The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Word Booster update

Last year, I wrote a review of Word Booster, an online tool that allows you to create an ELT lesson from an online text. It creates a (fully credited) pdf of the text that you can print out for students, along with definitions for key words and a follow-up vocab quiz. At the time, I was disappointed that an idea which seemed so promising fell short on a number of important details.

As soon as I’d posted the blog, the creator of Word Booster got in touch. He was really positive about my feedback and keen to improve the tool as quickly as time, manpower and finances would allow. I was really impressed by his commitment and even more impressed when he got in touch again recently about the latest updates to Word Booster.

  • The latest version of the tool uses a learner’s dictionary (the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary) which makes the definitions appropriate and accessible to the average learner.
  • Whilst the tool makes suggestions about which words in a text to focus on, the user/teacher is now free to accept or reject these suggestions and to choose whichever words or phrases they feel are most appropriate for their learners or for the aims of the lesson.
  • The tool suggests an appropriate definition for each word, but allows the user to check it’s the correct sense manually and change it if necessary. This is a massive improvement as automated sense selection can be a bit hit and miss. You can see in the example below, using one of my own blog posts, that when I click on 'folk' in the text, I'm able to select the appropriate sense for the context (the tool had automatically selected the more frequent, 'music' sense). [Click on the picture to view it more clearly full-screen.]

  • There are also options to (de)select example sentences and to adjust the quiz activities slightly – although not to make edits beyond shuffling around which words appear in which activity type.

All of these changes make the tool far more usable. It still has a few minor technical glitches that I’ve passed back to the Word Booster team, but overall, it’s something I’d now happily recommend for teachers to try out.

I do, however, still have a few reservations.

Dictionary definitions in vocab activities

As a lexicographer myself, I’m a big fan of learner’s dictionaries, but I’m still slightly wary about the use of dictionary definitions in vocab practice activities. Research seems to show that using dictionary look-ups or referring to glosses while reading a text helps students’ incidental* vocabulary learning (Laufer & Hill, 2000). By actively looking up a word, focusing on the form and meaning, and relating it to the context, students are more likely to remember it later. And this is exactly what learner’s dictionaries are intended for. Definitions are written in the expectation that the students will come across a word and look it up to check the meaning – they’re intended for decoding. That’s what the first part of the Word Booster tool caters to perfectly.

Where I feel we get onto shakier ground is in the ‘reverse engineering’, if you like, where students are essentially given a definition and asked to guess the word. This is potentially a much more challenging task and isn’t something that dictionary definitions are designed for.  Without the target word alongside, a dictionary definition can seem vague, rather abstract and certainly very difficult to tell apart from definitions for similar words. 

That’s not a criticism of dictionary definitions, it’s just the nature of the beast. Definitions have to be concise, so there can’t be lots of detailed explanation to differentiate between similar words**. They have to be written within a defining vocabulary (a limited set of words that avoids the definitions being more difficult than the words they define), so they necessarily can’t be as subtle and nuanced as those in a dictionary for native speakers. They also have to cover all the possible uses of a word, which can make them a bit vague and sometimes slightly awkward. As a lexicographer, you split out clearly different senses, but you can’t just keep on splitting endlessly, you have to lump similar uses together at some point (e.g. this two-part definition from Cambridge Dictionaries – “option: one thing that can be chosen from a set of possibilities, or the freedom to make a choice”).

As a materials writer, if I want to create a practice activity around definitions (which, by the way, I’d do sparingly anyway), whilst I might start off by looking at a dictionary entry, I’d invariably edit the definition. I might change the wording, for example, losing slightly formal passives (e.g. “one thing that you can choose”). I might make it a bit more specific to the context at hand – so I’d choose just the relevant part of the above two-parter. And, if I was dealing with near synonyms, I’d probably add a bit more detail to help make the distinctions clearer.  

At the moment, many of the quiz questions generated by Word Booster are at best very tricky and at worst, downright confusing just because of the nature of the dictionary definitions. Being able to edit the defs in the quiz questions would undoubtedly help, but at the same time, it would add to the time required to create the material (which kind of negates one of the key selling points of the tool) and I guess, the ‘authority’ of the definitions would be lost somewhat. It seems to me that the key here is to use the activities sparingly and to choose items carefully, keeping an eye out for odd and confusing defs or combinations and deselecting them. Which brings me onto my main takeaway about this tool …

… it’s how you use it.

