June 5, 2018
by Nora Nagy
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Hooked on words: interview with Julie Moore, lexicographer and corpus researcher

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices.

This month we have a special guest from the field of applied linguistics, Julie Moore. Julie is a freelance ELT writer, lexicographer and corpus researcher based in Bristol, in the UK. She’s worked on a wide range of published ELT materials including learner’s dictionaries, language practice materials and coursebooks for both General English and Academic English. Words are still her first love  and one recent  project is  as author of the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice titles (2017, OUP).

Visit Julie’s websites to learn more about her work:

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): You work as a corpus researcher and lexicographer. How did you choose these fields of linguistics?

Julie Moore: I spent the first part of my career as an EFL teacher – in Greece then the Czech Republic – and the part of my job I enjoyed most was trying to answer language questions. I loved trying to figure out why we say one thing and not another. And that led me back to the UK to complete a Master’s in Applied Linguistics, specializing in corpus linguistics and lexicography.

HRB: How different is a lexicographer’s work today from the days before Internet?

Julie: I guess one of the big differences is the range of possibilities that digital and online dictionaries have opened up. Working in print was very restrictive, trying to cram the most important information about a word into a small space and always having more that you wanted to include. The digital medium allows lexicographers to add more of the information they find when researching a word and to present it in an easier to digest way. We can include more example sentences, usage notes, collocations, information about synonyms, antonyms, related words, links between entries … the list goes on. And on screen, you don’t have to to overload the user with all this information at once, instead they can click on links to explore the points they’re interested in. Perhaps ironically, the advent of smartphones has meant a step in the opposite direction. Mobile-friendly versions of dictionaries, online or as apps, again need to condense the information into an entry small enough to fit on the screen of a mobile phone.

HRB: What does a corpus researcher do?

Julie: I use corpora (the plural of corpus) in a number of ways. I use them to research how language is used when I’m writing my own materials, be that dictionaries, vocabulary practice materials or just general ELT coursebooks. I also act as a researcher carrying out corpus research to feed into projects by other writers. That especially involves using a learner corpus to identify common learner errors.

HRB: How can corpus research inform ELT materials development?

Julie: I use native speaker corpora to check how language is actually used in the real world; to back up my own intuitions. So, I’ll often check which collocation is most frequently used with a particular word and is therefore most useful to highlight in teaching materials. Or I might check what context a particular grammatical form is most commonly used in and then pick that as the topic for a language activity. So, for example recently, I was looking for ideas to practise compound future tenses. I was drawing a bit of a blank, so I did some corpus searches and noticed lots of examples from weather forecasts – the rain will be moving in from the west; it will have cleared by midday – so I built an activity around that. It’s a way of reflecting authentic usage rather than coming up with rather contrived language exercises.

When it comes to learner corpus research, I do a lot of work investigating the most common problem areas for students from particular language backgrounds. This can then feed into extra practice in these specific areas in materials aimed at those learners.

HRB: Do you have to be a computer guru to become a corpus researcher?

Julie: No, not at all. Most modern corpus tools are pretty intuitive, very much like any of the other software we use all the time. You can start off with very basic searches just by typing a word into a box, much as you would with Google. Then as you get used to the different options and menus, you learn to build more complex searches. Unfortunately, different corpora tend to use different software, especially those which are publicly available. That means switching between them can be a bit frustrating and take a bit of time to figure out, rather like switching from a PC to a Mac.

HRB: Which are your favourite corpora?

Julie: Probably the most useful corpora for research are the very large ’balanced’ corpora compiled and maintained by the large dictionary publishers. A balanced corpus is one which contains data from a range of different sources: written and spoken language, different genres, different regional varieties. Having a real range of language data makes a corpus much more representative of language use in general and having a very large amount of data provides many more examples to work with, especially when you’re looking for less frequent words or combinations.

HRB: Something I really like about online dictionaries is that they are constantly updated. Are there situations when you still prefer using a printed dictionary?

Julie: I use both. I’ll sometimes use a print dictionary when I have several windows already open on screen and it’s just easier to have paper dictionary open on my desk to look down at. I also have a number of specialist dictionaries on my shelves which aren’t available online. Perhaps my favourite of these is the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus which I was lucky enough to work on and which I regularly refer to to help me tease out the subtle differences in meaning between similar words.

