The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, February 17, 2017

Unexpected corpus findings

I use a corpus all the time when I’m writing – to check how a word’s typically used, its strongest collocates or just to look for inspiration for example sentences. And most of the time, what comes up is more-or-less what I’d expect. Sometimes there’s a collocation I hadn’t thought of, but it’s rarely very surprising. Just occasionally though I’m a bit taken aback by what the corpus reveals …

This week, I was working on some simple vocab practice activities (for B1 level) and I was looking for examples to illustrate the adjective crowded. So I did a quick corpus search to see which nouns it typically modifies. I wasn’t surprised to find:

crowded + street, market, room, area, place, train, etc.

Crowded market seemed like a nice prototypical context which would be easy for most learners to visualize, so I clicked through to browse some examples. In scrolling through the cites, I came across two slightly surprising trends:

The metaphorical: a large chunk of the examples were for the metaphorical, business sense of a market, rather than the physical place with stalls selling goods. I found lots of companies struggling to compete in an already crowded market for energy or cars or whatever. It reminded me that all too often we forget about the very common metaphorical uses of words and chunks in English, assuming that because the learner recognizes the basic, often concrete meaning of an item, they’ll automatically pick up on a metaphorical usage too.

The sad reflection: the other flurry of uses was more of a sad reflection of the world we live in (and the news media who report it), with lots of examples of bombs going off in the middle of crowded markets. It made me wonder about the connotations in different cultures attached to things we tend to view and present as neutral and harmless.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Experimenting with note-taking

Most EAP courses include something about note-taking. It’s an area I’m always a bit unsure about how to teach … Is it better to teach a specific note-taking technique? To get students to experiment with a few? Or just to stick to explaining general principles and let them find their own preferred format? 

Recently, I’ve found myself on the other side of the classroom as I’ve started studying for a part-time MA. It’s given me lots of food for thought from a student’s perspective and the opportunity to play around with different approaches to studying, including notetaking.

I should probably start off by admitting that my note-taking in lectures has been minimal to non-existent. All my lecturers use PowerPoint presentations, the slides are available online and often as a printed handout as well and there’s generally another handout and a reading list to take away too. So beyond the odd scribble on a handout, I haven’t really felt the need to take notes. I’m just making sure I file all the handouts for future reference.

When it comes to reading though, I’m very aware of the need to take notes, especially when you’re reading to write. I’ve always banged on to my students about the importance of note-taking when you read to keep a record of ideas that you might want to use with all the relevant reference information so you don’t waste ages trying to track something down again later. I also stress how useful note-taking can be in transforming the ideas you’ve read into your own voice and incorporating them into your train of thought that will then, hopefully, help you slot them seamlessly into your writing. I know that so many of my students slip into plagiarism or patch-writing just because they’re writing their essay with the source text open in front of them and it’s all too easy just to copy the words across. If you process the information as you read and translate it into notes, then half the job of linking ideas together and weaving them into your own argument has been done already.

But what’s the best format for doing that? Well, I’ve had two sets of assignments to complete so far, two pieces of coursework mid-term and two more over the Christmas break and I approached each using a different technique …

I’ve been using Evernote for a while now for keeping notes on various work-related things, so it was the first format I turned to when I was preparing for the first set of assignments. 

Pros: I was doing some of my reading on the train to and from university (an hour each way, twice a week and I found, one of my best times for reading), some I was doing at home and occasionally, I did a bit in the library too. This meant that being able to make notes either on my tablet or on my desktop and having them automatically synced was really useful. Plus the notes are all neatly filed and easy to refer back to in future.

Cons: There’s lots of flicking about between windows, both if you’re reading and making notes on the same device and when you’re using notes to write from. Although during writing, I got round this by having my notes open on my tablet while writing on my desktop. I also found it quite difficult to get on overview of key ideas when faced with lots of screens of similar-looking, small, black text. I could probably experiment with different fonts and colours, but that’s fiddly when you’re making notes on a tablet.

My second set of assignments were during the Christmas break, so I was working almost entirely at home. And with a longer essay which involved a review of the literature in a particular area, I took a different approach. As I was reading (quite a bit from books this time), I noted down key points that might be relevant on post-it notes and stuck them on the page as I went along (including those all-important page numbers!).

Then when I’d done a big chunk of reading, I used my wardrobe doors to arrange the notes into themes and to order them.

