Chatting in the academy: exploring spoken English for academic purposes (Mike McCarthy)

Another addition to my collection of write-ups based on the talks recorded by IATEFL Online and stored on the website for everybody to access. What a wonderful resource! This one is by Michael McCarthy, and, as you would expect, is based on corpora and vocabulary – this time in the context of academic spoken English… 

MM starts by saying it is easier to study academic English in its written form and much more challenging in its spoken forms. His main point is that there is no one single thing that we can call Spoken Academic English. His talk will draw on information from corpora and show how it can be used in materials. He is going to use a corpus of lectures, seminars, supervisions and tutorials from the humanities and the sciences, the ACAD, and a sub-corpus the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English, MICASE. He is also going to be using from the CANCODE corpus the sub-corpus of social and intimate conversations. This is the data that MM used.

Corpora are widely known and accepted in our profession, so MM didn’t need to introduce what they are and why we use them. He looked at a frequency list of words, the simplest job you can do with a corpus. You can also do keyword lists, which tells you more than just if something is frequent: it tells you whether it is significantly statistically frequent or the opposite, significantly statistically infrequent. We can also look at chunks and clusters, the way words occur together repeatedly. We rarely go beyond 5 or 6 words, due to the architecture of the human mind. Chunks are most common in the 2-4 word chunk-size. Dispersion is another thing to consider, in terms of the consistency of words being used, to know whether a particular text or genre is skewing the data.

In the spoken ACAD, in the top 50 frequency list, there are lots of the usual conversation markers, lots of informality, lots of you, I, yeah, er, erm. There are lot of familiar discourse markers, such as right and ok, and response tokens, i.e. the words or sounds used to react. The most frequent two word pragmatic marker in ordinary social conversation is you know – 66% of the occurrences of the word ‘know’ are in the form ‘you know/y’know and the picture looks the same in the academic corpus. This, however, is not the whole picture. We have something like everyday conversation but when we go into the keyword analysis, things become a bit more interesting. The top 20 keywords in spoken academic data are:


Now, a lot of familiar conversational items are present but also some that if your friends used them with you in everyday conversation over a cuppa, you’d lose the will to live. So there are words here that don’t have the informal conversation ring. Not least the preposition within which is right up there in the top 20. We will come back to which, terms and sense later.

Keywords tell us more than just what is frequent – they enable us to have a greater, more nuanced picture of how words are functioning in the data. We can find some interesting differences between conversational and academic spoken English: If we do a straight frequency count, the discourse marker “ok” comes out higher in a keyword list than the frequency list, in the academic spoken English corpus.


MM found that 95% of the “ok” in the data are either response tokens e.g. that’s ok, well, ok or discourse markers signalling phases e.g. “ok let’s go on to look at <something else>“. They are used overwhelmingly by the lecturers or tutors. MM had a PhD student with an annoying habit: after exchanging pleasantries, the student would say “ok, now I want to talk about…” and then once they had, he would go “right, ok..”  – MM thought it should be HIM saying those phrases. Students very rarely respond with “right, ok“. So in academic speaking, we are looking at a different set of discourse roles than in conversational English, that is what the corpus is showing us. The roles are directly related to the language. Some items that are present in the frequency list disappear in the key word list, i.e. fall too far down the list for MM to be prepared to go through and find them e.g. well, mm, er, you. This negative result says that these words do not distinguish academic speaking from any other kind of speaking. However, some of the language is particular to the roles and contexts of the academic set-up.

MM says it takes a long time and a lot of hard work to actually interpret what the computer is trying to tell you. It is dispassionate: no goals, prejudices, aims or lesson plans. It just offers bits of statistical evidence.


What struck MM when he looked at this list is that on the conversational side, at least 3 and possibly more of these are remarkably vague. It surprises people that there is a great degree of vague category markers that come up to the top of this spoken academic discourse, but it shouldn’t because the student is being nurtured into a community of practice and in any community with shared values/perspectives/opinions, you don’t need to specify them. You can simply say x, y, etc or x, y and things like that. This presence of the vague category markers is crucial – not only do you have to hear and understand them but you have to be able to decode their scope, and know what the lecturer means when they say them. Vague category marking is something that is shared with everyday conversation but the scope is within academic fields.

At no. 18, “in terms of the” – not surprising because in academia we are always defining things in terms of something else, locating pieces of knowledge within other existing/known knowledge – the discipline as a whole or a particular aspect of it. It is much more widely spread in academic spoken discourse compared with conversational:


MM goes on to look at the consistency, or spread of items across data – looking for things that occur in a great number of texts. In social conversational data, the dispersion of I and you is consistently high. The picture in academic spoken English is different:


The pronouns are reversed – you is more frequent than I. This brings us back to the fundamental business of roles: most of academic discourse is about telling “you” how to do things and become part of the community of practice. Thinking back to the chunks “you can see” etc. A transmissive you. However, we do notice there is quite a bit of I in the academic spoken, it’s not remote. I is generally used by lecturers and tutors. But if we look across events, there is great variation. Even within two science lectures, in one there is a personal anecdote, so more use of “I” (more, even, than the informal guest speaker), in another not:


Here is a summary of the tendencies MM has covered:


The remainder of the talk is an advertisement for Cambridge University Press’s Academic Vocabulary in Use book, which draws on what is learnt from the data, trying to capture the mix of chatty conversational items and items that are very peculiar to the academic discourse. The best grip on spoken academic discourse is through understanding the discourse roles of the tutors and the students, which influence how they speak – i.e. differently. They will use certain keywords and chunks, but the labels (e.g. lecture, seminar, supervision) used for speech events are a very imperfect guide of what will be included there.