Just like any other tool, the success of what’s produced comes down not only to the features of the tool itself, but to how it’s used. As a novice teacher many years ago, I didn’t have fancy online tools like this, but I certainly fell into the trap of choosing a news article that I thought was interesting, photocopying it, picking out some random vocabulary and quite often writing out dictionary definitions for students to match to words from the text. The result was a bit of a confusing mess of a lesson, in which we’d invariably end up decoding the text as a class line-by-line because it was too hard for the students to manage. I’d have to give extra explanation of the definitions of above-level vocab and I’d often struggle to remember the correct answers to the questions that seemed obvious when I wrote them, but which, in the middle of a lesson with a load of confused students, suddenly didn’t make sense any more.

To use a tool like Word Booster effectively, the teacher needs to consider:

  1. The choice of text – is it at the right level for the students both linguistically and cognitively? A few above-level words might provide challenge and interest, but too many will be confusing and demotivating. Is it the right length for the lesson?
  2. The choice of vocab – in my last post, I wrote about the importance of choosing reasonable vocab sets to work with and about having a clear aim for vocab activities (Are you focusing on receptive or productive vocab? Do you want students just to decode the text or are these words useful to learn?). How many words is it reasonable to highlight and practise?
  3. The choice of definitions – the option for the user to pick the correct definition is really useful, but it requires some skill. How is the word being used here and which def fits best? Is the word being used metaphorically? Is it actually part of a phrase, a phrasal verb or an idiom? Is the correct sense available in this learner's dictionary at all?
  4. Activity selection – personally, I think one short-ish definition-based activity per text, using carefully-selected definitions that don’t cause confusion, is probably enough. I might stretch to a second that uses example sentences, but for me, any more than that and it’s becoming a bit mechanical and repetitive. I’d then want to supplement the material generated by Word Booster with some of my own content. Just mining a text for vocabulary doesn’t amount to a successful, engaging lesson. At a minimum, I’d want to add some kind of comprehension questions – whether those were traditional written questions about the text or looser points for discussion. I’d then want some kind of follow-up – a response to the content of the text, perhaps in the form of group discussions, maybe a writing task.

Overall, I’m really impressed with the improvements that Word Booster has made over the past year and I know the team have more upgrades in the pipeline to continue refining their algorithms and adding more features. I’d certainly say it’s worth trying out though. Whilst creating a usable lesson involves a bit of work in terms of choosing the vocab, checking definitions and selecting appropriate quiz questions, I think it does save time in creating a basis for a lesson that you can then build around.

*The term incidental vocabulary learning, doesn’t mean words that students just come across by accident. Incidental learning can be quite planned and intentional, but it just isn’t the main focus of the activity. So in a reading lesson, the main focus is on understanding the text, maybe for discussion or to answer some comprehension questions, but there can be a conscious focus on vocab too – this would be incidental learning.
**When I was working on the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus, we often needed to add whole extra sentences to help differentiate between synonyms.

Laufer, B. & Hill, M. (2000) ‘What lexical information do L2 learners select in a CALL dictionary and how does it affect word retention?’ Language Learning & Technology

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Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Sticking to your lexical guns: 4 principles for writing vocabulary materials

I was inspired to put together a talk for the recent MaWSIG/Oxford Brookes event by a number of posts by Katherine Bilsborough about materials writers’ principles. It’s a topic I’ve been pondering for a while and one I decided to give a vocabulary slant. After lots of thought, I came up with four broad principles. And with the title of the event being about challenges and opportunities, I combined my four principles with some of the challenges I face in sticking to them when they seem to conflict with the brief I’m working to.

