The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Writing EAP for self-study: Part 1

Back at the end of February, I created a series of videos about writing EAP materials to be used by other teachers (you can find them here). Not long afterwards, the world of education underwent a massive shift as the coronavirus pandemic spread and teaching suddenly moved online.  

From what I hear from EAP colleagues, a lot of EAP teaching, especially upcoming pre-sessional summer courses, is now being planned as a mix of synchronous online sessions plus a lot of asynchronous self-study. More self-study content has become a necessity because synchronous online teaching is draining for both the teacher and students, and also because of issues around time differences where students are in, say, China and their teachers are in Europe or North America. 

From experience of working on various self-study materials over the years, both print and digital, I know that it involves quite a different set of challenges from those around creating classroom content. So, if you suddenly find yourself having to create, or adapt, materials for students to work on remotely, here are a few of my top tips – part 1 here with part 2 to follow.


Yes, I know I say this again and again, but making sure the aims of a piece of material (a task or a series of tasks) are clear both in your own head and to your audience is absolutely essential. When you prepare material to teach face-to-face, what you put on the page can be fairly minimal because you do a lot of talking around it while you're in class. As a teacher, you naturally explain the aims of an activity, how it links to what you've done previously and how it might link forward to something that's going to happen later. You can respond to puzzled looks, questions and slightly left-field responses. When you take yourself out of the equation though and the student's just faced with words on a screen, it may be less obvious why they're doing something.

That doesn't mean you should write a whole essay introducing the aims and rationale for each lesson ... TDLR!  But you should find ways of pre-empting questions like:
  • Why am I doing this?
  • How's it relevant to my future studies/my discipline?
  • How does this fit in with what we've already done/what we did 'in class'?
  • How does it link to the other activities I’ve been assigned?
  • What do you expect me to do with this - will I be tested on it, will we discuss it in our next 'class', will I need to use it in an assignment?
  • Will anyone be checking my answers/what I've looked at?
  • How much do I need to understand, is it okay to just get the gist or am I focusing on details?
  • What do I do if I don't understand something/have questions?
Some of these things you might choose to handle during synchronous online sessions - in much the same way that you'd introduce homework in class, but remember that in an online environment, students are perhaps more likely to miss crucial instructions. As Shaun Wilden pointed out in a recent edition of the Who’s Zooming Who podcast (worth checking out if you don't know it), it's easy to forget that in a remote teaching situation, our 'class' aren't altogether in the same place, so they can't ask the student next to them “What did she say about …?” or check with their friend on the way out of class whether what they're doing for homework should be written or typed or handed in. 

Make sure that any key information about aims and expectations are set out clearly (and concisely) at the start of each set of activities - bullet points are good.


A lot of the same issues also apply as students work through the material. When you're not there to explain activities in person, everything needs to be crystal clear. In the same way as when you’re writing for other teachers, materials for students to use independently need to have instructions that are simple and unambiguous, you need to be consistent in how you use terminology and also with the wording of rubrics. Tasks also need to be carefully staged and signposted to guide students through what they need to do.

Making sure that activities are divided into short, manageable chunks becomes even more important when students are working on their own. That doesn't necessarily mean dumbing down the content or the tasks. In EAP, we're often working with very intelligent, sophisticated students ready to study engineering or business or whatever at postgraduate level. And yes, they need to develop the autonomous study skills they'll be expected to use in their future studies, but ... right now they're sitting in their bedroom at home with likely little support, wondering what's going to happen with their studies and potentially trying to get to grips with academic study completely in English for the first time … on their own. Cut them a bit of slack! 

Make sure that tasks are broken down into manageable stages with clear instructions at each stage. Don't cram three instructions into one rubric unless you really need the student to do all three things simultaneously (and even then break them down into bulleted sub-tasks). Use clear headings and subheadings so students can see at a glance what each task is about – is it a vocab activity that follows on from a reading they’ve just done or is it preparation for the listening that comes a bit later?

And make sure you show how each chunk links to the next. Borrowing again from the Who's Zooming Who podcast (sorry for stealing all your ideas guys!), Lindsay Clandfield was talking about putting together presentation slides and mentioned the idea of having an introductory slide with an outline of your session at the start which you then repeat after each section to show where you're up to, maybe greying out what's been covered and highlighting what's coming up next. 

The same principle can be applied to a series of online tasks as a way of helping students see what a study chunk involves and how they're progressing through. If they can see there are three tasks linked to the same reading text, for example, they might choose to work on them altogether rather than lose their thread, and then take a break and get a coffee before they move onto the listening activity that comes next.

