At the end of last year, I had the fascinating task of being involved in researching recent trends in language usage for the new edition of Collins COBUILD English Usage which has just been published.
For those not familiar with the book, it’s neither a grammar book nor a dictionary, but instead takes a wider look at language usage. Aimed at upper-int/advanced learners and teachers, it lists words alphabetically and explores how they are typically used.
For this new edition, I explored several areas where language usage has changed since the last edition (in 2012). Some of the areas I looked into included new coinages, social media, identity, gender, mental health and disability, drawing on data from the ‘New Monitor’ corpus (part of the Collins Corpus containing recent data from news and social media) and a whole variety of other sources. The research turned up some fascinating shifts in usage, as well as leading me down some odd, and sometimes disturbingly dark, linguistic alleys!
Find out more about the project on the Collins Dictionary website (note: if you’re not reading this in Oct 2019, this link may have changed!) and scroll down to read two blog posts I wrote about ‘identity and gender‘ and ‘mental health and disability‘ (these links shouldn’t change).
At the weekend, I was lucky enough to visit St Petersburg – a city I last visited on a school trip way back in 1986! Unsurprisingly, it’s very much changed and is now a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with a wonderfully friendly, buzzy feel.
I was there to deliver a day of workshops on the topic of Teaching Advanced Writing Skills to a group of local teachers. They were a very knowledgeable, receptive audience who were both open to new ideas and eager to share their own thoughts and experiences. Thanks to the organizers and to the participants for making it such an enjoyable day.
I’ve written up a few thoughts on how running training workshops for teachers is so valuable to me professionally and how it feeds into my materials development work – over on my blog here.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to give a guest lecture to an international group of ELT teachers on professional development courses run by Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education. It was a great excuse to get away from my desk for the day, they were a really friendly, engaged audience and I got to talk a bit more about vocabulary … what’s not to like?!
The Saïd Business School, Oxford
My session was focused around the important split between receptive and productive vocabulary. It’s a topic I believe is really key in understanding vocabulary development and vital for planning classroom activities. In a nutshell, I argued that if we’re focusing on vocabulary that we would like students to understand receptively (i.e. when they’re reading or listening), then activities should revolve mainly around comprehension. If we don’t expect students to be actively using a word (either just yet or possibly ever!), then it’s a waste of everyone’s time getting them to use it in productive activities. However, if we’re focusing on productive vocabulary that we do want learners to try and use for themselves, then giving them input about how the word is used and plenty of productive practice is essential.
Whenever I talk about this though and give participants language and possible activities to discuss and comment on (not just on this occasion, but during my recent webinar too), teachers have a strong urge to teach everything. They want to practise – and I suspect test! – all the new vocab that comes up, and they’re very reluctant to skip over even the most obscure of words … often words that I, as a proficient L1 English speaker, hardly ever use myself and which their learners are highly unlikely to ever need. Of course, it’s natural to deal with whatever language crops up in class and to explain the meanings of unknown new words, but my point is that not all words deserve equal class time. Low frequency words and words from genres that students are unlikely to produce themselves simply don’t merit taking time and energy away from more useful, high frequency words that learners really need to get to grips with and which need regular reinforcement and recycling. Honestly, I promise you, your learners can live without stroll and stalk as part of their active vocabulary!
At the weekend, I was in Birmingham speaking at the NATECLA annual conference. It was my first time at the conference, which is aimed at UK ESOL teachers, and I also got my first look at my latest publication, ETpedia Vocabulary which was literally hot off the presses, with copies only delivered the day before.
For those not familiar with the ETpedia books, they’re collections of 500 classroom teaching tips around a theme, in this case vocabulary. I worked on this collection together with Fiona Mauchline and Stacey H. Hughes and we covered a whole range of vocab teaching topics from understanding basic vocab-related terminology to teaching collocation, using dictionaries, teaching vocab at different levels, exploiting images, video and flashcards, using corpus tools … 50 different topics in fact, with 10 tips per topic.