HRB: In teacher training circles we often suggest that teachers could benefit from learning the basics of corpus research. What do you think of this idea? How do you think corpus research skills can help language teachers?

Julie: Yes, I think learning some basic corpus research skills and becoming familiar with a relevant corpus can be really helpful for teachers. It’s a great way to explore language points when you’re not sure you can rely on your intuition or to answer tricky questions that crop up. I was teaching most recently on academic English courses at Bristol University and often I’d come across something, for example in a student essay, which didn’t feel right but I couldn’t put my finger on why. Often doing a quick corpus search would help me figure out what was going on. Whether or not I then actually looked at the corpus in class to explain the language point would depend on the type of students and how much time I had available, but just getting the answer clear in my head, I think, helped me give better feedback.

HRB: There are many popular and well-known word lists available on the Internet. Are there any  you would recommend to teachers?

Julie: I think wordlists are a really useful guide to help teachers choose which vocabulary to prioritize. Which list you choose will depend on your teaching context. So, the English Vocabulary Profile project (from Cambridge English) is really useful for general learners of English. It labels words according to the approximate CEFR level at which students can be expected to start using those words. Or if you’re teaching academic English, then the Academic Word List or the Academic Vocabulary List can both be very useful. My only word of warning would be that wordlists should always be seen as guides and used with a healthy dose of common sense rather than adhered to too rigidly.

HRB: Does a lexicographer have a favourite word?

Julie: There are lots of words that I love and mostly it comes down to how they feel and sound. Perhaps my favourite though is ‘soporific’. I first came across it as a young child in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and I think it was possibly one of the first seeds that led onto my lifelong love of words.

HRB: What do you like reading?

Julie: I’m a slow reader and I don’t read nearly as much as I’d like to. I think that’s because I spend time actually enjoying the words on the page. I’m not a big fan of really difficult-to-understand, pretentious literary works and neither do I like poorly-written ’pulp fiction’ that’s just all about the plot. I like something in-between that’s well written and uses language in a pleasing way, but which I can also relate to and relax with.

HRB: Thank you for the interview, Julie!

May 24, 2018
by Nora Nagy
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Lighting up Children’s Lit: Roald Dahl

The people who made a difference: 3) Roald Dahl

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

The Minpins, Roald Dahl

Portrait of Roald Dahl by Carl Van Vechten, 1954. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Original location: Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress.

What is your most memorable Roald Dahl moment? Whether you have read his novels or seen adaptations of them, you will recognise his distinctive, marvellous darkly comic style (don’t forget he is also famous for his Tales of the Unexpected). Matilda, Charlie, Willy Wonka, the Enormous Crocodile and the BFG are some of the characters we have loved meeting and getting to know. I still feel amazed by children’s reactions to their first Roald Dahl story and seeing how it immediately enchants.

Roald Dahl’s life is just as fantastic as his stories, and in this lesson we invite you and your students and fellow readers to embark on a journey to learn more about it.

THE MARVELLOUS WORLD OF ROALD DAHL

We have divided his life into 3 sections. Ask the class to form groups and choose one of the sections. Then get them to search the Internet (the Roald Dahl official website or the Wikipedia site dedicated to his life can be good starting points) and answer the questions. When they are ready with this, they can prepare a small presentation.

We will explore the following topics.

  • His life
  • Being a writer
  • Playful language
  • Fascinating facts

HIS LIFE (1916-1990)

1 Childhood and school years

  1. Where was he born?
  2. Where did he get the name ‘Roald’ from?
  3. What was Dahl’s first language?
  4. Where were his parents born?
  5. Where was he born?
  6. What tragedies happened in his family?
  7. How many schools did he go to?
  8. Did he like school?
  9. What bad experiences did he have at school?

2 Travels and becoming a WWII pilot

  1. Where did he travel after school?
  2. Which company did he work for?
  3. Where did his company send him?
  4. What accident happened to him?
  5. How long did he stay in Alexandria after this accident?
  6. What is a fighter ace? How did he become one?
  7. Why did he stop being a pilot?