This was a fascinating talk, one I’m glad I’ve finally caught up on! I always find it interesting to see how corpora are used and what is discovered in the process. Nice to see the “in terms of” chunk in there – it reminds me of my first year at the Sheffield University International Summer School, where during the induction Jenifer Spence – author EAP Essentials  and leader of the theory side of our induction programme that year – spent a fair bit of time hammering the importance of “in terms of” into us: we were always to be asking, and encouraging students to ask/consider, “in terms of what?” in relation to whatever it was that they were writing or saying! I had never considered how odd it would sound in an informal chat though, as per MM’s example “How was your holiday?” “Well, in terms of the accommodation…”  – not really! Unless you felt like being particularly pompous, I suppose… 

ELTC: Vocabulary review workshop

This is a very delayed write-up of a Vocabulary Review workshop that I did at the ELTC last term. It’s taken me this long because I have been reflecting on and off since, and now finally feel ready to publish it! It’s a reflective post divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’ with the former focusing on my preparations and the latter focusing on what actually happened!


Tomorrow I am going to be running a workshop for my colleagues at the ELTC. The focus is vocabulary review activities. This year, so far, I have already done two other workshops for them: one on helping learners become more autonomous (part of the training day at the start of term) and one whose aim was to encourage reflection on career turning points and glean ideas for further developmental possibilities. I’ve also done a practical workshop on blogging (both with learners and as a means of professional development), at Leeds Beckett University, on the Multimedia and Independent Learning module, as well as an online session also about career turning points for the recent TD SIG web carnival. Coming up, as well as tomorrow’s session on Vocabulary Review, I have another session with Leeds Beckett University, this time online, about developing learner autonomy, a British Council webinar also about learner autonomy tools/tips and my IATEFL presentation in April, which will form part of a forum on listening and focuses on helping learners become more autonomous listeners in an EAP pre-sessional context.

The reason I mention all these commitments is that (not so coincidentally!) I have recently(ish) been reflecting on my short, mid-term and longer term goals, now that I have achieved the long-term goal that I set out with after I finished my CELTA, which was to gain some experience and then in due course work at Sheffield University. Of course I also squeezed in my M.A. in ELT and my Delta in the interim, which was handy and part of the plan for getting university work. Teacher training is one of my areas of interest, so it follows logically that, if one of my goals is to become a teacher trainer, doing as many workshops as I can, in various contexts, would be a useful way of gaining experience and working on my techniques for working with teachers rather than students. Initially, I started doing workshops as a means of developing myself as a teacher, and I will admit the main personal goal early on was survival. Happily, as you can tell since I am sitting here writing this, I achieved that! Since then, goals have included sharing what I’ve learnt through my experimentation, becoming more confident in my delivering, including more interaction in my sessions and so on.

This vocabulary workshop, however, is the first one I will do since reading “A Practical Introduction to Teacher Training in ELT” written John Hughes and published by Pavillion, borrowed from the ELTC’s library.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 16.54.16

It is also the first workshop I have volunteered to do in response to topics requested by teachers via survey and shared with everybody by our professional development team. I did a workshop on Error Correction at IH Palermo, with the topic suggested by the DoS, as planning a workshop was one of the tasks for the Tutor in training certificate I did while at IH. It seemed logical that if I had to plan a workshop, I might as well deliver it! For that workshop, I had help from my DoS and from my ex-Delta module 1+2 tutor who shared some materials with me via email. I also had the memory of an error correction workshop I had done during Delta (hence contacting aforementioned tutor!), on which I based the workshop. Of course, this time, for the vocabulary workshop, I’ve done all the preparation unsupported, starting from scratch. I think I should do more sessions like these. I’ve already signed up to do one on pronunciation so hopefully I can use what I learn from doing this session in planning that one. I shall be team-teaching it with one of my colleagues, which also be interesting! 🙂

Hughes suggests thinking of a training session as a triangle shape, divided into three. The smallest part at the top of the triangle is “What?”, the next segment, which goes until half-way down the triangle is “Why?” and the rest of the triangle is “How?” So this is the structure I have applied to my vocabulary workshop. The “what” and “why” section will be taken care of via discussion of some quiz questions relating to the topic of vocabulary review (and by extension learning). The bulk of the session, the “how”, is going to be a game of bingo! I will ask groups to brainstorm a grid of 9 vocabulary review activities that they have used before and then I will share 9 activities of my own with them. I plan to do this by having them participate (briefly!) in each activity using Delta module 1-style terminology (particularly relating to Lexis) as the target vocabulary. If the activity corresponds with any on their grid (regardless of the name, as these activities tend to go by several names), then they get to tick it off and we’ll see if anyone gets Bingo! The remaining time will be used to allow groups to share any leftover activities on their grids. I have also prepared a handout summarising the activity procedures so that the teachers don’t need to make notes as well as participate.

