The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, November 30, 2020

A jobbing corpus linguist

In a Facebook corpus linguistics group I follow, someone recently posted the following question:

I immediately wanted to put my hand up and shout "Me! Me!" I excitedly typed a reply in the comments, but soon realized I had more to explain than I could realistically fit in, so I promised the poster a follow-up blog post. 

Getting started: 

So, how did I become a corpus linguist? Well, after about 7 years as a full-time EFL teacher, I realized the teaching lifestyle wasn't for me and I did an MA at Birmingham University. I already had an idea that dictionaries might be my thing – which was why I chose Birmingham as the home of COBUILD - and I took options in lexicography and corpus linguistics. 


I finished my MA in late 1998 at a time when there was a bit of a boom in ELT dictionaries. I was actually lucky enough to have interviews for in-house lexicography roles at three big ELT dictionary publishers within the space of a few months. I took a job at CUP – mostly because the timing worked out best – and was lucky enough to get stuck in straight away on the new, from-scratch Cambridge Learner's Dictionary (an intermediate-level dictionary). I learnt loads from my fabulous in-house colleagues and when I later went freelance, worked for the next 5 years or so on dictionaries for most of the major publishers (CUP, Longman, Macmillan, OUP, Chambers and eventually, many years later, Collins COBUILD). 

Broadening out: 

I worked on back-to-back lexicography projects through to around 2005. A few things then happened to send me off in different directions. Having worked with the Cambridge Learner Corpus when I was in-house (on dictionary error notes), I was asked by CUP to do some learner corpus research into common learner errors for their new Common Mistakes series of books. While doing the research, I realized I'd quite like to take the next step and write the material too, so ended up authoring two of the books in the series. After a long stretch of lexicography, it was nice to branch out into other things and I started working on more general ELT writing, initially alongside lexicography projects. Over the next few years, my focus shifted more towards writing – a shift that happened to coincide with a gradual decline in dictionary projects as several of the big publishers scaled back their dictionary operations. 


A mixed portfolio: 

Since then the mix of general writing and corpus-related work I do has varied year-to-year. I've done bursts of mainly writing, but always come back to corpus work. That's continued to include dictionaries and other reference projects, like Collins COBUILD Key Words series. I also do quite a lot of learner corpus research for CUP to feed into their ELT books. Sometimes that's just straightforward research investigating the issues made by a specific group of learners – mostly by level, but also by L1 – where I research to a brief and produce a report that goes to the authors. Frequently though, I do the research and also write the material, often in the form of notes and practice activities around specific learner issues. I had a look back over the past 3 years and my mix of work breaks down very roughly as below.

So, in answer to the original question, no, I don't have a job as such as a corpus linguist. I do, however, spend a large chunk of my working life using my corpus linguistic skills in some way or another. And even on the jobs I haven't classified as directly corpus research, I'm dipping in and out of corpora pretty much daily for almost everything I do.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

My coronacoaster II: underemployed and restless

Back at the end of May, I wrote about coming to the end of a stretch of work and not having anything more lined up as publishers froze projects and pulled work in-house. Since then, things have been kind of mixed.

Ups: On the plus side, I seem to have a number of projects lined up for the autumn. If everything comes off (which admittedly is far from guaranteed!) I should have a fairly steady stream of work from the end of Sept through into next spring. There’s a nice mix of projects; some corpus research and some writing, some vocab-focused materials and some more general English. It’s a relief to know there’s work coming up, although I’ll be happier when I get some more definite confirmations, schedules and contracts in place. As ever with freelancing, a lot of initial offers are tentative and it can seem to take an age before they’re confirmed, leaving you in an awkward planning limbo.

Downs: On the downside, it’s been a very quiet summer. Since the end of May, I had a few odd hours in July and August on one on-going project. Which was good – and a nice project to work on – but only added up to something like 25% of my usual working hours through June-Aug. That project’s had a (planned) pause since the middle of August and was due to start up again last week, but has now been delayed.

Restlessness: Like most freelancers, I’m not good at being underemployed. I can cope with the odd quiet patch if I know I’ve got something coming up, but especially with not much else to do at the moment (because Covid), I soon get restless and grouchy. Thankfully, the UK’s had a surprisingly good summer this year which has made things a bit easier. When the weather’s warm and sunny, it’s easier to potter in and out of the garden, go for nice long walks and as things have eased up, meet friends for socially-distanced, outdoor coffees. Last week was tough though. First, I had the let-down of expecting work to restart then finding out it wasn’t. Plus the weather was rubbish – grey and rainy and positively autumnal. I’m generally pretty good at keeping myself occupied, but after more than 6 months at home, I admit to getting distinctly bored. I’ve done plenty of walking, but as I don’t have a car, I’m tied to only walking from home and having done the same routes a thousand times, I’m really starting to crave a change of scene now.

Time for a break: Thankfully, this week, the sun’s back out and on Friday, we’re heading off for a week away – woo hoo! - our first holiday for a year and my first night away from home since February. We’re not going very far, just a week in a holiday cottage on the Isle of Wight, but it’s right by the sea and I’m sooo looking forward to just being somewhere different.

