Tackling coronavocab in ELT

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in something of a blogging marathon, posting 10 blog posts in 10 days entitled: 10 ways to tackle coronavocab. It was partly inspired by my work on ETpedia Vocabulary – which consists of sets of 10 tips for tackling different areas of vocabulary teaching. But this time, I looked at different ways in which the coronavirus pandemic has affected the way we use language and ideas for bringing that language into the ELT classroom. It aimed to highlight some of the new and trending vocabulary as an interesting starting point for short vocab activities, but it also explored ways in which that could act as a springboard for looking at more generally transferrable language points, such as word formation, collocation and phrasal verbs. In each post, I look at some of the key vocab and the stories behind it, give plenty of examples in context and suggest ideas for 3 or 4 different activities to try out with students.


Below are a list of the angles I covered – click on the links to read each one:
#1 Coronacoinages: new words that have been coined to describe the coronacoaster we’ve all been on over the past few months.
#2 Trending terms: words that have suddenly spiked in frequency as we get used to the new normal of face masks and hand sanitizer.
#3 The Science: some of the technical terms that have become so familiar to describe the pandemic and what the epidemiologists are telling us.
#4 New compounds & contexts: words that aren’t new but are being used in new ways and new combinations, think social distancing and social bubbles.
#5 Learning & Teaching: the language being used to describe the new realities of homeschooling and asynchronous teaching.
#6 Metaphors: Have we been fighting a war against the virus, hunkering down and waiting for it to pass or trying to dampen it down and snuff it out?
#7 The Stats: Do you know your R rate from your exponential growth? A look at the terms behind the numbers.
#8 Phrasal Verbs: whether things are ramping up or easing off, it seems phrasal verbs have proved popular in a crisis.
#9 Work: WFH and what collocates with Zoom – investigating new ways of working and new words to describe it.
#10 My Corona: the importance of equipping and enabling students to express how the virus has affected them, what they’re struggled with and what they can’t wait to do.

Phrasal verbs

Hopefully, the series makes an interesting read, a bit of a record of the strange times we’re all living through and provides some practical classroom ideas. I’d be really interested to hear if anyone tries any of them out with students and how they go down.


Researching new idioms and phrasal verbs

At the end of last year, I had one of those jobs that you start anticipating eagerly over breakfast each morning! I worked on the team updating two Collins COBUILD dictionaries – of phrasal verbs and idioms.


My colleague, Penny Hands, had done some of the initial work of compiling a list of possible new additions, then I had the fun of searching for them using the New Monitor corpus, part of the larger Collins Corpus, made up of the most recent data from both conventional sources (such as print media) and also social media.  I used the initial list as a starting point, but my research led me in all kinds of directions and threw up some new ideas too.

It was a fun job on several levels. Firstly, new language is always fascinating and because phrasal verbs and idioms both tend to be at the more informal end of the register scale, they’re often just inherently quite funny and playful. Then, there’s the technical challenge of constructing corpus searches to find what can be quite variable combinations of words (such as separable phrasal verbs where the object can come between the verb and the particle – push [it/the deadline] back, and variable idioms – drop the mic, drops mic, a mic drop). You want to come up with a search this isn’t too open so that it also finds too much ‘noise’ (examples that aren’t the target phrase), but isn’t too narrow so that it doesn’t find a wide enough range of the possible variations.

My findings then fed in as part of the updates to the new editions which have just come out. My post over on the Collins ELT blog gives a flavour of some of the types of things we found and added.

Language trends

Recently over on my blog, I’ve been looking into a number of language trends, some related to the current coronavirus pandemic, some more general.

Hibernation: I looked at the way people have started talking about hibernating businesses: pausing operations during the current crisis. It’s one of the few hopeful metaphors around that suggests a temporary and even natural suspension of normal life. Although I wrote the post a month ago and the process of the global economy stretching itself and waking up again is now looking like being more gradual and hesitant than it might have seemed then.


Photo by George Kendall on Unsplash

New ways of teaching and learning: In my second post, I looked at the terms we’re using to describe the new ways in which the world of education has been trying to adapt to the lack of classroom teaching. Are you talking about online teaching, remote learning or distance learning? And what about the new words (retronyms) we’ve had to adopt to distinguish those approaches from face-to-face or in-person teaching and learning or even Zoom classes?

Watching TV: Then in my most recent post, I looked into a longer term trend in the way we talk about what we watch. With more people watching content on their phones or other devices rather than sitting down in front of a conventional TV, I investigated the kind of language we might need to be teaching students to describe their contemporary lives and viewing habits.

A position paper on the Oxford 3000

Last year, OUP asked me to write a position paper about the revised Oxford 3000 and 5000 word lists, how they were compiled and their relevance to vocabulary teaching. It was a challenging task with input and feedback from a whole range of people to take into account, but fascinating nonetheless, especially as it involved bringing together academic research and classroom practice. It was great to work with such an engaged group of experts, including Paul Nation, James Milton and Marlise Horst, and to test both my grey cells and my mediation skills pulling everything together into a readable final draft.

Ox 3000 paper

The paper has now been published and is available to download via the OUP website here.

Writing for an audience of EAP teachers

The e-book I wrote some time ago – How to Write EAP Materials – has recently come out as a paperback with this lush shocking pink cover 💗

Pink paperbacks

It seemed to coincide perfectly with an EAP conference in St Andrews this weekend with the theme: “Anybody out there: addressing audiences in academic discourse”. It’s a great little conference that I’ve been to before and what better match than a session about writing EAP materials for an audience of other teachers? …

Unfortunately, for practical reasons, I couldn’t make it up to Scotland this year. Undeterred though, I’ve put together the session I would have delivered as a series of four short (6-7 min) videos. They’re divided into four ‘top tips’ about what you might need to take into account if you’re writing EAP materials (or to be honest, any classroom materials) to be used by colleagues. You can (hopefully!) access all four videos on my YouTube channel via this link.

Title slide

You can find out more about the book on the ELT Teacher 2 Writer website or just search for it on Amazon.

ETpedia Vocabulary: book of the month

When you’re working on a book, you end up so caught up in the details, especially towards the end of the editing and rewriting process, that it can be difficult to step back and ‘see the wood for the trees’.  I often find that even when a book’s published and I’m holding a copy in my hands, I’m not the best judge of whether it’s come out well because I’m still wondering whether the illustration on page 68 was the best choice or not!

So it’s really nice when you get some independent feedback. ETpedia Vocabulary has just appeared as the Book of the Month with a glowing review in the January edition of EL Gazette (free to read online).

ETpedia review (2)

Thanks to my co-authors Fiona Mauchline and Stacey H Hughes along with the rest of Pavilion team for helping to create such a great resource. #glowingwithpride

2019 in numbers

As we come to the end of 2019, I’ve inevitably been reflecting on the past 12 months. From a work perspective, the year got off to a bit of a slow start, but then picked up and turned out to be incredibly busy with a fabulous mix of different types of work, meeting new people, tackling new challenges and also just having lots of fun playing with words! Rather than an end-of-year blog post, this year I’ve put together an infographic of my working year in numbers:

2019 infographic

COBUILD English Usage: #languagetrends FYI

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.

CEU4 cover

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).

St Petersburg: talking writing

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.

Oxford: a guest lecture

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!