How to avoid errors with adverbs #1

targetWhat do the following sentences have in common?

*She speaks very well English.
*I go often to the theatre
*We’re tomorrow leaving for Belgium
*I think we should go early to bed.

Each of the sentences contains an adverb. An adverb is a word that usually answers questions like ‘how?’, ‘when?’, ‘where?’ or ‘why?’.

In each of the sentences above, although the sentences are quite understandable, the word order is incorrect.  The position of adverbs can be quite a confusing area of English grammar, for a variety of reasons.  Many English teachers are influenced by a false idea about adverbs that they probably learnt at school, namely that adverbs are ‘words that modify verbs’. This is only a small part of what the versatile adverb can do. It can also modify adjectives, numbers, clauses, whole sentences and other adverbs. The only thing that an adverb can’t modify, in fact, is a noun. This makes the adverb a kind of ‘catch-all’ category of words that don’t fit in any other category.

Another false idea that you might have learnt: ‘adverbs are words that end in -ly’. It is true that many adverbs do end in -ly, but friendly, lovely, lonely, likely, ugly, deadly, cowardly and silly are all adjectives, and cannot be used as adverbs.

There are also some adjectives in -ly that can be used as adverbs, such as daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, early. For example:

I have to wake up early to catch the early train.

The other confusing thing is that there are three possible positions for an adverb in a sentence:

1. initial position – before subject and verb (Frankly, I think she’s lying.)
2. mid position – between subject and verb (John definitely saw a lion behind that tree.)
3. end position – after subject and verb (As a child I used to be punished daily)

Some kinds of adverbs can only go in one position:

I have to say Fortunately Peter sold his house before the prices went down. It would be unusual to say *Peter fortunately sold… and impossible to say *Peter sold fortunately…

Other kinds of adverbs can go in two of the positions:

Yesterday we took the children to the zoo and We took the children to the zoo yesterday are both possible, but not *We yesterday took…

And still other adverbs can go in all three positions:

Occasionally we go to the cinema, We occasionally go… and We go occasionally are all possible.

Another thing to realise is that sometimes errors of adverb position are serious enough to cause misunderstanding:

Naturally, she gave birth and She gave birth naturally do not mean the same thing.

But in other situations errors are not serious, just a bit odd.

The problem with lumping all of these very diverse words into one category is that it can make learning the rules about how to use them seem complicated. This post is the first in a series where we will look at some of the different kinds of adverbs and how they behave.

Did you manage to correct the problems in the sentences at the beginning of the post?

She speaks English very well.

I often go to the theatre.

We’re leaving for Belgium tomorrow.

I think we should go to bed early.

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Could live online language learning be right for you?

internet-at-homeThere has been a lot of ‘buzz’ in recent years concerning virtual learning environments (VLEs), and the many forms of online learning have moved from the fringes to the centre of discussions about the advancement of technology in education.  So much has been written about it that one can’t help but wonder whether there are more people writing about VLEs (virtual learning environments) than those who are actually using them.

Even the term is ambiguous: sceptics will ask whether it the environment that is virtual, or the learning.  As a fairly new practitioner in the use of VLEs for language learning, I am cautiously optimistic about the genuine learning potential afforded by online environments.

6 reasons to learn a language live online.

1.  Study in the comfort of your own home.

There is no question that environment influences learning.  An environment that you’re familiar with, that has positive connotations, and that has a relaxed feel will be more conducive to productive learning than a sterile, windowless classroom – it’s a no brainer.  It’s great to be able to turn up to « class » in your pyjamas if you so desire.

2. Enjoy the flexibility of being able to select hours that suit you.

Live online language learning can take place early in the morning, during work hours, late at night, even in the middle of the night if you’re one of those fortunate people who don’t need much sleep.  You can find language trainers in virtually any time zone so there are no restrictions, and there are free online tools available to help you « arrive » on time for your class no matter where in the world your trainer may be working from.

3. Benefit from a huge variety of language learning tools and opportunities on the Internet with a trainer who is able to help you navigate through them.

I just googled « learn english online » and turned up 186,000,000 results.  One of the big problems is knowing where to start.  Out of the top ten ranking sites, most are either directories, or sites with a multitude of links for self-study activities that you can access online.  How do you know which activites are adapted to your level and to your specific learning style and language needs?  Too much choice can be demotivating.  Part of the role of a live online trainer is to point you in the direction of resources that are uniquely suited to you.

4. Enjoy personal contact with a personal language trainer or coach who can help you practice using your language in a variety of contexts.