Pros: It was fun! I still find it much more natural to write notes by hand than using my fiddly tablet keyboard and rearranging the notes so I could see the shape of the essay emerging was a really nice way to organize my ideas; moving things about, spotting gaps, doing a bit more reading, adding more notes, taking stuff off that wasn’t really relevant. I was almost tempted to stop at that point and just submit a photo of my notes! But actually it did help the writing process too, getting up to look at the notes, taking one off to include it, then sticking it back up, checking that I hadn’t missed any key points.

Cons: It only worked because I was at home for the whole process, it wouldn’t have been practical if I’d been trying to read and collect post-its on the train. And I realized as I took them down that they won’t be very practical to store for future reference, so at some point, I’ll probably sit down and type them up into Evernote anyway!

So what are my conclusions … well, first and foremost, I’d say that experimenting is definitely good, it helps you work out what approach works best for you. If I were teaching EAP classes again in the future, I’d definitely get students to try out different techniques and to make submitting their notes part of some writing tasks … and not just as a boring page of bullets points either!

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Friday, January 13, 2017

A Talk on Twitter

Last week, I had the chance to speak at the IH AMT Conference in London. I was talking about the difference between receptive and productive vocabulary and its implications for teaching. It was a fun event with a buzzy atmosphere and an engaged audience, and my session seemed to go down well. I was also lucky enough to have the wonderful Sandy Millin live-tweeting from my session so when I checked Twitter afterwards, I found a huge flurry of mentions and retweets. This got me thinking about the implications of Twitter when you're giving talks and workshops ... what are the benefits - and downsides - of having your session tweeted out to the wider world?

On the plus side ...
- You can reach a wider audience and engage more people in the discussion.
- You get to see what the main points the tweeters picked up on were. It's an interesting exercise,  especially when you compare the tweets to the points you'd hoped to get across!
- You also get to see which ideas sparked most interest through likes and retweets, which is both interesting and provides useful feedback, perhaps for refocusing future talks.

On the downside ...
- Putting all your carefully prepared material out there online leaves you rather compromised if you plan to give the same talk again to another audience! This is especially true if pictures of key slides where there's a surprise element get tweeted ... I'll definitely have to think twice now about reusing some sections of this talk exactly as they were.
- It's easy for your ideas to be misrepresented. I have to say that all the tweeters from my session were actually really good at putting points across accurately, but the tweet that turned out to be the most retweeted wasn't actually quite what I said ...

What I did say was that 7 is considered to be the magic number by psychologists when it comes to the number of items we can retain in our short-term memory and that memory's one factor you need to consider when designing vocab activities - you need to think about how many items to focus on (not necessarily exactly 7!) and be careful not to overload students. Of course, in 140 characters, context and hedging tend to get lost ...

Overall, it was a really interesting experience and I think the pluses of being tweeted definitely outweigh the minor drawbacks. Big thanks to the IH team for inviting me and for organizing such a great event and to the whole audience - including the tweeters! - for being so engaged.

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Monday, December 05, 2016

10 years in the blogosphere

Last week, I spent a day in Bath at a Digital Essentials Masterclass organized by the Society of Authors. I was partly drawn to going because the speaker in the afternoon was Shoo Rayner, a children's writer and illustrator whose blog was one of the very first I followed way back when I was thinking about starting my own. I was chatting to Shoo in the lunch break and trying to pin down exactly when that would have been. A bit later I checked and I realized I'd just missed my tenth anniversary as a blogger ... my very first post on this blog was in September 2006.

In Shoo's workshop, he reflected on his own experiences as a writer in the online world - blogging, on social media, setting up his own YouTube channel and even dipping a toe into the world of crowdfunding. He spoke about experiences that had been rewarding, time-consuming, exciting and frustrating ... sometimes all at the same time. He also asked questions about how useful it had all been, especially in terms of reaching his target audience, i.e. people who might actually buy his books. Which got me thinking about why I blog and just who my target audience is.

I think the reasons I blog have probably changed over the years. Back in 2006, I'd already been working as a freelance writer for a few years and although work was ticking along okay, it was a pretty solitary existence. Before the advent of social media, my contact with other freelance colleagues was limited to a handful of freelancers who happened to be personal friends and a yearly visit to the IATEFL conference. I spent most of my time working away on my own and I missed having people to chat to about work. So I initially set up the blog as a way of chatting about things that interested me professionally either to do with my actual work in the field of ELT or concerned with the job of being a freelance writer. Back then, I had no idea who might read what I was putting out there - although I just spotted that Diane Nicholls, a long-term, freelance colleague and friend commented on my very first post, thanks Diane!

