Posts Tagged ‘Vocabulary’

Working with discrete vocabulary items

February 16, 2014 6 comments

It’s a given that learning words in isolation is not particularly helpful when it comes to learning a foreign language. Words rarely appear in isolation when we communicate, and ELT has come a long way from the days in which vocabulary appeared as single words in a vocabulary box to the presentation of manageable language chunks. Nowadays, I don’t think it takes a lot of convincing to persuade teachers about the benefits of chunks, meaningfulness and personalisation of vocabulary. However, is there any occasion in which presenting language items out of a context can be helpful? Maybe yes, and this activity is likely to come in handy should you be forced to teach words in isolation, or in case you just feel like doing so from time to time.

Suppose you’d like your students to learn how to properly use a dictionary. What if you write a bunch of words on the board – connected to a topic of study if you use a course book, or simply random words to start a lesson – and ask them to work on the meaning of these words? Then, you get them to discuss their opinion with a partner and see if they agree or not. At this stage, give them some chunks of language (on slips of paper) to express their opinion, agree and disagree, and ask about someone’s opinion. After they’ve finished discussing, elicit from the pairs / small groups what their definitions were. Don’t tell them if they were right or wrong just yet. Instead, get them to open their dictionaries and check if their guesses were right.

There is just way too much information in a good learner's dictionary for students to focus only on meaning. | Source: Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

Eat humble pie – There is just way too much information in a good learner’s dictionary for students to focus only on meaning. Who’s to blame when they don’t see it? | Source: Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

Most students will probably stop at the definition of the word, which is the least import piece of information a good learner’s dictionary has. Unfortunately, most students are oblivious to the plethora of information they may obtain from their dictionaries. Teachers who fail to teach students how to properly use a dictionary are also failing in one of their most important objectives: making him or herself less and less needed for providing information. So, once you get your students to check the meaning of the words, it’s time to move onto the next stage – getting them to come up with original sentences using those words they’d just checked.

Should they be struggling with their sentences, or if they happen to fail to produce accurate sentences, point them to the examples of usage in the dictionary. Have them read the example sentences and ask them to focus on the words in bold (when applicable), or the sentences which have a brief explanation of a chunk in parentheses (also, when applicable).

After having read the examples in the dictionary, ask them to correct their sentences on their own. They will hopefully be able to notice some patterns of usage from the dictionary sentences and transfer these to their own sentences. Make sure you monitor accordingly and direct their attention to certain important collocations, such as ADJECTIVE + PREPOSITION, or VERB + PREPOSITION. Write their sentences on the board, or on paper, or on any other device you may use in your teaching context, and try to keep a record of the sentences they have come up with.

The focus of such an activity is not for them to learn the discrete vocabulary item per se, but they are likely to remember some of the words you have presented anyway. To make it more meaningful and a lot more relevant, you can choose these words from songs which are trending in your country at the moment (particularly good for teenagers), words and phrases from sitcoms, series and movies, or just using the news as a source. The possibilities are endless.

Finally, you should show your learners that this is the kind of procedure they could follow when they come across unknown words from reading passages in class. This is something they could do when reading more actively in order to study English and not “simply” reading for content. Needless to say, this kind of reading is very time consuming, so it’s important that you tell them to use this strategy only for one or two paragraphs of the text.

I do believe that by doing so you’ll be helping your learners think more about the language, noticing more, and, most importantly, even though you’re teaching them words in isolation, it’s easy to see that you’ve done a lot more than just teaching the words. This is likely to make their learning more memorable and, consequently, more effective. This is just one of the ideas that I use with my learners when dealing with words “in isolation”, or when we have a quick vocabulary challenge as a warmer. Get them to work on words from songs, for instance. You’ll be surprised how often it will dawn on them that they didn’t really understand what it was that they were singing before.

How about coming up with a twist to override the system when you’re pushed into doing something you don’t think that would be so effective, such as presenting vocabulary lists from students’ course books? I bet you’ll have a lot more fun – and they will learn a lot more.