Live online cannot replace real face to face communication, but can be surprisingly close to the real thing.    Back to my « learning english online » search, only two of the top 10 are offering live online learning, but in pre-packaged units that may or may not correspond to your needs.  Some of the courses on offer have the feel of talking to a machine.   This is where personalised live online training can fill in the gaps in classroom language learning as it makes individual tuition or micro-group learning accessible to anyone with a broadband Internet connection.

5. Practice your language in simulated ‘real life’ situations in virtual worlds.

second-lifeThis is the topic for another article, but the realism of virtual worlds like Second Life affords a level of simulation that is far beyond what you could experience in a traditional classroom role play situation.  Language teaching in virtual worlds is still a very new and experimental field, and technically quite complex.  But for those hardy teachers and learners willing to give it a go, the sky really is the limit.

6. Take control of your learning.

The best language-learners are self-motivated, and know how to leverage their particular passions and interests to help them make progress.  I was reminded of this during a brief end-of-semester chat with a student whose mastery of English is quite remarkable compared with many of his peers.  My assumption that he had lived in an English-speaking country was unfounded.  Instead, he told me of his passion for rap and American movies: he has been able to achieve an exceptional level of English just doing what he enjoys.  This is applicable to any kind of learning, not just live online.  But the application to live online is the potential for the ‘teacher’ to become more of a ‘personal trainer’ – helping you source materials on subjects you are passionate about and exploiting them for improving your language skills.  This is a good recipe for keeping motivation levels high.

4 possible disadvantages of live online

1.  Not everyone finds it easy to learn the technology.

Live online learning does require a certain level of digital literacy, and it is not necessarily the best option for people who are easily frustrated by technology.  A good trainer will patiently spend the necessary time to ensure the learner is up to speed technically, and will give support throughout the training sessions.

2.  The inevitable bugs and crashes, and the time lag which can hinder natural communication when the quality of the Internet connection varies.

Although the technology is improving all the time, these are common problems which need to be faced.  But a good live online trainer will always have a contingency plan to fall back on, and technical hiccups can even be turned into good learning opportunities if handled correctly.

3. Absence of body language and other visual cues.

All right, this is where I have to agree with the sceptics.  There is no question that this is a drawback in live online learning.  In natural communication, and particularly when speaking a foreign language, interpreting visual cues and even lip-reading are important communication aids.   Communication via webcam is obviously a great improvement on audio-only telephone communication, but perfect resolution and lagless video are still a way off.

But is this enough of a drawback to discourage learning live online?  No, for the simple reason that face to face communication is only one of many mediums where we need to use our second, third or fourth language.  These days in the course of our daily work we are just as likely to communicate over the telephone, voice or text chat or video conference.  This means that learning to communicate well without relying on the usual visual cues is vital.

4. A lot of educators are excited about live online learning, but the quality of training varies considerably.

One common failing of live online training is the tendency to try and simply recreate the old familiar classroom situation in a virtual environment.  Unfortunately this results in having to put up with all the disadvantages of both worlds, while missing out on the advantages.   Some excellent teacher training for virtual environments now exists, and things are only going to improve.  But in the meantime it can be difficult to know whether you are getting value for money.

When all is said and done, live online language learning is here and happening.  It is too early to consider it ‘mainstream’ but it is being adopted in all kinds of learning contexts.

Find out more about live online language learning opportunities with

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Improve pronunciation through shadow reading

pronunciationIn the world of online language learning, have you come across the field of « accent reduction » and « accent reduction trainers »?  When I see this I’m concerned about false advertising on the one  hand and false hopes on the other.  The notion of « accent » is extremely subjective.  Most of the English learners I spend time with have what many might consider a « French » accent, but although there are some common features in the sounds of their speech, there are as many « French » accents as there are students.  Which « French » accent are we referring to?  Furthermore, is it necessarily a « bad » thing to have French-sounding English (or German, Chinese, Hispanic…)?  A French accent may grate on the ears of another French English-speaker, but to native English speakers it can sound exotic and sophisticated.

Rather than talking about « accent » it is more helpful to distinguish between clear and unclear pronunciation.   Often it is not « accent reduction » that is required, but rather training in how to produce sounds that do not occur in the learner’s L1 (native language) and how to speak with English-sounding intonation.  The latter is certainly more difficult to achieve.