I anticipate that timing is going to be tight, as I will only have an hour to play with. However, I recognise that we do not need to complete each activity, teachers just need to have a taster of it in order to make sense of how it works. As per the triangle, the “what” and “why” quiz should not take up too much time. If time does run out, then I’ll make a google doc and invite teachers to write a brief summary of the outstanding activities on their list. One of my goals is to maintain a good pace and really keep track of the timing. I suppose, in the circumstances, it is also going to be a good test of classroom management and instruction-giving! (The better these are, the better the timing will be!)


Well, the good news is that my colleagues responded positively to this workshop. I had 6 attendees and they all had plenty to contribute to the discussion element (!) as well as being willing to get involved in the game-playing element.

As I predicted, time WAS an issue. Or, was it less the timing that was an issue and more my confidence in managing the discussion element, which I allowed to take up too much time?They had a lot to say and I didn’t want to cut it too short! (Perhaps I should have had fewer discussion questions, though I think they were all useful…) Actually I just wish I had had a longer session to play with – in the event we started slightly late and some attendees had to leave early due to other commitments, and even that aside it wasn’t the longest time slot! That’s not an excuse though – I did know roughly how long I would have. Perhaps I should have included fewer activities to try out?

However, on the plus side, this time issue was mitigated by my carefully prepared hand-out which meant that although we couldn’t have a stab at playing all of the games, teachers did take away instructions for all of them so that content wasn’t lost. Perhaps it didn’t matter that there were left over activities. It just gave the teachers a greater take-away for future experimentation. Perhaps, then, what I needed to do was stop trying the activities at a given point when there was still enough time for a constructive closing. I think that is what really got lost, as we had to come to a halt rather abruptly as teachers had to leave to get to other things.

For me, another positive was that within the game playing, we were able to refer back to the discussion element and build on it. The games illustrated the points made through the discussion questions, making them that much clearer. I think this was important because it made the workshop more cohesive and less of a ‘discussion with a few activities tacked on’ which perhaps it was in danger of becoming, given its nature. It was intended to be a practical session, with lots of ideas for teachers to try out, rather than a theoretical session, but the discussion element allowed for the practical ideas to be rooted in theory. So even though my first thought at the end of the workshop was that I had let it go on for too long, I now feel that that wasn’t the issue, rather it was how I managed the remaining time.

I would say the main drawback was that although I identified time as a potential issue in my planning, and recognised that not every activity needed to be completed, I didn’t recognise that the teachers didn’t actually even need to do every activity, thanks to the hand-out I had prepared, and therefore wasn’t prepared in the session to stop going through my set of activities in time for a strong closing. This is something that will definitely be a consideration in future workshops.

At the end of the session, I felt disappointed that it hadn’t gone quite as I might have liked it to, but on reflection I think it had a lot of positives and, importantly, I learnt some useful things from how it did go:

  • hand-outs are really useful!
  • make a decision with regards to how long an activity should run for and be firmer in bringing it to a close, if needs be. (Alternatively, if it needs to go on longer than planned, revise plans for the timings for the rest of the session!)
  • recognise when all the material is not going to be got through and ensure that there is nevertheless time for a suitable closing element to wrap everything up
  • in planning, if there is clearly too much material, either cut it down or ensure that nothing will be lost from the session if all the material isn’t covered. (In other words plan so that no core material will be lost)

I think that’s a useful set of points for me to consider next time I plan and deliver a workshop! So, all in all, it was a successful learning and developmental experience for me in my quest to become a teacher trainer at some point! I look forward to building on it. 🙂

If you are interested, here is the powerpoint I used and here is my handout.

Pronunciation tweaks for familiar activities

I wrote this post during the summer of 2015, when I was working on the 1o week pre-sessional programme at Sheffield University. (However, it is relevant for for anyone who does regular vocabulary review and wants to integrate pronunciation into such activities.) I have finally got round to publishing it some 8 months later! Better late than never…!

I’ve been doing a lot of pronunciation work with my Social English students recently. (Social English class is a class for students on the 10 week pre-sessional programme at Sheffield University, who have unconditional offers from their departments for degree courses starting in September-October this year.) I’ve also been doing quite a bit of vocabulary work. (Spaced) review is a regular feature of our classes, so I am constantly on the look-out for different ways of doing this, in order to keep things interesting. Part of the pronunciation work done with these students was an introduction to the phonemic chart, which I reviewed in a subsequent lesson using a phonemic chart version of Connect 4. Since then, I’ve also been trying to integrate review of the sounds into vocabulary review activities. This has the benefits of linking the work done on sounds to our target vocabulary and of making vocabulary review that slight bit more interesting and challenging. Here are a few familiar activities that I have tweaked, in order of increasing level of challenge…

Board Race

In board races, learners race to write something on the board in response to a prompt from the teacher (e.g. a clue for a target word as vocabulary review.) Here are a few pronunciation based board races. For all these races, learners are put in teams and team members take turns to race to the board.

