Finding the right words for your writing

Do you write in English?  Do you get tired of using the same old phrases and vocabulary?  Are you looking for a way to spice up your writing style?  Do you agonise over choosing the right word or combinations of words?

JustTheWord is just the tool you need.

There is a ton of online dictionaries and thesauruses out there, but sometimes time doesn’t allow an extensive search for the correct word combination.  JustTheWord combines the usefulness of both dictionaries and thesauruses in one place.  Its database is the 80,000,000 words of the British National Corpus, and it has a powerful and simple search function which produces a list of word clusters for you to choose from.

How can JustTheWord improve your writing?

Writing with JustTheWord 1Say you are writing a description of a new product for a catalogue.  You want to say that the product is « very useful », but on the page that combination looks a bit boring.  To find out what other adverbs you can use with « useful », type the word in the search bar and hit combinations.  You will receive a page with a long list of word clusters. To narrow your search, click on « ADV *useful* » at the top right of the screen, which will lead you to a manageable list of about a dozen examples of adverbs that are used to modify the word « useful ».

You like the feel of « extremely useful » and insert it in your writing.  But later as you are rereading your work, you decide that « useful » doesn’t really do the product justice. What alternatives might there be to this word?  Back to JTW for a second look.  Enter your original phrase « very useful » in the search bar, and this time select alternatives.  This will produce two lists: the list of alternatives to « very » that you have already seen, and a list of adjectives with a similar meaning to « useful » that partner with « very ».  The number beside the word combination indicates the number of times it is found in the corpus, which is also represented visually with a green bar.

Writing with JustTheWord 2The blue bar under each alternative indicates the similarity in meaning between your original phrase and the different combinations.

You decide you like the look of « very beneficial » as an alternative, but to make absolutely sure you’d like to check how the expression is used in actual written text.  Simply click on the expression, and you will see a list of excerpts from actual texts in the corpus where « very » is used with « beneficial ».  This also gives you other useful information, such as the fact that « very beneficial » can be followed by FOR or TO.Writing with JustTheWord 4

Writing with JustTheWord 3Another way that JTW helps you is that it indicates word partnerships that are either rare or simply not used in English writing.  For example, keeping with the « useful » example, you may have heard some English speakers talk about something being « real useful ».  Perhaps you are wondering if this is appropriate in written English, so you enter the phrase into the search bar and select « alternatives ».  It will return a short list of word clusters that indicate with a red bar that the combination « real useful » isn’t found anywhere in the corpus, and is therefore a bad word combination in written English (although we know from your list of « useful » combinations that « really useful » is possible).

Other ways that JTW can be used for better writing by both learners and teachers.

As a learner, if you keep a vocabulary notebook (which you should!), rather than just writing lists of words, you will retain new vocabulary better if you also write a definition and an example sentence.  JustTheWord is great for finding authentic example sentences.  Furthermore, we often remember new words better in word partnerships.

An example:

Imagine you have just learnt the word « confidence ».  JTW can show you other nouns that are regularly used in partnership with this word, thanks to the number showing the frequency of use.  If your focus is business English, you can record the following in your vocabulary notebook: « business confidence » and « consumer confidence ». You will see that « no confidence » and « self confidence » are also common.

As a teacher, you may be preparing a lesson on collocations or word partnerships, but don’t have time to dig through a dictionary or thesaurus.  Simply enter your key words into JTW, and you have a ready made list of collocations to choose from.

I’m sure you’ll agree that JTW is a very useful, extremely helpful, really beneficial, particularly valuable and especially practical tool!

Can you think of other ways to use it? Why don’t you share your ideas in the comments?

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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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How to improve your reading skills with Google News

Some people are addicted to news and current affairs.  If you are a language learner who is also a « news junky » – who enjoys following the latest news, here’s a great idea for improving your reading skills and increasing your vocabulary.

It is true that the language of newspapers is often very complex.  It is estimated that to read an English language newspaper fluently you need about 4,000 words.  This can be overwhelming for some learners.  And then there’s the question, with so many newspapers, where do I start?  Few of us have the time in a day to search the Internet for the articles that we find interesting.

Enter Google News.  When I first looked at Google News, the thing I liked about it was that it brings all the breaking news from a variety of the world’s newspapers and puts them all together in one place.  But I didn’t realise that it can do a lot more.

google-news-1-2One of the best motivations for improving reading skills is reading things we are interested in.  This sounds so basic, but perhaps you remember doing reading comprehension exercises in school which you found really difficult, mainly because the subject matter was so boring!  What do you like to read about?

