A word expedition

IMG_20170724_145724In this post, I’d like to share a method of helping your students become more independent learners, especially in terms of exploring vocabulary.

The visual on the left shows a classic example of a piece of text from a coursebook. Normally, students would be asked to try to infer the meaning of the highlighted words from context and then match them with definitions provided. Additionally, students may be invited to look up the L1 equivalents and work on some follow-up activities which would help them retain the target words.

This, I believe, is a perfectly acceptable approach since, as Ellis (1997) argues, acquisition can be speeded by making the underlying patterns of language more salient as a result of explicit instruction or consciousness-raising. However, I also believe that more can be done to help students build vocabulary than just asking them to do a couple of coursebook exercises.

For the sake of demonstration, I’ll pick the word intrepid, but students can be assigned any (number of) words. As you will see, though, one is more than enough.

At home (or in a language lab), students will complete the following ten tasks.

  1. In a monolingual online dictionary, find the definitions of the target word, i.e. intrepid. Pay attention to the example sentences. 
    Note: I usually use The Free Dictionary to do look up words myself but there are loads of other websites. I deliberately chose a monolingual dictionary as the first step since, according to Ellis, some people have difficulty in acquiring L2 lexis because they fail properly to infer the meanings of new lexis. Thus, he maintains, learners should be trained in strategies for inferencing from context. Moreover, active derivation of meaning makes the vocabulary more memorable. 
  2. Google the target word and see what images come up. How useful are the images in terms of your ability to guess the meaning of the word?
  3. In an online thesaurus, find its closest synonym and an antonym. I usually use Thesaurus.com. I believe that working with synonyms may also count as a useful strategy for inferencing. 
  4. By now, you should already be familiar with the meaning. To ultimately confirm your guess, go to a bilingual online dictionary to look up the L1 equivalent. What part of speech is it? Note: To do this, I’d normally use slovnik.seznam.cz. 
  5. Click the speaker icon (if available) to listen to the pronunciation of the word. Repeat several times.
  6. Go to flax.nzdl.org to find out what its most frequent collocates are. The numbers will help you determine this. The higher the number, the more frequent. Jot a few of them down along with the expression itself, e.g. intrepid explorerVýstřižek
  7. Go to Fraze.it and see how the word is used in a sentence. Choose one example and write it down. Note: This is similar to Step 1 above and thus it could come right after it. However, unlike in dictionaries, where the definitions are usually simple enough for the L2 learner to figure out the meaning of the word, the data in corpora are examples of authentic language, which inevitably makes the process of inferring more challenging. Thus, I believe, this step should be postponed till later. 
  8. To explore the expression a bit more, go to Ngram Viewer and compare the word to its closest synonym you found earlier. Which one is more frequent these days? Note: This simple visual, I believe, draws attention to the word once again and by juxtaposing it with a synonym, the learner is likely to make both words more memorable for him/her. Výstřižek
  9. Go to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (no need to register if you only need to do just a few searches) and type in the word into the search box. Add an asterisk, i.e. intrepid* and see the most common suffixes (2-3 will suffice). Write the new words down. What parts of speech are they now? What do they mean? Go back to The Free Dictionary or slovnik.seznam.cz if necessary. Note: By learning a couple of related words, the learner will expand his/her vocabulary with just a little extra effort.


10. Finally, let’s go on to the productive stage now. Go to paraphrasing-tool.com and type in a paragraph (about 5 sentences) into the first box. Remember to use the target word. See below in the other box how your text has been paraphrased. Notice which words have been replaced. Note: I think this is a handy tool but I rarely use it since I can access synonyms directly through my Grammarly for Chrome. However, while the paraphrasing tool seems to take into consideration the context of the words it later replaces, Grammarly only offers a list of synonyms for each word from which *I * then have to choose the most fitting option. I presume this might be a bit challenging for a less advanced learner. Výstřižek

I dare to conclude that the multiple encounters with the target word, along with the teacher’s requirement to use it, will make it possible for the learner to remember it better. However, this is not the main aim of this expedition. As the learner will encounter the target expression in many different contexts, some incidental learning of more language items is likely to occur. Most importantly, apart from traditional online dictionaries, the learners will familiarize themselves with several useful web-based tools.