(The more complex versions may  be kept for when learners are more comfortable with the sounds and symbols in recognition and production.)

  • The phonemic chart is projected onto the whiteboard. The teacher makes sounds and one learner from each team races to touch the correct sound on the chart. First person to touch the correct sound wins the point.
  • The teacher calls a sound and one learner from each team races to write that sound on the board.
  • The teacher gives a clue for learners to guess an item of target vocabulary; learners race to write it on the board in phonemes.
  • The teacher gives a clue for learners to guess an item of target vocabulary and they race to write the word AND stress pattern on the board.

The letters game

In its traditional form, I was introduced to this game during my CELTA course at Sheffield Uni. Each group of learners has a set of letters (multiple examples of each letter) and the idea is that the teacher provides clues to elicit a target word, which the learners must race to spell out using their letters. Turns out it works equally well using sounds instead of letters! And once you have made your sets of sounds, of course they are a resource you can use over and over, with different groups etc, meaning that after one job lot of preparation, it becomes a zero prep game. To warm learners up with an easier start, make sounds for the learners to find, before calling out words for them to sound out, and then graduating to clues for words.

Two sets of sounds

Two sets of sounds, ready to go!


Nothing new to anybody about Hangman, it can safely be assumed, in fact I think it has mostly gone out of fashion as a waste of time. However, it does work quite well if instead of using letters, you use sounds. So, instead of each __ __ __ being for individual letters of target words, they are for individual sounds (which of course won’t necessarily be the same number as the number of letters in a given word). I had my students in two teams, and the teams took it in turns to make the sound they wanted to guess. Within the teams, students took it in turns to be the one who made the sound but they collaborated first in deciding which sound they wanted. Once learners are familiar with the game, you could round it off in a later class by doing an utterance and then once it is on the board, in symbols, perhaps write the words underneath and then in a different colour pick out what happens in connected speech vs. in individually pronounced words.

Backs to the board

Instead of writing a target word on the board in letters, write it on the board in phonemic script. Teams have to decide what the word is before helping their teammates at the board to guess what it is. Once those at the board have guessed the word, you could award bonus points if they can write it on a mini-whiteboard in phonemic script.


The teacher draws a target on the board (or you could pre-prepare and project onto the whiteboard to save time) and puts sounds in all the gaps. Students are in two teams, and take it in turns to throw the ball at the board (1-4 times per go, depending how challenging you want to make it) and should then try to use the 1-4 sounds hit in a single word. You could add even more limitations, e.g. it can only be words that you have studied this week or something, to bring in an added vocabulary element. (In my case, the teacher did prepare a target but she left out a couple of sounds – no problem, the students identified the missing ones and the teacher drew those on in board marker. 🙂 ) (Can you see which sounds are missing?)

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 21.11.38


Banana dictations

In this activity, traditionally learners, in pairs or small groups, have a mini whiteboard between them and the teacher says a sentence with a word gapped out – the ‘banana’ word – which the learners race to write on their mini-whiteboard. To bring in sounds as well as vocabulary, why not ask them to write the word in phonemic script? To do this, in their groups, they will be sounding out the word and looking at the chart for help, so it reviews sound-symbol relationships.

… This is clearly not an exhaustive list! Can you think of any more to add?

Taking auctions beyond grammar

I’ve never been a massive fan of grammar auctions – mostly because I was never quite sure how they were supposed to work. Generally they involve a list of sentences, most of which have mistakes in them, which the learners are supposed to correct and then bid on. It was always the money aspect that confused me! This summer, however, I have decided how they work (for me) and then applied them successfully to pronunciation and vocabulary…

Pronunciation Auction


to focus on the pronunciation (especially word stress) of a set of target vocabulary with whose meaning learners are already familiar.


Each team of learners need a list of the words to be used for the game.


None – learners should have the words already, as they are previously studied words. Or if you really want, make another special list of them to hand out!


  • Put learners into teams of 4-6 players and make sure each team has a list of the target words for the game. (Our list happened to have 24 words on it, academic vocabulary which we had looked at previously in the context of a reading text, which worked fine.) NB: The list should be numbered for easy identification purposes. (Actually ours wasn’t but before we started I told them how it would be numbered – there were 4 columns each with six words, so it was 1-6 down column one, 7-12 down column two etc.)
  • Tell learners they have £1000 to spend on the words. How much they spend on each word depends on how sure they are of the pronunciation. (We focused on word stress as we hadn’t introduced the phonemic chart yet – but I can already imagine some variations involving it! Watch this space!)
  • Give learners 5-10 minutes (depending how many target words you have) to decide what the correct pronunciation of each word is and how sure they are of it, and to allocate their £1000.
  • When everybody is ready, call out the number of a word. E.g. number 10. Each team reveals how much they bid on word 10. The highest bid gets to pronounce the word. If correct, they gain the amount  of money they allocated. So if they bid £200, they get £200 in their score board. They can earn bonus cash by then providing the other words in a word family, also pronounced correctly. E.g. if the target word is ‘advertise’, they can gain bonus cash for ‘advertisement’ and ‘advertising’. (This encourages them to think about how, in many cases, when you change word type, the stress changes too.) We decided that providing correct pronunciation for all members of the word family merited doubling one’s money.
  • If the highest bidder gets the pronunciation wrong, the word passes to the next highest bidder. If the next highest bidder gets it correct, they win the highest bidder’s bid total. So if, in the above example, the team who bid £200 got it wrong, and the next highest bid was £150, if that second team got it correct, they would win £200.
  • Once all the words have been pronounced (if any haven’t been bid on by any of the groups, sell them off at £50 a pop to get learners to have a go even if they aren’t sure!), the winner is the group with the highest total of money.

Vocabulary Auction


To review the meanings of previously studied target lexis.






  • Give learners, in teams, a set length of time to write a list of a given set of target words that they have been studying (in our case it was a set of phrasal verbs). At the end of the set time, do a quick whole class check to make sure all teams have all the target words. (If one team has them all, and the others don’t, you could award some bonus points!) OR provide/point them at a list of the words.
  • Give teams time to discuss the meanings of the target words, decide how sure they are of the meaning and allocate their £1000 (as with the pronunciation auction)
  • The procedure follows as per the pronunciation auction except that learners provide meanings rather than pronunciation. Learners can earn bonus cash by putting the target word in a sentence correctly. (You could up the challenge by requiring the meaning and a suitable collocation, with bonus cash for extra collocations…)


Sold! (Image taken from

Sold! (Image taken from

Phonemic chart review game: Connect 3 (or 4)

As part of the Sheffield University 10 week pre-sessional programme, I have been teaching a Social English class 3 afternoons a week at 1h30 a pop. Last week on Thursday, I introduced them to the phonemic chart, using Adrian Underhill’s method. Today (Monday) I wanted a fun way to review the sounds with my learners, and so Connect 3 (or 4), using the phonemic chart, came about…


None! (Excellent…)


  • A phonemic chart projected onto a whiteboard (failing that, an A3 print-out would work equally well)
  • a board pen (more than one would be even better – see my comments at the end of the post)


  • Put learners into 2 teams (or 3 if you have a big class) of 4-6 players.
  • Each team has a symbol. With my learners today, Bing were suns and Bong were stars. (They are always Bing and Bong: borrowed from an ex-colleague of mine at IHPA, these names refer to the buzzer sounds that you get on TV game shows and that the team in question must make before answering in any games where speed to answer is of the essence…)
  • Explain the aim and rules to the learners. The aim of the game is to get 3 squares in a row to score £100 or 4 squares in a row to score £150. (Could also be points, but as we had just done a vocabulary auction, we stuck with the money theme!). In order to win a square, learners must make the sound that corresponds with that square correctly and give an example word with that sound in it. (Number and letter off the squares so that learners can choose a square by calling out e.g. E5. As there are more columns in the bottom half of the chart than the top, there is a special extra column H here. See picture below.)
  • If learners make the correct sound AND give a correct example word, they get to have their symbol drawn in the square and the square becomes theirs. The turn passes to the next team. If learners make a correct sound but incorrect word, the turn passes to the next team, ditto if they make the sound incorrectly. In this case, the square is still open to be won either by the next team, or, when the turn returns to the team who were incorrect, they can try again (or choose a different square if they prefer!).
  • Each time a team of learners get 3 or 4 in a row, write £100 or £150 in their score board column.
  • Towards the end, you will probably end up with a handful of squares that will not help learners gain a 3 or a 4. Sell these off at £50 a pop, with teams taking it in turns to make the sound and give an example word in order to win this money. The same rules re correctness mentioned previously still apply.
  • When everything is finished, add up the money and see who is the winner! You could also add up the number of suns and stars (or whatever other symbols) to see who totalled the greatest number of squares.
The phonemic chart at the end of the game!

The phonemic chart at the end of the game!

Showing also our scoreboard (one set of numbers goes back to the vocabulary auction...)

Showing also our scoreboard (one set of numbers goes back to the vocabulary auction…)

My comments:

  • My learners enjoyed this and it was good to see how much they remembered from last Thursday. Making pronunciation physical does make it much more memorable. (They remembered things like ‘the idiot sound’, ‘like having an orange in your mouth’, for example, trying the sounds out in their groups before giving their final answer.) Understanding way the chart is organised helps too – it helped them remember some of the sounds between the ones they were more sure of.
  • If I did it again, I’d remember all my board markers so that I wasn’t stuck with only black pen. Each team could have a different colour, and any squares that were done incorrectly could be marked in a different colour to flag them up more clearly for some further post-game review.
  • To up the challenge for academic English classes, stipulate that the example word given should be an academic word (and bonus if one of the ones you have studied recently!). To up the challenge in a General English setting, stipulate that it be a word related to a particular set of topics or course book units, depending how your programme works.

Enjoy! 🙂

Vocabulary Review Activity for Teenagers


Review previously met vocabulary in a fun, game-like way.


A pre-prepared slide with all the target vocabulary on it (and some red herrings as well, if you wish…) – see example below; fly swats or post-its or balls (I used fly swats in this case but no reason why the other methods can’t work! Balls might be quite challenging on the motor skills, of course due to the target size…); a set of cards with one piece of target vocabulary on each one.

Some vocabulary!

An example: Some L5a vocabulary!

This game is a cross between the board bashes I do with my Ms (10 to 12 year olds) on a regular basis, which is a case of I put a bunch of target vocabulary pictures on a slide, I say the word, they bash the word, or post-it the word or throw a ball at it, as the case may be, and the backs to the board game I often do with my L5a (upper int 13-15yr old) teens. It came about because I wanted to review vocabulary with afore-mentioned teens but change up the usual backs to the board with a bit of variety… 


  • Put learners into teams
  • Invite one member of each team up to the board. Hand them a fly swat or post-it. (Or, get them to stand a bit away from the board and hand them a ball…)
  • One team picks a word card, looks at it, passes it to the next team to look at and so on. Once all teams know what the word is, they start to try and get their team mates at the board to guess the word, in usual backs to the board style (definitions, synonyms, banana sentences…).
  • Team members at the board swat, post-it or throw the ball at the word they think is the answer. (NB to avoid random bashing, stipulate that incorrect guesses lose points…)
  • First team member to swat, post-it or throw the ball at the correct word gains a point for their team.
  • Teams each send another person up to the board for round 2.
  • The game continues until the word cards are finished or until you feel enough time has been spent, whichever happens first!

It worked well, my teens got really in to it. Of course, as you can imagine, the losing points stipulation came about in reaction to the random board bashing issue! It takes a bit more preparation than usual backs to the board but it’s very quick, easy preparation really.

No reason why it couldn’t be used in adult classes as well, of course!


Write-up of Andrew Walkley’s BELTA webinar: Language-focused teacher development

This afternoon, I have had the pleasure of attending a fantastic webinar presented by Andrew Walkley, one half of the popular Dellar-Walkley duo whose project Lexical Lab you might be aware of. 

Andrew delivering an awesome webinar!

Andrew delivering an awesome webinar!

The focus of the webinar was Language-focused teacher development, looking at the way we deal with vocabulary in class and what we need to be doing outside class in order for this to become more effective. I took notes as we went along, so here they are, slightly edited to make them more comprehensible…

  • First we were asked to put groups of four words into order of their frequency.
  • Then we were asked to make examples for a set of seven words and a structure (the past continuous).

Andrew went on to explain that within the CLT era, we have seen some particular types of approaches emerge, that are language rich and responsive – TBL, Lexical Approach, Dogme, Demand High…

  • In TBL, if there is breakdown in communication, this is where learning is supposed to happen, the teacher facilitating this learning.
  • In Dogme, maybe some further practice together will be done too.
  • With Demand High teaching (which concept he said sparked this talk), there was a complaint that a lot of teaching taking place where you move from task to task but without much actual teaching happening. The teacher needed to be stronger in saying ‘no, this is wrong’ or pushing individual students and teaching them in the moments where they are struggling. A lot of Scrivener’s solutions were technical, technique-type things, e.g. the teacher pretends not to understand what the student is saying, thereby forcing them to explain why what they were were saying was right.

That’s ok to a point, but Andrew felt that it wasn’t the real reason why the teaching wasn’t happening.  He has been interested in the Lexical Approach since its publication 20 years ago now, he has also been aware of the expectations of thinking about language and dealing with language that are advocated in LA are high. He recognises that it is difficult.

Andrew then introduced us to a book, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It deals with the difficulty for experts in employing their expertise. This is because of the need for fast, in the moment, spontaneous thinking, where rather than think clearly about certain aspects of thinking, we replace a kind of logical thought with heuristics i.e. a generalised idea of something.

This brought us back to the task we did at the start.

Andrew showed us the answers to the frequency question:

Screenshot of the answers to the frequency quiz

Screenshot of the answers to the frequency quiz

Then he asked whether the corpus frequency answer (biased towards written) is reflective of the bias in native speaker natural use? His feeling is that often we overestimate certain frequencies of words and underestimate others. In the spoken corpus, arise and beard come at a similar level. Many students are interested in academic and professional lives in English, where they may not be using the language all the time in the workplace or study in Britain etc, but the resources they use may be in English, so a word like ‘arise’ would have a higher frequency and value.

As for the activity of making examples: our tendency is to produce examples like the ones we produced, but sometimes these aren’t actually the most common uses or even the way we use the language. Of this type of example, they may be one in a thousand in the corpus. E.g. She is a Christian. So… how is Christian really used? Andrew confessed that he might struggle with some of these words, in terms of making examples. E.g. whereby, arise, in terms of. Some of these are more difficult to think of examples from. They don’t fit into that simple x is y pattern. They require more complex sentences:

Screenshot from the webinar

Screenshot of Andrew’s examples from the webinar

It’s difficult to think of these kind of examples on the spot, Andrew explained, the Daniel Kahneman book offering some very clear reasons as to why. This is to do with biases that overtake logical thought. Our tendency would be to put words like blonde, banana etc. higher up because we know we can think of examples for these more easily than arise or whereby. If we think about the number of different contexts that we use banana or arise, then it becomes clear that arise would occur in academic texts, meetings, and several more possible contexts than the word banana or beard. Similarly serious vs. fun, there are a wider number of things that can be serious than there are fun things. As I understood it, this is availability bias, one of three factors that affect our choice:

  • availability bias
  • representational bias
  • priming

Apparently words also have a representational bias, e.g. x is y, x does y, doctor has a white coat etc. So the examples and explanations that come to mind are often of that nature.

Finally, priming: In English language teaching, this is quite strong. E.g. I was having a bath when the phone rang.

  • Because of what we’ve learnt before and what we’ve seen in coursebooks before, we think of certain examples and contexts, and we don’t see the wider context we could use.
  • Sometimes when we are trying to hear what students are saying, and trying to correct them, often what we are primed to notice is basic grammar, typical grammar that we have taught before. So, we will commonly notice the present perfect used incorrectly or missed third person ‘s’ and these we look to correct.

Andrew explained that this is problematic in terms of these responsive methodologies. There is too big a cognitive load for any teacher trying to use these methods.

When you are in class, e.g. with TBL you are catering for individuals and have to do many things, which he went on to describe:

  • You have to hear the student first, which is already difficult possibility due to layout and noise levels.
  • You have to understand what they want to say/write, recognise the error/gap in their language, and give the ‘correct’ example (” because sometimes what we want to be doing is extend ss knowledge, e.g. where they use a particular word where another less frequent use works better)
  • You then have to explain or check why one is correct and the other isn’t, if we are talking in terms of TBL and Dogme, then extra examples of new language are necessary, and for Dogme also further ‘spontaneous’ practice.
  • Finally you need to remember it in order to revise and recycle it at a later date.

That’s a lot to expect. And multiplied by all individual students with individual needs. So, instead, Andrew said, we fall back on examples given before, or focus on relatively infrequent words and give simplified examples which don’t necessarily reflect enough of how those words are used. Yet if you are a believer in a more lexical approach to teaching, one of the most important things is giving good examples of how language is used.

So, this is the big issue with these methodologies. Ironically, often, somebody who doesn’t like coursebooks will give examples that have been seen in one before! Coursebook writers are similarly primed. You come up with examples which afterwards you think ‘what was I thinking? Nobody would ever say that!‘. If you believe that exemplifying natural use is important than you need to also think outside the class. Inside the class it is too difficult due to cognitive load. It may also be that to become a better non-course book user, we need to become better coursebook users and writers!

The more we focus on different words and how we might exemplify them and ask questions about them, and think about spontaneous practices for them, the more we will get better at doing it spontaneously. Kahen (of the above-mentioned book) suggests the example of chess players who basically learn lots and lots and lots of moves. It takes all those hours of practice in order to become spontaneous in the context of a chess match. We may not have so much time to prepare in our lives but it’s an ongoing process so if we work at it incrementally, we’ll get better at it.

In terms of training and development, however, most focus is grammatical, rather than lexis. Grammar rules into which we slot the words. Andrew doesn’t particularly agree with this. At this stage in the talk, he outlined some potential issues for teacher development:

  • In terms of the planning, on training courses and post-qualification, planning focuses on activities: thinking of activities to help practice bits of grammar or vocabulary in the course book. Whereas we should think a lot more about the lexis and the questions we are going to ask about it etc. in the planning.
  • Judgement of lessons in observations shouldn’t based on fulfilling aims as it goes agains the idea of being responsive to students. So we need to think about how we think about language AND expectations of what a good lesson is.
  • Teacher development tends to focus on learning new techniques. E.g. Demand High. Frustrating because it is more techniques, other ways of doing somehting. Wehreas I feel we need to focus more on actual language.

Andrew put forward some alternatives:

Frequency training

  • Macmillan dictionary: game to decide if it is three star, two star or one star words. (Different frequencies) Once you realise that something is frequent, thinking about why it’s frequent and as a consequence thinking about the kind of examples you might give to reflect that frequency.
  • The compleat lexical tutor: I missed this explanation!
  • Phrasal Uses the BNC. Put in a word or two, request exact word or same lemma. E.g. inc plural, past participle form included. Gives a rough count and a concordance. (Like, I think?)  May be skewed by names. E.g. Christian. But still gives an idea. You might just take this as a staffroom thing, e.g. reading something or taking a collocation. Have competitions who thinks something is more common than something else. E.g. ambitious plan vs ambitious scheme. Then find out. To help us think about frequencies.

Exploiting vocabulary exercises

Essentially a lot of vocabulary activities focus on single words. Increasingly, now, you also get collocation exercises, matching two words to make a collocation. You might even have whole sentence exercises e.g. gap fills, little dialogues matching question and response. We need to think about slightly different ways of using these.

  • In a single word exercise, we should think about what collocations to elicit from students about these words and questions to ask about the vocabulary. Not just meaning focused but usage focused.
  • With collocation exercises, now we need to think beyond the collocation and think about the collocates of the collocations e.g. example sentences and dialogues, or a story to tell?
  • And then if you think about the whole sentence exercises, ask questions to get students reuse grammar and chunks, and other vocabulary that isn’t the focus but can be exploited.

Take for e.g. a ‘Which is the odd one out?’ exercise

The temptation is to say the non-odd words out are the same. But are they? And what do the students get apart from adding re-? Instead think about how we can use these words more. What collocations can go with these words?

  • Is what we reconstruct the same as what we rebuild?
  • Is what we reconsider the same as what we reexamine?
  • E.g. we can rebuild a relationship but we don’t reconstruct or remake it. We reexamine the evidence but we don’t rethink the evidence. We might rewrite an essay but not reword it. We might reword something shorter like an answer. We remake a film but we don’t rebuild it.

These are the kinds of things we want to be able to tell our students. We need precise examples. Going back to supermarkets, we might overestimate its frequency, quite often we don’t say I’m going to the supermarket, we say I’m going to Tescos or Carrefour. Perhaps these are better examples for our students in some ways.

Take for e.g. a collocations exercise

We need to think about:

  • What works with these collocations e.g. swimming pool and swimming trunks. Fishing rod and fishing gear. After you have matched them up, possibly with a picture thrown in, what next? Need to know how to use them!
  • A second question you might ask is who would you say it to, when would you say it, why would you say it? Think of how they might work in a dialogue. Sometimes the compound gets split up. E.g. see you on the track in half an hour. (Running track) Or swimming pool. Let’s go swimming. Ok see you at the pool in 15 mins.

Andrew suggests that we need to spend more time thinking about this aspect of language rather than on activities, in our planning.

  • Think about the kind of questions we ask about vocabulary. Can we generate language around target words? E.g. What might you ask if someone is carrying a lot of gear? Can I help you? Oooh where are you off to?
The questions we could ask

Screenshot of the questions Andrew says we could ask

  • Thinking about these kind of questions on the spot is quite difficult, you need to think about them beforehand to be able to ask them on the spot.

More complex sentence examples show more of how language works, so students see more examples of grammar in use.

  • Rather than x is y. (She is a Christian vs As a Christian, I think we should look for non-violent solutions = As a x, I think we should y.
  • Who was the guy with the beard? I haven’t seen him before = who was the guy with…the blonde hair, sitting next to you… etc. I haven’t seen him before.
  • Through vocabulary, we can ask simple quick questions to review grammar. E.g. When the paramedics arrived, his heart had stopped beating but they got it going again and then rushed to the hospital. –> Draw attention to the past perfect, when you get something going again, why/where else do we rush to?
Things to think about

Screenshot of the questions that Andrew suggests we ask

There are lots of these kinds of patterns we could draw attention to, that are useful and interesting little patterns that students could use but don’t make it into coursebooks. You have to have thought about the example before, but once you have thought about it in planning before, in the context of a text or language focus etc. it makes it available to use spontaneously in response to students in the future.

Andrew then told us about one aspect of his and Hugh Dellar’s Lexical lab:  you can send in a completed exercise and Andrew/Hugh will suggest questions/chunks relating to it and invite suggestions from others too.

Other tips from Andrew:

  • Think about what the students might want to say in the speaking exercises you plan to set up. It may mean either doing the task yourself, or with a teacher partner, and seeing what comes up.
  • Get teachers to record their answers. Notice the language that is repeated or could be useful for the students to do the task. Often there is a disconnect between grammar practice and single word practice and the task we set which requires a more complex use of language and may include a variety of things we haven’t thought about.

Ongoing questions to ask to promote teacher development:

Questions to help us develop!

Questions that Andrew recommends asking to promote development!

The first two questions require genuine interaction in the classroom, where rich language can be found. The third is important as what is new? A new combination? New phrases around known words? Because often the grammar or word is known, but the language around it isn’t. The fourth encourages you to reflect on the questions you ask and improve them for next time. The last question is based on the idea that we do get better at dealing with language if we write material. Ideally do it with someone else, get someone else to look at it. This encourages you to be critical and think about language in use and how students might want to use it.

Being able to answer language questions and being able to ask questions about language in this way is not a natural thing but a little bit like relearning the language and a process that needs to be ongoing along with your students. You need to practice it.

Language-focused TD is like language learning: it never stops! 

Thinking about the wider context of language use. We need to think beyond the obvious. Maybe students won’t use the banana example because they go to the shops themselves and don’t have anyone to ask to buy bananas for them! Whereas the words we thought less common might have more possible contexts of use and so be more common than we thought.

In response to concerns that this approach may become too teacher-centred, Andrew responded: talking about language and giving examples is student centred, as it is what the students want to say and need to hear in order to be able to say them better. Teacher talk: needs to be for the students’ benefit. It is also important to use generative, slightly open questions. Students might make jokes in response to them. E.g. Why would you want to reconstruct someone’s face? Because they are plug-ugly vs. after an accident.

I found this webinar absolutely fascinating. It reminds me of my last observation where I think basically my DoS was recommending that I do this. I.e. that I plan my vocabulary focus more, because of it being difficult to respond effectively on the hoof, and I think the intention was in this vein. Having watched this webinar, I now have a much clearer idea of how to go about that than I did previously. Am looking forward to implementing this and gradually developing in this area. 

It was my first time to see Andrew speak and I have to admit to now very much looking forward to hopefully attending his talk at IATEFL! 

Thank you very much, Andrew, for a really valuable hour and a bit! And thank you, BELTA, for hosting him!