First select the country of your choice for your Google News page.  The default setting is for the US (why am I not surprised?)  This will give you a standard layout like this:
You might decide that you are interested in sport, but not interested in entertainment.  You can move the sports section up the page, and delete the entertainment section.  You can also easily add news headlines from several different countries by selecting « Add a standard section« .  Let’s say you are studying French.  It is possible to add news from France, French-speaking Canada and Belgium to give you a more international perspective.

google-news-4Let’s say you are particularly interested in Finance, or perhaps you are learning English vocabulary for an exam like the TOEIC, and you need to work on your financial words.  Google News allows you to create your own personalised content.  You select « Add a custom section« , and then « advanced options« .   Let’s say the words you are revising are banking, finance, interest, loan and credit.  Type in these key words, then give the section a label, « Finance » for example.  Once you have saved these options you will see that a selection of Finance articles, each containing your chosen key words, is waiting for you.  You can move it up or down the page to suit you.
You can change your content as often as you like.  The best way to revise vocabulary is according to theme.  This week it might be finance, next week transportation.  You could create a new section for transportation with related key words to replace the one on finance.  The point is that the best way for revising vocabulary you know, and for learning vocabulary that is new, is in the context of real everyday language.  Memorising lists of words is not usually an effective way of increasing your vocabulary.

Google News is a great addition to your language learning toolbox.  Do you use it already?  Have you found it useful?  How do you like to use Google News?  Join the conversation in the comments.

Trick yourself into learning with online flash cards

cards« Learning without studying » is the strapline of a new language learning application called Popling.  I think the idea that you can learn anything without working for it is a bit unrealistic, but I do think that the creators of Popling are on to a good thing.

The idea is to help you by « tricking » your brain into learning while you are doing other things.  It works on a classic pedagogical tool which every language learner has used at some time or other: the flashcard.

popling-2So what’s new?  Flashcards have been around forever.  Popling is flashcard software which works especially well for second language learners who spend a big part of their day in front of a computer.  Every few minutes as you work, Popling will display a question or a prompt in a small online flash card window.  It is very easily configurable for vocabulary in the language you are learning, so that if you are trying to learn French kitchen vocabulary for example, you might get the prompt « dishwasher ».  If you have learnt the word, you will type in « lave-vaisselle ».  If you haven’t learnt it, you can take a peek at the word and try to memorise it for next time.

You also have the choice of ignoring the flashcard if it arrives at a bad moment, and it will just go away.  Apparently it’s « learning with no motivation required ».  I doubt that it is really possible to learn anything without motivation, but in spite of the blah blah, it is a very good tool.

You can either subscribe to an existing set of flashcards in the language you are learning, or create your own.  It takes a bit of work writing your own flashcards, but it’s part of the learning process and that way you can be sure to learn the vocabulary you need.

It requires the installation of a lightweight Adobe Air desktop application.  Have you tried it?  Found any other interesting uses for it?  Have your say in the comments.

For more information on online flash card systems, see Building vocabulary through spaced repetition.

Language learning strategies with Google Reader

One of the problems using the Internet to improve language learning is « where do you start? » You can easily be overwhelmed with the number of language-learning tools and sites available.

Google has a number of tools that can help you get just the information you need for second language learning, and we will be posting some ideas of how to set up these tools to help your language learning.

I use Google Reader as a web page that I can personalise to bring the specific information I need for teaching and language-learning directly to me, without having to surf the web to look for it.

Google Reader Start
Let’s say you are a business English student trying to improve your language skills to get a better job. The first thing to do is to create your own Google Reader site. If you don’t have a Google account you will need to create one.

RssYou have probably seen a little orange icon on many websites, often accompanied with the label ‘RSS’ which stands for ‘real simple syndication’ but you don’t need to know that (unless you want to impress someone in Trivial Pursuit!). This is the link that will allow you to subscribe to the content of a website or blog in an ‘rss feed reader’ such as Google Reader. The ‘feed’ is simply a data format used to provide users with content that is frequently updated.

Feedburner Subscription
Try it out with this blog. Click on the « subscribe » tab above and see what happens. You should land on a page that looks something like this. You can see that Google Reader is not the only option, so experiment to find one that suits you best. They all function in similar ways. If you select Google, it will return you to your Google Reader page, and should appear in your list of subscriptions:

Google Reader Subscriptions

What tends to happen with a feedreader is that it gets so filled up with subscriptions that information overload soon sets in. One way to avoid this is to organise your subscriptions into folders. As you study Business English you may discover some great podcast sites to help you with listening comprehension. A good example is Business English Pod. You could just bookmark the site for future reference, but then you have to check the site regularly to make sure you don’t miss any good new content, and this is time-consuming. So, subscribe to the feed in Google Reader following the instructions above. You can organise your study time better by separating your subscriptions into folders. You do this by selecting « manage subscriptions » at the bottom of your list of subscriptions. The following screen should apear :

Reader 3

Selecting « Change folders » will enable you to create an appropriate folder for your different feeds. For Business English Pod you may choose the title « Podcasts ». Select categories that correspond to your learning needs, and use them to organise a powerful weekly study programme, where you can select different areas to focus on each day (listening, reading, grammar, writing, vocabulary etc.)

In the next post in this series we will look at how to use Google News to improve your reading skills and increase your vocabulary.

Subscribe to for more updates on more language learning strategies with Google tools.

For  fun listening exercise, you could also watch this subtitled video entitled RSS in Plain English.

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