The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Vocabulary: making the shift from passive to active

On my trip to Poland a few weeks ago, I was quite surprised at how much Polish I understood (at least when it was written down), because of the similarities to Czech. Not that I really speak Czech, you understand. I lived in Prague for a couple of years, but I didn't make very much effort to learn the language (for all kinds of reasons) and I certainly never really "spoke Czech" beyond a few basic functional words and phrases. Evidently though, I did take in quite a bit of vocabulary, albeit in a very passive capacity.

All language learners have a much wider passive (or receptive) vocabulary (i.e. words they recognise and understand) than the range of active (or productive) vocabulary that they actually can (and do) make use of. Generally, as our learning progresses, the words in our passive vocab get transferred to our active repertoire as we become confident enough to use them. Up to a certain level, that process seems to be fairly natural; we need and want to talk about things which pushes us to start using new words. Somewhere around intermediate level though, that process often stalls. You reach a point where you can communicate most basic ideas adequately, so you just rely on the same old, familiar words and phrases you've grown comfortable with. It may be that your passive vocabulary continues to expand as you read more complex texts on a variety of subjects and you 'learn' new words, but whether those words then get put to use is quite a different matter, because they're often not strictly needed to communicate.

A fixation with new words:

It strikes me that our approach to vocab teaching often tends to reinforce this. Especially at higher levels, there seems to be a perception that vocab activities should only contain completely 'new' words, otherwise learners won't feel like they're learning and teachers won't feel like they're teaching. Many's the time when I've been writing vocab activities that I've had items vetoed because they were 'too easy', the students would already 'know' that word, it was covered at B1, or whatever. It's an attitude that bugs me on a number of levels ...

Firstly, just because you've met a word once doesn't mean you know it. Learning vocabulary is a complex and gradual process that involves repetition and recycling; you need to encounter a word repeatedly in different contexts to get a feel for it. Especially at higher levels, you need to understand how a word's used (its register, collocations, colligation) in order to really get to know it. And of course, English is a highly polysemous language; a single word can have several different meanings or be used in different expressions, so you can't just tick a single sequence of letters off a list and say you know it!

And then there's knowing and there's knowing. We really need to consider whether we're focusing on a particular lexical item because we want students to recognise it (as part of their passive vocab) or whether we expect them to actually start using it as part of their active vocabulary. And we need to think about how we can shift words from the passive category to the active. When students say they already 'know' word, we need to challenge them to start using it; to explicitly recognise and encourage that process of shifting from one set to the other.

A balanced vocab diet:
Oh yes, of course revision and recycling are important, I hear you say, but it's about more than just revisiting words in another receptive context (although, of course, that's important). For me, vocabulary activities need to include a smattering of comfortable, known vocab (perhaps working on those tricky points of usage like dependent prepositions), a handful of genuinely new items (so we all feel like we're breaking new ground) and then a healthy dose of that in-between category of words that we want to move from passive to active. And they need to include an appropriate mix of receptive and productive tasks. Especially when we're looking at those passive-active words, we need to encourage students to really use them, maybe choosing a handful of words they haven't used before to include a piece of writing or in an oral presentation.

If a student tells me that the vocab is too easy or claims that they already know a word, then I'll challenge them to use it, I'll dig a bit deeper into their knowledge. In short, I'll show them how they can know more and use it better. A constant diet of more new words on their own is of no use if understanding is only surface deep.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

IATEFL slides and a new corpus

My second IATEFL slot was talking about COBUILD dictionaries; Dictionary evolution: exploiting modern referencing tools to the max. I'm always more than happy to talk about dictionary skills and how to encourage learners to make better use of all the fab features we, as lexicographers, include in learners dictionaries. You can download my slides here: IATEFL 2015 slides.

The bit of the talk I was really excited about though was plans for a new version of the Collins Corpus which will be accessible to teachers, students and those just interested in language. It's currently under development, so sadly, I wasn't able to demo it in my session, but it's hoped that it'll include a user-friendly interface which will make using the corpus something that everyone can have a go at.  Anyone will be able to sign up (via various different access options*) to make use of the massive Collins Corpus. They'll also be able to search just parts of it, like the corpus of graded readers or high school textbooks, if they're looking for language appropriate to a particular group or level.

I've always found it somewhat frustrating that the big publishers' corpora aren't available for a wider audience, so I think it's a very exciting initiative and perhaps apt that it comes from COBUILD who started the who corpus thing off in ELT in the first place. If you'd like to keep up-to-date with how it's developing and perhaps be involved in piloting it along the line, then you can get in touch with my colleague, Lisa Sutherland - her contact details are on the final slide above. I'm sure I'll post more news here too.

*Update: I was being deliberately vague about access options because the project's still at the development stage and the details just haven't yet been decided. Some folks have misinterpreted this though. So let me rephrase that to "via various different subscription models" ... sorry!

