will benefit from having another attempt. Vocabulary mistakes broadly fall into four categories: meaning (the word that students have entered in the gap does not have the meaning that is needed), grammar (students have found the right base form of the missing word, but have used singular instead of plural, the wrong tense or the wrong part of speech), spelling, and word choice (students have entered a word which does not collocate with other words in the sentence).

The Oxford English Vocabulary Trainer provides this feedback automatically in the form of a butterfly, where the size of the wings indicates where the learner has had a problem. It would be useful for teachers who are not using technology in class to collect in gap-fill work that students have done, from time to time, and provide feedback of a similar kind, perhaps using the same four categories.


[1] Dunlosky, J. et al. 2013. ‘Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology’ Psychological Science in the Public Interest Vol. 14 No. 1 pp. 4-58

[2] Folse, K. 2006. ‘The Effect of Type of Written Exercise on L2 Vocabulary Retention’ TESOL Quarterly Vol. 40 No. 2 pp.273 – 293

[3] Ellis, R. & Shintani, N. 2014. Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research. (Abingdon: Routledge) chapter 10


The art of juggling: developing the language learner’s vocabulary

Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994.  She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus, and today looks at why and how language learners use a thesaurus ahead of World Thesaurus Day on January 18th.

The word ‘thesaurus’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘treasure’ or ‘storehouse’ and the traditional thesaurus is a kind of storehouse of language. Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases lists over 70 synonyms for fast, including zippy, fleet and nimble-footed. The editors have made no judgement about how useful each word is. The thesaurus marks words that are particularly formal or informal, but otherwise gives no information about how to use each word. The purpose of a thesaurus such as Roget is to remind native or expert speakers of the language of words they already know, but cannot quite bring to mind. It does not teach.

The needs of language learners are rather different. Even if they use a smaller thesaurus than Roget, with fewer synonyms, they may still not know which word to choose, without information on the exact meaning and use of each word. The result? According to teachers we interviewed, ‘Even high-level students use the same basic words again and again.’ ‘They need to be able to juggle synonyms.’ What information, precisely, do learners need to help them with this juggling act?

No two words are exactly the same

Consider the following pairs of sentences:

I used a very simple method to obtain the answer.

I used a very easy method to obtain the answer.

This encyclopedia is designed for quick and easy reference.

*This encyclopedia is designed for quick and simple reference.

I didn’t find it easy to persuade them to come.

*I didn’t find it simple to persuade them to come.

Say what you need to say, but keep it simple.

*Say what you need to say, but keep it easy.

In the first pair, either sentence sounds fine. But in the three following pairs, the second sentence sounds increasingly odd. Why is this? There are two main reasons: first, it is a question of meaning; and secondly, of collocation. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines each word thus:

easy not difficult; done or obtained without a lot of effort or problems

simple not complicated; easy to understand or do

These are good, brief definitions, which do in fact get at the essential difference between the words, as well as the essential similarity. Nonetheless, probably for most learners looking up simple, it is the similarity and not the difference that will register. So what is the difference? The definition of simple in the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus expands a little on the Oxford Advanced Learner’s definition to explain in what way something simple is ‘easy to understand or do’:

simple easy to understand or do because it contains very few, very basic parts or actions

There is also a note which clearly and simply compares and contrasts the two words, explaining exactly that difference between ‘not difficult’ and ‘not complicated’ which the Advanced Learner’s hints at but does not have space to explain.

Some of the collocational differences also become more intelligible: you can find something easy (or not!) according to your nature; but you keep something simple, according to its nature.

A more expressive vocabulary

There are two main ways in which students can improve their knowledge of synonyms. In the first place, they need to distinguish better between words they already partly know. Secondly, they need to learn new words. Consider these interesting sentences:

It was interesting to learn about daily life in Roman times.

The documentary makes interesting viewing.

We had an interesting discussion over lunch.

The book is an interesting adventure story.

The word interesting here may not fully convince you that these things are interesting. A far greater level of conviction is conveyed simply by substituting another word for interesting:

It was fascinating to learn about daily life in Roman times.

The documentary makes compelling viewing.

We had a stimulating discussion over lunch.

The book is a gripping adventure story.

Learners at upper-intermediate level may well have encountered some of these words in their reading. But how can they really access such words when they need them and become confident enough to use them?

A traditional thesaurus, as we have seen, does not really offer much help. Fascinating, compelling, stimulating and gripping can substitute for interesting in the contexts above, but not in all contexts, and they mostly cannot substitute for each other. What learners need is not just lists of synonyms, but a true dictionary of synonyms, a combination of thesaurus and learner’s dictionary. This is exactly what is offered by the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus.

Look up any word and you will find a manageable group of 4-10 near-synonyms, all defined, but with the differences in meaning and usage carefully explained and illustrated with plenty of example sentences. Learners using this thesaurus can be much more confident of choosing exactly the right word.

Learning more words will not be completely easy, but it will improve your writing.

Let’s rephrase that: acquiring a broader vocabulary is never going to be completely painless, but it will enrich your writing.


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.

