Archive for Tag: vocabulary

Monday, August 1, 2011

Brainstorming Vocabulary

Richard Firsten By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I recently came to a difficult decision that it was time to retile most of the floors in my house. Where I live, very few people have carpeting in their homes. The climate is just too hot and much too humid most of the year. So, after 29 years of living with the same ceramic tile floors and watching them deteriorate more and more over those years, I took the plunge.

Just by coincidence a neighbor down the block whom I’ve known for a very long time had just finished having her house remodeled with all the work done (breaking down a couple of walls, adding a whole room to the house, retiling, etc.) by just one man and his uncle. I was so impressed at the work when the project was finished that I knew he and his uncle were the men for my project, so I hired them to retile my floors. But there was just one thing: They didn’t speak English, just Spanish.

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Look at That and Watch What Happens, Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

In my last piece, I asked that you look at 14 pairs of words and see if you could clearly and simply explain the distinctions between the two words or phrases in each pair. I said that I’d post my own interpretations in my next piece – this one – and that it would be fun to compare notes. So let’s get to it!


  • a bee’s sting: a wound inflicted by a bee, i.e., the aggressive action of a bee

A bee’s sting can be as painful as a wasp’s.

  • a bee sting: an actual wound already inflicted by a bee

That bee sting you got yesterday still looks pretty inflamed.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Look at That and Watch What Happens.

Richard FirstenBy Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

You’ve put some questions on the board that you want your students to answer in writing so you can get an idea of their writing skills. One of the questions you’ve ask is “Do you like gardening?”

A student hands in her paper, and her answer to that question is



“Uh-oh!” you say to yourself. Right away you know you’ve got to make three corrections to that sentence, so when the student gets back her paper with your corrections, she sees the following changes you’ve made:


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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sneaked vs. Snuck: What Ngram Tells Us

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I have just discovered an online tool that I think will be fun and useful for all of us who are fascinated by English language usage. It is Google Labs Ngram Viewer, released by Google in December, 2010.

The Ngram Viewer graphs usage frequency from 1800 to 2000, based on the corpus of millions of books that Google has thus far scanned.

The first word I looked up was snuck. Through my years of writing textbooks, I debated whether to include snuck in an advanced-level reference chart of irregular

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Singing the Way to Conversation Success!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

So, there I was, tearing through the streets of Brussels, chatting away with my taxi driver in my halting French. He was telling me (if I understood correctly) that he had family in Quebec, and I wanted to tell him that even though I am from Canada, I have never been to Quebec. As I was trying to cobble together a grammatically correct negative, the lyrics from a French song suddenly popped into my head. Non, je ne regrette rien. Thanks to French songstress Edith Pilaf, I got my negative right! Je n’ai jamais visite Quebec. As a teacher, I have been using music in my English classes for a while, but this was the first time I had a personal experience that backed up my hunch that singing is a great language learning tool.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Collocations: Digging for Language Nuggets

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

As a teenaged language learner I did not see much point in spending most of my pocket money on a monolingual English dictionary.  “It’s all in English” I reasoned, questioning the usefulness of definitions written in the language of the headwords.  It seemed circular and otherworldly to me. 

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Using Survey Reports to Boost Academic Vocabulary

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

It was an inconsequential bet.  However, as an act which naturally produced a kind of thrill, it was met with my students’ ardent approval.  I had gambled that I’d guess what phrase 90% of the class would use in their first sentence of a text summary assignment.  I had even conceded that it would not include the author’s name or the title of the text.

“As it turned out,” I won. The legendary and persistent “is about …” was used by everyone in that group except for one student, who, changing the tense, wrote “was about… .”

I often use this mini-game to introduce the concept of academic vocabulary in my writing classes, and I usually follow it up with the question: “Can you think of a brief but more precise expression which can substitute for that phrase?”  Typically, students come up with a healthy little list of expressions such as the text presents …, the article discusses…, the author argues that…, etc., which include key descriptive verbs.

So, what are the characteristic features of academic vocabulary?