Ellis, N. C. (1997). Vocabulary acquisition: Word structure, collocation, grammar, and
meaning. In M. McCarthy & N. Schmidt (Eds.) (1997), Vocabulary: description,
acquisition and pedagogy (pp. 122-139). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Gestalt shift


20292812_10211066952922820_488799651637659270_nI remember that as children, we were mesmerized by all those optical illusions, of which the most popular was probably the one showing two faces that form a vase. But it was only recently, in this post, when I learned about the concept of gestalt shift.

In psychology, a gestalt shift is when your perception suddenly changes. Perhaps the most famous illustration of this phenomenon is Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit illusion: you can see either the duck or the rabbit but not both at the same time. Similarly, in the picture on the left and the one below, you can either see the image as a whole (especially if you narrow your eyes) or as a tangle of individual objects related to the theme of the image as a whole.

I think it’s fascinating how the human brain can alternate between the two choices. I’ve heard that some people find it difficult to consciously shift their perception and see one of the alternatives. I’d say that the ability to see the other perspective (or the whole picture), in the metaphorical as well as literal sense, can be achieved through practice.

20374554_10211066182943571_2702831920542085311_nI was wondering how this psychological phenomenon applies to how I perceive (my) teaching. And I’ve come to a conclusion that while I’m in the classroom, I regularly switch between two perspectives: I either see English as a subject to be taught and learned or as a means of genuine communication among human beings. I simply can’t see both at the same time.

So sometimes my students and I can be fully immersed in an activity and we don’t pay too much attention to the language itself, especially if a task/conversation gets truly engaging. But we then we deliberately switch our perception and look at the language as if from the other side. In other words, while in the former case, we don’t perceive it as a something outside of us (we actually don’t notice the language at all, just the ideas expressed through it), in the latter case, we consciously dissect, analyze, and scrutinize it as if it was something material floating a few steps away; something that can be seized and absorbed – from a coursebook or the whiteboard, for example. It seems that we desperately try to capture it in an attempt to make it an internal and inseparable part of us – so that we no longer have to shift our perception back and forth …



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Much ado about the lexical approach

london-2242001_960_720Last night, I went over to YouTube to watch LEXICAL LAB ENGLISH BOOST course 2017: Hugh Dellar teaching. There’s been some excitement about the lexical approach and this video in particular, so I was curious to see what it’s all about.

The lexical approach is a way of analyzing and teaching language based on the idea that it is made up of lexical units rather than grammatical structures. The units are words, chunks formed by collocations, and fixed phrases. In case you haven’t seen the video yet, it’s a 20-minute demonstration of the way Hugh Dellar goes about teaching vocabulary – in this case, vocabulary connected to going out and celebrating. 

Now, I have to stress that I can’t help looking at any teaching video like this through my L2 learner/L2 teacher/keen linguist glasses. By that, I mean that although my beliefs about language teaching are constantly formed by SLA research findings, they are also tinted by my own language learning experience.

I’ve always been inclined to believe that the best way to teach English is through meaningful communication and that most of the time in the classroom should be allotted to negotiating meaning and completing meaningful tasks. Only a small proportion of class time should be devoted to explicit teaching of grammar or vocabulary. My students would probably confirm that this is my preferred way of teaching.

Back to the video now. I’m not sure what the aim of this particular lesson was, but given the fact that the Hugh Dellar is a vocal advocate of the lexical approach, my guess is the aim was to teach students to understand and subsequently produce a set of vocabulary items related to a specific topic. But I’m only guessing.

First of all, I don’t think it’s clever to set yourself such a goal as the main aim of a lesson (no matter how important/frequent/useful you believe the vocabulary is). Given the fact that learners can only absorb a very limited amount of new expressions per lesson, it’s really absurd to demand so low.