Taking the example of French learners (the example I know best), it is not usually mistakes in pronunciation that hinders communication, but rather unusual intonation.  French and English intonation are very different, and I find this one of the hardest areas in which to help learners.  French speech is timed by its syllables – every syllable has the same value (think machine gun).  English, rather, is timed by stress: the rhythm of words is determined by the stressed syllable, and the rhythm of a sentence by the words that are emphasised (think Morse code).  Native English speakers are good at adapting to non-standard pronunciation because of the huge variety in world English.  But we are not so good at adapting to differences in intonation.  Try saying an English sentence giving every syllable the same value and not stressing any particular words.  The result is likely to be unintelligible.

This is where shadow-reading comes in as a useful technique for intonation and pronunciation training.  Not every learner catches on to the value of this immediately as it seems counter-intuitive, but once you « get » it, it’s almost guaranteed to improve your speaking if it is done regularly.

Prerequisite: learners need to be good at sourcing audio material on the Internet on subjects that interest them, downloading podcasts, and need to have regular listening integrated into their language-learning programme.  This is a must for students anyway, and the possibilities are endless.  To get you started:

Listening and Reading Comprehension with Online Books

A fun way to Develop Listening Comprehension


ESL Cyber Listening Lab

Talk About English (BBC Learning English)


Audio material with transcripts works best, and monologues (talks, reports etc.) work better than dialogues (conversations, interviews etc.).  The speech should be somewhat slower than normal conversational speed, but not unnaturally slow.

The lower the level, the more assistance the learner will need to source appropriate materials.  It is not essential that the learner master all the vocabulary in the material, however, the more they understand, the more motivating the activity.

There are two ways of approaching shadow-reading.

With script.

1. Listen to the material once or twice to understand the gist of the article.

2. Listen again and this time try to highlight or underline the stressed words in each sentence, and any pronunciation that is unexpected.

3. Play again and this time read along with the speaker, trying as much as possible to mimic their intonation.

4. Finally, practice reading the text aloud without the audio.  Ask a trainer for comments if you have one available.

5. (Optional)  Record your reading of the text using Audacity.  As a follow up activity you can then listen to your own voice, and then the original audio, and note any differences you hear.

Without script (for more advanced learners).

1. Listen to the material once or twice to understand the gist of the article.

2. Replay the audio and this time, speaking aloud, try to « shadow » the speech by repeating what is said immediately after you hear it, trying to mimic the speaker’s intonation.

3.  Repeat the activity until you can shadow the whole article without missing words (you may need to check the script for any unknown words).

4. (Optional).  You can easily turn this into a writing or speaking activity.  After you have listened a few times, rewrite the speech in your own words according to what you remember, OR practice giving the speech in your own words without any support from the text.  This can be recorded using Audacity, and played back to your teacher/trainer or a native speaker for comments.

These activities don’t have to be done with a trainer (doing myself out of a job here!)  However, one disadvantage of doing it alone is that we don’t always notice our own pronunciation or intonation errors, especially if they are bad habits that we have developed over time.  Live online language training gives you this opportunity, in your own time, and without having to leave your home.  Contact us for more details.

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How to learn academic vocabulary in context

How many words do I need to get the score I need in the TOEFL or the TOEIC?

This is a question often asked, and a difficult one to answer exactly.   The Linguist , Steve Kaufmann recommends that to achieve a score of 750 or higher in the TOEIC the optimum time to sit the test is when a learner has reached a vocabulary of 7 – 8,000 words.  An increase of 100 points in the TOEIC could represent an increase of about 2,000 words in your vocabulary.

Which words do I need?

Although estimating the total number of words in English is a nearly impossible task, the 600,000 definitions in the Oxford English dictionary give an indication that English vocabulary is indeed vast.  Some estimate that 25,000 new words are added to the language each year.

So, where should I start?

There are a number of tools to help with this and one is the Academic Word List.  It was compiled from a corpus of over 400 written academic texts in 28 different subject areas.  The result is a list of 570 academic words grouped according to frequency.

Some ideas for using the AWL.

Just memorising lists of vocabulary is not only boring but also an ineffective way of adding new words to your vocabulary.  The words are much more likely to stick if you learn them in the context , by reading material that you are interested in.
The AWL provides an easy way of finding academic vocabulary in articles on subjects that interest you.  For example lets take a recent article out of The New Scientist, Time to shrink the atomic clock.  Copy the text of the article and paste it into the AWL Highlighter, choose the level of words you would like to study (1 is the most frequent, 10 includes all the words in the list including the least frequent), and click submit.  This will produce a copy of the article with all the words highlighted so you can learn them in context.