No doubt, academic vocabulary, regardless of field, is often used to report, to analyze, and to summarize.  It is also characterized by a level of formality, by its precision and by its accuracy.

What kind of interactive activity could involve students in producing a written piece with some of those characteristics?

Certainly, reports based on interactive surveys, at least those which

  • state the purpose and the method used,
  • present results,
  • analyze results, and
  • draw conclusions

are suitable.

What vocabulary can be used at key points in survey reports?

Students tend to appreciate ready-made lists of vocabulary items that are commonly accepted and are recognized as acceptable in formal, academic writing, and which are keyed to the purpose of a particular writing assignment.  I’ve created a table with words and phrases that have worked well for my students and their survey reports.

What features should typify survey reports?

I recently narrowed down my list of essential features to two: they should highlight an opinion or a preference, and they should focus on a change.

Reporting on survey respondents’ opinions allows students to use vocabulary often found in typical academic writing assignments, assignments such as those requiring argumentation, reference to sources, and presentation of other people’s ideas.

Reporting on changes allows students not only to mention the “before and after circumstances,” but also to use vocabulary associated with comparison, perhaps even with causes and effects.  Such reporting naturally requires special, formal vocabulary.

How have I used a survey activity with my students?

Example survey: I ask my students to prepare a very short survey (a list of 3-4 questions) about how “nerds” are viewed.  They make two copies of their survey.  Then they distribute a set of the first to their classmates, and collect them when the students have finished.  Next, the group is asked to read the article “America Needs Its Nerds” by Leonid Fridman.  Later, a set of the second copy is distributed, completed, and collected for analysis.

After students analyze the results and receive instruction in the organization of survey reports, they move on to the writing. I ordinarily ask my students to use calculators, to create tables or graphs if they wish, and, while composing their reports, to incorporate some of the vocabulary items given in the table.

What approaches do you take to teaching “academic vocabulary”?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dialogues for Beginners: Snooping at Techniques of “Non-ESL” Language Teachers

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

The story below, which is almost twenty years old, is still worth a few chuckles to my friend and me, and it’s recently gained an additional value: this summer our recollection of an elementary school incident prompted not only an expected giggle, but also an investigation, or rather a casual “snooping,” at some practices used with beginning learners by teachers of languages other than English.

Here’s what happened years ago:

We were beginning students of Russian, and during our second or third class meeting we were asked to prepare a telephone conversation which was to include some of the phrases we’d studied.  As you can imagine, our vocabulary was meager, and our confidence about acting out the conversation in front of a group of other 12-year-olds was definitely shaky.  We scrambled for ideas and put together the following lines (here translated into English):

– Good day.

– Good day.

– Is your father at home?

– Yes.

– Is your mother at home?

– Yes.

– Is your brother at home?

– No.

– Thank you. Good bye.

– Good bye.

We earned an F for this performance.  But get this.  It was a failure not because the dialogue was poorly prepared, but because it was never acted out!  The conversation seemed so painfully and funnily unnatural that it threw us into a fit of inextinguishable snickering.  We stood in front of the class with our heads down and shoulders shaking, unable to speak.

This summer my friend asked, “You’re a language teacher.  Is it still common teaching practice to ask beginners who know, let’s say, ten words to create and act out dialogues?

What can we learn about using dialogues in an ESL/EFL classroom from snooping into a textbook for beginning learners of Russian?

Curious to see what dialogue-based tasks are used these days by teachers of Russian, I leafed through a textbook published recently for beginning learners.  Interestingly, almost all reading tasks and the majority of the speaking activities were based on dialogues in that book.

In spite of having a limited vocabulary and a minimal knowledge of grammar, users of this textbook are regularly asked to create dialogues.  How does that make sense?  What makes their task possible and meaningful is that a clear, real context, together with a list of useful words and phrases, is provided.

So, after studying possessives and “furniture” vocabulary, students maybe be asked to prepare a dialogue for this sort of situation: You are in a new dorm.  Visit your neighbor.  Talk about your rooms.  Use these words: bed, table, desk, poster, curtain, lamp, sink, trash can, pillow, blanket.

