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)

photo credit: Raul P cc

Learn to spell with poetry

Anyone who has had to learn English as a second language knows how irregular and complex English spelling can be.  Unlike other languages English has never had any kind of regulating authority and attempts to reform spelling have usually met with failure.  Even amongst native speakers it is not uncommon for well-educated native speakers to have poor spelling.

One of the amusing side-effects of the chaos of English orthography is the number of poems that have been written to illustrate the many alternative spellings of different sounds. The following poem has made the rounds of school English text-books since the 1960s:

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead –
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!

Quoted by Vivian Cook and Melvin Bragg 2004,
by Richard Krogh, in D Bolinger & D A Sears, Aspects of Language, 1981,
and in Spelling Progress Bulletin March 1961, Brush up on your English.

What do you think – should English spelling be simplified?  Would it ever work?  The Spelling Society thinks so, and you can find several more poems like the one above on their site.

I rather like the irregularity of English spelling.  Strange spelling often has something to say about  the history of a word, where it came from, under what circumstances it was borrowed into the language.  Memorising irregular spelling is good mental training for children, and helps with learning other languages.  Without it there would be no Spelling Bees and no poems like the one above.

Using these poems for language learning: as a teacher

Create a gap fill dication where you blank out the words containing the particular irregular spellings that you want to focus on.  Read the poem aloud and have learners fill in the blanks.  Check the answers together.

OR make a recording of your own voice reading the poem (I would use Audacity).  Then have learners make their own recording, and have them compare the two.  They should highlight those words that they got wrong.  This can be done using a language lab or as an asynchronous online activity.

…or as a learner

Read the poems aloud, and each time you see a word you are not sure of, underline it.  Then use an audio dictionary to check the pronunciation.  For this you could try WordReference or The Free Dictionary.

For more resources to help with English spelling:
Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (4th Edition) (Words Their Way Series)
How to Spell Like a Champ

EFL writing lessons that work

1013331_sunset_silhouetteTeaching writing effectively in a general EFL class is not only possible but also rewarding both for learners and teachers. But for me it wasn’t always that way.

Of the four skills taught in the EFL classroom, writing was probably the one I most neglected. For years I loved the idea of teaching writing, but there seemed to be so many obstacles. I resigned myself to waiting until the day some director of studies would hand me my first specialist writing course, and hoped in the meantime that my students wouldn’t notice the suspicious absence of writing from my weekly offerings.

Course book writing activities never seemed to work for me. It didn’t matter how well the activity was presented, I would always end up with a group of learners chewing their pencils, rolling their eyes and sighing conspicuously. Writing lessons would be hastily cobbled into speaking activities, and I would resolve not to try again until I was sure the learners had forgotten their previous underwhelming experience doing writing with me. I seemed to be up against a number of factors I had no control over:

  • Learners who naturally enjoy writing seem to be a rare breed
  • An ESL learner who suffers from writer’s block is just as likely to struggle with writing in his native language. The skill of writing does not seem to correlate with one’s level in a given language: proficiency in one is no guarantee of success in the other.
  • Writing activities are often too time-consuming for the limited hours allotted to the EFL classroom.
  • Having been nursed into English teaching on the milk of the communicative method I was allergic to any activity that required long periods of silence and learners working on their own.
  • Many learners struggle with a sense of « why do I need this? » Speaking more fluently is held up as the benchmark of language-learning success, and learners can’t see how writing activities might advance that goal.

So what changed? Observing my own children learn has had a surprising influence on the way I teach adults. They taught me something which is so fundamental that I don’t see how I could have missed it, namely that when learning cognitive and communicative skills, progress in one area benefits all the others. The application of this to the EFL classroom is that becoming a better writer will also make you a better speaker, reader and listener. My lack of success teaching writing was largely due to my tendency to separate writing from all the other skills. I needed to approach writing in a much more holistic way.

I have Mario Rinvolucri to thank for an activity, which launched me into teaching writing holistically. I was amazed the first time I tried it to observe a group of (adult, upper intermediate/B2) learners sit down for about an hour, and happily write 300-word texts that were genuinely interesting to read. The key was in the preparation:

1. In the first class I explain that in the following session we will be working on fluency in writing. They need to choose a topic to write about such as:

  • a childhood memory
  • an interesting story I have been told (true or fiction)
  • an exciting experience I had recently (e.g. while on holiday) etc.

The activity works better if learners choose a subject that is not well known to their classmates

2. Learners then produce a mind-map of their story. For me they get the concept more easily if I first demonstrate mind-mapping a story that is well known to the class:mindmap

This goes a long way to addressing the problem of writers’ block.

3. Once they have a strong mental picture of the story they will be writing, I ask them to write 8-10 comprehension-type questions about the plot. They then exchange their questions with a classmate, who reads them and seeks to write answers to them based on what he imagines to be the content of his classmate’s story. At this stage look for fluency over accuracy. The teacher should supply language as necessary, but not correct unless asked to. This has multiple benefits: apart from preparing better written fluency through prior practice in useful language structures, crafting questions also enables focus on the overall flow of the text, and exercising the reading skill may supply useful vocabulary.

4. The next activity absolves the communicative teacher from his guilt over having a silent classroom: learners swap their answers to the questions with their partners. More reading, usually a few laughs, and then lots of speaking practice as learners correct their partner’s answers or confirm them as they narrate to them the story that they will be writing about. This enables them to practice the flow of the story in preparation for writing, and further anchors the different elements in the memory.

This way, when the actual writing activity begins, learners have 3 documents to support them: the mind-map, the list of « comprehension questions » and their partner’s written answers to the questions. Generally I have found that by this time the writing just flows, learners are satisfied with their work, and you end up with a large corpus of written work to serve as a base for all kinds of follow-up activities.

The whole activity usually takes about 1 ¾ to 2 hours, which can be divided between two sessions.

This illustrates the combination of reading, writing, listening and speaking holistically in a meaningful activity that, while specifically intended to improve written fluency, gives learners the opportunity to practice all the skills simultaneously. And not only that, it’s fun.