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Words about Words

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“Euphemism” is a pretty big word, but it’s so useful that it’s part of a set of words I generally wind up teaching to my students if they’re at least intermediate level. These “words about words” belong to a vocabulary set that’s above or outside of the level of the other words they know. However, I think these words make it easier to talk about English and in English with them. (For that matter, they can explain terms from their own languages better in English once they learn these words.) These words save time once the students know them. I think my students find these words useful, because they use them back to me and go right to “Ah, okay!” when I use them for explanations.

Of course, I mostly work with adults in a one-on-one setting where I can judge their readiness and comprehension individually, so I’m not sure that these would be suitable for a group or younger students. If you’ve successfully used these kinds of words or similar words with a class or with K-12 students, I’d love to hear about it.

Here are some of the terms I use:

  • Euphemism: This is especially useful when students are reading news articles, which are full of phrases like “passed away” and “had an affair,” but generally it’s useful for a variety of words.
  • Jargon: Sometimes I need to explain that a word has limited use outside of certain occupations, and “jargon” does the trick. It’s especially useful with Japanese students, because several English loan words that are used as ordinary words in Japanese are considered jargon in English (such as “LOHAS,” marketing jargon). Students generally love this word, and I think it’s their favorite and most-retained of this set, although I think “connotation” is the most important.
  • Connotation: Eventually you have to explain to a student why a word (like “foreigner” or “fat” or “childish”) isn’t appropriate even though it means exactly what they think it means, or why their electronic dictionary is not their best friend. The concept of connotations versus basic meanings is really useful (I usually use “childish” vs. “childlike” as an example), and I show them how a good learner’s dictionary includes connotations and can save them from embarrassment. And no, I don’t teach “denotation”; it’s not very useful by itself.
  • Root, prefix, and suffix: Powerful vocabulary-building terms that are a real revelation to students who haven’t learned them. These are very interesting to Chinese- and Japanese-background students, who can draw parallels between roots and radicals (basic components) of Chinese characters (hanzi/kanji), and Japanese students can connect suffixes with okurigana. Since many European languages share roots with English, students from those language backgrounds may already be familiar with these terms.
  • Abbreviation, short for, and acronym: These all come in handy not just when explaining slang and abbreviated speech, but also when explaining why lexemes that Korean and Japanese students perceive as English loanwords (like “aircon” and “OL”) are not comprehensible or acceptable in English. And no, I do not get into the difference between an initialism and an acronym–99% of native English speakers neither know nor care about the difference.
  • Genre: Not in the linguistics sense, but mostly in the fiction sense–I wind up teaching this word because it’s useful for getting students started with extensive reading and listening. An important note here is that genres are differently divided, different genres do and don’t exist, and individual works are categorized differently within different cultures. This goes for everything from comic books to music, so it helps to familiarize your students with descriptions of genres in whatever medium, plus give well-known examples of that genre.
  • Intensifier: I hesitated over teaching this one because it’s linguistics jargon itself, but it’s better than saying “it doesn’t really mean anything” over and over again for the prepositions in some phrases, the funny use of words like “insanely” and “ridiculously” to expand the already large class of words that mean “very,” and so on. Lots of languages already have a large class of intensifiers, so once you explain the idea of “words that reinforce the meaning,” this seems to be a good hook for students. But you must include the caveat that 99% of other English speakers will have no idea what an intensifier is.
  • Collocation: Another one that I warn students about, because ordinary English speakers don’t know it. Teaching them about the idea of collocations is more important for raising language awareness than for talking about grammar, but I think it’s a useful idea. Get students to be aware of “words that hang out with other words” so that they can build their vocabulary in chunks.

I’m probably forgetting some, but I think those are the ones I use most frequently.

I introduce each word by saying that it will make it easier for us to talk about language, although the word itself is an advanced word. This makes some students a little worried, but most students are intrigued or excited. Of course, this assumes that the students already know the parts of speech and that you’ve already negotiated a common ground on anything with multiple names like “present continuous”/”present progressive” (argh!). However, much to my surprise, there’s a sort of middle ground between the parts of speech and the above special language, a sort of forgotten realm that many students have never learned…

This neglected area is somewhere between grammar and culture, and contains really useful, fairly basic words that are apparently not frequently taught in many EFL curricula. I had been using the word “rude” in explanations with some early students and language partners for quite some time before one of them let me know that she had no idea what it meant. When I checked with the others, they didn’t know it either. Oops.

Here are some of these basic sociolinguistic terms that every student should know, but many haven’t had a chance to learn:

  • Polite: This is essential, right? You need to be able to explain polite language and behavior.
  • Rude: Some students knew polite, but virtually none knew “rude.” Some words are more than not polite; they’re rude. In order to understand the difference, students should know this word.
  • Formal and casual: As students start to learn enough English to handle different registers and connotations, they need to know the difference between formal and casual speech. However, there’s a tendency among many students to equate “casual” and “rude,” so it’s useful to make sure they also know the next two words…
  • Friendly and unfriendly: So that you can explain when “casual” would equal “friendly” and “formal” would be “unfriendly,” such as with classmates and so on.

These can involve value judgments, so I have to tread carefully here. But I think it’s important, and it also opens things up for students to tell you about their language, and ask how they can sound more friendly or more formal if they feel a need to.

What do you think? Too much peripheral vocabulary? Did I leave some important ones out? Is there a better way to go about this? Am I projecting too much about the way I learn onto my students? Some certainly take to it more than others, and those are the ones where I return to it more often. So I think there are students for whom this clicks.

(EDIT: Oooh, I forgot one–pun! It’s the only way to explain so many brand names, movie names, strange lines from TV shows, lyrics, and so on.)

Interdisciplinary Cross-pollination

Bee gathering pollen from a California poppy (by me)

Bee gathering pollen from a California poppy (by me)


My husband is a math teacher, and I like to think he’s learned some things from talking to me about topics like intensive reading–he’s actually started a kind of reading database/blog for his community college students, because he’s come to the conclusion that improving their reading skills through pleasure reading would make doing both real-world math and school math easier for them. (Real-world math–things like a newspaper story on chances of the Iranian election shaving been rigged, or figuring out the best terms for a loan, or trying to understand the instructions for adjusting an injection, which I had to do last week–is all about reading information and figuring out what’s relevant, after all.) I’ve also had some interesting conversations with him about cross-cultural math (something that TESOL sometimes reports on), and his unusually enlightened college even had an English-Math interdisciplinary committee. My husband was so interested in seeing what he could get out of this kind of “cross-pollination” that he’s attended a couple of CATESOL and writing center conferences. So if you get the chance to peek into some other teaching field’s conferences, journals, or pedagogical conversations (literal or metaphorical), I really recommend it. Who knows what you might find out or be able to contribute? Chances are many of them are dying for a chance to talk to an ESL expert, as well!

I like to read the blogs at ScienceBlogs.com, and one recent post that reminded me of this cross-pollination principle is this “Interview with Stacy Baker.” She is a high school biology teacher and biologist who says, in the interview,

At the risk of upsetting the traditionalists, I believe there is total lunacy in allowing a person to teach science who has never actually practiced science. You can’t learn science by reading textbooks or taking educational methodology classes. Every science teacher needs to have the experience of participating in original research and they need to routinely refresh their skills.

Wow. You know, I’ve often said that I think nearly every aspect of our K-16 educational system in the US is broken, but this is an aspect I hadn’t though of before. I think she’s right! (Just as I think TESOL professionals who are native English speakers and not already multilingual really must seriously attempt to learn a second language, preferably a non-Western-European language.) But, of course, as she points out immediately, under our current system it’s pretty impractical, and with current budgets it veers into quixotic even if you think about special grants to give teachers this experience. In the long run, though, I wonder if we couldn’t remove a lot of the disconnect that I always perceived as a kid by somehow heading in this direction. What do you think? I had a couple of good science teachers, but on the whole it seems like it’d be better to have scientist-teachers, practitioner-teachers. It’s really weird to have non-practitioners teaching so many subjects…

Since I first started to learn about pedagogy as a discipline, it quickly became my firm belief that university professors in the United States are in dire need of it. Very few professors have any pedagogical training at all, either general or specific, and for a lot of them it shows. Some had a single class as a grad student, but that is totally insufficient for a career that is supposed to consist of teaching as well as writing and research–I realize some “R1″ and other professors seem to resent the teaching aspect of their jobs, but who knows, maybe they’d resent it less if they had some idea of how to go about it. (Of course, a few are natural teachers–at least, for the natural learners in the class. Remember, if you’re a naturally academically inclined person, you can’t easily comment on whether someone is an effective teacher for those who really need it. This lesson took me a LONG time to learn during my MATESOL program, but I got it eventually! So I suspect that even many of the people I thought of as great teachers could have done with some pedagogical training.) K-12 teachers are far more likely to have pedagogical training, but 1) they often don’t have age- or subject-specific pedagogical training for all of the subjects and ages they’re teaching; 2) they’re often teaching a subject for which they don’t have subject-specific academic training; and 3) they are often teaching a subject in which they don’t have practical or research experience, as Stacy Baker mentions above. (Please forgive me for the general statements. I know it varies wildly by state and I fully admit that I haven’t taught K-12 in the US and don’t want to because it’s so challenging!)

Anyway, as you can see, despite originating in a science-teaching blog post, that got me thinking about all kinds of things. Have you learned anything from reading about teachers or teaching in other disciplines? Leave a comment and tell everyone about it!

I Before E, Except in the UK?

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Something called “Support for Spelling,” described as “official guidance distributed to schools” in this article from the Telegraph, now contains the recommendation that UK schools not teach the familiar rule “I before E, except after C.” The reasoning is that there are just so many exceptions that the rule ceases to be much of a rule anymore, and only causes confusion. Naturally, this has stirred up a hornet’s nest…

I wonder. Honestly, this rule always struck me as a kind of useless rule, anyway, because of how may exceptions have to be memorized (although it’s not so bad if you’re a reader).

Useful, or more trouble than it’s worth?

(EDIT: Here is much more background on the rule, as well as the teaching context, from the excellent World Wide Words.)