3 Living in the U.S. and becoming a writer

  1. Where did he live in the U.S.?
  2. How did he become a spy for the MI6?
  3. How did he know Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond stories?
  4. What was the inspiration of his first story, The Gremlins written in 1943?
  5. What was his first story written for adults?

BEING A WRITER

“You have to keep your bottom on the chair and stick it out. Otherwise, if you start getting in the habit of walking away when you’re stuck you’ll never get it done.”

The Author’s Eye Notebook, Roald Dahl

After World War II Dahl started publishing stories for children and adults .

His grown-up home

He lived in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire from 1954 until his death in 1990.

  1. Find this place on the map, and find information about the village on the Internet.
  2. What was the name of his house in Missenden?

Dahl’s works

  1. How many children’s novels did he write?
  2. What stories did he write for adults?
  3. Are his stories available in your language?

Writing habits

Find information about his writing place, the Writing Hut. One of his friends built this place for him. It was inspired by the great Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas’s Writing Shed.

Visit the webpages on the Roald Dahl official website and learn more about the Writing Hut and Dahl’s writing process.

PLAYFUL LANGUAGE

Dahl is famous for inventing new words (over 500!) which are naturally comphrensible for readers. Some of his words have become widely used in the English language. We can learn a lot from his creativity and try some of his techniques. In 2016, to celebrate his 100th birthday, the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary was published.

Here’s a fun article about his words from the Guardian :

What do you think these words mean? Try saying them out loud and have fun translating them if you can!

  • frightsome
  • swogswallowed
  • frobscottle
  • biffsquiggled
  • scrumdiddlyumptious
  • lickswishy

Learn more about the following literary devices:

  • spoonerism
  • onomatopoeia
  • malapropism

Create your own examples for each one.

FASCINATING FACTS

There are a lot of details about Dahl’s life which will amaze you.

  1. How tall was he?
  2. How did Norwegian tales influence his life?
  3. How did he and his fellow students become chocolate tasters?
  4. What is the Wade-Dahl-Till (WDT) valve?
  5. What is the name of Dahl’s charity? What does it support?
  6. Who were his favourite authors?
  7. How did he become a ‘New Elizabethan’? What does it mean?
  8. How many times was he married?
  9. How many children did he have?
  10. What was special about his funeral?

Visit the website of the museum dedicated to Roald Dahl:


We recommend the other lessons in this series:

May 17, 2018
by Nora Nagy
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Talking Sense and Sensibility in the classroom

We are all aware of the benefits of extensive reading, but some of us may feel unsure about how to approach longer texts in class. How should we scaffold the reading for our students and how much time should we dedicate to talking about the book in class? How will the students benefit from their reading experience? How can we link the book to our syllabus?

In this series of posts, we would like to encourage you to take extensive reading seriously and take a novel into class. We will look at how you can prepare your students for the text and expand it beyond the frame of the story. It is important to prepare the students so they are aware of what they are doing. Some of them may feel intimidated by the idea of reading a book in English, others may not see the benefits. These fears and preconceptions can be easily addressed and thereby make the reading process much more beneficial and all-importantly FUN for the students. It is always a good idea for students to keep a WORD BOOK where they can jot down new words and expressions. We also recommend getting your students to read slightly below level (‘I’ minus 1) so they are at ease with the language and consolidating language while learning new words in context.

This month we continue with the much loved novel, Sense and Sensibility written by Jane Austen. You can read a short description of the Helbling Reader edition here.

The book was adapted by Elspeth Rawstron and illustrated by Sara Menetti.
The activities were written by Elspeth Rawstrom and Gianfranco Martorano. The reader is written for teens and adult readers at an intermediate level of English (CEFR B1).

Our aims are to:

  • raise interest in the story,
  • become familiar with the reader,
  • find pathways into the story through projects,
  • expand the social, cultural and historical setting of the story,
  • make personal links,
  • have fun.