To test yourself further, you can come back to the same text a week later, and create a gap-fill exercise based on the words that you learnt.  Paste the text into the AWL Gapmaker, decide whether you would like the list of words to appear as a list at the bottom of the document or not, and click submit.  A free online gapfill exercise will open, testing the exact words you have been working on.

Academic vocabulary in this blog post: academic, achieve, areas, compiled, context, create, definitions, document, estimate, highlighted, indication, submit, task, text.

How well do you know these words?  You can test yourself with a gapfill created using the AWL based on this post.

Academic Word List (AWL)

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Building vocabulary through spaced repetition

When it comes to vocabulary learning there’s a lot to be said for learning by rote.

At this point a lot of language teachers will probably close this page and never come back.  « Traditional » methods of memorising vocabulary have become very unfashionable.  New words must be learnt in context or not at all!

I really like the theory of learning vocabulary naturally in context, as this mimics the way we acquire our first language as children.  But I wonder if we are not being a little optimistic when we seek to recreate the environment of first language acquisition in the methods we use to teach adults (or adolescents) a second language.

For one thing, children learn very differently to adults.  They are not conscious of learning the way that adults are; learning happens as if by accident.  Adults learn « on purpose », using methods that they have consciously chosen.  We lose a lot of the natural learning capacity of children as we grow older, and need tools to assist us in learning.  Some of these tools can seem quite « artificial » in comparison.  This is why rote memorisation of vocabulary has been so criticised.

Perhaps it is time to rehabilitate vocabulary memorisation.  OK, it’s not very exciting, but a couple of questions might be in order: is vocabulary building in a foreign language worth it?  If we see it as valuable, is it worth some discipline and effort?  Does all learning really have to be « fun »?  Or are we willing to sweat a little bit in order to reach the goal of communicating more effectively in our foreign language?

I am not an expert in second language acquisition theory, but a language learner and teacher.  These observations are based on experience, not research, so it is quite possible that I have drawn some faulty conclusions.  That said I have noticed as an adult learner that although reading in a foreign language is my preferred context for learning new vocabulary, if I don’t note the new vocabulary and have some method for revising it, I don’t learn it.  My considerations from the teaching point of view are much more pragmatic: I find that intentionally teaching vocabulary in context requires a lot of work and preparation that I don’t always have time for.  It’s one thing to organise a reading or listening activity where you just highlight the vocabulary that happens to occur in the material, but this is very  haphazard.  Teaching vocabulary that is « useful » on the other hand (whether from the point of view of word frequency or  the specific purposes for which the learner requires the language) necessitates hours of searching for materials that  contain the target vocabulary.

So I come back again to word lists.  I’ve made it one of my goals this year to increase my repertoire of activities and tools for memorising vocabulary effectively.  In terms of technology, we have already reviewed the online flashcard system Popling.  Today I came across another tool which seems to fit the way my brain works better, so I took it for a test drive.

AnkiThe app. is appropriately named Anki, the verb for « memorise » in Japanese.  It has some similarities to Popling, although its designer seems to have given more thought to how the memory actually works.  It is marketed as a « Spaced Repetition System », and recognises that memorisation is actually work,  not the « learning without studying » that Popling advertises.  The idea behind spaced repetition is that memory loss slows down considerably when a memorised item is reviewed at appropriate intervals.

Anki is obviously a real labour of love.  It is a work in development though. the interface is not quite as sharp, the help a bit limited and I didn’t find it as intuitive to use.

You can create your own flashcard piles or « decks », or import one of a large number of existing decks (contributed by users so of varying quality).  Anki is very definitely oriented toward language-learning, although it could also be put to good use in other disciplines requiring memorisation.  There is a bent toward Asian languages in the list of available decks.

Some of the features:

  • screencasts for a quick introduction to how it works
  • desktop and online synchronisation so you can study anywhere
  • possibility of sharing decks, and for teachers to « push » materials to a number of students at once.
  • intelligent scheduler which allows you to very easily categorise a flashcard according to difficulty.  Anki will calculate the interval between revisions according to whether you remembered the item easily, with difficulty or not at all.
  • flashcards are quite configurable, and Anki can handle very large decks, even up to 100,000 +.
  • a growing directory of plugins
  • Anki it is completely free, although a donation is in order for a truly useful application.

Popling has the advantage of flashing cards up while you are doing other things which is the idea behind « learning without studying ».  Not everyone enjoys such interruptions, however.  Anki requires you to be a lot more intentional, setting aside specific learning times, although you have a lot of freedom to determine how much time you spend and the number of items you want to revise for memorisation each day.

More on Spaced Repetition Systems.

For general information on building vocabulary, I recommend the following resources:

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