How dare you tergiversate! | The problem with power words


Many of the professionals I teach have a perception that their American colleagues and clients have access to vocabulary that is more ‘powerful’ than theirs. One of them recently showed me this book – Power Verbs for Managers and Executives which includes eccentric entries such as tergiversate, the goose hangs high (how is that a verb), and topline (as a verb, really?). All this, mind you, from just one page.

There’s a whole genre of self-help books, usually from the US, ostensibly written to enhance an individual’s ‘lexical prowess’. Power words, however, seem to be a thing. I just googled the term and it seems to be commonly used across sales, marketing, and even blogging. There are glossaries of decontextualised power words prescribed for all sorts of situations.

These books and word lists are designed for proficient users of English and I suspect they’re not of much use to them either. In the hands of a less proficient speaker or writer, a power word has the potential to do some serious damage in a business context because the user is probably not familiar with its register, appropriacy and less critically the collocations it appears in.

Does pragmatics have an explanation for why perceptions of words differ in how they are received by readers and listeners? Do power words have any basis in research? I’m simultaneously irritated and intrigued by the whole idea and it’s something I’m going to be exploring.

Three vocabulary games | A guest post

Clarissa Macdonald.jpg

This is a guest post from my friend Clarissa MacDonald who has used these three games with her learners and found that they are engaging and offer lots of practice.

Game 1: Word volleyball


  • Any level


  • A ball


  • Divide Ss into two teams.
  • Each team needs to pass the ball three times within their own team and then the ball is thrown to the next team. The second team passes the ball three times within their team and then throws the ball back to the other team
  • While passing the ball each player needs to say a word that starts with the letter that was the final letter of the previous word.
  • You can start the game by letting the Ss use any word and then increase the difficulty by limiting the words to specific lexical groups.
  • For example, Team 1 > Player 1: team > Player 2: Meat > Player 3: tax.The ball needs to be thrown to the next team now. Team 2 > Player 1: Xylophone > Player 2: Emerge > Player 3: Egg. The ball needs to be thrown to the next team.Teams lose a point if they:
    • throw the ball too quickly to the next team i.e., they haven’t passed it three times within their own team
    • drop the ball
    • use the wrong word
    • throw the ball too low or too fast.

NB: Ensure the Ss say the words out loud.

Game 2: Taboo 


  • Intermediate & above


  • Download two apps from Play Store: Taboo (which is easier) and Party Game Taboo (which is easier)


  • Divide the Ss into teams with at least two Ss in each team.
  • The participants are not allowed to use actions or use any word they see on the card in the app. They can use other words to get their teams to guess the main word. They can use stories, paint a picture (with words) or fill in the blanks to get their teams to guess the word.
  • Their team needs to guess as many words as possible in 60 seconds.
  • Each team gets 60 seconds to play their turn.
  • They aren’t allowed to use opposites or part of any on the words mentioned on the card. The student can’t use any of the words below the main word even if his team has used it. NO ACTIONS or pointing out.
  • For example, in the following image the student has to get their team to guess the word “Crack”. The student cannot use the five words mentioned under “Crack”. The student can say – If a ceramic plate falls on the ground, a crooked line is formed on the plate. What is that line called? Or If the ceramic plate falls, what will happen? His team may say break but the student cannot use the word break even if his team uses the word. So the student should say no not that something else happens?


The app keeps score, however the trainer must ensure the student clicks on the right option.

  • Taboo – Yeah: if guessed correctly (add one point)
  • Taboo: if the student used a word mentioned in the card (minus one point)
  • Pass: The students get only three passes in case the word is difficult
  • Party Game Taboo – Correct: if guessed correctly (add one point)
  • False: if the student used a word mentioned in the card (minus one point)
  • Pass: The students get only three passes in case the word is difficult

Game 3: Password 

Adapted from the Jimmy Fallon show. 


