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Exploring synonyms: Collins IGCSE ESL

Last year, I got to work on a really interesting short project. It was contributing a section to the workbook to accompany a new edition of an IGCSE English as a Second Language course for Collins.


Feedback from teachers on previous editions had asked for more work on synonyms, so my brief was to design and write a new 25-page section focusing on synonyms. We came up with a simple format that involved selecting three sets of 3-5 synonyms linked to the topic/vocabulary of each unit of the student’s book. We started off with definitions of each word, adapted from a Collins COBUILD dictionary, followed by two activities. The activities vary, depending on the nature of the synonym set, but generally the first is a set of questions that try to get at the similarties and differences between the words. For example, in the set below – prevent, avoid, stop – the questions focus on whether or not the event actually happens. The second exercise is a more conventional practice activity; a gap-fill, matching activity, etc.

It was interesting to think about what the differences were between each set of words and how to convey those differences as simply as possible. Inevitably, even though it wasn’t strictly in the brief, I ended up doing some corpus searches for each set to identify typical contexts, collocations and patterns of usage for each word. This fed into the example sentences and also led to exercises and tip boxes that focused on things like collocation, lexicogrammar (e.g. countable and uncountable nouns), colligation (grammar patterns) and register.

It was one of those short but fun writing projects and as exciting as ever to get a shiny new book in the post!

Hornby Trust Dictionary Research Awards 2022

My professional highlight of the past year has definitely been my work with the A.S. Hornby Trust as a member of the expert panel for their Dictionary Research Awards (ASHDRA). I joined the panel towards the end of 2020 and have thoroughly enjoyed working with my fellow panel members – Michael Rundell, Sue Maingay, Hilary Nesi and Richard Smith – over the past year, even though, sadly, we’ve only been able to meet via Zoom so far.

Over the year, we’ve put together and publicized the call for proposals, read and discussed the new research proposals that came in last April, had contacts with potential future awardees, and with researchers already working on projects. In September, four ASHDRA researchers presented at the Euralex Online Conference, for which I helped to moderate the Q&A.

Euralex 2021

Over the past month, I’ve been working with several awardees who’ve completed their research to edit their reports for publication on the Hornby website – you can find links to the reports here. Unsurprisingly, many of the projects have been adversely affected by the pandemic, with planned classroom visits cancelled and participants unable to meet up. This has led to adjustments and in some cases, creative online alternatives, and several of the projects have had to be shortened with aims scaled back. I think they have, nonetheless, produced some really interesting results.

Agus Riadi, working in Indonesia, combined ideas around translanguaging and making use of the linguistic landscape to create and trial sample entries for a pictorial, multilingual dictionary to use in English language lessons. Traditionally, students have only been allowed to use English and Bahasa Indonesia (the official national language) in the classroom. His innovative dictionary entries brought in translations in local languages as well as images of language used on signs from the area around the school to try and engage students more in the language learning process. The initial feedback was dramatic with students getting incredibly excited both at recognizing the local signs and also at being given permission to use their mother tongue in the classroom. Even after the project ended, they continued to bring up signs they’d seen and possible translations with their class teacher – definitely a positive sign of increased engagement and motivation!

Coming at dictionary research from a completely different angle, Yan Yan Yeung, based in the UK, explored how Chinese students studying at a British university used a popular Chinese-English dictionary app. As well as turning up the kind of issues that previous research into dictionary use has uncovered – such as users not looking beyond the first translation offered – her research highlighted how error-strewn the app was, the overconfidence of the participants in their own knowledge and linguistic judgments, and their overconfidence in the reliability of the app. Definitely lots of food for thought for ELT teachers and an issue I don’t think can be overemphasized.

More reports will be appearing on the website in the coming weeks and now we’ve come full circle with the call for proposals for this year’s awards just launched. If you have a special interest in dictionaries in ELT and an idea for a research project, take a look at the website for more information about previous projects and this year’s call for proposals.

Work on Your Idioms/Phrasal Verbs

This morning, I received shiny new copies of two books I worked on at the beginning of the year; Work on Your Idioms and Work on Your Phrasal Verbs, both published by Collins.

They’re second editions of books originally written by Cheryl Pelteret, Jamie Flockhart and Sandra Anderson published back in 2012, suitable for either self study or classroom use. I was asked to work on new editions, together with Penny Hands, to add new material and make changes in two main areas.

Updating

Both books cover the most frequently-used idioms and phrasal verbs in English. So, one of the first questions we had to ask was whether the frequency lists that the first editions were based on might have changed in what was probably 10 years since the initial research. Working together with the in-house corpus team at Collins, we reviewed the lists for each book and identified a number of items that had declined in use (in some cases, quite dramatically) and found replacements that had pushed their way up the rankings.

We also cast an eye over all the material with a view to contemporary social norms and lifestyles, and Penny did a fantastic job of sourcing what we hope is an interesting, useful, and diverse set of new images.

Extending practice

Each of the titles is organized into 25 thematic units made up of 4 pages. In the first editions, the first two pages consisted of definitions and examples of the target phrasal verbs or idioms, followed by two pages of practice exercises. Feedback from users had suggested that they’d like more practice, so with some clever redesigning, the second edition has all the definitions in a neat table on the first page of each unit, freeing up an extra page per unit for more practice.

I was able to make use of this extra practice space to take learners beyond activities focusing predominantly on meaning and form. For the phrasal verbs, we added more work on things like collocations and grammar patterns, and for the collocations, we were able to give more space to looking at usage, context and connotation, and also variation in form.

Find out more …

I’ll be writing in more detail about the books, some of the research we did, and the changes we made in a couple of upcoming posts on the Collins ELT blog – so keep an eye out for those. Or take a look at the books on the Collins website here – Work on Your Phrasal Verbs and Work on Your Idioms.

Oxford Discover Futures

Last year, I was involved in writing for a new series of coursebooks by OUP aimed at teenagers called Oxford Discover Futures. I wrote ‘Writing workshop’ sections for the two highest level student books; level 5/B2+ and level 6/C1. I’ve just received a copy of level 5 and level 6 is due out later in the year.

I was asked to come in for the higher levels, in part, because of my background in EAP. The two highest levels are aimed at students at the end of high school, so are starting to look ahead to the kind of writing skills needed in higher education. Each six-page workshop introduces and practises a different text type and in these two, we looked at summaries and academic essays.

Whilst the subskills we wanted to practise were very familiar to me, finding appropriate topics as a focus proved to be more of a challenge. Because coursebook series are often written more-or-less in level order, the writers of the highest levels always get last dibs on topics, with editors keen not to repeat too closely themes that have been covered in other books. Which can sometimes prove really challenging! After lots of discussions with my editor, for level 5, we finally settled on a broad theme of ‘learning’ with two texts that provided the focus of summary writing tasks – one about what we learn from siblings as we’re growing up and the second about lifelong learning.

For me, it was quite a short project and just a small contribution to the series, but a really interesting writing challenge.

#iELT21: dictionary skills in digital times

I have a number of online talks and webinars coming up through the autumn and one I’m looking forward to is Innovate ELT on 1-2 October.

Last year, I presented on the topic of language change from my holiday cottage in the Isle of Wight and this year, once again, the event’s clashing slightly with a staycation. I’ll be missing the first day of the conference as I travel home from a much-needed break in Cornwall, but I’ll be straight back into work mode as I give a session about dictionary skills in digital times on the Saturday morning.

I’ll be looking at some of the benefits and pitfalls of learners looking up vocabulary online and giving a bit of an overview of the tools that are out there – what’s suitable for learners and what’s not. I’ll also be stressing the importance of teachers knowing about online dictionary tools so they can guide their learners in the right direction.

You can find out more about the event, about all the other great speakers and register here.

A Zoomy week

Over the past year, I seem to have spent slightly less time on Zoom than a lot of my colleagues, so I’ve largely escaped the phenomena of Zoom fatigue. The past week or so, though, has been quite Zoomy.

TEFL Commute podcast: First, I joined Shaun Wilden, Lindsay Clandfield and Ceri Jones via Zoom to record an episode of the TEFL Commute podcast on the theme of words. We chatted about words we love (and hate), untranslatable words and new words we’ve come across recently. It was good fun and lovely to catch up with them all. You can tune in to hear our wordy picks and musings here.

NATESOL 2021: Then, I had the pleasure of giving the opening plenary for the NATESOL Annual Conference on the theme of language change and its relevance in the ELT classroom. I’d originally meant to be delivering the talk in Manchester last May, but like so many other events, the conference was first postponed and then went online. It was a shame that I didn’t get to meet the NATESOL organizers – who I’d got to know quite well over a year of to-ing and fro-ing and discussing changes! – and the NATESOL members. However, they still managed to generate a really friendly atmosphere for the online event and I thoroughly enjoyed both giving the talk and also interacting afterwards in the Q&A and via Twitter.

I was particularly pleased to get such positive feedback on the way I dealt with emerging language around identity. I’ve been trying to learn more recently about issues around diversity and inclusion, attending a number of webinars, reading articles and blog posts, and just generally listening to different voices. So it was really good to hear that I’d managed to raise an important topic in a way that seemed to hit the right note.

A masterclass on how to integrate language change and allyship into our TESOL practice in an engaging inclusive manner that invites discussion.

Emily Downes (via Twitter)

Collins webinars: Then I just had time to pause and reset ahead of two webinars for Collins ELT about vocabulary teaching. Both sessions attracted a wonderfully international audience with over 300 participants across the two sessions from countries as diverse as Romania, India, Peru and Botswana, all joining in with the chat and the Q&A. Thanks to everyone who tuned in and contributed.

