The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Saturday, August 30, 2014


It's not every day that I go to work in an abaya and hijab, but last week I spent 4 days in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia giving professional development workshops to English teachers on the female campus at King Saud University. I have to admit to a little trepidation before the trip and I didn't know quite what to expect, but in the end, apart from the heat, the early starts and the Riyadh traffic, it turned out to be a really rewarding experience.

Students at the university spend a year studying English as part of a preparatory programme, so it's a large department with more than 200 English teachers on the female campus alone; an amazing mix of nationalities, some from the region, others from further afield. Many of them are very well qualified and all are keen to develop their professional skills further. So the workshops were fun and lively with lots of great ideas coming from the teachers. I was there with a colleague (on behalf of OUP) as part of the start-of-year teacher induction, giving orientation sessions to the books they'd be using through the year (New Headway Plus, Headway Academic Skills and Q Skills).

As we chatted to the teachers and the PD team, it was really interesting to build up a picture of what English teaching at university level is like in Saudi Arabia. It soon became clear that whilst very well resourced in terms of staff, training opportunities and facilities, the teachers still face quite a challenge matching expectations to reality.

The intake of students seems to be very varied, from the high-achieving, highly-motivated girls with almost native-speaker levels of English who are going on to study Medicine, largely through the medium of English, to those who arrive with little or no English (despite supposedly 7 years of English at school) who are going onto courses where they are unlikely to use much English and who have, perhaps unsurprisingly, very low levels of motivation. Yet the expectation is that by the end of the year all students will have reached a good B2 level and be ready for academic study in English.

It's a situation that I've heard about in several countries - and one that is apparently becoming more common as institutions across the world switch to English-medium instruction - but this was the first time I'd come across it first hand. It's clearly a challenge not just for teachers, managers and curriculum development teams on the ground, but for the ELT industry as a whole, including materials writers like myself. So all in all, it was not just a fascinating experience, meeting lots of lovely people, but also provided plenty of food for thought as I head into the autumn back at my desk.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, August 15, 2014

Time-consuming tech: Jing for student feedback

Last summer, I went to a talk by Russell Stannard about using screencast software, Jing, to give feedback on student writing. I loved the idea, but didn’t have time to download it and try it out at the time. Last week though, I led a week of teacher training workshops on teaching writing skills (part of the ELT summer seminar at Exeter College, Oxford) which seemed like the perfect opportunity to give it a go.

At the end of the first session on Monday, I asked all the trainees to email me a short piece of writing; a profile of themselves in 50-100 words. The plan was to give each of them feedback using Jing in time for the session on 'giving feedback on writing' scheduled for Thursday.

For those of you who haven’t come across screencasts before, it’s really very simple. You download a free piece of software. You can then open the student’s writing on screen and record a short (five minutes max.) video of what you’re doing on screen, i.e. correcting/highlighting issues in the student’s text, along with an audio commentary. When you finish, the software creates a link which you can send to the student and they just click on this to view the screen cast. Here’s an example, it’s a mock-up rather than a real student text, but you’ll get the idea:

Unable to display content. Adobe Flash is required.

It’s a fantastic way of giving feedback because it gives the student the sense of really personal attention from the teacher and so will hopefully have much more impact than standard written feedback, which let’s face it, tends to get ignored. It also gives you more flexibility to chat and explain things that you just never including writing and to emphasize what are significant issues to focus on. So what’s not to love?

Well … although the actual recording doesn’t take long (in this case, I used an average of 2-3 minutes) and the process isn’t complicated, it did end up being much more time-consuming than I’d expected just going through all the steps needed:

  • open the student’s email and save the document to my computer
  •  open the document and read through the text to get an initial idea of the standard and what to give feedback on
  •  record the screencast
  • download the link and paste it at the end of the document
  •  add any extra brief text comments in the margin to remind students of the voice comments
  •  save the revised document
  •  compose an email to the student including the link and attaching the revised document - although I composed a standard message which I sent to all students, the emails had to be sent separately, checking carefully that each had the correct link and attachment!

With practice, I got the whole process down to around 15 minutes per student, but with 27 in all it took over five hours! Compared with probably 1-1½ if I'd done it old-school style with pen and paper. It ended up taking every spare minute I had over those few days and I absolutely cursed the whole stupid idea!

Having said that, the response I got from the trainees when we looked at it was really positive and did make it feel worthwhile. Lessons learned though … it’s definitely not a technique to use with large numbers of students. If I was going to use it again it would be:

  •  feedback on group writing tasks (with only say 4 or 5 texts to look at per class)
  •  individual feedback, but only for a small handful of students each week, so that everyone gets their turn over the duration of the course
  • for whole class feedback, with one recording for the whole class, or perhaps for something I didn’t have time to finish in class (à la flipped classroom)
Anyone else tried screencasts or other ways of giving voice feedback? How did you get on?

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, July 04, 2014

Thinking about academic lexicons

Last weekend I was in Frankfurt for an EAP Day organized by OUP and ELTAF. The teachers were a mix of those already involved in EAP and those just interested to find out about it, but all were happy to join in and ask questions, even when I plunged them straight into EAP activities first thing on a Saturday morning!

One of the sessions was on EAP vocabulary and as I’ve done before, I started off by asking everyone to write a single word on a blank card that they thought of as typically academic.

