Language-focused teacher development | Belta webinar summary

February’s Belta webinar was facilitated by Andrew Walkley who spoke about language-focused teacheAndrew Walkley Beltar development. Andrew runs an organization called the Lexical Lab that trains teachers to use the lexical approach. He spent the first two-thirds of the webinar building a case for why we need to prepare teachers for dealing with lexis and wrapped up by talking about vocabulary exercises for exploiting language more effectively.


In language-rich responsive approaches such as task-based learning and dogme, the T is expected to recognize, produce and help Ss notice language based on what she observes and hears. The T needs to be skilled in offering Ss examples of the target language or word or lexical structure that’s being discussed. Andrew questioned Ts’ ability to do this on the spur in an instructionally sound way. He refered to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow where the author discusses two types of thinking, one of which is a fast, in the moment, spontaneous sort of thinking. This is in fact a normal cognitive process but instead of thinking clearly, we often replace logical thoughts with heuristics – biases – generalized ideas about something.  Andrew connected this with language teaching through an exercise where he asked us to reorder the following words by frequency from most frequent to least:

ambitious / fun / serious / hard-working

arise / supermarket / store / blonde

banana / controversy / Christian / criticism

paramedic / contend / headline / whereby

after he / in terms of / singer / by the time

He then asked us to write an example (a sentence) for the following words and structures:

ambitious / beard / Christian / past continuous / whereby / arise / criticism / in terms of

Interestingly, beard, blonde and arise occur at a similar frequency in the British National Corpus (BNC) in the spoken component and in the the corpus as a whole – arise comes out on top.

after the (219) serious (122) in terms of (99) arise (96) store (93) Christian (68) fun (52) criticism (47) by the time (37) controversy (21) whereby (20) after he (19) singer (18) supermarket (17) ambitious (16) headline (16) contend (9) beard (9) banana (6) hard-working (2) paramedic (1)

Thinking Fast and SlowSo, we tend to misjudge frequency and according to Andrew we also place these words in examples that don’t reflect real use of language such as “He has a beard” and “She is a Christian”. The latter apparently only occurs once in the entire BNC. Linking back to Kahneman’s ideas, it’s difficult to think of truly meaningful examples on the spur. We place words like beard, blonde and supermarket higher up because we can think of examples more readily than arise. Andrew suggested that if we think of contexts where arise appears such as academic texts and business discussions – there are several more possible contexts than banana or beard. Authentic use of criticism might involve an example such as “The government has faced a lot of criticism concerning its education policy”. Therefore, actual use of these words involve sentences that are far more complex than the ones that readily come to us.

Andrew stated that there are three reasons underpinning this.

  • Availability bias: when we think of a doctor, we imagine a man in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck. The examples that we provide to Ss are of a certain nature because they come quicker to mind. When we define words, we put them into the frames of ‘x is y’ or ‘x does y’ which may not reflect the real nature of the word.
  • Representational bias: we tend to exemplify words using the most basic representative structures such as “she’s blonde”.
  • Priming: When we think of the past continuous, we think of examples such as “I was having a bath when the phone rang (was doing, this happened)” because of what we’ve learnt before and what we’ve seen in course books in typical contexts – we fail to use the wider context that could be used.

Andrew pointed out that sometimes, when we are trying to hear what Ss say in order to correct them, we are primed to hear basic and typical grammar that we’ve taught before. This is problematic in terms of responsive methodologies and can pose an enormous cognitive load for any teacher who is trying to follow TBL or Dogme (and perhaps one of the reasons Ts are apprehensive about these approaches). Language focus in teacher-training courses such as the Celta is on word phrases and tenses, not on lexis, and certainty not on how lexis and grammar work together. We have word forms and we slot stuff in, which again does not reflect real language use. Andrew also added that course book writers have themselves been similarly primed.


Andrew recommended adding these elements to teacher training and development to address this challenge:

Reflect lexical nature of language

Planning focus on lexis

Observation focusing on responsiveness and new language – not necessarily aims

T development on noticing and exploiting language

in vocab/grammar exercises

in reading/texts

in what Ss say

Andrew didn’t spend too much time on frequency training but he suggested some resources:

For exploiting vocabulary exercises, he suggested the following:

Single word exercises

Think of collocations to give/elicit

Questions to ask vocab

Collocation exercises

Collocates of the collocations

Examples sentences/dialogues

Stories based on one or more collocation

Whole sentence exercises

Think of before/after sentences (when? why? who to?)

Notice grammar or re-usable chunks

Notice other useful vocab

So, an example of a single word exercise from a course book might look like:

rebuild / reconstruct / remake / re-erect

reconsider/ recontemplate/ rethink/ re-examine

recopy / redraft / reword /rewrite

Where Ss are asked to cross out the re word that doesn’t exist in each set and then find more re words. Andrew talked about exploiting this exercise from a lexical perspective by getting Ss to think about what collocations they could create out of these words. Is reconsider the same as rethink or re-examine? Can we use these words in the same types of collocations etc.?  Andrew ran out of time but guidance on exploiting exercises is available on his site.

This was an interesting webinar that created a strong case for including a lexical focus on teacher-training. I do wish, however, that there had been more discussion around how to raise awareness of frequency. While there are tools available for frequency training, getting Ts to become habituated to using them is a persistent challenge.

Finally, here’s an insightful article by Andrew on the Belta site titled Lexical sets/Topic vocabulary.



6 thoughts on “Language-focused teacher development | Belta webinar summary

  1. Thanks for the reflections on the webinar. I’m glad you enjoyed it. On your question about frequency, probably the most common way I’ve trained myself is to simply start by seeing it as important and use a dictionary such as Macmillan a lot, along with my ongoing competition with Hugh, where we often use google. In terms of getting other teachers interested, I guess it’s having these kinds of very short exchanges / competitions as a staffroom conversation as much as talking about students / moaning about the photocopier (important though those conversations are too!). I guess, making it at least a point of discussion post-observation; maybe by doing some group material writing (perhaps on a topic that interests students, but isn’t covered in a book). The last thing I’d say is maybe a bit contradictory, but if teachers are giving fuller examples of words (see the paramedic example above), then a lot of frequent language becomes available or is recycled, making low frequency of one word less of an issue.


  2. Pingback: Challenging students to think critically | Webinar summary | Immersivities

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