The #StetWalk Community

One of the things I love about being a freelancer in a digital world is all the different professional communities I get to be part of. There are ELT teachers, ELT writers and the wider ELT freelancer community. There are lexicographers and corpus linguists. I’m part of my local Society of Authors group. And over the past year or so, I’ve become part of a fabulous #StetWalk community who I share my walk breaks with.

‘Stet’ is an editing term which means “let it stand” – an editor writes it in the margin when they cross something out then change their mind and want to leave it in. US editor, Tanya Gold, adopted the StetWalk hashtag to describe when an editor (or writer) stands up from their desk and goes out for a walk to take a physical and mental break from staring at their screen.

Check out the video below to meet some of my fellow #StetWalkers and to see how I snuck into an American editors’ conference!

https://t.co/CVT63T38ot?amp=1

#coronaversary: rollouts and re-entry

It’s a year today since we went into our first lockdown here in the UK. As someone with lots of contacts in countries who’d gone into lockdowns earlier, I was already being quite cautious, so I don’t have a last pre-lockdown photo gathered with friends doing ‘normal’ things to share. It has been a chance to reflect back on the last 12 months though personally, professionally and of course, linguistically.

In my series of ten blog posts last summer, I examined some of the new language to come out of the pandemic – or coronavocab – and in my latest post, I give a bit of an update on some of the new trends and expressions that are coming to characterize the kind of language we’re using to talk about what’s going on in 2021. I look at coronavirus vs. Covid, jabs vs. shots, rollouts and re-entry.

Read the full post here.

A.S.Hornby Dictionary Research Awards

In recent months, I’ve become involved with the A.S. Hornby Educational Trust as a member of their expert panel for the A.S.Hornby Dictionary Research Awards initiative (ASHDRA). It’s an interesting new role and something I’m really looking forward to being part of it. The scheme aims to facilitate innovative research into areas of lexicography that will feed into practical benefits for learners of English.

We’re particularly interested in research in the following areas:

  • Research into low-cost lexicographic resources to improve the learning and teaching of English in under-resourced classrooms in public education contexts
  • Classroom research into how learners currently use dictionaries with a view to making recommendations to improve classroom practice
  • Research geared to the development of teacher and / or learner training in the use of dictionaries and other lexicographic resources to enhance English language learning
  • Critical evaluation of available lexicographic resources (electronic or paper) with proposals and accompanying materials for improving their pedagogical effectiveness
  • An investigation of the potential role of dictionaries and/or other lexicographic resources for pupils in schools in English-speaking countries for whom English is an additional language, with proposals and accompanying materials.
  • Research geared to the development of lexicographic resources which go beyond the scope of conventional dictionaries and are of practical use for EL learners

The call for proposals for the 2021 award is now open and we welcome proposals for both academic and practitioner research. So, if you’re interested in dictionaries in ELT and have an idea for a research project, find out more on the Hornby website. I’m really looking forward to seeing the range of proposals that come in.

2020 Projects

It’s that time of year when we all tend to look back on what we’ve achieved in the past 12 months. Working in publishing though, it’s often difficult to talk about what you’ve been working on. Most projects are confidential until they’re published, which is generally quite a few months after you’ve finished work on them, so you mostly end up talking about what you did last year.

In some ways, that’s been the case in 2020, with quite a few projects I worked on in 2019 coming out this year. The year started off with the publication in paperback of How To Write EAP Materials – previously only available as an ebook, now in print and in an updated edition. And in case you missed it, I also created a linked series of videos about some of the things to consider when writing materials for EAP teachers.

Cover image of How to Write EAP Materials

March saw the publication of a position paper I wrote for OUP about the updated Oxford 3000:

Image of position paper entitled "The Oxford 3000 and Oxford 5000: The most important words to learn in English"

And in June, new editions of the COBUILD Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Dictionaries, which I’d been involved in updating, came out:

Cover images of the COBUILD Idioms Dictioary fourt edition and the COBUILD Phrasal Verbs Dictionary fourth edition

While in December, the new edition of IELTS Common Mistakes (CUP), which I’d worked on updating earlier in the year, was published:

Cover image of IELTS Common Mistakes for bands 6.0-7.0

Unusually, I can also talk a bit about some of the things I’ve been working on this year, even though they haven’t quite been published yet. I’ve worked on two series of books which have at least been made public already, so I think that means I can mention them.

Throughout the year, I’ve worked on various stages of a series for Cambridge English aimed at pupils in international schools whose second language is English; Global English. It’s the second edition of a coursebook series that goes through primary to lower secondary. I’ve worked on 6 levels in the series in total, researching common learner errors in the key markets for the books to feed into usage notes and targeted practice for the workbooks. For some levels, I carried out research and prepared reports to pass onto workbook authors and for several levels, I did both the research and the writing. The books are due for publication next year, so look out for more news then.

Image of Cambridge University Press Global English series with cover images of three books in the series

I also worked on two levels of Oxford Discover Futures, aimed at secondary level EFL students. I was involved in creating writing workshops for students’ books at the two highest levels, again forthcoming early next year, so watch this space for more details.