Principle 1: Have a clear aim in mind for every activity
This may seem obvious and a bit of a universal truth when writing any kind of materials, but I think that all too often, vocab activities get tagged on – to a grammar syllabus, to reading lessons – without any real thought about what they aim to achieve other than “teach some words” ... which isn’t really a realistic aim, is it? Because vocabulary learning isn’t as simple as “doing” a word once and then it’s known. Yet it often gets pushed into a standard PPP model:

Pack some words into a text (whether they’re ever used together or not!)
Pop them into a gap-fill (because that’s what you do with vocab, isn’t it?)
Prod students into using them (because they ‘know’ them now, right?)

In fact, most research into vocab acquisition suggests that learning vocab is a gradual process in which students get to grips with words over a period of time via repeated exposures. Which suggests an approach to teaching vocab something like below might be more appropriate.
So, in an ideal world, at the first encounter with a word (in context), the focus of any activities would be on comprehension or receptive knowledge, that is recognizing the form of the word (spelling and pronunciation) and understanding its meaning in the current context ... quite enough for a first meeting. Then, as the same item pops up again and again, the focus shifts from reception and understanding how the word’s used in different contexts to controlled production. As a word becomes more familiar, students should be encouraged to look at how they can use it – what collocations is it used in, what register is it, what are its grammatical features and what patterns does it typically appear in? Then eventually, along the line, they’ll hopefully be ready to start using it for freer production. How long that process takes will depend on the type of word and also the stage the learner’s at. And crucially, at each stage, the aims of any vocab activities will be quite different.

The Challenge:We certainly can’t have a student see a word twice!” – as Dorothy Zemach so succinctly highlighted in her IATEFL plenary earlier this year, within the world of ELT publishing, there’s very much of a focus on providing a constant stream of fresh, new vocabulary and repetition of items is actively discouraged – “you can’t have that word, it was covered at the previous level”. To be fair, this isn’t just coming from publishers. Students and teachers naturally want to feel like they’re making progress and in many people’s minds, understandably, that’s about increasing their vocab. They want to see new words to learn as they work their way through a course.

The Work-around: Exposing students to vocabulary doesn’t have to be confined to specific vocabulary sections. As a writer, if you keep a record of newly introduced vocab, you can sneak it in all over the place. A new word might pop up first in an explicit vocab activity, but it can easily be recycled in later units in different sections. If you’ve got a grammar activity to write, it’s relatively easy to look back at target vocab from previous units to include in example sentences. You could even slip some work on collocation into a revision of the present perfect, for example (this is a quickie, made-up exercise just to demo the point):

Complete the gaps using the best verb from the box in the present perfect.

do   give   make 

Jack ______ his homework, but he _____ a lot of mistakes. The teacher isn’t very happy and she _____ him a low mark. …

Principle 2: Create reasonable and memorable lexical sets
Following on from the pressure to constantly provide students with lots of juicy new vocab, a lot of ELT materials seem to regularly throw long lists of semantically-similar words at students in the hope that they’ll stick. The trickle-down of research into how useful (or not) it is to teach vocabulary in traditional lexical sets is patchy at best. From my understanding of the research (such as it is), things to avoid in materials include long lists of very similar words introduced as new vocabulary, including near synonyms, easily substitutable items and synforms (words which look very similar). The reason for this being that students easily get them confused and so find them more difficult to learn – an issue known in the literature as interference (Nation, 2000).

From a writing perspective, that means avoiding confusables in new vocab as much as possible. So, if you’re trying to write an activity and you’re struggling to come up with items that have unambiguous answers because more than one word in the set can fit in a gap, it probably means you have items that are too close together and you might want to consider tweaking your set.

Note, however, that the problem of interference is largely around new vocabulary. Researchers suggest that once words are fairly well-established, then bringing similar words together is actually beneficial. Arguably, at higher levels, it’s essential for students to understand how synonyms overlap and in what ways they differ, so bringing them together at this stage is a necessary part of learning.

The Challenge:  Especially if you’re working on a large, publisher-led project, you’re likely to have a scope and sequence document that includes vocab sets based largely on topics and often those will include sets of worryingly similar words.

The Work-around: Whilst sets of overly similar items can lead to confusion, that doesn’t mean you can’t have thematic sets which include a range of different vocab to talk about a topic. One really simple way to mix up a vocab set is to include different parts of speech. So, for example, if you’re doing an A2 unit on ‘feelings’ you might have a suggested vocab set that contains exclusively adjectives … *heart sinks*:
But of course, we don’t just use adjectives to describe our feelings and there are plenty of other on-level verbs and nouns you could include as well. This might involve bending the brief a little, but it’s quite possible without straying too far from the original plan. And not only does this make the items less easily confused by students, it also encourages more variety of expression – which has got to be a good thing.