However, and I’m finally getting to the point, I think that the teacher in the video actually achieved more than what the proponents of the lexical approach primarily aim for. In effect, it appeared to run counter to the basic principle of the lexical approach, which, to my knowledge, is to explicitly teach a huge amount of lexis. As I see it (through my L2 learner/L2 teacher/keen linguist glasses), the vocabulary items around which the lesson revolved were anchors rather than the ultimate goal, and I didn’t get the feeling that there was too much explicit instruction anyway. Contrarily, I witnessed quite a lot of casual talk and I found the lesson pretty engaging.

My point is that even if I remembered none of the super-useful words written on the board (which is obviously very unlikely), I would learn a lot because the teacher did a good job. And I think I actually did learn something myself by watching this video. I often caught myself focusing on what the teacher and the students said by the way instead of trying to zoom in on the core vocabulary all the time. And if I were a participant of the course, I’d definitely want to chip in on and off. This communicative interaction might then lead to implicit learning, which, I think, is a valuable outcome of any language teaching.

The trouble is that such outcomes are unpredictable and thus can’t be planned and put on paper in advance. What you can plan, I suppose, is what your lesson will revolve around – and here the lexical approach comes in handy. And let’s be honest, if a group of students come all the way from Russia to England to boost their English, you need to have a plan, or something, to stick to (be it just a set of collocations and idioms). What I believe is important is what happens in the slots.



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One of the fifty ways to put me off

No offense to anybody, but I’ve recently noticed that there’s a type of title which invariably puts me off reading; it’s actually any title including or starting with a number (of how-to tips). In case you still don’t know, I’m talking about those ten-ways-to-be-happy or the-top-ten-ways-to-teach-grammar posts. Surely, such articles are written with good intentions – to help the less experienced folks out there or, and I don’t have a problem with that, the authors simply feel the need to share some valuable information. I might have written a post like that too. So what is it that bugs me then?


Any number used in a title the way I mention above immediately indicates to me that the stuff will be pretty superficial in the sense that the authors will provide a list of tips with little elaboration on each entry. Any number bigger than 10 makes me suspect that the article will be a drag because the list is just too long (unless it’s a terribly interesting topic or something written in a tongue-in-the-cheek way). So I’ll be biased right from the start because it’s unlikely that I, the reader, will absorb, let alone put to practice, all the information from a long list of suggestions (unless their aim is to merely entertain me). I could obviously bookmark these articles and refer to them later if need be – except that I never do.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that providing the reader with a well-arranged list of tips is very considerate of the author. Unfortunately, articles like that are unbearably predictable – it’s often enough to skim through the headings. Plus the element of surprise and creativity which I like so much about reading is missing in such a type of writing (I’m at number 5 so there are 5 more tips left – BORING!).

Also, I’ve noticed that people like to round numbers off. I might be wrong (apart from a quick corpus search, I have no evidence to back up my claim) but I suspect that it’s because a post called Nine ways to teach vocabulary may be a little less clickbait-y than the one called Ten ways to teach vocabulary. So, inevitably, in the former case, the writer will have to add one more bullet point by either repeating themselves (very cautiously, so that the reader doesn’t notice) or by making things up (secretly hoping that the reader won’t check). Needless to say, the quality of such a piece will suffer and in the end, the reader will feel deceived.


But those were just minor issues. What I really can’t stand is the feeling that articles with titles including a number of how-to tips are inherently patronizing. The top ten ways to XY. Ten tips on how to XY.  The ten common XY to avoid. Who says it’s the top ten? For whom is it the top ten? By telling me that the author (or some imaginary bunch of people) has already voted for the top ten, they automatically deny me, the reader, the opportunity to judge for myself. The information is presented as a set of facts rather than food for thought. Also, I feel that titles like this are more suitable for articles in the tabloid press, for example, which nobody takes too seriously anyway, so sorry, but such a piece of writing then looks as if running counter to what it intends to be – informative and reliable.



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What vocabulary to teach?