  • Upper Intermediate & above



  • Divide the Ss into two teams.
  • The participants aren’t allowed to use actions or point.
  • Each team sends a member to the front of the class.
  • T gives those Ss the same word.
  • They have to get their team guess that word by using only one word.
  • They can make a sound but no actions.
  • Their team needs to discuss and then give the trainer one word they think relates to the word given by their team member. The first word that’s given to the trainer is considered. They can only say one word so their team needs to discuss first.
  • In case the first team doesn’t guess the word the next student from team 2 can say “Add” or “Subtract” and then give their word. Now the second team has two words to guess the word.
    • Add: if they would like their team to include the previous student’s word
    • Subtract: if they don’t want their team to include that word
  • There are four passes till the word is guessed correctly.
  • For example, if the T gives both the student the same word – “Secret”. Team 1 player says “Diary”. Team 1 discusses and says “School”. Over to Team 2. Team 2 player says “add write”. Team 2 discusses and says “story”. Back to Team 1. Team 1 player says “add shhhhh”. Team 1 discusses and says “Secret”.  If team 1 didn’t guess the word, the last try would have gone to team 2. Team 2 could have also said “Subtract Victoria’s”. Team 2 discusses and says “Secret”.
  • If team 1 starts and gets the word right, then team 1 gets 10 points. If it passes to team 2, then they get 8 points. If it goes back to team 1, then team 1 gets 6 pointsThe last pass to team 2 and if they get it right, they will get 4 points. In the next round, team 2 starts the game. Team 2 then gets a chance to score 10 points.

Leo Selivan’s webinar on Quizlet | A quick summary

Leo Selivan

Leo Selivan is famous among ELT PLNs for advocating the lexical approach through his insightful and aptly named blog – Leoxicon. His webinar from IATEFL last night was on using Quizlet, an online study tool that uses flashcards and associated activities to review content. I have used Quizlet before to study for the Delta Module 1 exam and the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, a Chinese proficiency exam, but I’ve never used it for my learners.

quizlet 1Leo’s talk was essentially on using Quizlet to generate lexical practice exercises like this on words that collocate with ‘look’.  He suggested that lexical notebooks and flashcards which we encourage learners to maintain have many disadvantages including a lack of organization, teacher and student notes not being in sync, and not providing active recall and practice. Leo goes on to quote some research as the rationale for using Quizlet.

Incidental learning is not sufficient. Both contextualized and contextualized practice are needed. Treating vocabulary as an object of study rather than tools for communication is effective as a teaching method.

Laufer, B. (2005). Focus on form in second language learning. EUROSLA Yearbook, 5, 223-250

He goes on to cite that teachers/learners need

frequent encounters with new items.

breadth of vocabulary as well as depth of vocabulary

focus on the word form (e.g., adopt – adapt)

exploit L1 when advantageous

engagement with new items (attention, manipulation, time spent, being tested)

Schmitt, N. (2008). Instructed second language vocabulary learning. Language Teaching Research, 12(3), 329-363

Quizlet offers the following types of activities which go from receptive to somewhat productive, and easy to challenging.

  • Scatter – matching
  • Speller – type in words as they are spoken
  • Learn – type in words
  • Space race – type in words as definitions fly across the screen
  • Test – generates a graded quiz (open-ended, MCQ, T/F)

The workhorse of the Quizlet system is the flashcard. Interestingly, Leo avoids providing definitions on the flashcards, instead providing co-text.

Side 1: The video for Gangnam style went v_______l.

Side 2: Viral


Side 1: Why did you buy so many?  – They were _____ special offer.

Side 2: On

He explains the reason for this using conventional approaches to familiarizing Ss with a word. For example, which of the following definitions is better?

a willingness to accept an obligation and be accountable or an action or a situation.

blame for something that has happened

if you say that something that’s happened is your mistake, you take ________ for it.

Leo discourages using which he says is inappropriate for learners, instead recommending Macmillan and Cambridge Dictionaries Online. The first of these definitions is in fact from and would really not make much sense to learners. The other way we define words for learners is through synonyms. This too could be fallacy because for instance happen and occur are synonyms and yet cannot be interchangeably used in many situations. Similarly, vast’s synonyms, enormous and immense, may also end up being unfamiliar to learners.

There are nine different aspects of knowing a word:

Form: spoken, written, word parts

Meaning: form-concept, concept & referents, associations

Use: collocations, grammatical pattern, constraints on use

Nation, P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. CUP.

Course books tend to focus on the form-meaning link and teachers tend to focus mostly on meaning (70% of classroom vocab teaching segments).

much of what has passed for vocabulary teaching […] addresses only the tip of the lexical iceberg

David Singleton in Exploring the second language mental lexicon. CUP. 1999. p.227

I think I have gone a bit overboard with this summary 🙂 but hopefully you get Leo’s point about why teaching vocabulary as we normally do could be problematic. So, how does Quizlet fit into all of this? Leo suggests some tweaks to definition-based exercises which emphasize co-text (not context!), which is essential for successful vocabulary learning.

Here are his suggested alternatives. In some cases, it wasn’t clear which Quizlet feature he used to create the exercise. With some of them, it might be a good idea to explore his sets to see how he has created these exercises.

1. Example sentence + (definition)


It’s a bit out of town but it’s a popular ______ for wedding receptions.

(the place where an event is held)

2. Collocations (+ definition) 

_________ with a doctor

make an __________ with

I had to cancel my ___________

(formal meeting)

3. Collocations flashcards 

right/wrong… / find an … to his question / give an …

4. Collocation chains (I think this one’s done with scatter)

dish                                   traditional… /vegetarian … /side … /my favourite

5. Collocations scatter 

quizlet 2

6. Collocations – learn mode 

quizlet 3


7. Prepositions – scatter 

I’ve got a really bad cough. I’ve had it _______ days.                                                for

8. Phrase + translation 

all over the world                                                                              partout dans le monde

9. Phrase in a conversation

“———————–?” “Fine, thanks.”                                         How’s it going

(How are you? How are things?)

10 First letter clue 

They conducted a t__________ i__________ but they couldn’t find the cause of the fire.

11. First letter, last letter 

Armstrong was b_______d from cycling for life.

12. Enhanced input

I’ve ______ for a job.                                                                        applied

I ________ to three universities and was accepted by two.

Useful links:

Image attribution: Flickr | TTed SIG PCE Leo Selivan … by Mike H | CC by NC 2.0)

CuePrompter: activities across skills

During the ISTEK ELT conference last weekend, a delegate tweeted about a session that had activities with CuePrompter. Apparently, the activity involved a read & do version of Simon says.

From ISTEK ELT 2013

From ISTEK ELT 2013

It’s an interesting tool that allows you to paste any text you’d like(it doesn’t seem to do so well with non-Latin scripts, I tried with Chinese) and select speed, font size, and colour (white on black, black on white). While the prompter is running, you can pause, reverse, fast-forward as well as increase and decrease speed. Many thanks to Okan Önalan for tweeting about the site.


CuePrompter seems too versatile a tool to be limited to just a variation of Simon says. I brainstormed some other applications for it which would extend its use across other skills.


  • Ask Ss skim a text to answer a linear sequence of questions. Since the text disappears after a couple of seconds, Ss will be compelled (hopefully) to skim. This could also be a good exercise to help Ss get over regression – where Ss repeatedly read the same sentences or paragraph when it’s not required. 
  • Give Ss a set of statements and ask them to skim the text displayed by CuePrompter to decide whether they are true or false. Alternatively (this could be useful for EAP & ESP contexts), decide whether the information is available or referred to in the text.


  • Create a text that has synonyms of the target vocabulary. Give Ss a table or a bingo chart with the target vocabulary. Let the prompter roll and ask them to read quickly and write down synonyms from the text next to the words they have in their worksheet. Repeat until they get most of the words. 


  • Distribute a list of words to Ss and ask them to look up how they’re pronounced after class. To make it more interesting, you could run it as a jigsaw task and give out several lists. In the next session, ask students to teach each other words that might have appeared in their lists but not in those of others. Then, set the stage for a breaking news broadcast activity.  Pick up recent news items from the net and plant words from the lists you have distributed. Divide Ss into groups and name them after rival news channels.  Tell them they are competing for viewer ratings which they can secure by pronouncing all the words correctly.  Paste the text into CuePrompter and have a student from the first group read out the text as if it were a live news broadcast. Explain to the Ss that news broadcasters don’t get any prep time when it comes to breaking news – they have to read from the prompter without making any mistakes because there’s no second take. 


  • Most creative writing activities allow Ss a lot of time to think and write. But, what if you wanted to encourage the capture of spontaneous thoughts?  Create a series of prompts in a narrative (You enter a large room, what do you see? Suddenly, you hear a loud noise, describe it.)  Paste the prompts into CuePrompter and puts lots of ******** between each prompt. Ss read the cue quickly and start writing using the first thought that pops into their heads.  They have to write really fast because the next cue will come up soon.  When the prompter runs out of text, get Ss to proof-read what they’ve written and then teach them some discourse markers to connect their sentences and transition smoothly between events and actions. Let Ss rewrite their stories as a cohesive narrative before sharing it with the rest of the class.


  • A replica of the writing activity except Ss are in small groups and each time CuePrompter displays a prompt, Ss discuss it and collaboratively construct a story.  

I’d love to hear your feedback on these ideas especially if you get the opportunity to try them out with your learners.