In the workshop, I talked about the three categories of vocabulary needed by EAP students developing their own academic lexicon:
- general vocabulary: words in the top 2000 most frequent words in the language, but with a special focus on those apparently common words which have more specific academic uses (table, find, string, etc.)
- core academic vocabulary: as per the Academic Word List
- specialist vocabulary: especially terms used in specific academic disciplines

So how did the teacher’s intuitions about academic vocabulary match up to these different areas?

36% of the words chosen were Top 2000 words. Many clearly fitted into the category of words that are useful in an academic context and have slightly different everyday and academic senses, such as critical, examine and practice. Critical (and criticize and critique) came out as part of the discussion we had about subtly different academic uses. Notice the difference between these two definitions from a general learner’s dictionary (OALD) and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English:

OALD: critical adj: expressing disapproval of sb/sth and saying what you think is bad about them
OLDAE: critical adj: involving making fair, careful judgements about the good and bad qualities of sb/sth

Another 36% of the words chosen by teachers were on the Academic Word List, so solid core academic vocabulary, like significant, criteria, data, assessment and thesis.

The remaining 28% were words which don’t fall into either of the other two categories. Some of these – purport and construe – were clearly very formal and potentially academic in register (both appear in OLDAE), but just not frequent enough to make it onto the AWL. The others form an interesting little group which I may have to consider adding into my workshop next time I give it, and that’s what could be described as words that students won’t actually use in their academic writing, but need to talk about studying. So there were words like dissertation which are about academic study generally (you could add seminar, tutorial, deadline, extension, plagiarism, etc.) and also linguistic metalanguage, such as collocation – the essential terminology you need to talk about language learning (you could add register, hedging, clause, etc.)

To get to this breakdown, I used the Vocabulary Profiler on the Lextutor website, which picks out AWL words and classifies the remainder in terms of frequency. It’s a really useful (free) tool which I gave a demo of in the workshop. I know though that when I've shown it in the past, teachers have come back to me afterwards and said they couldn’t get it to do what I’d shown them. Because the website has so many different tools available, it can be a bit difficult to navigate if you’re not familiar with it. The following link will take you straight to the AWL highlighter tool: http://www.lextutor.ca/vp/eng/ I’ve also put together a short demo:

Unable to display content. Adobe Flash is required.

At the end of the session, I asked everyone to go back to their cards and to classify the word they’d noted down at the start into one of the three groups. 57% of people classified their words correctly, although to be fair, several others chose words which arguably ought to be on the AWL but aren’t!

Thanks to everyone who came for such an enjoyable and stimulating day, I hope you all went away with some food for thought.


Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

EAP & Corpora: A fabulously nerdy day out

After a busy few weeks at my desk and two EAP weekends in a row, I’ve got a bit of a blog backlog,  so let me go back a bit first …

A couple of weekends ago, I went to a BALEAP event at Coventry University about EAP and corpora. I hesitated a bit about going, as I wasn’t speaking, I didn’t have any publisher funding, so it meant shelling out for the fee and the train fare from my own pocket. It just seemed too much up my street to miss though and in the end, it proved well worth it. It was a great day, with lots of interesting sessions and plenty of opportunities to chat to people between times. I came away feeling that my brain had been properly stretched and that I’d really learned some new stuff. 

These are just a few of my highlights …

Philip Durrant from Exeter University jumped right in with some fantastically-nerdy academic details in his opening plenary, looking at how we divide up academic disciplines and presenting results of his research into how disciplines map out if we look at them in terms of similarities (and differences) in vocabulary use (based on student writing in the BAWE corpus). He came up with some great “maps” showing how disciplines form into clusters with “hard subjects” (sciences; physics, chemistry, engineering) displaying similarities on one side, “soft subjects” (arts and humanities; English, history, philosophy) together on the other side, then various subjects, perhaps as you’d expect (social sciences; business, health) somewhere in the middle sharing aspects of both. This may feel fairly obvious, but it was the small details which came out that caught my attention. For example, when he broke down disciplines further into academic level, some displayed fairly similar vocabulary use at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and others showed quite a shift. Engineering, for instance was firmly in the hard science area of the map at undergraduate level, then moved into the centre ground alongside business at postgraduate level (reflecting a shift to a more applied approach). Although I spent a lot of the session coming up with questions and holes to pick in the research, I take that as a sign that I was really caught up in what he was saying! And I loved the visuals :) [A reference to his latest paper is here, but unfortunately, it’s a journal you need a subscription for, which I haven't got :( ]

I went to a really interesting session by Bella Reichard about using concordancers (corpus software) with students in an EAP context. One of the issues to come out of the session, and which continued a bit on Twitter afterwards, was the amount of time teachers have to invest in becoming familiar with concordancing software themselves so that they feel confident enough to use it in class. It got me thinking that perhaps we need to focus first on the benefits to teachers of using concordancers as a resource for themselves rather than jumping ahead to using them with students. Definitely a subject for a blog post … watch this space.

My final highlight was Hilary Nesi’s hands-on corpus session. Her focus, investigating the use of citation by students in different disciplines (using the BAWE corpus) was very interesting, but the best bit was just playing around with corpus searches, trying to find the best way to get what I wanted, alongside the likes of Hilary Nesi and Diane Schmitt. As a lowly, commercial corpus ‘hack’, it was quite nice to feel just as proficient as the academic corpus luminaries. Sometimes part of me would really like to do the PhD I contemplated a few years ago, to spend time playing around with corpora without the restrictive briefs or time pressures of the commercial world … but then, I know I just wouldn’t have the patience to do all that situating my research within the academic whatsisname! Still, it was fun to dip a toe in the academic water for a while…

Labels: , , , ,