For my workshop, I focused on the theme of how students’ L1 affects the way they learn English vocabulary. Based on two units from the book, I looked at both some of the issues to take into account, such as false friends and different alphabets, and also some of the proactive ways you can explicitly bring students’ L1 into play when teaching vocab. I had a great audience who really engaged with the ideas and offered lots of suggestions about how the things we discussed might relate to their own teaching context. I especially loved a comment from one participant when we were talking about translation and using bilingual dictionaries who said they shouldn’t be “a dirty little secret”!
Thanks to everyone who came along and especially to those who bought a copy of the book afterwards – I hope it provides lots of ideas and inspiration for your own creative vocab teaching activities.
My latest post on the OUP Global blog considers some of the specific challenges involved in teaching vocabulary at higher levels. It suggests four areas to consider when planning vocabulary activities for more advanced learners:
- Choosing which words to teach
- Narrowing the receptive-productive gap
- Teaching about vocabulary
- Usage is everything
Read the full blog post here.
I’ll be talking more about all these points and giving lots of practical examples of classroom activities and techniques in a webinar on 16 & 17 July. I’ll be running the same webinar in three different slots across the two days. If you’re interested, you can find more information and sign up here.
On Friday, I had the rare pleasure of giving a workshop at an ELT event within walking distance of my home in Bristol. There’s been a lot of chat amongst ELT authors, presenters and trainers recently about whether we should be jetting around the world to give talks and workshops at ELT conferences. Are all those carbon emissions really justified? Can’t we use technology more to share ideas without the need to travel? Wouldn’t it be better to encourage more local speakers and trainers? To be honest, I don’t fly for work nearly as much as some of my colleagues. Last year, I only flew to one conference in Malta and this year so far, I’ve had one trip to Spain. Nevertheless, it’s something I’m conscious of and I have decided not to go to a couple of overseas conferences this year, in part, to avoid flying. So, it was very nice to be able to walk to this one and keep my #eltfootprint down.
The event itself was organized by Living Learning English, a Bristol-based organization who arrange home tuition courses for students who come to stay with teachers across the UK. Their annual teachers’ conference is an opportunity for their teachers to get toegther, to network and to enjoy some CPD. They had a day of talks and workshops including one that I sat in on from Nik Peachey talking about the digital classroom and very bravely getting a roomful of teachers with very varied levels of tech confidence to log on to the Backchannel Chat site to see how it can be used for sharing digital materials with students. After a bit of initial reluctance and a few minutes of chaos while everyone tried to get logged onto the WiFi and then find the website, almost everyone got in and I think, took away lots of ideas for using the digital materials that Nik shared.
In my own session, I was talking (again) about teaching vocabulary beyond intermediate level. It’s a topic I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about lately and the deeper I get into it, the more I realize that we need to differentiate the way we deal with vocabulary (and probably other aspects of language too) at different stages in a learner’s development. I’m getting increasingly frustrated with the one-size-fits-all approach to teaching vocab that I come across again and again, especially in coursebooks which adopt a format that works for pre-int and intermediate but then try to squeeze more advanced levels onto the page in the same way. But that’s a debate for another day … for the moment, I was just happy to share a few ideas with teachers for things they can do to help their learners push their vocab past the intermediate hump.
Thanks to LLE for inviting me to and all the teachers who came along.
I’ve been using the Cambridge Learner Corpus for twenty years now to research learner language (read a bit about my research here) and some of my most recent work has involved researching some of the issues and errors that are most common among Spanish-speaking learners of English to feed into exam preparation books for the Spanish market. I researched and wrote substantial ‘English for Spanish Speakers’ sections for the Complete series of books preparing students for the Cambridge Key, Preliminary and First exams. The first two titles have just recently been published and the third is forthcoming.
So, I’m really looking forward to travelling to Oviedo in Northern Spain at the end of next week to talk about the research and writing process at the annual TESOL Spain convention. Sadly, getting from Bristol to Oviedo has proved less simple than I’d expected, so I won’t make it in time to attend a lot of the conference, but I will be there in time for my talk on Sunday morning (9.55-10.55).