World Englishes and standards

July 25, 2010 26 comments

Image by lumaxart

The idea of world Englishes, or even Globish, seems to be everywhere I look this past month. Not only was there an article by David Crystal on the Braz-TESOL magazine about world Englishes and the importance of learning a bit more about the variety of English of the country you’re going to visit – vocabulary and other features. In addition to that, the cover of the Newsweek magazine has on its cover a picture of the world saying, “Speak Globish?” what does this mean to our learners?

A couple of things that spring to mind are some conversations and articles I read a while ago when people said that nowadays people shouldn’t be so concerned about achieving native-like proficiency as there are many different varieties of the language. Non-native speakers of the language outnumber native speakers by far. Some years ago, Newsweek published an article talking about the rise of English as a lingua france where they said that there are 3 non-native speakers of the language for every native speaker. I guess there might be 4 or 5 nowadays. The trend, then, is to understand and acknowledge the differences. But this has always been something that kept me wondering: if I’m learning a language in order to be able to communicate with people from other cultures, and if this is the so-called lingua franca of the world, should teachers let their students get away with something that’s really distant from native-like pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar usage?

The first time I thought about it was probably about ten years ago. One of my students was in the Brazilian navy and he told me that anytime they met and had to talk to people from other ships, they spoke English. Now, he could easily communicate with Italians, Chileans, Spanish, French, and people from other nationalities using English. However, every time they had to talk to Americans, British, or Canadians, for instance, they couldn’t understand what they were saying and vice-versa. I’m sorry if this goes against what some people might believe in, but I truly believe there’s something wrong with this.

We learn to speak a foreign language to communicate. We study a foreign language because we want to be able to function in a foreign country using that language we’ve spent so long studying. When I think of native-like English, I’m not saying people should work exhaustively to reduce their accent, by no means! However, There are certain standards I feel that should be taken into account. Learners from languages whose rhythm is syllable-timed should learn that English is a stress-timed language. They should be taught some of the individual sounds which do not exist in their L1. And teachers ought to expect nothing but the best these students can produce.

I’ve always thought that language teachers are the worst listeners out there. Language teachers want to (and have to try as hard as they can) understand what their students are saying. We’ve got to do this if we want to recast, repeat, provide correct form, or do anything else that teachers have to do to get learners to learn the language. Things are not like that in the real world, though. One of the problems I can see there is that teachers might end up limiting their learners. By not showing learners that they do need to improve their pronunciation, to learn new words, and to change their speech to make it sound more natural, teachers are telling learners that they may be able to do whatever it is that they might want to in the foreign language. Well, sometimes simply being able to communicate and say, “me wants water” or “have a possibility is true” may be way less than what our students will need.

What if your learners end up having the chance to work for a multinational company and are chosen to become spokespeople? I’m pretty sure their chances will be way slimmer if they can’t speak English with native-like pronunciation and correct usage of vocabulary and grammar. There’s a huge gulf between being chosen by a non-profitable organisation to speak in public mainly due to your contributions to a cause and being hired by a company. It would be naive of us to say that people don’t judge you by the way you talk. This doesn’t mean using obscure words and complicated structures will get people to hold you in high regards – but being able to use the language properly and naturally certainly will.

What should be done about world Englishes and all of the varieties of English one might encounter in the world? Well, I think teachers should look at things from two different perspectives: productive and receptive skills. When it comes to productive skills (speaking and writing), learners should be taught according to high standards and, in my view, respecting the rules of the two mainstream varieties of the language – British and American English. When it comes to receptive skills (reading and listening) the more varieties we can expose our learners to, the better. If teachers can show students examples of both natives and non-natives using the language, the better we will be preparing them for the world of ‘Globish’. If you ask me, the question is not really “Speak Globish?”, but it should be “Understand Globish?”