In my next post, I’ll be looking at scaffolding and providing enough support for students working alone, as well as the thorny issue of answer keys.

If you’re looking for more ideas for creating your own EAP materials, then How to Write EAP Materials is available as both an ebook and in print (via Amazon).

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Thursday, May 21, 2020

My coronacoaster

Up until now I've been grateful that my work's been relatively unaffected by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and aside from the odd wobble, I've been able to plod on much as usual. It's increasingly looking like there's been a bit of a coronalag though with things set to change from here on in ...

Early uncertainty: Back in mid-March I wrote about the initial effects the developing pandemic was having on my working life. Starting with a trip to Prague that was cancelled due to the virus at the beginning of March, a whole series of conferences and other events were called off over the following weeks leading to uncertainty about what was going ahead and whether or not to prepare or book things, then the mounting lost income. When everything shook out, it turned out that I lost just over £3K altogether (in lost fees and non-refundable expenses), which wasn't quite as much as I'd first feared.

A new normal: After that, things settled down and while everyone else was coming to terms with lockdown and new ways of working (or no work at all), I settled into what felt like a fairly steady-busy patch of work at my desk. I had a couple of on-going writing projects that just carried on much as before. No Zoom meetings here! I whizzed through one project in April and struck up a really nice working relationship with the in-house editor who was working from home. The other project became a little more disjointed and drawn out than it should have been, mostly because it had lots of interdependent strands and some of the contributors were more affected/distracted by the crisis.

Mostly, I was thankful to be busy and to carry on with my work routine much as normal. I had a few wobbles in the early days of lockdown just because of the general uncertainty about how things were going to work, how we'd get shopping and how my parents (both in at-risk groups but not nearby) would cope. But gradually things settled down into a 'new normal' and with some fabulous weather, I felt very grateful to have a lovely garden to retreat to for tea breaks and at weekends. I realized that I didn't miss going out and seeing people very much at all ... and in fact, found myself probably communicating with friends and colleagues a bit more than usual via email, social media and the odd Skype call. The lockdown rules in the UK allowed for 'daily exercise', but for a whole host of reasons, I didn't feel comfortable with going out every day, so initially I stayed at home most of the time, only venturing out for a walk or to the shop about once every 5 days. I was quite happy just pottering in the garden and didn't much feel like I needed to go out.

Change in the air: Then towards the end of April, news started filtering through that ELT publishers were cancelling or freezing writing projects and freelance contracts were being cancelled. Thankfully, I was able to finish off a project for one publisher just before their cut-off point and the other project, for a different publisher, carried on. However, that's now come to an end, so as of today, I have no work and, apart from one short job later in the summer (fingers crossed), little prospect of anything new coming along from my usual clients in the foreseeable future. 

Physical effects: When things started looking iffy, there was another patch of uncertainty about whether what I was already working on would get cancelled and, with my partner currently unemployed, how we were going to cope financially. That set off another bit of a wobble. My chronic pain which had flared up at the start of the crisis along with the tension floating around then got quite bad again and I really started missing my regular walks.  For me, walking is in part about just getting away from my desk and clearing my head but also from a physical point of view, it's a chance to release the tension that builds up around my neck and shoulders. When I walk, I stride along quite fast and allow my arms to dangle and swing by my sides literally shaking out the tension. Walking recently though has become a very different and altogether less relaxing affair. Because I live in the city centre, anywhere I walk involves an initial stretch along some fairly narrow and often busy pavements. Trying to social distance means lots of coronadodging - trying to anticipate where other people are going and step aside to let them through or move out their way. And then there's the annoyance about people who stroll two or three abreast down the middle of the path making no effort at all. I tried going out early in the morning to avoid the crowds, but I'm just not a morning person, so it was a struggle and left me feeling out of kilter for the rest of the day. I sought out less crowded routes, but they turned out to be mostly along slightly dull residential streets - it was a novelty at first being able to wander up the middle of traffic-free roads, but ultimately they weren't terribly inspiring. By the beginning of May, I decided I really need to get out again, so resolved to be more chilled about the 'busyness' and over the past couple of weeks, I've started walking a bit more regularly again. Some walks have been more relaxed and successful than others, but I'm getting better at enjoying it again.

