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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.

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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.




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Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Vocabulary learning strategies Q&A

Nick Michelioudakis has been a teacher, examiner and trainer for many years. His most recent webinar ‘Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Vocabulary Learning Strategies’ sparked an interesting dialogue on the ways students learn new words. Here are the answers to some of the questions from the webinar.

I would like to start by thanking everyone for attending the Webinars and for their positive comments at the end. If you would like to read an article based on these ideas that we discussed, here is the link: http://oxelt.gl/2zBMc58

OK, on to the other questions now, which I hope will help me raise one or two interesting points.

Where do students find these collocations in order to record them? Texts?

This is an important question and it is something I forgot to stress during the Webinar. It is useful if students first encounter the words in texts. In this way they can get all kinds of information, including (hopefully) a useful collocation.

If for whatever reason the text does not help much, students can use this amazing tool, SkELL, to look at examples from other authentic texts. As you can see from the screenshot, simply enter a word in a box and you get a number of sentences. This will help students immensely.

What are the rules for dividing sentences into chunks?

This is a hugely important question – and far too large an issue to cover here. As I see it, this is where the teacher’s knowledge of the language comes in. There are all kinds of ‘chunks’ out there and they differ in size, in how ‘fixed’ they are, and in their level of idiomaticity. The teacher must use their judgment to decide where to direct students’ attention, it could be a simple collocation (‘dress a wound’) or a whole phrase (‘let’s cut to the chase’), or something with a ‘movable’ part (‘reported a % increase’). The chunks you focus on will depend on frequency, coverage (whether they can be used in many contexts), students proficiency, and the needs of the syllabus.

What about using opposites to explain words?

There is nothing wrong with using opposites provided students really understand what the word used as an explanation means. For instance, if you want to explain the meaning of the word ‘cowardly’, there is nothing wrong with telling students that it means the opposite of ‘brave’. However, it is generally not a good idea to present two unknown words which happen to be antonyms in the same session (e.g. ‘generous’ – ‘stingy’) if students are unfamiliar with both, in case they mix them up.

What’s the difference between linking and anchoring? And which ones are just for revising?

The two techniques are very similar. However in ‘linking’, students start with a set of words, and then try to discover ways to connect two or more together. When students use ‘anchoring’, they start with a particular word, fix it in their mind, and then try to discover connections with other words themselves. If the starting word is ‘nostalgia’, they may come up with ‘memory’, ‘think back’, ‘miss someone’, ‘nostalgic song’, ‘pensive mood’, ‘sad’, ‘melancholy’ etc. They may even come up with personal associations which will only make sense to them.

How can we avoid the typical students’ question “how do I say …?”, starting from a word in their mother tongue?

Well, personally I am not sure we should be discouraging this. In fact, this is one of the strategies I mentioned in the Webinar (‘expanding’). As I see it, there is nothing wrong with allowing students to use their L1 as a springboard for discovery. It’s natural for students to reflect on their knowledge and say to themselves ‘OK – this is something I can say in the L1; how can I say it in English?’ What we do want to do though is encourage them to think in terms of sentences rather than single words. What I do if a student asks me ‘How do I say ‘άγκυρα’ (anchor) in English?’ is ask them to give me a sentence.


I really hope you found these techniques useful! If you get the chance to try them out, I would be interested to hear how the lesson went. Contact me via my email address: nickmi@ath.forthnet.gr.


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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.

michaels1

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:

michaels2

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

michaels3

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.