Even though students’ dialogues may be fairly short and simple, the context will allow for a certain authenticity, and the vocabulary list will provide a level of comfort for the often vulnerable beginner.

What can we learn about using dialogues in an ESL/EFL classroom from taking a class for beginning learners of Modern Greek?

In her article “Creative writing is Greek to me: the continuing education of a language teacher,” Diana R. Ransdell, an experienced ESL teacher, recalls a summer course she took in Modern Greek.  She concludes that the course not only helped her relate to her ESL students’ frustrations, but also provided “first-hand exposure to new techniques” which she later incorporated into her teaching (45).

One technique she remembers particularly well used creative writing. Before taking that course in Modern Greek, she “had never once given a creative writing assignment to beginning students” (43).  Typically, those tasks tend to be rather time-consuming and are generally given to students whose vocabulary is more extensive.  Later, however, because of her experiences as a language learner, she “took steps to ensure that creative writing would be an integral part of future teaching” (44).

As a beginning student of Modern Greek, she was asked to compose a creative story, which she wrote in the form of a dialogue. Because half of the vocabulary she knew at the time amounted to names of food items, the dialogue centered on the theme of food. In her dialogue she spoke to a vendor about the availability of watermelons, cherries, lemons, and bananas.  She writes: “The experience gave me a sense of power because the words I had used … were no longer mere words.  Now they were my words” (43).

So how should I answer my friend’s question about the currency of using dialogues with true beginners? Yes, it seems possible and common enough to ask beginning language learners to create dialogues even if their vocabulary is limited.  But perhaps to make sure that they don’t fail at this (like we did), we can be sure to provide them with a truly realistic context and key vocabulary, and assure them that they will feel accomplished, no matter how simple the conversation turns out to be.

Now I’m considering snooping into my colleague’s textbook, one for beginning learners of German.  I wonder what dialogue-based tasks they use in, let’s say, “Lektion 3.”

Ransdell, D. R. 1993. “Creative writing is Greek to me: the continuing education of a language teacher.” ELT Journal 47/1: 40-46.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Playing Games, Part 4

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net


Many students will already know this classic matching game, but even if they don’t, it’s not hard to explain. I use this game as a vocabulary review. Allow a good 45 minutes! And with the extension activities listed at the end, it can fill an hour. However, if the preparation is done the class before or as homework, it can be played in 20 minutes.

Students are divided into groups of 4-6. If time permits (here is the step that can be done as homework), each group is given 20-25 words or allowed to choose words from their textbook or other source they have used. Words should be ones previously studied, however; this is a review game, not a teaching game. Students write a definition of the word or an original sentence that exemplifies the word, with a blank line where the word would go.

Example: the target word is “luxury”

For me, a cell phone is not a _____ . It’s an essential tool for my personal and professional life.

It’s important that you check each sentence or definition to make sure it is correct and sufficient, since the group will be drilling with these sentences.

When the definitions and sentences have been approved, students write the word on a small blank flashcard (I cut standard 3″ x 5″ file cards in half) and the matching definition or sentence on another. The words are shuffled together, and the sentences and definitions are shuffled together.

The cards are then laid face down in rows. If you are playing with 25 vocabulary words, then you will have 5 rows of 5 cards on one side of the table for the words, and 5 rows of 5 cards on the other side for the definitions and sentences.

A player starts by choosing, at random, one card first from the word side and then one card from the definition/sentence side, and — here is the important part! — reading each out loud. If they match, the player keeps them and earns one point. If they don’t match, each card is returned to the original position, and the next player draws two cards.

In some forms of this game, a player who correctly matches two items wins another turn; however, I believe this method favors the stronger students and gives them more practice, whereas it is really the weaker students who need more practice, so I don’t allow it.

Inevitably, cards will be drawn again and again, even after their matches have been seen before. This is the nature of the drill — students are repeating and remembering, repeating and remembering. It may take some supervision on your part to remind them to say the words and definitions/sentences aloud each time, yet this is the crucial step.

The game finishes when all cards have been matched.