The next phase: So sitting down at my desk this morning with no work to get on with, I'll do what I usually do during lulls in work:
  • I'll put out feelers to all my usual contacts, even though I don't expect positive replies, you never know ...
  • I'll update my website, LinkedIn, etc.
  • I'll catch up on some admin and do my accounts
  • I've also slightly unexpectedly got quite a few ideas buzzing round my head. Initially, I have a few blog posts to write - which are good for keeping my work-brain ticking over and also do no harm in keeping up my 'profile'. But there also a few potential self-publishing ideas bubbling under that may or may not come to fruition.
From a financial perspective, I have a little bit of breathing space - as a freelancer, you get paid in arrears anyway, so the income from the work over the past couple of months will come through over the next month, then I've applied for the UK government's self-employed scheme, which will see me through for a couple more months. After that, who knows. It remains to be seen what will happen with ELT publishing both in terms of how the big publishers react and also what new opportunities may arise. At least as a freelancer, I'm used to uncertainty and rarely have my work schedule planned out for more than a few months ahead, so provided I have enough in the bank to pay the bills for the next couple of months, I guess I'll just have to wait and see what comes up.

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Thursday, May 07, 2020

Do we 'watch TV' anymore?

Recently I've been working on updating some ELT materials for a new edition. One aspect of that is checking for anything that looks dated. It's a process I've gone through many times, especially in my work on dictionaries over the past 20 years. I remember changing examples that talked about records and cassettes to CDs, and videos became DVDs. But now we live in an age of digital media, those simple substitutions have become more difficult to make.  It seems we've shifted away from talking about the medium to focusing instead on the content.

What we watch is a particularly tricky case. For years and years, students have learnt the collocation watch TV from a very early level. It's a stalwart of many a lower level coursebook unit. But in the last few years, I've started to question whether younger people, in particular, really watch TV or more to the point, talk about watching TV. The viewing habits of the contemporary teen might include all kinds of content including feature-length films, drama series split into episodes and seasons, boxsets, YouTube-style videos from professional vloggers or user-generated content on the likes of TikTok. Some of that might be viewed on the family TV, but a lot is on laptops, tablets or phones. Which specific device you watch on though has become secondary to the type of content.

All of which makes it difficult to decide what collocations to teach when it comes to talking about what we watch. Looking back at the original BNC (British National Corpus) compiled back in the 1980s and 90s, the options were pretty straightforward. But if we scroll forward to look at the Timestamped JSI web corpus* that covers the period 2014-2019, we see much more diversity and, I think, much more focus on the specific content:

Photo credit: Chris Panas @ Unsplash

The corpus nerds among you may have spotted that this isn't quite a like-for-like comparison - the BNC was a British-only corpus drawn from a range of sources, whereas the JSI is an international web corpus. So do Brits really now talk about movies and shows and have they stopped watching telly? A quick look at the new Spoken BNC (2012-2016) seems to say yes and no: movies are quite common, but we probably refer to programmes rather than shows and reassuringly, telly is still a thing.

So how does all this translate into what we teach? Should we stop teaching watch TV altogether? Or do we perhaps just need to add a few new options for students to gradually expand their repertoire? Personally, I think we do still, for the moment at least, talk about watching TV, both in terms of those groups (by age or location) who still watch conventional television and also just as a generic term. But there's also lots of scope for opening up to other more specific subjects and there are lots of options above which I think we could easily teach; watch a video/show/film/episode of … etc.

Slightly more problematic for the ELT writer is the set of collocations just creeping in at the bottom of the list above, i.e. specific brand names such as Netflix. In all kinds of areas of life, brand names are becoming part of our vocabulary not just as names (I watched x on Netflix), but as verbs too. We've been googling things for years now, but increasingly we Whatsapp someone, we Skype them or at the moment, we Zoom them, we instagram a photo (if it's instagrammable), we Netflix it (or Netflix and chill in a certain kind of context!) and certainly in my house, we often iplayer something. Brand names though are a bit of a legal minefield for published materials (their owners often being touchy about their usage). What's more, in a global ELT market, they vary a lot from country to country and, of course, they can date very quickly as brands come and go. In terms of watching content, we can talk generically about streaming services, platforms or apps. Of course, we don't say in everyday conversation "I watch streaming services", but perhaps they're useful terms for students at higher levels for more formal essay writing - "People increasingly watch shows via streaming services when it suits them."

So sadly, there isn't an easy update for watch TV, but I think, actually, this new vocab opens up some interesting possibilities for materials writers to come up with new riffs on an old theme.

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