Over to you…

A Brazilian English guide for the World Cup

June 12, 2010 9 comments

Just like the during the Olympic Games, many people simply put their lives to a halt during the World Cup. OK, at least put whatever they can on hold during the games. And, obviously, there must be some expressions used in football (or soccer) that are very regional, or only used in that particular country, by a particular group of people. Here’s a very brief tongue-in-cheek guide to Brazilian English, i.e. how would Brazilians speak if they literally translated the expressions they use here into English. After all, who doesn’t want to speak like the only 5-time champions of the world?

  • A lightning goal – when a team scores a goal very early in the game. [England scored a lightning goal when they played the USA.]
  • To swallow a chicken – when a goalkeeper fails to catch a very easy ball. This can also be called simply as “a chicken“. If it was a very easy ball to catch and the goalie doesn’t do that, you can say it was “a big fat chicken“. [The English goalie swallowed a big fat chicken in the game.]
  • A wingless pigeon – a very strong, powerful kick. [There was no way the goalie could get that wingless pigeon.]
  • A thief – A referee that isn’t good because he’s partial to one of the teams. [Brazil only lost the game because that ref was a thief.]
  • A killer (or a hit man) – A very good striker who scores lots of goals. [Ronaldo was the killer in the 2002 World Cup.]
  • A big wall – A very good goalkeeper, or a player who doesn’t let the other team go past him. [Julio César is a big wall – he’s the best goalie in the world!]


After Willy’s comment (click here to visit his blog and twitter), and a quick trip to a mall where people were watching Gana x Slovenia, I could remember a couple of other expressions people use in Brazilian Portuguese. This is their literal translation:

  • To eat the ball – A player who plays extremely well and pretty much owns the game. [Kaka and Robinho are going to eat the ball in the 2010 World Cup.]
  • A lukewarm game – When the game isn’t exciting, you say it’s a lukewarm game. [Argelia versus Slovenia was a lukewarm game.]
  • A hat – Willy reminded me of this one. This is when a player makes the ball go over another player. You can see it here. [Zidane gave a hat in Ronaldo in 2006.]
  • A pen – This is one of the most beautiful plays in football. It happens when a player gets the ball under the legs of its opponent. Again, you can see it here. [After giving the goalie a pen, the striker scored a fantastic goal!]
  • The cow’s dribble – Another one that Willy reminded me of, this one happens when a player kicks the ball to the left but runs to the right, leaving the opponent in the middle. One of the most beautiful I’ve seen is this one by Edmundo (Vasco da Gama) in a match against Manchester United in 2000. Just click here to see it.
  • To win by a big wash – This is the translation for when the game was a cakewalk for one of the teams, i.e. a very easy win with lots of goals. [Santos won the game by 8 x 1. What a big wash!]

* End of Update! *

I’m sure other Brazilian friends who are more into football than I am can contribute to this humorous guide.

What about the expressions used in your country? How would you literally translate them into English?

Categories: Fun Tags: , ,

Pronunciation, Grammar and Vocabulary

May 4, 2010 10 comments

There are three things involved in knowing a language, and these have been called “the ‘what‘” by Penny Ur in her “A course in Language Teaching“. The three ‘whats’ would be pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Needless to say, there are lots of things involved in each one of these topics. For instance, when we’re talking about grammar we can look at it from many different perspectives (Scott Thornbury has done a presentation on ‘7 ways of looking at grammar’, which you can watch here), and I myself like the idea of the 3 dimensions of looking at grammar (form, meaning and use). If we turn our attention to vocabulary, a lot has been said about it as well, and there’s even an approach that puts lexis on the spotlight. We know that there’s a lot more to learn about a word than just its meaning. Lots and lots of people have discussed/been discussing the importance of lexis in language learning these days, and grammar seems to still be the guiding principle of most curricula. What about pronunciation? (Just to make things clear from the start, I’m not talking about accent reduction, elimination or any other thing related to accents on this post. Accents are OK, but certain pronunciation problems really do hinder communication)

It seems to me there’s just so much teachers need to pay attention to that it’s easy to end up overlooking this leg of the tripod of language learning/teaching. We’ve arguably had more importance given to pronunciation these days – it’s more and more common for coursebooks to incorporate the IPA,  for example. However, it seems to me that whenever teachers have to sacrifice something due to time constraints or any other situation that may arise in the classroom, pronunciation gets it. Add to this the fact that language teachers are the worst listeners there are (well, we all try really hard to understand what our learners are saying, don’t we?) and there you go: the perfect scenario for lots of pronunciation problems. But why does this happen?

