Tools for analysing vocabulary within texts

Various online tools can tell you a thing or two about the vocabulary used in a particular text.  To provide a concrete example of how these work, I’m using a piece from the Economist on the legacy of the Bretton Woods Agreements.

Wordle clouds seem to be everywhere these days, and perhaps it’s not surprising when you consider how neat yet simple a tool Wordle is.  Copy and paste text and Wordle processes it, removing common function words, and counting the frequency of lexical items.  It then produces a visual “cloud” of words, each sized according to their frequency within the text.  Designs can be randomised or tweaked until they meet the user’s approval, after which they can be printed to PDF, saved and linked to, or embedded in a website, like this:

Wordle: bretton woods

As well as being very pretty, Wordle clouds have a nice application in class: students can be shown a cloud in order to predict content before reading, and if any prominent words are completely unknown, they can be checked and discussed prior to any sight of the original text. Continue reading “Tools for analysing vocabulary within texts”

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What’s in the news? An example EAP sequence

Colleagues in departments tell me that they want international students to be able to participate, think critically analytically, and to be in touch with what’s going on in the real world.  This last issue seems – to me at least – to be underrepresented in the wider world of EAP teaching, but it’s a potentially rich seam of potential for the teacher and learner alike.  Students who can apply theory to practice are valued by their departments, and if doing so involves applying the academic to the real world then perhaps EAP courses should be paying more attention to what’s going on outside of the classroom.

In the early stages of EAP courses, I like to get students involved in a reading-to-write project using whatever is in the news and of interest to them.  The students pick a news item (from a “simpler” source like the BBC News if proficiency levels are low), read a text that reports it, and then attempt to write a very brief summary (50-100 words, depending on the students) to explain to me what it’s about.  I’ll typically given them question prompts as guidance (see below).

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Thoughts on writing tutor notes

Nigel Slater changed my life.  Or rather, his recipe for chicken wings with lemon and cracked black pepper did.  I was once a shamefully unashamed fussy eater, who barely cooked or thought with any imagination about food, and I rarely even glanced at Slater’s cookery column in the Observer Magazine.  But something about those glossy, sticky wings caught my eye – and my appetite – back in 2003.  I followed the recipe myself and miraculously pulled out an identikit glossy sticky feast from the oven, the warmth and aroma showing me that extra magic that no Sunday supplement ever could.  And I was converted: to cooking, to eating, and notably to Nigel.  I followed his column avidly.  I bought Real Fast Food and started to build a repertoire: penne with walnuts and gorgonzola, chicken breast with pesto and mozzarella, scallops with lime and coriander.  Every recipe delivered what it promised and what I craved.  It was easy; it was fun; it was delicious.  And Nigel’s words guided me generously throughout.  Despite my complete lack of expertise, he never talked down to me.  He taught me to notice the changing sights and smells in my pan, and helped me to understand the consequences of however I was choosing to slice and chop ingredients. He coaxed me into making my own choices with his subtle suggestions: substitute the walnuts with pine nuts; try rosemary instead of thyme; if you’re daring, melt the cheese in the pan rather than under the grill. Never any pressure, just encouragement to follow my own senses.

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Academic writing is…

I recently blogged whimsically about metaphors, the post kickstarted by some thoughts on an EAP sequence on the subject. Here I am simply to summarise some metaphors for academic writing (or writing from sources to be more exact) that I have encountered in my work:

AN ESSAY IS A CONTAINER : The essay contains ideas.  If it only contains opinions without support, it’s empty.  It’s also important not to over-fill it.  (more here – but personally I find this metaphor links the sense of direction and purpose essential to effective academic writing)

AN ESSAY IS A JOURNEY : The writer needs to guide their reader to a destination worth visiting.  If the writer begins by establishing what the destination is, why it is worth visiting, and what route will be taken, the reader is genuinely guided and will persist with the journey. Without this guidance, the reader may become lost and unmotivated.

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Who’s in the room? Metaphors I teach by

My daughter opened her bedroom door this morning, and with it a world of opportunities. She’d snatched at the handle before but never quite managed to turn it. Happy and fearful in equal measure at her achievement, she turned to me and reached for my hand before taking a step out into the dark hallway, like the world’s cutest bunny about to set foot on the first sheet of white snow of the winter.

So, a doorway into a world of opportunities. “A metaphor. Things are looking up” to borrow words (and another metaphor) from Spooner in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. I read No Man’s Land at secondary school (and loved it, not least for the brilliant swearing) but didn’t begin to understand it until much more recently. I also learned about metaphors at secondary school, and have also only recently begun to give them more thought.

At school I learned the difference between a metaphor and a simile. A metaphor is when you say that X is Y; a simile is when you say that X is like Y. My daughter opening up a world of opportunities is a metaphor, but when I compare her to a cautious yet excited rabbit, I’m using simile. This distinction is useful if we want to point out the shortcomings of others, since nothing could make us feel more intelligent than smugly telling a friend or colleague “that’s not a metaphor — it’s a simile”. If we want to try to be even smarter, though, linguistic analysis provides a further distinction between a metaphor and a metonym. A common example of a metonym would be when Wall Street is used to refer to US financial markets (a place representing what goes on within it) or when we are told potentially bizarre pieces of information like “I’m parked in the multi-storey”. Rather than respond with “No, you’re not, you’re sitting here in Café Rouge with me” we understand that the speaker is using the controller of an object (“I”) as a representative of the object itself (“my car”). Here we are in the realm of metonymy, because in context, there is a salient link between the driver and the car. Suggesting that the traffic outside Café Rouge is crawling past would also be metonymic (since movement is a property of traffic and crawling is a slow form of movement), but to suggest that our lunch hour was crawling by with all my tedious talk of semantics would be a fully-fledged metaphor, since physical movement is not a property of time. Now, if like me you’re ever-so-slightly confused about the difference between metaphor and metonym, you can perhaps stop acting like a smartarse because you know that neither of them is a simile.

Continue reading “Who’s in the room? Metaphors I teach by”