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Learners’ Dictionaries

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I recommend a good learner’s dictionary (or two), not just for your students but also for you, the instructor. Naturally, you already know the meanings of almost all words that students are likely to ask you about, but the problem is that on-the-spot definitions (and even written ones) sometimes come out in the vein of “Well, it’s a sensation that…uh, a feeling that you get–well, most people get they’re frightened –oh, do you know frightened? I mean scared…and…”


There’s a reason for the profession of lexicography and the existence of special dictionaries! When I use the definitions in learners’ dictionaries to define words that are a little hard to explain, I find that students often understand the words much faster–I neither spend a lot of time confusing them nor do they have to resort to their L1 dictionaries (and they don’t get confused by the circular explanations, academic vocabulary, and obsolete historical definitions in regular English dictionaries).

I make a point of introducing learners’ dictionaries to my students and owning multiple levels of them. I tell my students that sometimes I use them myself to give definitions, because the dictionaries’ explanations are shorter, simpler, and focus on the useful/common meanings of a word. (I also spend time demonstrating how a good learner’s dictionary can save students from other dictionaries’ pitfalls, as the entries should include connotations like “disapproving”, and other features like collocations.) Anyway, I think they understand why I sometimes use these definitions with them. It would certainly be less than ideal if they thought I had to look up English words in the dictionary, but I don’t think any of them have wound up with that impression.

I think it’s useful to look at the different varieties out there to see which ones you prefer. They all have different features and different styles of defining words. Cobuild started out strong (as it was corpus-based) but has fallen behind the others in features and usability; I prefer Longman and Oxford. There’s also a recent Merriam-Webster dictionary, in “essential” and advanced, which I haven’t looked at. They produced the excellent guide to English usage that was recommended by Language Log, though, so it might be excellent. There’s a Cambridge set, as well.

Anyway, you can make use of these definitions online, too, if you’re chatting with students, blogging, or just testing out the dictionaries.

One word I had to define recently was “trawl” (the verb), because I linked some learners to “Japanese Power Blogger Trawls Seoul for Hidden Gems”. Interestingly, at least one of the dictionaries’ definitions precluded the usage in that headline–so it’s good to try several tricky or multifaceted words to find a dictionary that makes sense to you.

(P. S. I think there are some other learners’ dictionaries that I’m not familiar with. If you know of any that you particularly like, please recommend them in the comments!)

Getting on the Same Page: Book Gifts for Friends and Family

Is it just me, or do friends, family members, and random strangers sometimes make strange assumptions about us once we become English teachers? They may think we support English-only policies, are ashamed of our first languages if we are multilingual, are constantly judging them on their use of English, etc. They may resent us for the positions they assume we take, or they may take those positions ourselves and expect us to join them. This can get pretty awkward at the dinner table. Even if it doesn’t get that far, people often have really strange ideas about English and English teaching (I know I had a few myself before actually starting to study for my certification and MA).

Here are a few last-minute holiday gift suggestions that can introduce the way linguists and language pedagogy specialists think about language to non-specialists in a readable–maybe even enjoyable–way.

Language Myths is a bit of a Linguistics FAQ or “Mythbusters: Linguistics Edition!” in book form, with articles on different topics by different linguists. This is really great for addressing those long-held, “commonsense” beliefs that most people have about language, and can really clear the way for meaningful conversations with your friends and family. Essays in it include “Double Negatives Are Illogical,” “TV Makes People Sound the Same,” “Black Children are Verbally Deprived,” “America is Ruining the English Language,” “Some Languages are Spoken More Quickly Than Others,” and lots more. It’s meant for intelligent laypeople. Most of the topics will be familiar to you; my TESOL coursework covered most of the topics (but not every point). I don’t totally agree with everything that every author writes, and the readability/interestingness varies, but that’s the nature of an anthology like this. I wish they’d publish a sequel, but at any rate, highly recommended.

The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left, by the outstanding linguist David Crystal. This book uses both history and analysis to show why people who are truly educated about linguistics are rarely the same people frothing in the opinion pages about the decline of English. He has a distinctly British viewpoint (Strunk and White barely make an appearance) and makes a couple of errors regarding American usage, but nearly all of his points apply to American English-language punditry as well as British. Without resorting to Language Log (which I love, but is a little too in-depth for casual readers), this book can explain to your friends and family why you may not be a fan of the English “experts,” like the late William Safire, whose cranky and usually wrong-headed pronouncements they probably expect you to endorse. If you read it, you’ll probably learn a lot too–I didn’t realize how many centuries these specific patterns of nitpicking and name-calling had been going on, or how broadminded Shakespeare was about regional dialects of English compared to other writers!

For people with more specific interests:

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English is an extremely interesting history of how English wound up in its rather odd condition. It’s sometimes a bit rambling and repetitive (it seems to be based on lectures), but still fascinating. Of course, speculation about the origins of English are open for debate, but McWhorter’s theories make a lot of sense. He has an interesting perspective because of his academic background, specializing in the study of creole formation, which I think may help him approach the apparent conflicts and paradoxes in the early history of English in a more fruitful way. And, of course, he has the necessary academic/linguistic chops that popular writers like Bill Bryson are lacking, so he doesn’t repeat unfounded nonsense about other languages in order to prove English’s uniqueness. (I don’t recommend giving anyone The Mother Tongue, because it’s full of things that are not just academic speculation, but outright falsehoods and inaccuracies.) Highly recommended, but not for readers without an interest in the history of English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is one of the only usage guides recommended by the folks over at Language Log. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive; it tells you what the rule is and what people actually usually do and why. It has plenty of real examples, not made-up sentences, and discusses controversial usages and discrepancies between US and British tendencies. (Note the 5-star review by Geoff Pullum if you click through to the Amazon page–that’s the linguist Geoff Pullum.) Handy for teachers and non-teachers alike. Note: this is mostly for looking up words that tend to cause grammar, spelling, or other usage problems; it’s not a general grammar or writing guide.

All of the above good books for ESL and EFL teachers too, of course–you’ll just be more familiar with the background info, and maybe a little impatient when some of the authors use simplified vocabulary to avoid using technical jargon.

I’ll add all of these to the Bookstore link on the right so that you can find them later.

(Sorry for the lateness of this post–I had my own holiday gift-giving time crunch!)

Korea 101 Plus

jp_draws_south_korean_flag1Chris in Korea (a great blog if you’re interested in teaching there) brought my attention to “what may be the most comprehensive guide on living and working in Korea”, published by the Association for Teachers of English in Korea. Chris recommends this book for anyone interested in teaching in Korea and anyone who’s already there. It has sections on finding a job, your rights as a resident and employee, working with Korean co-teachers, making lesson plans, and even the average nutritional content of common Korean dishes, totalling nearly 350 pages. Wow. I wish other countries had resources likes this–particularly for free! (If you know of one, please let me know in the comments!) I’m going to read it, not because I’m planning to work in Korea, but because I’m curious about the place where my friend has just started working.

It’s apparently not fully linked on ATEK’s site yet, but Chris and another blogger spotted it and provided links to the PDFs (and there are some problems with ATEK’s website at the moment). Notably, though, the book is being provided under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works License, which means that we’re free to share and copy it as long as we do not alter it, sell it, or remove its attribution. (The principle author, Tony Hellmann, has kindly reassured everyone that this is OK.) Therefore, to make your life easier, I’ve put all the PDFs in a single .zip file, which you can download directly right here: (11.3 MB). If you have any problems with it, let me know. (Remember, I just created the .zip file and am hosting it; the work was done by the listed authors and ATEK.)

Major kudos to Tony Hellmann, Tom Rainey-Smith, Jason Thomas, Matthew Henderson, and everyone involved with putting this together! What a fantastic labor of love. Please send them your thanks if you download it and use it.

Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

Table of contents for Learning Japanese

  1. Learning Diary: My Language History
  2. Learning Diary: More Language History
  3. Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

A basic principle of any form of teaching is that a teacher should avoid asking students to do anything she wouldn’t do herself. Dr. Sarah Nielsen, the head of my MATESOL program, always put this into practice by joining us during in-class reflective essays. Most models for extensive reading programs similarly encourage the facilitator of the ER session to sit down and read too. With that in mind, and being fairly well convinced of ER’s claims, I set out to find some graded readers for my current target language, Japanese. (See my previous post on tadoku, or extensive reading, in Japan.)

The bad news for me was that there appears to be only one series for Japanese learners, unlike the many that are available for English learners. The series is レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー (Reberu Betsu Nihongo Tadoku Raiburarii, which I’d kind of translate as Leveled Japanese Extensive Reading Library). The good news is that they’re fairly interesting, with a variety of illustrative styles for each little book, and they come with audio. They’re currently up to 3 sets (“volumes”) with several different levels in each set. Each level comprises a slipcase with several thin paperback books inside.

The cover price for the first level set, which is five short books, is 2300 JPY–about $21 USD at the current rate, including an audio CD with all of the stories. I bought it from Kinokuniya in San Jose, though, so the price was $32 plus tax. You can read about the books at the publisher’s website (some English; click around to get to samples) and at the website of the nonprofit group behind the series. (Unfortunately, the English version of the latter is temporarily disabled for Firefox users.) I’m so glad somebody’s working on rectifying this lack of Japanese-learning materials, and I definitely recommend the series.

A few weeks I sat down to read the first book. It’s a couple steps up from “see Jane run,” but not a lot. It’s very simple and (thank goodness) below my level. Even then, I learned a new verb and got some good review on kanji that are rarely put into beginners’ materials. Much to my surprise and amusement, when I got to the end, I suddenly thought “I’ve finished my first book in Japanese!”

Well, that thought is kind of silly–the writing is totally oversimplified and fairly inauthentic, the book is only a few pages long, and it’s easier than what I should be reading anyway. Right? I mean, it’s not even a real book. But, somehow, I still got that brief flash of accomplishment. That’s worth something! That feeling itself is one of the reasons why easy, fun reading can be such a powerful tool for language learners.

Later, I’ll write about my continuing attempts to use the series, and how it’s helping me with both my Japanese and my teaching. So far, I’d say the experiment is a success. However, I wonder what I’m going to do when I run out of books at my level, since there are so few texts available for anyone who’s not already at the high-intermediate level.

Many of you are also language learners, so how about it–do you try to practice what you preach? I know I have clients whose enthusiasm for self-study puts me to shame. I’m trying to be more like them!

“Tadoku” Means Extensive Reading

TESOL professionals with training in communicative language teaching methods often complain about the state of foreign language teaching in Japan, where grammar-translation, usually called 訳読/yakudoku is still the dominant method. Yakudoku, though, is not the whole picture, even if it sometimes seems that way. In fact, various Japanese groups are working to supplement or replace this outdated way of teaching with more modern teaching approaches.

One technique that has active, passionate supporters in Japan is 多読/tadoku: extensive reading. Extensive reading is something I’ve been very interested in ever since I read Stephen Krashen’s The Power of Reading (2nd ed.). The research on extensive reading matches my experiences: reading a lot for fun increases your vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and writing skills in your first and subsequent languages. The key for second language learners is that they should read books that are easy to understand, so they can enjoy the story while painlessly acquiring language patterns.

This approach has caught on with many educators around the world. I was really pleased to discover that the Extensive Reading mailing list has several active members who are working in Japan, including both Japanese and non-Japanese educators. There are several good websites in English and in Japanese about ER in Japan, including this overview of ER in Japan by Furukawa Akio.

It was through one of the ER ML members that I found out about 英語多読完全ブックガイド [改訂第2版]/Eigo Tadoku Kanzen Bukkugaido Kaiteigai 2/Complete English Extensive Reading Book Guide. This book has about 12,000 book titles in it, organized in several different ways including level and genre. It’s an amazing resource, and I’m totally appalled that there is no equivalent resource published in English. I’m still learning Japanese, so I can’t take full advantage of this book. However, book titles are given in English, and the reading levels are listed numerically, so the most essential information is understandable. All you need to do is look up the level of a few books with which you’re familiar, check the ra and then you have a baseline for how their system works.

The books selected include Oxford graded readers, children’s classics (from Dahl to Rowling), nonfiction, and some adult fiction. There’s quite a variety represented in the 12,000 titles! Some even have short excerpts exactly as printed in their books, which is a great way to get a feel for a book. Don’t you wish we could get something like this in English? (Publishing companies, are you listening? A translation of this book or a whole new book along similar lines is something that countless English teachers would love to get their hands on!)

I do recommend this book, but with the obvious caveats. I had to buy this book through mail order from the Kinokuniya in San Jose, and it was only cheap by comparison to textbook prices. If you want to get a little more information about the book, let me know in a comment and I’ll try to scan a couple of pages to give you a better idea of what it’s like. I’m currently out of town, so it’ll be a while before I can do that.

(Please let me know if I’ve made any mistakes in the Japanese in this post. More later about how I’m trying to practice what I preach when it comes to my own learning of Japanese!)

Where do you buy your ESL books?

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and there’s a well-known ESL bookstore here, Alta Books. I’m always looking for more places to buy books, because Alta is pretty far away. They also don’t stock some of the things I especially want to buy in person rather than online, such as the Cambridge readers. Actually, I can’t find anywhere to look at the Cambridge readers in person besides at conferences, so let me know if you’ve seen them on shelves in the US. I understand that in Japan, they can be bought at Junk-Do, Kinokuniya, etc. I have a sneaking suspicion that those of you in EFL settings have it better than those of us in English-dominant countries, but I don’t know about, say, New York City, let alone London or Melbourne.

My city has three main bookstores: Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Half-Price Books. Borders’ ESL books are weirdly scattered over three areas, I think (ESL, writing, and reference?), but you can almost always count on them to have Azar books in stock. With the 20% off coupon perennially available at, it’s a place I often point new clients towards. Our Barnes & Noble seems to have a few more ESL textbooks in stock, though. I’m always kind of amazed that these big chain bookstores in towns with large immigrant populations don’t promote and enhance their ESL sections more. A spinner rack with Cambridge readers could bring in a lot of sales! How about your local chain stores? Are they clued into ESL or not?

By the way, both Borders and B&N offer free corporate discount programs to schools, school departments, libraries, and individual business owners. Since I’m about to become an official sole proprietor, I plan to join. Every little bit helps! Just ask at your store’s information desk to find out how to sign up.

The third bookstore here is a smaller chain and more responsive to the local population in general, but actually even less useful in terms of ESL books. I really love Half-Price Books for inexpensive science fiction paperbacks and other items for myself. I send students from Asia there to buy cheap translated manga, and I send advanced students to their $1-3 bargain shelves in the back to load up on interesting novels and nonfiction. Their ESL section, though, has only a tiny handful of books, which are inexplicably combined with the ASL section (that’s American Sign Language–good to have, since we have a major school for the deaf here, but still an odd combination).

Of course, there’s always Amazon, but ESL publishers seem to be a bit slow on sending material to Amazon for “Look Inside This Book” and other features. (The responsibility for that kind of thing is the publishers’, not Amazon’s.) This makes Amazon less useful for me, since I really need to be able to take a good look at a book in order to tell if it’s what I need. Sometimes I can go to the publisher’s site and find a sample chapter, but that’s not always sufficient. And, of course, Amazon’s discounts are hit and miss.

Yesterday I visited downtown Mountain View and spotted a secondhand bookstore called Book Buyers. That was a real find! Their ESL section isn’t huge, but it’s the biggest I’ve seen in a used book store. I picked up the current edition teacher’s guide for the intermediate Azar book at $8.95, which was a terrific bargain. I also got a book on Japanese linguistics (they have good sections for foreign language learning and for books written in other languages). They had a fair number of ESL and EFL textbooks, many with teachers’ guides and workbooks. They had a few TESOL books, too, though most weren’t recent. If you visit, you can sign up for the mailing list and write down ESL and TESOL as two areas in which you want to buy books! I highly recommend stopping by Book Buyers if you’re in the South Bay sometime soon.

Where do you buy your textbooks and TESOL books? Here’s a poll, but feel free to leave a comment, too.

If you teach in an English-dominant area, such as Canada, where do you buy your TESOL-related books? (Choose as many as you like.)

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If you teach in an EFL-type situation, where do you buy your TESOL-related books? (Choose all that apply.)

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EDIT: By the way, Alta has since closed to the public, making life a lot harder.