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40 Years of Practical English Usage

The challenges of academic writing in ESLMichael Swan, author of Practical English Usage, joins us on the blog today to review his IATEFL talk this year all about the new, fourth edition of PEU and its new features and organisation. If you were unable to attend this year’s conference, we hope you enjoy this post!

The history

PEU started as a card index with explanations and examples of typical problem points, based on my experience of students’ difficulties. I created this primarily for new teachers at the school where I worked, who often had trouble dealing with their students’ mistakes and questions,  They found (as teachers still do) that systematic grammars are not always the best kind of reference material for clear and adequate explanations of single problems. The ‘one answer to one question’ formula which (up to a point) characterises usage guides is much more user-friendly.

Later I turned the card index, greatly expanded, into a book, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1980. Teachers and advanced students found it helpful, and a second edition followed in due course. This benefited considerably from feedback from users, from advice from British and American grammarians, and from my own continuing research.

By 2005 there had been enough developments in English to justify a third edition. The existence of better and more accessible corpus evidence for usage made possible a number of improvements, and I took the opportunity to add some more general ‘background’ entries on such matters as correctness and language variation.

Why a fourth edition?

English continues to develop and change, and a usage guide needs to keep pace. I had also built up a fair number of revision notes over the intervening ten years, and I was glad of the opportunity to make further clarifications, additions and corrections. (Nobody ever gets everything right the first time, or the second, or the third!) After consultation with users of the previous editions, I also decided it was time to make an important change in the book’s organisation.

Reorganisation

In the first three editions, the 600-odd numbered entries were arranged in alphabetical order of title. This dictionary-like formula works well in a native-speaker usage guide, which deal mostly with word problems. It is less satisfactory in a guide dealing with learners’ problems, since these are largely grammatical. Related topics get separated, so that while ‘countable and uncountable nouns’, for example, are listed under C, other noun problems are found under N. More seriously, only the major topics can be found by an alphabetical search; smaller topics (the majority) come inside entries that don’t begin with ‘their’ letter. (So, for instance, the use of singular and plural verbs with decimals and fractions, or the British-American difference in the meaning of ‘first floor’,  are covered in the entry on ‘numbers’, not under D or F.) This means that in practice people using the book generally locate the information they need by going to the very complete index at the back.

In the fourth edition, the entries are still separate, dealing as far as possible with single problems or small groups of problems.

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However, the entries are now arranged by topic. The grammatical entries have been brought together into 28 main Sections, which together constitute a complete students’ grammar:

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Each Section is introduced by general notes on the topic and a list of typical learners’ problems:

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Word-formation and vocabulary are dealt with separately in three more Sections, including an A–Z list of nearly 380 word problems:

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Now online

Practical English Usage is now also available online, along with the new edition of the accompanying Diagnostic Tests, which help learners and their teachers to see which parts of PEU need to be studied.

 


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Focusing on vocabulary for academic writing


shutterstock_522965368Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer and lexicographer based in Bristol, UK. Her main interests are in vocabulary teaching and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). She worked on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and Oxford EAP (C1). She was also involved in developing and writing the new
Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books. When she’s not at her desk, she enjoys speaking at ELT events and teacher training.

When it comes to helping students with academic vocabulary, the range of words and phrases they might encounter in the course of their academic studies is huge and can be somewhat daunting. So when we were putting together the new Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books, we decided quite early on that the most useful area to focus on would be productive vocabulary: that is the words and phrases that students are actually likely to use in their own writing.

For all learners, indeed all speakers of a language, their productive vocabulary – the words they actively use regularly – is a subset of their receptive vocabulary – the words they recognize and understand passively. As teachers though, we often forget this distinction and vocabulary lessons can end up a mixed bag of new words and those that are already familiar, words that students are likely to use and those they may only come across occasionally. Concentrating on just the vocabulary that students are most likely to use in their writing can help to tune out some of the ‘noise’ and create more realistic, focused vocabulary-learning goals. In this post, I’ll share just three of the criteria we used to help achieve this aim.