For one thing, we can look at teachers. Native speakers may sometimes feel it’s enough to model the correct pronunciation and learners will eventually pick it up, or they may simply not have been given proper training to work with those “greek” letters from the IPA. Non-native speakers, on the other hand, may not feel secure enough so as to correct learners as they themselves aren’t sure how that word should be pronounced. Oh, but if it were only the individual sounds. Teachers have to worry about supra-segmental features as well as segmental features when working with pronunciation. What if you’re teaching speakers whose rhythm of their native language is syllable-timed how to speak a stress-timed language? What I’ve noticed is that teachers tend to settle for anything they can understand and that’s it – no corrections are necessary. And right there we’re likely to have students making mistakes (which will be fossilised by the time they become aware of it) for a very long time.

Another problem might be the curriculum itself. If teachers are always pressed for time to do things, they’ll eventually have to choose to omit A or B, and guess what tends to be left out? Anyway, I guess the problem I’ve witnessed (and went through as a learner myself) is that teachers do not give pronunciation the importance it deserves in language teaching. It’s almost as if we took it for granted that learners would magically learn how to speak correctly as they progress. To be honest, I believe consciousness raising may help a lot in this regard. I’ve had many students who complained that native speakers spoke too fast or they couldn’t get any conversation in movies for the same reason, and I won’t even mention songs. But is that really so?

Having gone through this myself, I decided that the best way out would be to study. And this study is what enables me to tell my students to pay attention to how they should position their tongue in the mouth if they are to produce a certain sound correctly, or tell them which words are stressed and which are unstressed, and teach them a thing or two about elision, assimilation and intrusive sounds in connected speech. What I found out is that students from all levels tend to pay closer attention to these lessons than to vocabulary or grammar lessons – regardless of their level. (If you’re looking for a book on this, check Sound Foundations, by Adrian Underhill.)

So, if you agree that teaching a language is indeed teaching the tripod pronunciation/grammar/vocabulary, and if we’ve got a series of constraints that prevent us from doing all three as much as we feel we should at the same time, how does the following sound to you: we should work harder on pronunciation with beginners (A1/A2 students). This means we’d have to worry a lot more about correct stress and intonation. Grammar and vocabulary will also be taught, obviously, but these are rather simple at initial stages, especially these days when the English language is everywhere. Once we get students to pronounce things correctly and understand certain features of connected speech, they’ll have no problems listening to / speaking sentences in the “third conditional” (If I had spoken to my teacher, I would have been able to give you an answer.) when the time comes. After a short while (B1/B2), grammar becomes increasingly more complicated for learners. They need to learn more complex grammar structures to convey complicated messages so we shift our focus to the teaching of grammar. A while later, learners will know pretty much all they need to know in terms of grammar to communicate and we can then focus heavily on vocabulary (B2+).

Well, how does this sound to you?

Homework??? Yes, homework!

March 23, 2010 3 comments

Homework is probably frowned upon by students and teachers alike. Some teachers complain they spend too much time in class correcting homework, or sometimes they end up dictating the answers as students copy them down because of the same old excuses you can see on this guest post on 6 things. Lack of time, too many things to do, and, as usual, the “I forgot” excuse.

If we look at homework as yet another way to force down our students throat meaningless tasks which will do very little for their cognitive skills and, instead, will try to make them memorize a rule or two, then I agree it’s useless and a waste of time. If everything we do in class should be meaningful and have a clear aim, how come this isn’t true for homework? We shouldn’t assign homework because students have already bought the workbook. Much on the contrary, the workbook should be just as well written as the coursebook and allow for learners to have meaningful encounters with both grammar and vocabulary that had been previously practised in class.