1 Comment

The Vocabulary – Grammar Continuum: A third approach to activity design

The Vocabulary-Grammar Continuum: A third approach to activity designAlice Savage and Colin Ward are professors of ESOL at Lone Star College – North Harris in Houston, USA.  This article is adapted from their presentation ‘Beginning Writing Students and the Vocabulary-Grammar Continuum’ at the 2014 International TESOL Conference in Portland, Oregon.

Words are powerful things. When we look at research-based word lists, such as the General Service List or the Oxford 3000, we come across many useful words that can inform our teaching of vocabulary in the classroom.  We know these words are the most important for our students to learn. Yet, from the perspective of the student, the task of acquiring these lists of words can be daunting.

One challenge is length.  How can students learn hundreds, or even thousands, of words when learning only a select few at a time?  And once new words are introduced, how can they be internalized without a sufficient amount of recycling and repurposing?

Another and more interesting challenge is meaning.  Meaning turns out to be a complicated notion when dealing with high-frequency words. For example, the Oxford 3000 includes three main categories. The first includes content words such as red, car, fast, which are obvious and easy to teach. The meaning is sharp and clear, so it can easily be demonstrated with a white board, a photo or pantomime.

The second category includes grammar words.  The words so, is, the, of, and their high frequency siblings hold a prominent position on the list and yet resist attempts to be neatly defined as solitary words. These worker bee words have become so directly associated with specific functions that they have become grammar (Larsen-Freeman, 2013).  Their place on a word list is obvious, and they get much treatment in grammar syllabi.

Then there is a third more elusive category, which we call shadow words. Words such as join, thing, important and place are extremely useful but difficult to teach because they hide in the shadows of other words.  Rather than being specific in meaning like the content words, shadow words tend to be abstract, vague, and flexible. They may not call attention to themselves, but they are important because a great number of other words like to partner with them in collocations. (Schmitt, 2000).

As a result of their accommodating nature, shadow words can be very useful when taught in phrases. For example, become is quietly helpful.  Phrases such as become an engineer, become friends, or become rich illustrate the supportive nature of become. When become is taught with other words, learners can better pick up the meaning of both. Become does not like being alone. It needs friends.

Shadow words can also have multiple personalities.  They take on different meanings depending on their context.  Have appears on high-frequency word lists because it collocates with so many other words—have fun, have a sister, have to leave, have an idea, have enough money—yet each pairing has its own personality.

So, in looking at all these different types of words that populate high frequency word lists, it becomes clear that vocabulary is not just one thing.  While some words can meaningfully stand alone, many of the most common words prefer to be in groups. These words unleash their full power when paired with other words in collocations (word partners), lexical chunks (groups of commonly occurring words that include grammar), and prefabs (fixed expressions that allow students to frame ideas by slotting in different vocabulary) (Hinkel, 2004).

Perhaps it is possible to conceive of teaching language a third way, not to present vocabulary lists, word form charts, and grammar items separately but together on the same continuum.

There are many benefits to this approach.  If students are exposed to words in these groupings, they have more opportunities to gather and use words in their natural environments. Furthermore, these distinct environments can help classroom participants make decisions about which meaning or meanings to focus on (Hyland, 2004).  For example, play means one thing when talking about children and toys, and another when used in an academic setting as in, Teachers play a role in helping students choose vocabulary.

Teaching words in phrases also mitigates the difficulty of learning parts of speech because students see adjectives being used before nouns, and nouns as objects of verbs or the subjects of sentences. They can establish cognitive hooks for storing the words in the same manner in which they will be used (Schmitt, 2000).

Finally, words in phrases maximize vocabulary learning by providing whole unit chunks of meaning that clarify individual words at the same time.  A list of 12 phrases includes more language than a list of 12 individual words.  For example, the lexical chunk blew snow in our faces can be visually depicted in one go while teaching 5 different words, including content words, shadow words, and grammar words.

The following example activities demonstrate how vocabulary and grammar can support each other in providing useful language for specific writing tasks. While each activity has a specific aim, the basic structure can be adapted for different topics and purposes.

Activity Type: Categorizing

Activity Type: Manipulating chunks 

Activity Type: Flow Charts

Having students attend to the boundaries beyond individual words can begin to help them see vocabulary and grammar on a continuum and may be one approach to making vocabulary learning more meaningful and efficient.  Collocations, lexical chunks, and prefabs can be used to introduce not just content words, but also grammar and shadow words.  Through scaffolding, students can then learn how to mix and match these words to produce new lexical strings.   They will see that words are not just dynamic, but do in fact have many friends.



Hinkel, E. (2004).  Innovative and Efficient Construction Grammar.  Selected papers from the 21st International Symposium on English Teaching.  English Teacher’s Association, Republic of China (ETA-ROC), Taipei, 51-59.

Hyland, K. (2004).  Genre and second language writing.  Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2013).  Transfer of Learning Transformed.  Language Learning 63:Suppl. 1 pp. 107-129 Language Learning Research Club, University of Michigan
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9922.2012.00740.x

Schmitt, N. (2000).  Lexical chunks.  ELT Journal, Volume 54 (4), 400-401. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Savage, A. & Ward, C. (in press). Trio Writing.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,906 other followers