1. Realistic models

It’s often said that the best way to improve your vocabulary is to read as much as possible. For students of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), it’s true that reading and noticing the vocabulary used by academic writers is important in developing their receptive vocabulary, but published academic texts may not always provide the best model for studying productive vocabulary. Published texts written by professional academics, such as textbooks or academic articles, are a different genre from the type of texts typically produced by university students as part of their coursework. So it’s perhaps not surprising that recent research has shown that even good student writers use a much narrower range of academic vocabulary than ‘expert’ academic writers (Durrant, 2016). That’s not to say that they’re somehow substandard, the requirements of the two genres are just different. So studying a published academic text won’t necessarily provide a realistic, or even a useful, model for the student wanting to improve the vocabulary they use in their own writing. Examples of good student writing will display a much more appropriate range of vocabulary that an EAP student might realistically hope to emulate.

2. The receptive to productive shift

We often tend to think of vocabulary teaching as being all about new words, but actually, much of the lexis that will help learners to improve their academic writing is likely to already be part of their receptive lexicon. As language users, we naturally tend to stick to the words we’re most familiar with when we’re speaking or writing, because we feel confident and comfortable with them. For many learners, encouraging them out of that comfort zone just means pushing them to use words and phrases that are already familiar from their reading. Extending a student writer’s productive vocabulary range isn’t always about introducing ‘difficult’ words, it’s often apparently simple words and expressions (on the whole, by far, in terms of, etc.) that will help improve their writing style and make their texts more readable.

3. Activities for production

After we’ve identified what vocabulary items to focus on, the next step is to design practice activities. It’s natural to start by checking comprehension, but if we want learners to start using lexis, we soon need to move onto more productive practice. This is where we run into the distinction between controlled productive vocabulary – words which learners can produce when prompted, say within a gap-fill activity – and free productive vocabulary – which they produce spontaneously in their own writing (see Laufer, 1998). If learners are to expand their free productive range, they need plenty of opportunities to get a feel for how to use words and phrases in context; playing around with phrasing, collocation and different forms of a word in a ‘safe’ environment where it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes, not in that high-stakes, assessed essay. Short writing tasks that encourage experimentation can help bridge that gap between the gap-fill and the essay.

References:
Durrant, P. (2016) To what extent is the Academic Vocabulary List relevant to university student writing? English for Specific Purposes 43
Laufer, B. (1998) The Development of Passive and Active Vocabulary in a Second Language: Same or Different Applied Linguistics 19 (2)

**There are extra practice activities to accompany the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books available online, including a number of short free writing tasks.


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Back to School EFL Teaching resources and lesson plans

shutterstock_275971190The new academic year is upon us! Are you ready? If you’re struggling for lesson plan ideas, we’ve got you covered.

To welcome you and your students back to class, we asked three of our former contributors Vanessa Esteves, Christopher Graham, and Julietta Schoenmann to devise a series of lesson plans and activity worksheets for your EFL classrooms. From adult through to primary, we hope you can find these resources useful in the year ahead.

Have a great year, from all of us at the Oxford University Press.

 

Primary Level

Lesson Plan

Activity Worksheet

Secondary Level

Lesson Plan

Activity Worksheet

Tertiary/Adult Level

Lesson Plan

Activity Worksheet


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4 Christmas Activities for your Classroom

DV-00039118-001Stacey Hughes is a teacher trainer for Oxford University Press. She has written a number of articles for the OUP blog and Teaching Adult Newsletter. Stacey gives talks and workshops around the world – both face-to-face and via webinar. 

The festive season is officially upon us, so we thought we’d share some classroom
resources to help you and your class get in the spirit of Christmas!

Our teacher trainer Stacey Hughes from the Professional Development team here in Oxford has prepared some multi-level activities for you to use in your classroom. Enjoy a round robin writing activity, practice some seasonal vocabulary revision, and plenty more!

ROUND ROBIN LETTER (Writing)
Level: pre-intermediate to advanced
Any age group

ADVENT CALENDAR (Vocabulary)
Level: any
Young Learners

12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS or 12 DAYS OF WINTER (Vocabulary revision)
Level: any
Young learners, teens, (adults)

CRAZY GAPPED TEXT (Grammar, collocation, text cohesion)
Level: pre-intermediate and above
Teens, adults


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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

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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.