In addition to all suggestions Vladimira (or maybe Vladka, as she calls herself on her blog) makes, I’d add a thing or two. First, I would tell students it’s better for them to study 15 minutes every day than to study for 2 hours straight on one day and believe their work is done. Another thing is stressing that revisiting what they’ve studied in class is important to their learning, something they, unfortunately, fail to see. This is particularly true to beginners, and I usually illustrate this by sharing a personal anecdote.

I decided to take up German lessons to see again what it meant to be a complete beginner in a language class. Needless to say, I also took the opportunity to carry out some experiments on my own, and this is what I found out: if we pay attention to classes and try to participate as much as possible, and if we do homework and study at least every other day, recycling vocabulary and grammar points at the same time that we try to remember the correct pronunciation of sentences, things are likely to work out just fine. And so, I set out to do these things until the third test, when I knew I would already have passed on account of my good marks. It was then that I did what some of our students usually do.

I decided that, as I was a very good student, and having scored above 90 on all tests so far, I might as well do without a week of classes, homework, and studying the language. I guess desperation is the right word to describe what I felt upon my return to classes. The teacher kept trying to talk to me and have me model activities, but I couldn’t understand a single word of what was being said. A week!! A single week of classes and I couldn’t understand what was going on.

This has only shown me that, yes, homework can be a very important tool if you use it properly. Meaningful tasks instead of mechanic drills of “change the sentences into the negative and into the interrogative forms” do have a positive effect on learning. Spaced intervals, repetition, but not rote learning and many other principles of vocabulary teaching which I find very useful and which I’ve read about Scott Thornbury‘s “How to teach vocabulary” may, and should, be taken into account when assigning homework.

Homework shouldn’t be banned, in my opinion. What should happen is that teachers should start looking at homework as an opportunity for students to check how much they’ve profited from the lesson and what they need further practice on. Teachers should plan homework just as they have to plan lessons.

My ELT library (part 3)

March 10, 2010 2 comments

After a long while without posting due to some new things that came up, I can finally resume my blogging activity. There are lots of things to write about, but I’ll continue the series of my ELT library and books I consider very important for any English teacher to have.

Books on vocabulary and teaching vocabulary

1. “How to teach vocabulary“, by Scott Thornbury. this is a book that’ll provide you with lots of information both on what’s important for you to know about vocabulary and on different ways to ensure vocabulary is taught appropriately. As most “How to…” series, this is an invaluable asset in any teacher’s collection.

2. “The Lexical Approach“, by Michael Lewis. As teachers and lecturers shift from Grammar to Vocabulary more and more these days, this book contains the background information you need to have in order to change the focus of your lessons from grammar to lexis. “Language is made of grammaticalised lexis, and not lexicalised grammar,” Lewis would say.

3. “Implementing the Lexical Approach“, by Michael Lewis. The logical progression after having read “the Lexical Approach”. To be honest, if you’re looking for something way more practical, you can go straight to this and the next one. However, I’d still strongly advise you take the time to read the first book.

4. “Teaching Collocation“, edited by Michael Lewis. This book contains a wealth of examples and practical ideas on using the Lexical Approach in the classroom. The author also (re-)visits the theory behind the approach. Definitely worth reading.

5. “Words in the mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon“, by Jean Aitchson. If you’d like to learn more about the ‘mental lexicon’, look no further. The book is a great source of information on how we learn words and organise them in our minds.

6. Norbert Schmitt’s “Vocabulary in Language Teaching” is also a good source of both theory and practice when it comes to vocabulary teaching.

7. Last, I’d advise you also check Stephen Pinker’s “The language instinct: how the mind creates language“. Even though it’s not as practical as the other books I mentioned on this list, it’s some serious food for thought. This book is definitely thought-provoking and it’ll (probably) make you reflect a bit on your own beliefs.

As I said before, this is not a thorough list, and I sure you can think of many other books to add to the list. Why not do that in the comments area?


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