Nowadays with plenty of freelance and ELT chat going on via social media and more opportunities to meet up in person through the likes of MaWSIG, the blog has become more of a space for writing about stuff that's just too long for Twitter or a Facebook post - it's more of an extension of my social media presence than an entity in its own right

So who reads my blog ... who are you reading this now?! (Answers in comments welcome!) I know from comments - either on the blog itself or via Facebook - that lots of my readers are those freelance colleagues who I guess I was originally reaching out to. I'm always pleased to get comments from people I've met at events or on teacher training courses. I also know that I occasionally manage to reach different groups of people with specific posts. Sometimes I give a talk at a conference and put a link to my blog at the end of my slides so I can write a follow-up post aimed at the folks who attended. From time to time, I've also written posts about something connected with a particular group, such as MaWSIG or BALEAP, and they've shared the post more widely. I guess with each post I have a particular target audience vaguely in mind, but I also aim to be of interest to anyone who might happen to stop by.

So has it all been worth it? Have I ever got work directly as a result of a blog post ... probably not. Has it sold more copies of my books ... I very much doubt it. What it has done though is helped me to feel part of a community and to join in the general chat about my profession. I've lost count of the number of times that I've been talking to someone at an event and they've mentioned they've read one of my blog posts - it makes me feel more connected and so long as someone out there's interested in reading my occasional ramblings, then I think it's worth it.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Escape to the sea

For the past 14½ months I’ve been battling to work through construction noise with a new school building being built directly behind my house, which of course is also my office. Because it’s an awkward site on the side of a hill, the work has involved trucks arriving in the street in front of the house to unload materials which have then been craned up over the houses to the actual construction site above and behind the back garden. That’s meant I’ve been pretty much surrounded by noise and at times, it’s made working from home very difficult and very stressful.

After a very noisy patch right at the beginning, I tried renting an office space. For various reasons though, that didn’t work out and after a few months of using it on and off, I was back working at home and just trying to make the best of things. Perhaps the trickiest part has been that the noise has been very variable. On some days, it’s pretty much just background buzz and easily ignored. On other days though, when there’s a pneumatic drill or some other kind of power tool going for hours on end, the noise and vibration is completely unbearable and makes it impossible to focus on work. Of course, the trouble is, day by day, I haven’t known which it’s going to be. And inevitably, that pneumatic drill has often started up just on the day when I’m particularly busy and have a deadline to meet!

It’s taken its toll on my work. I’ve found myself frequently having to work evenings and weekends to keep up because I haven’t been able to get as much done during the day as normal. And that’s taken its toll on my health too. As someone who suffers from chronic pain, extra hours spent at my desk generally equate to extra pain.

The good news is though, it is almost at an end. We’ve been promised that work will finish at the end of this week - hooray! It’s going to be a noisy final week though, with all the scaffolding coming down and the road surface in the street being repaired – more of those pneumatic drills! So I’ve made my escape and come away for a week by the seaside.

One of the joys of being freelance is that, in theory, you can work from anywhere. It’s not something I do very often, because actually, it isn’t quite as easy as it sounds; from the point of view of cost and of having an appropriately comfortable space to work in. But for once, I’ve got myself organized and booked a week staying in a cabin, just yards from the coastal path on the Hartland Peninsula in North Devon. I’ve got a proper table to work at and of course, I’ve brought my separate keyboard and pointer to use with my laptop to be as ergonomic as possible. I’ve got Wi-Fi, if rather intermittently, and in short, everything I need to get on with work. Oh yes, and a view to die for!

Without the distractions of everyday life, the days seem to stretch out endlessly, which means I’ve been able to get down to plenty of work, yet still get out and enjoy the wonderful countryside. With a mini-heatwave at the start of the week, I found that my little cabin turned into a sauna by about midday, so I worked mornings, then went out in the afternoon for a walk along the cliffs or a dip in the sea, before I headed back for a couple more hours at my desk in the early evening.  For the past couple of days, it’s been a bit cooler, but still sunny enough to enjoy an afternoon walk through the fields for a coffee break looking out to Lundy Island.

A good spot for a dip on the hottest day of the year
The view from my afternoon coffee spot
Today’s my last full day here before I head home tomorrow. I have to say, I haven’t started to get bored of the view yet, but I am quite looking forward to getting back to civilization.

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