The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, April 27, 2012

Corpus pick-me-up

This week, I've mostly been working on EAP materials and whilst I'm really enjoying getting my teeth into some writing, by lunchtime today, I was starting to flag and I realised that progress was slowing down.  I'd been looking at using journal article abstracts and was mulling over some language work on expressing the aims of a piece of writing and wondering about the use of This paper will explore/discuss/focus on, etc. as opposed to personal pronouns; I/We will examine/discuss... It's tempting to encourage students not to use personal pronouns in their academic writing - largely because you're trying to steer them away from the rather IELTS-y I think, I believe, In my opinion type phrasing. But then, I know that some academic texts, especially in certain disciplines, do commonly use personal pronouns, especially in stating aims.

Having been reminded of a couple of useful corpus resources over the weekend, I decided to put my intuitions to the test. I used several different sources to see how different types of writers express the aims of a piece of writing. As well as looking at conventional academic corpora of 'professional' academic writers (in the form of published journal articles, etc), I used the British Academic Written English corpus (BAWE) and the Michigan Corpus of Upper-Level Student Papers (MICUSP) to investigate how students express their aims (largely in essay introductions rather than abstracts). As I built up some lovely lists of common phrases in my notebook, I felt my energy levels rising, even on a wet Friday afternoon! I'm not sure what it is about all those lines of words on the screen slowly revealing themselves into patterns, but it certainly perked me up.

 My notebook satisfyingly full of words, phrases and patterns - click to enlarge.

It also revealed that indeed both patterns are common, as is the combination of the two (In this paper, we will ...) and they both appear in both published academic texts and student writing.  Yes, the different forms were clearly used with varying frequencies and in slightly different proportions in different text types, but for my purposes, the exact statistics didn't really matter - I'm being corpus-informed, not corpus-driven here.  What was important was that all the different forms were worth highlighting. Sadly, I can't cram everything I discovered into the very short task I'm working on, but I'll keep it for future reference, and a couple of hours playing with words certainly lifted me out of my slump and sparked a few ideas.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

EAP Perspectives

I spent the weekend at an EAP event at the University of Bristol Centre for English Language and Foundation Studies. Sadly, this summer I'm not going to be doing my usual teaching stint there because of other work commitments. As that 'other work' involves writing EAP materials though, I was keen to go along to find out what other EAP teachers are thinking and doing. It's often said that it's relatively easy to write classroom materials to use yourself - you know how you like to teach, you know why you've chosen the materials, what you want to get out of them, how long you're likely to spend on each task and of course, you've chosen the source material because it appeals to you or will be just right for your students. One of the biggest challenges of writing materials for publication is in creating something that's clear, accessible, relevant and appealing to teachers with a wide range of teaching styles and approaches, different levels of knowledge and experience, and faced with all sorts of teaching contexts. And although you chat to colleagues in the staffroom, it tends to be more about admin or that awkward problem student than really what you're doing in the classroom.  So an event where a group of EAP teachers from different institutions were getting together to discuss teaching was a great opportunity to collect some insights and ideas to help in my writing.

I went along with the intention of sitting quietly in the corner as an observer, soaking up as much as possible of what everyone else was saying, but anyone who knows me, will tell you that it's just not in my nature to keep quiet! I just can't resist a good discussion and soon found my hand creeping up. I still managed to do a lot of listening though and made lots of mental notes about different ideas and perspectives. There were far too many interesting points raised and discussed to talk about here (and some I may come back to in later posts), but a few of the things that particularly piqued my interest were:
  • the difference between 'corpus-driven' and 'corpus-informed' materials
  • the place of the discursive essay across different academic disciplines and whether it's the most useful form of writing to teach on a general EAP course
  • the influence of new UK immigration rules on who can apply for student visas here and the implications for how we label courses and materials by level
  • the balance between teaching academic skills and language on an EAP course
On that final point, I'd always been rather on the side of including more language work in EAP courses and have felt  frustrated by courses that are so dominated by academic skills that there's little or no time left for work on vocabulary or grammar. On Sunday though, I found myself partly won over by the idea that on a very short pre-sessional course, at least, you're unlikely to make a huge amount of difference to a student's overall language level, but if you can equip them with some basic academic skills and help them to be more prepared for the academic context then that will go a long way towards making up for any language deficit and carrying them through the year to come.