So I just have a handful of days to get through feeling restless, unsure whether there’ll be any work this week or not, and not 100% confident that the projects I have pencilled in for when I get back will pan out as I’m hoping. It feels a bit odd to be taking a holiday after doing so little work over the past few months, but boy, am I ready for it and the chance to properly switch off.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Reviewing in ELT publishing

Over the past few weeks, I've been reviewing materials – it's one of those jobs within ELT publishing that doesn't get talked about much, but which can be surprisingly satisfying and useful for career development … whatever stage of your career you're at.

By reviewing, I'm not talking about writing book reviews of already published materials, I'm referring to work that goes on before publication.  Draft materials are sent out to reviewers to get feedback on as part of the process of development. Exactly who, how and when will vary depending on the type of title and also depending on the publisher and publishing schedule. I can only talk about the reviewing I've experienced both as a reviewer and as a writer on the receiving end of reviewers' feedback.

What is the job of a reviewer?
The first thing to say is that reviewers are not editors. Editors work closely with writers to help develop the content, the format, the style and then along the line, to nit-pick the details and polish up the manuscript. Reviewers, on the other hand, are much more at arm's length and provide an outside perspective on the material.

Often in ELT, reviewers will be practising teachers working in the target market(s) for the book who are ideally placed to comment on how well the materials are likely to work with their students. They may pick up on issues that would never have occurred to the writers or editorial staff. Reviewers can also be specialists in a particular area brought in to assess the material from a specific angle. I've acted as a specialist reviewer looking at vocabulary using my corpus skills, at content designed to teach academic skills or at whether material hits the mark preparing students for a particular exam. From a slightly different angle, I've also written reviews of published material for publishers who are planning new editions and thinking about what to change.

The number and type of reviewers will vary as will the stage at which they review the material and how much they're asked to look at. Reviewing may be a one-off process or it may be repeated. And how much of what the reviewer says will reach the authors will vary too. As a writer, I've had instances where the full reviewer's report was sent to me directly, but more often it's been filtered through an editor.  And of course, the feedback that comes from different reviewers is often wildly contradictory, but that's a subject for another day!

What makes a good reviewer?
When a publisher asks someone to review material, they will typically provide a fairly detailed brief, often a set of specific questions that they'd like the reviewer to answer. They're not looking for a long rambling report on what you think of the material in general and what they definitely don't want is a list of typos and suggestions for better wording! A good reviewer addresses the specific issues they've been asked to look at, giving clear explanations, reasons and examples to back up the points they make – including, if possible, both positive and negative points. Of course, the writer/publisher wants to know about any potential problems with the material, but they also want feedback on what you like, what you think your students will like or what will work well in the classroom. There will often be space for extra comments outside of the target questions, but here the key is to be selective. Comment on those things that really stand out and seem significant, don't get caught up in minor details – which, after all, might change anyway in the edit.

Why review?
Reviewing may not be the glamorous end of the publishing process – if you're lucky, you'll get your name in a tiny credit on the back page – but it can be surprisingly rewarding.

For teachers hoping to get into ELT writing, it's one way to get a foot in the publishing door. It's a way to build up contacts and being seen to produce a professional, well-informed report, to brief and on time is a good starting point for putting yourself forward for other work. More importantly, though, I think it's a good way to gain insight into the publishing process. The kind of questions that the publisher asks can give you an insight into the concerns and considerations around published ELT materials that may not be the same as those for materials you create for your own classes.

For me though, the most useful part of being a reviewer, whether you’re a newbie or have been writing for 20 years, is the process of reading someone else's material and really thinking about how it works. You don't just look for what works and what doesn't on an intuitive level, but you have to think about why and how you're going to explain that. It makes you realize just how many different balls an ELT writer is trying to juggle all at the same time … how language works, how learners learn language, skills, vocab, grammar, pronunciation, what's interesting and engaging, what's motivating, what works in the classroom, in one context or across different contexts, authenticity, consistency, adaptability, level, age, education systems, learners' aims, exams and testing, diversity and inclusivity, what will be approved by ministries of education, what will sell, timing, layout, page fit, different media, permissions … And of course, it's not surprising that sometimes they're going to drop some of those balls!

Recently, I've been lucky enough to be involved in reviewing some new materials on an on-going basis, looking at each unit as it's written. The material is by some very experienced authors for whom I have a lot of respect. Lots of things are pretty much as I'd have done them myself, but I'm always coming across stuff that I wouldn't necessarily have thought of – clever little additions or approaches that work really well to address a particular issue, that I'm mentally filing away to use myself at some point in the future. And of course, there are also the things that don't quite work, or more often, that are just missing, which mean I have to stop and think about how to explain, to justify, to exemplify my feedback. Sometimes I start to add something to my report then delete it because I decide it's not important or that actually something that comes later overrides my point. Sometimes, a point that initially seems quite minor makes me realize there's actually a wider issue to be addressed.