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Corpus tools for ELT writers: MaWSIG follow-up

Last Friday, I was lucky enough to be part of a great day of sessions at the MaWSIG PCE (IATEFL Materials Writers group) in Manchester. It was an inspiring day with lots of top tips shared and thoughts provoked.

During my 30-minute slot, I tried to share a few basic ideas for how ELT writers can use a corpus to help them in their everyday writing lives. It was a bit of a quick whizz through and I promised to flesh out a few more details of stuff that I mentioned at the end. So here’s an annotated version of my final slide:

There are lots of corpora out there and this is just a very small selection intended as examples.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA): http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/
- This is perhaps one of the largest and most easily accessible open corpora. It has a nice interface and lots of really useful tools. It’s main drawback from an ELT viewpoint is that it only includes American English. Linked to the same corpus is wordandphrase.info which has more really interesting tools.

Sketch Engine for Language Learning (SkELL): http://skell.sketchengine.co.uk/
- Sketch Engine produce corpus software that’s used by many of the big publishers. They also hold their own corpora which can be accessed in various ways (see below). SkELL is a free option which gives you access to a really nice big corpus.  It doesn’t, however, offer their full range of corpus tools. From what I’ve seen, it’s really good for collocation searches, but less useful for more detailed research because it only shows a limited range of examples.

British Academic Written/Spoken English (BAWE/BASE): https://the.sketchengine.co.uk/open/
- This is just one example of the many more specialist corpora out there. These two corpora are made up of writing/speaking collected from students at a number of UK universities. As someone working a lot in EAP, I find it really useful for finding examples that provide a realistic model for students (i.e. what native speaker peers write in their essays rather than what high-flying academics get published in academic journals).

Sketch Engine (subscription): http://www.sketchengine.co.uk/
- For a small subscription (I paid £14 for 3 months), you can sign up to use a much wider range of corpus tools and have access to a number of large corpora.

NOTE: Make sure you read the small print of any corpus you decide to use. Most have clear conditions about usage, which often include not using their data for commercial purposes.

Other tools:
Vocab Kitchen (text checker): http://vocabkitchen.com/
- Textcheckers allow you to input a text and will then analyse the vocab. Some of them (like this one) will mark it up according to a particular wordlist, such as the EVP* (CEFR levels) or the Academic Word List. Others will categorise words according to frequency (in a particular corpus). Of course, how you choose to use these will be very much dependant on how you view these word lists …

*Note that the English Vocab Profile site also contains conditions of use that are worth noting!!

- This is a fun little tool which will show you a word’s changing usage over a period of time (based on usage in Google books). It also allows you to compare the usage of two words (or phrases) over time.

- This also includes little usage trend graphs  – a bit more up-to-date than Ngram, but limited to words that appear in the dictionary.

Dictionary tools:
You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel – there’s loads of useful stuff to draw on in published learner’s dictionaries too.

Thesaurus: Many of the major dictionaries have some kind of thesaurus tool or ability to browse words by topic, either online or as part of their CD-ROM/DVD version. I use these loads for ideas when I’m working on vocab exercises. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Thesaurus is great for teasing out the subtle differences between synonyms.

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary: The CD-ROM version of CALD has a really useful advanced search facility that allows you to search using any of the labels in the dictionary, so for example, all nouns followed by –ing forms.

Hope you have fun exploring these tools and finding what works best for you.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

IATEFL 2015: a busy conference season

So the ELT conference season is upon us and I've just spent the Easter weekend at my desk finalizing three conference sessions I'm going to be presenting in the next couple of weeks; two at IATEFL in Manchester, and one the following weekend at the BALEAP conference in Leicester. 

I've been colour-coding my sessions to try and keep them separate in my own head, so here's what's coming up:

Date: 10 April
Event: MaWSIG PCE, IATEFL Manchester
Room: Exchange 11
Time: 15.00 - 15.30
Colour coding: orange (to be publisher-neutral!)

Outline: With a background in lexicography, I’m very familiar with corpus tools and find them invaluable when I’m writing all kinds of ELT materials. This session will focus on practical ways in which corpus tools can be useful to an ELT materials writer. It will look at things like finding authentic examples, finding answers to tricky language problems, checking collocations, complementation patterns etc. and just looking for inspiration. It will also take a brief look at different types of corpora (those owned by publishers, publicly available, specialist and build-your- own) and how writers can access them.

Date: 11 April
Event: IATEFL Manchester
Room: Charter 1
Time: 15.05 - 15.35
Colour coding: red (for Collins) and turquoise (for the COBUILD dictionary)


Outline: As modern learner's dictionaries continue to evolve, we need to keep our referencing skills up-to-date. This session provides practical ideas for learners and teachers to fully exploit the latest COBUILD Advanced Learner's Dictionary, online and digital dictionaries to aid vocabulary learning and introduces the new Collins Corpus, a unique reference tool for teachers and source of authetic examples.

Looking forward to catching up with lots of folks in Manchester!

I'll post details of my BALEAP session (green and pink!) next week ...

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