Principle 3: Use research tools with a large dose of common sense
There are lots of tools that we use as writers to help us make choices about what vocabulary to include and what to leave out– wordlists (like the AWL), ‘vocab level’ lists (like EVP), text analysis tools (like Text Inspector), corpora, readability measures, etc. They all provide valuable input to complement our own experience and intuition, but they do need to be treated with care. Most importantly, I think it’s essential to fully understand any tool you use, to know what it’s based on, what it tells you and crucially, what its limitations are.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of wordlists again here, but will refer you back to my previous blog on the topic. A quick further note on text analysis tools though – whilst, they provide a really useful guide, they are automated and can’t always be relied on to get it right for every word in your text. Make sure you check for each word whether the tool has chosen the appropriate sense (the full version of Text Inspector allows you to choose the sense from a drop-down), whether it’s got the correct part of speech (a percentage of words in any text will usually be wrong here) and finally, check whether the words are part of a phrase or chunk as this won’t usually be recognized by the tool and may change the level significantly. When I put a short section of the abstract for my talk through Text Inspector, for example, I’d estimate that roughly 25% of the words were initially labelled incorrectly for level.

The Challenge: Your editor insists that you can’t use a B2 word in a reading text in a B1 book, because they’re sticking rigidly to a level list and, if they’re using EVP, have misunderstood (as many people do) that the level labels signal productive usage by students at that level which is very different from when a student might first encounter a word receptively. 

The Work-around: If you properly understand the list (or other tool) you’re being asked to use, then you’ll be in a much stronger position to argue your case – in this case, explaining that if a word is tagged as B2 for production, it’s perfectly reasonable to introduce it receptively in a B1 reading text. Of course, if you’re just one writer on a large multi-author project that’s already well in motion, then you’re not always going to win your case, but certainly for smaller projects, showing your understanding up-front might help steer things in a more informed direction.

Principle 4: Work beyond the level of the word
Research suggests that somewhere between 30% and 50% of any text is made up of phrases, idioms and other chunks of language (depending on the type of text and how you count). So understanding these chunks is vital for any language learner, as is getting to grips with how to use them themselves. One piece of research (Millar, 2011) found that atypical collocations used by learners slowed readers down significantly and made reading a text overall much harder work. Not something anyone wants when they’re trying to communicate. Yet, most vocab materials still focus on lists of individual words.

Again, students (and teachers) like to see lists of vocabulary and once you start trying to include more than the simplest of phrases, trying to compile a list gets messy. Short phrases – at least, as a result – work okay on lists, but in sb’s safe/capable, etc. hands or know better (than that/than to do sth) probably won’t fit neatly on a single line and let’s be honest, do look a bit confusing.

The Challenge: Your brief states that there needs to be a list of key vocab at the start of each unit/section and the vocab list you’re working from contains largely single words.

The Work-around: Just because you’re highlighting individual key words in your headline list doesn’t mean you can’t work phrases, collocations and other chunks of language into your activities. For example, a simple activity in which students have to match sentence halves can work for checking comprehension of the key words (one per sentence), but can also involve students noticing a collocation in the other half of the sentence. This might be explicit – mentioning the collocations in the rubric and even getting students to underline the pairs of words – or if your editor’s not keen, just leaving in the collocation element quietly for students to absorb implicitly.

So those are my four broad principles, some of the challenges I regularly face in trying to stick to them and just a few of the work-arounds I use to argue my case, to bend a brief or, if all else fails, to sneak things in under the radar.

A couple of references:

Martinez, R. & Schmitt, N. (2012) A Phrasal Expressions List, Applied Linguistics 33/3
Millar, N. (2011) The Processing of Malformed Formulaic Language, Applied Linguistics 32/2
Nation, P. (2000) Learning Vocabulary in Lexical Sets: Dangers and Guidelines, TESOL Journal

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