All in all, reviewing can be a fascinating process to be involved in and for me, it's a really valuable part of my working mix.

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Friday, July 10, 2020

10 ways to tackle coronavocab: #10 My Corona

Over the past nine posts, I've been exploring some of the ways the coronavirus pandemic has changed not just our lives, but our language. I've looked at new coinages, new uses of existing words and phrases, and words that have suddenly spiked in use.  If you've missed any of the posts, click on the links below to see what we've covered:

#1 Coronacoinages: coronacoaster, isolife, infodemic 
#2 Trending terms: isolation, hand sanitizer, face masks 
#3 The Science: pandemic, PPE, herd immunity 
#4 New compounds and contexts: social distancing, lockdown, shielding 
#5 Learning and teaching: homeschooling, remote learning, asynchronous
 #6 Metaphors: the unseen enemy, perfect storm, spread like wildfire 
#7 The Stats: flatten the curve, pass the peak, second wave 
#8 Phrasal verbs: lock down, ramp up, ease off 
#9 Work:  WFH, remote working, furlough

As I said at the outset, not all students will want to spend their ELT classes talking about the pandemic. Some may want to switch off from it completely, others may be happy to dip into coronavocab for 10 minutes here and there but not get too bogged down in it. Hopefully, the tips and angles I've suggested have provided ideas for those occasional dips. I've tried to deal with the new vocab along with general language points too where possible so that it isn't just a throwaway activity focused on a bunch of potentially transient buzzwords, but it helps reinforce more generally transferrable knowledge.

Many of the activities I've suggested involve students talking about their own experiences of the times we've been living through, whether that's studying or working from home, or the practicalities of day-to-day life in lockdown. So I wanted to finish off with a set of vocabulary that isn't new and isn't unique to the current situation, but is, nonetheless, really important. To digress for a moment, a couple of years ago, I wrote a unit for a vocab book about health. It was B2 level and some of the target vocab went a bit beyond trivial coughs and colds, with items like cancer and mental health. As I started putting the material together, I realized that if learners were going to talk about these things, it was important that they had not just the key words, but the language to talk about the way those things affect people too. And after some discussion with my editor, I included words like experience and support as equally important target vocab. Which is a slightly long-winded way of introducing some vocabulary to wrap around the other topics to help students express the way everything that's happened and is still going on has affected them, to talk about their own experiences, feelings, hopes and expectations for the future.

ELT publishers are always keen to emphasize the positives, to avoid topics (and language) with negative connotations and to make their materials 'aspirational' … but life isn't all about the positive stuff and I think learners need to be equipped with the linguistic tools to deal with the downs as well as the ups. That's not to say you want a lesson that's all doom and gloom or that you feel equipped with the skills to deal with a topic that turns into a counselling session! With that in mind, the suggestions below are a mix of language to acknowledge the challenges but also express the positives. Which language you choose to focus on will, of course, come down to a judgement call about your individual students, their age, context, etc., but I think some of these could provide a springboard from some great language work and mixing some of them in with the previous vocab sets will give learners the tools to really express the realities of their own coronaverse.

Examples in context:
I do really miss going out and being with lots of people.
Many of us have found lockdown frustrating.
Even though everyone's experiencing things in different ways, there is so much overlap.
Some people are still wary of returning to campus
Customers who are struggling with the impacts of COVID-19 will be allowed to defer loan payments.
Teachers reported working long hours to support these students during remote learning.
I can't wait to get back to playing football.
If anything, being without baseball has made us appreciate it more.
One local fitness instructor decided to make the most of the outdoors to help her neighbours keep fit.
We have a deeper appreciation for social activities that may have been taken for granted in a pre-lockdown world.
The pandemic has changed the way we work almost overnight.
We're all adapting and adjusting to the new normals.

  • There are lots of possible quickie activities here: 5 things you miss(ed), hate(d), find/found frustrating during lockdown, 5 things you're looking forward to when things get back to normal, 5 things you've appreciated more, etc.
  • Many of these verbs and phrases are followed by particular colligational patterns (look forward to + ing, can't wait + to do, be bored of + ing, help sb do), so start off with an activity matching sentence halves where students have to think about both meaning and grammar. Then get them to take the first parts of the sentences and add their own personalized endings.
1 I do really miss … 
2 Some people are still wary … 
3 I can't wait …
a of returning to campus. 
b to get back to playing football.
c going out and being with lots of people.
  • If you want to deal with some of the negatives without getting bogged down, get students to use the vocab to create pairs of things they've found difficult or missed and things they've appreciated more or are looking forward to doing again. They could just be simple sentences or you could get creative and get students to make them into social media posts.

  • The new normal is a term that you hear a lot at the moment, but what will it be like? If you've been dealing with the language of future predictions (will, modal verbs and adverbs), then there's plenty of scope here for students to make their own predictions about how we'll probably all have to adapt and adjust and change the ways we do things.
This series of posts was prompted, in part, by the work I did on ETpedia Vocabulary which is also grouped into sets of 10 tips about different areas of vocabulary teaching. So if you're looking for more ideas …

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