CLIL links:

  • Sociology
  • History
  • Psychology

A novel about love, marriage and social issues

This novel was published in 1811, and it shows the danger of Romanticism, and suggests that there needs to be a fine balance between emotions and common sense. It also describes the social issues of the middle and upper classes in 18th- and 19th-century England by showing how unstable people’s social status – especially women’s – can become.

 

The characters in Sense and Sensibility. Illustrated by Sara Menetti. © Helbling

Continue Reading →

May 9, 2018
by Nora Nagy
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Three projects with Peter Pan

“Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.”

The story of Peter Pan, Wendy and Tinker Bell is an all-time favourite for many readers, both young and old, and its numerous adaptations have made it a popular both on screen and stage, as well as comic books and theme-parks. As most stories for children, Peter Pan also deals with serious themes such as growing up, motherhood, childhood and innocence, adulthood and responsibility. Besides the philosophical questions which make the story interesting for adult readers, it also offers a lot of entertainment for younger people. Magical creatures, faraway lands, friendship and family relationships make the story accessible for children, too.

Today we have three projects to do before or after reading the story with elementary and pre-intermediate learners between the ages 7 and 12. For this age group we have thought of playful projects to familiarise the readers with the story, its characters and setting it through interaction in small groups.

MAGICAL CHARACTERS

Fairies, pirates, crocodiles (with a clock inside), mermaids and flying children are just a few of the creatures that we meet in the story of Peter Pan. Try two activities with with your groups, depending on what resources you have.

Costumes and arts & crafts

If you have the right materials, you could create costumes for the characters in the book. Here are the materials you need to make some of them:

  • Fairy: wings (wire, cloth, paper, glitter, threads), a magic wand, a skirt, flowers, golden or silver powder, scissors, glue
  • Pirate: eye patch, hook, old clothes, hat, and a toy parrot!

Creating your own magical creatures

  • Hook’s nemesis, the crocodile with the clock inside is a fascinating creature. What other creatures might scare the evil pirate captain?
  • What would you look like if you were a fairy? Draw pictures of each other.

NEVERLAND AND OTHER LANDS

Take a large sheet of paper (or stick together some A3 size sheets) and grab lots of coloured pencils, crayons or paint. Discuss what Neverland is like, and what other faraway magical lands you can imagine.

  • Who would live there?
  • What kinds of plants would grow?
  • Where would your house be? Underground? In the trees?
  • Would the different creatures live in peace?

Come up with names and directions for your version for Neverland. In the story Peter says that he lives “Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning”. Can you come up with similar directions and addresses? What would your Neverland be called?

MINIATURE THINGS

Wendy and Peter Pan exchange small gifts as ‘kisses’ in the story. Wendy gives Peter a thimble, and Peter gives her a button. What other small things do you think they could have given to each other? What tiny objects make good gifts that you can keep with yourself? Make a list and put these fairy gifts in a box.

Then, take each object and describe it in class.

  • What colour is it?
  • What material is it?
  • What is it good for?
  • What magic power might it have?

Then you can save this box for later and play guessing games with the objects, when one student draws an object and the others have to ask questions to find out what it is.

Do you have other playful projects for young language learners? Share them with us!

May 3, 2018
by Nora Nagy
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“The more, the merrier”: extensive reading in the classroom

The more I talk to my students and colleagues, the more I am convinced that good readers make good language learners across the skills. One recent and somewhat surprising discovery was that some students credit their excellent pronunciation to the quantity of books they read. Although our primary purpose in reading classes might not be improving pronunciation, it is clear that reading reaches areas that might not even come into mind. In other areas of language development, it is almost a universally accepted truth that people who read a lot become more knowledgeable, better writers, more creative thinkers and expressive speakers. However, in second language development, extensive reading is not yet widely adopted as a methodology.

Helbling Readers Catalogue 2018 cover illustration by Gabriella Giandelli. © Helbling Languages

Does speed really matter?

One exciting area of research informs us about practical aspects of the inclusion of extensive reading in any language course ranging from elementary level young learners to advanced learners in business and third-level education. Reading fluency, and within that reading rate development has become the focus of several studies informing us not only about the benefits, but also about the most practical approaches to extensive reading.