Sometimes, it's really good to have your assumptions and beliefs challenged a bit and to feel your views shifting slightly.  Thanks to everyone who provided so much food for thought over the weekend, it gave me plenty to ponder and may well prompt some more posts ...

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Friday, April 20, 2012

A spot of anthropology

Yesterday afternoon, I took a break from my normal ELT work and spent a couple of hours reading and editing a research proposal for an anthropology project to study the effects of rapid economic growth in Mongolia!  It was sent to me by an old friend who's now a university lecturer in Social Anthropology. The story of how we met is an interesting one and, I realise, our association over the years has probably had more than a passing influence on the work on EAP materials I find myself doing now.

When I first went freelance, some 12 years ago, I looked into using some of my new-found flexibility to do some voluntary work of some kind.  I was living in Cambridge at the time and one of the places I approached was the university's centre for supporting disabled students.  Amongst other things, they put me in touch with a dyslexic anthropology PhD student who needed someone to proofread her thesis. Thus started a relationship which soon turned into a friendship and which has continued ever since. 

When she sent me the first section of text to look at, I couldn't make head nor tail of it! This had nothing to do with her dyslexia, which mostly only came out in odd surface errors like spellings and apostrophes, it was the subject matter and the genre that proved to be a challenge. The terminology and abstract concepts involved in social anthropology were initially completely impenetrable to an outsider.  Slightly daunted, I started off by confining my comments and corrections to surface language issues.  As I read more and became more familiar with the subject matter though, I got bolder in my suggestions, making comments about things that didn't seem clear, maybe needed more context or explanation or reorganizing. By the time she finally submitted her PhD, I'd learnt a huge amount not just about social anthropology and Mongolian culture, but about academic writing as well.

We've stayed in touch over the years and every now and then, she sends me something she'd like me to read through. This time it was a funding application to be judged by a panel of non-academics. As I've been working a lot on EAP materials lately, it was interesting to be viewing it with a slightly different analytical eye.  There were a few surface language points that I picked up right away, but then I got to thinking about how accessible it was for its intended audience.  The short answer is, it wasn't!  Anthropologists seem to be particularly guilty of the common academic tendency to make things sound way more complicated than they really are!  It's an interesting task to try and 'translate' the academic jargon into something slightly more comprehensible.  Part of that job is weighing up when a particular term is just "for show" and can easily be replaced by something more everyday and when it's really needed to pick out a subtle, but important distinction.

All in all, the task provided an interesting challenge, not to mention a welcome change, and sparked a few thoughts and reflections which will undoubtedly feed into my EAP work.  I hope it also helped in a small way to shape the proposal and I'll be keeping fingers crossed that my friend gets the funding she's after!

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Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday afternoons

My Friday afternoons tend to fall into three types:

1 The best kind are when I've planned my week's work just right so I manage to finish something off and can knock off early at lunchtime or mid-afternoon. Then I can happily start my weekend early and do something nice.

2 The worst kind are when I'm behind schedule and find myself still head down trying to make progress by the time the News Quiz starts at 6.30, not wanting to go into the weekend with something still hanging over me.

3 Today was the third type; I didn't have a deadline or anything specific to complete, I'm just plodding along in the middle of stuff. It's been a short but quite intense week and by today, I didn't really have the energy or the brain power to tackle anything too taxing. I spent this morning doing bits and pieces, then after lunch decided to settle down to watch some video material that we might use for a project I'm working on. This was just meant to be a first watch-through to decide what we might use and where, so didn't need intensive concentration. I slipped the DVD into my laptop and set it up to watch while I got on with a pile of ironing ... oddly calming and quite satisfying too!

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