If time remains in class, have students make two stacks of cards, again keeping the words together and the definitions/sentences together. First, have them take turns drawing a definition/sentence and recalling the words (they should be pleasantly surprised by how easy this is!). Then, have them take turns drawing a word and either recalling the example definition/sentence or creating a new one.  This, too, is usually pretty easy by this point.

Students of all ages and levels enjoy this game, and the advantage for you is that they will drill and drill until they really know the words, with minimal supervision on your part. You can even keep the games the groups have created to use with other classes (as long as those other classes are studying the same vocabulary, of course). Cutting out the preparation step means less practice for new groups, but does save the preparation time.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Colors: Beyond the Basics

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

Looking into my closet the other month, my best friend said that my clothes seemed “uninspired.”  She surveyed my blues, greys, and beiges with increasing dismay, and concluded that the colors of my clothes simply blurred into one another on the shelves and hangers.  I’ve since been attending to color a bit more and I’m noticing all kinds of shades.  In fact, this summer I’m starting to get the feeling that the world’s colors are actually conspiring to awaken my sense of hue.

They have been revealing themselves almost relentlessly in all directions.  The oranges of poppies appeared between some train tracks I was watching.  Bold greens and striking yellows showed up in the embroidery of a tablecloth I saw at a folk culture center.  Subtly differing blues and whites emerged from an oil painting of a marine scene I viewed at a small museum.  I must say that I’m beginning to be energized a little by the “burst of hues” around me.

While it may still be a while before I buy a carnation-pink dress, I’ve been awakened enough to consider devoting a blog article to the use of colors in the language classroom.  So here it is.

Of course basic color terms are taught at beginning levels.  Students learn names of basic colors, describe the clothes someone is wearing, discuss living-room wall color preferences, and explore color idioms, color psychology, and so on.  Today, I’m thinking about what’s next, about what “color activities” we can use with our more advanced learners.

Mood: Modifying Color Names

This exercise is one I created a few years ago for an intermediate group and it has since sparked enthusiasm among many of my students.  The activity employs two sets of cards: one set with the names of various colors and one set with words describing moods, attitudes, or emotions.  Working in pairs, students draw three color cards and one mood card.  They are then asked to write a very short narrative paragraph which portrays the selected mood. This should be achieved mainly by using other words to modify the names of the colors.  When the paragraphs are ready, students read them out and ask fellow students to guess the mood that the piece was meant to portray.

Here are the ideas of one pair of my students.  The color cards drawn were: Orange, Yellow, and Brown. The color phrases created were: “Mud Orange,” “Washed-out Yellow,” and “Cockroach Brown.” Can you guess the mood card they’d selected?  (Answer: “Dislike”)

Hues: Categorizing Color Terms

This activity is dictionary-based and it is intended for intermediate or advanced learners.  The key tool is a healthy list of descriptive color terms.  Terms like these can easily be found in the paint aisles of home improvement stores.  Some discretion is required here, however, since terms like “Death by Chocolate” and “Gypsy Bloom” are clearly meant to be catchy, not accurate.

Here’s the procedure: students are given a jumbled list of color terms.  Each term includes a word or phrase that is most likely unfamiliar to them.  They are asked to categorize the terms by related basic (or primary) color.  “Heirloom Lace” and “Parchment Paper,” for example, can be put together under “White.” “Wilted Chives” and “Parsley Sprig” may be placed under “Green.”  “Pot Clay” and “Trekkers’ Tan” would probably go under “Brown.”  To their benefit, most students consult a dictionary several times in order to complete the task.

Color and Culture: Researching Color Symbolism

Advanced learners often enjoy tasks similar in difficulty level to those assigned to students who are native speakers.  Research-based projects are of that type.  Students can, for example, be asked to investigate the symbolism behind certain colors in various cultures.  More specifically, they may be assigned to research “Green (or Blue, or White, etc.) in the Flags of the World,” or “The Colors of Weddings across the Globe.”  One plus to this kind of project is the necessity for students to locate authoritative sources, and on occasion those may take the form of a fellow student who has a different cultural background.

Any colorful thoughts?

P. S. I’m off to paint my toenails….. Happy summer!