IMG_20170720_154242In the title of the post, I deliberately ask a question I’m actually not going to answer. The reason why I’m not going to do so is that it’s not easy. However, by answering a slightly different question (and by throwing in more questions), I think I will partially satisfy the somewhat disappointed reader (presumably an ELT teacher) who was originally expecting to get some valuable insights into vocabulary teaching.

Now that I think about it, I’m not even going to speak from the perspective of a teacher most of the time but rather from the experience of an autonomous language learner. Let me stress first that I believe that creating autonomous learners is one of the most important goals (if not the most important one) of any educator because once you achieve this, your job is actually done.

Ironically, we English teachers can’t take the full credit for the fact that our students become autonomous learners. These days, most of our students are exposed to English outside the classroom all the time, and thus they, totally unaware of any research into SLA, learn it exactly the way which is most desirable – they focus on meaning and communication and thus they unwittingly create opportunities for incidental learning.

I think I can hazard a guess that fully autonomous L2 learners know what they need. Before I go on, I’d like to draw attention to the dichotomy of what one wants and what one needs. When I was younger, one of my ultimate goals was to reach a native-like proficiency in English – not because I thought it was something everybody should strive for but because I believed that the more one knew as a teacher, the better. However, I’ve recently become more realistic and practical in terms of my expectations; I’ve come to a conclusion that achieving a native-like proficiency is actually not what I need. I simply don’t need to know every English word to be able to teach English effectively. By the same token, I don’t need to know everything about the language to enjoy my life as a blogger.

What I’m trying to say is that over time, I’ve become very selective as far as vocabulary learning is concerned. In the past, while still on the hunt for a native-like proficiency, I would jot down every unknown word I’d come across (which inevitably made me feel depressed in the end), but now I only concentrate on the bits of language I think I’m going to need in my own context, i. e. in my writing and/or in the classroom. So when I come across a word I’ve never seen before, I don’t panic anymore – I quickly look it up and then go on. Only if I happen to see the same expression used again in a context I’m interested in, I keep my eyes open. In other words, over time, I’ve learned to ignore the enormous amount of what I don’t know and instead I started to focus on the relevant and achievable. This discovery has some significant implications for my teaching.

Also, I no longer have to rack my brains in order to solve the question of sequencing in the learning of vocabulary because my needs analysis was done a long time ago. By myself. I simply learn stuff as it emerges. In other words, I learn what I need to know as (or if) I encounter it. Needless to say, this observation also has some implications for my teaching.

Having said that, one important question still remains open: What happens before one becomes an autonomous (or proficient-enough) user of the L2? I’m driving at my experience with teaching adult beginners, who tend to feel very insecure when language is NOT treated as object, as well as with very young learners who, on the other hand, don’t look at an L2 as something outside of them and thus treating the language strictly as a means of communication seems to perfectly suit their stage of development. In any case, is there any core vocabulary to be learned/taught? How can you navigate through the vast land of the English language (or any L2) when you know next to nothing of it? What teaching approach is suitable then? Might treating the language as object be legitimate at a particular stage?



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Lots of questions with no definite answers

questions-2212771_960_720Have you, as a non-native teacher of English (or whatever foreign language), ever caught yourself hesitating for a second before uttering the following statement while in class?

That’s not how they say XY in English (or in whatever foreign language). 

What I mean is that depending on my mood, I sometimes feel like substituting the pronoun they with we:

That’s not how we say XY in English.

What makes me hesitate and what makes me prefer the former to the latter and the other way around?

From one point of view, it might have to do with language ownership. In other words, the *we* might indicate some kind of linguistic superiority on my part, i.e. I AM the knowledgeable teacher who knows how they (native speakers) say it in English and that’s why I AM one of them. And you’d better listen if you want to be included too.

In a similar vein, if a native-speaker of English tells a class of non-native speakers that this is the way they (native speakers) say it in English, it may also imply some kind of linguistic dominance.

However, in my case, it probably has to do with the fact that although I come from the Expanding Circle (that’s why the occasional choice of *they* referring to the Inner Circle) I no longer perceive English as a language totally foreign to me in the sense that it’s the language of the Other (that’s why the use of *we*).

Anyway, I don’t believe that one can own a language or that there are some linguistic barricades – imaginary or real – one has to overcome. At times, I just feel like part of a bigger whole and by using we I actually mean to include my students as well. In this case, the *we* means we users of English as a foreign language. But again, who is this we? We users of ELF here in the Czech Republic or all users of ELF?

Having said that, it’s a little different when I want to draw attention to the fact that there are varieties of English. Then I add a geographical term such as:

They say XY in Canada.


A Scotsman would probably say XY.

I could obviously bypass the problem by using a passive structure:

This expression is not used in English the way you’ve just used it. 

The trouble is that although the passive form is used to indicate that the agent is not in the center of attention, it’s still inherently there. So by whom is the expression not used in English?

I guess a Scotsman could, with some degree of certainty, claim that this or that phrase is not used in English (and he would probably mean it’s not used locally, where he lives). But for a Czech EFL teacher, it will always be pretty risky to claim that XY is not used in English since in English is actually a very broad term. And what if it actually *is* used somewhere? Does it mean that it’s acceptable and correct? But correct and acceptable by whom?



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What does this all have to do with me?

IMG_20170709_155935Whenever I start reading a post in which my fellow blogger ardently complains about the somewhat unsatisfactory situation in the ELT industry, I catch myself thinking: Well, I see the point but this doesn’t really concern me; I have my safe and relatively well-paid job (if not compared to other professions!) in the State sector of education here in the Czech Republic, and despite being a female non-native speaker, I’ve never been a victim of discrimination. So I’m sorry but I don’t really know what all these freelancers are talking about. It sounds too ‘political’ to me anyway.

But I keep reading and it often happens that due to an argument which somehow strikes a chord, I reconsider my way of thinking. That’s the moment when I realize that what I’m reading was written for the common good, not just for a select few.

Revolutionaries like to encourage us to subvert the current state of affairs by undermining the power of the established system – in this case, the ELT industry. It seems to me like biting off more than they can chew. But then I remember who I am now in comparison with what I was like before I heard those ‘putschists’ speak for the first time. I remember the time when I regarded certain people out there in the ELT world to be real superstars. I automatically held these authorities in high esteem just because I was told to by other authorities. Mind you, I don’t have a problem with that; having someone to look up to is normal at a certain stage of development. For example, there’s nothing wrong with teenagers admiring their celebrities unconditionally. Most of them grow out of it anyway and one day, blind admiration vanishes or changes into well-deserved respect.

So I also like to think that I’ve gradually grown out of my blind authority-worshipping. The truth is though that I’m not the one who should be credited. In fact, I’ve always been surrounded by people who weren’t afraid to air their views and slowly, their rants sensible counter-arguments undermined my old, almost fossilized convictions.

This all happened very slowly and nonviolently, and the new mindset was strengthened by some of my own discoveries. For example, when I went to a local conference, a talk given by a lesser-known person was often as good and useful, sometimes even better (from my perspective), as a plenary speech given by a big ELT name.

Also, and this is why I can’t deny anymore that it does indeed concern me directly, people are willing to listen to what *I* have to say. The miracle of me being given a voice happened in the realm of the ever-expanding blogosphere, originally on this very blog, a place which for me subsequently became a great source of professional and personal development as well as unique opportunities. And some of these opportunities have already become reality: for example, I was asked to write articles outside of this blog and I was invited to give a conference talk based on the posts I’d written.

I doubt that any of the above would have been possible 20 years ago – at the time when all we teachers could do was to obediently listen to what the big names had to say. If I had been a well-established academic, then yes, I may have had a say. But otherwise? In any case, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to even imagine the things as they are now – I was too small a potato and small potatoes don’t believe they really matter in the big world.

But confidence is the key to it all. The confidence of a regular teacher like me can be built with the help of all those brave people out there, who either provide support openly or serve as examples to follow. And then the sky is the limit. So I say it out loud again: it does actually concern me – because it’s all about us.

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