As Beglar, Kite and Hunt (2011) explain, reading rate is one aspect of the complex construct of reading fluency, and it informs us about reading performance time. As they report relying on a series of studies, 180 word-per-minute is the threshold between mature and immature reading. They cite various sources to review the reading rate in different settings and at different levels (p. 8):

  • “Weigle and Jensen (1996): advanced-level international students studying at UCLA began a reading program reading an average of 184 wpm”;
  • “Nuttall (2005, p. 56) stated that English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students often read at 120–150 wpm before training;
  • Anderson (2008, p. 67) used 200 wpm as the reading rate goal for intermediate-level ESL readers.”

When you think about reading rates and reading comprehension, a number of factors naturally occur to all of us. What might influence our reading rate? First of all, what we read matters. Imagine reading a newspaper article, a simple narrative or a text about theoretical mathematics. Second, imagine why someone is reading. Your reading purpose can be personal as well as professional (or even both at the same time!). Of course not only the genre, complexity and purpose of the reading matters, but our first language reading will also influence our second language reading rate. On top of all of this, psycholinguistic factors such as age, motivation and anxiety will also affect our reading rate. Still, empirical research shows that aiming at a reading rate between 120 and 200 words per minute is a good objective for almost every reader.

Reading a lot = reading faster and better?

Our short answer is YES, the more students read, the better and faster reader they become. It seems common sense, so why don’t we encourage students and create activities to motivate them to read more?

As I see it, the response is in the misinformed thinking that there is a magic method, which means focusing on either grammar translation, spoken communication or intensive reading followed up with exam-style reading comprehension. Alhough any of these methods provide great opporunities for language development, the exclusion of reading large amounts of texts from the curriculum will lead to less-able students who struggle with reading comprehension, writing production, vocabulary development and general reasoning in a second language.

Empirical research within the fields of applied linguistics, language pedagogy and cognitive science also confirms the claims that extensive reading leads to all-round language development. Among many studies we would like to highlight two research papers. The first was written by Beglar, Hunt and Kite in 2011, and the most recent one was written by McLean and Rouault in 2017. Not only do these studies support the inclusion of extensive reading in the second language English curriculum, they also inform us about practices teachers can pay attention to when designing their programmes.

Practical advice on extensive reading in class

Based on their detailed empirical evidence backed up by statistical data analysis in experimental research designs, the authors provide us with ideas on how a successful extensive reading programme might work. First, they remind us of the widely known basics of extensive reading we learnt from Mason and Krashen (1997), Day and Bumford (1998) and Grabe and Stoller (2002), which highlight the importance of providing students with large quantitites of simplified texts within their linguistic competence. Second, they also point out that reading one book every two weeks or one book every week is an effective in promoting reading rate development, and it can be more effective than reading short texts intensively. Another important aspect of the extensive reading programme described by McLean and Rouault (2017) is that students can aim at a reading goal of 60 minutes of homework every week. In their design, each extensive reading group participant was required to read an average of 4000 running words a week over two academic semesters at a Japanese university. The students were also asked to read beyond the set goals. These measures resulted in the development of reading rates while maintaining their reading comprehension rates as well.

All in all, we can see empirical evidence that consistency in reading large quantities positively influence students’ reading abilities, without mentioning their vocabulary development rates that followed the reading development rates. As the research indicates, reading a large amount of well-designed and carefully selected books over a long period of time will make your students more successful learners of English. What’s more, if they read for pleasure, they will probably become more motivated and relaxed about reading, which is an extra benefit.

References

  • Beglar, D., Hunt, A., & Kite, Y. (2012). The effect of pleasure reading on Japanese university EFL learners’ reading rates. Language Learning, 62, 665-703. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2011.00651.x.
  • Day, R., & Bamford, J. (1998). Extensive reading in the second language classroom. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  • Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. L. (2002). Teaching and researching reading. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.
  • Mason, B., & Krashen, S. (1997). Extensive reading in English as a foreign language. System, 25, 91 e 102. https://doi.org/:10.1016/S0346-251X(96)00063-2.
  • McLean, S., & Rouault, G. (2017). The effectiveness and efficiency of extensive reading at developing reading rates. System, 70, 92-106. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2017.09.003

Read more about Extensive Reading: