Helping you find new ways to improve your English

Archive for February, 2012

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

Listen while you read:

How do you find out the meaning of words which you have never seen before? Do you translate them? While this is quick and easy, it is probably not the best way to improve your English. Instead, you can use a monolingual English-English dictionary. This will take you longer, but it will improve your English more in the long run.

My favourite monolingual learner’s dictionary is from Oxford, so that is what this post is about. There are also dictionaries available online from Macmillan, Cambridge (Essential/Intermediate/Business) and Longman. Each of the dictionaries is also available in paper form, often with a CD-ROM. Many of them are also available as apps. Try a few out and see what works best for you. The advice below should apply to all of them.

Why you should use a monolingual dictionary

By looking up words in an English-only dictionary you:

  • practise your reading skills;
  • practise your writing skills (when you copy the definition/write an example);
  • can check the pronunciation of the word;
  • see the word in context;
  • find common collocations;
  • find out how important the word is;
  • learn about common problems for English learners and how to avoid them;
  • spend time with words, instead of rushing, so that your brain has more time to take them in;
  • expand your vocabulary by learning synonyms, opposites, and words you don’t understand in the definitions.

I have studied many languages, and I always arrived at a point where my teachers told me to stop translating everything into English. Each time, it was very difficult at first, and when I was feeling lazy I always went back to my English-Spanish/German/French dictionary, but in the end I got used to it, and all of my language skills improved as a result.

Find the definition of a new word

Go to the homepage of the dictionary and type the word into the ‘search’ box.

Dictionary search

If you are not sure about the spelling, guess and the dictionary will help you. You can then click on the correct spelling. For example:

Spelling help

Understanding the dictionary entries

Here is the definition for different. In the picture, I have explained the information you can find in the dictionary entry. Click on the image if you want to make it bigger.

Anatomy of a definition

Anatomy of a definition 2

If you are using a computer (not a mobile device), you can double-click on any word in the dictionary and it will take you to the entry for that word. This is very useful if you don’t understand the definition completely. All of the definitions are given using the Oxford 3000, the 3000 most common words in English, all of which are marked with the red key symbol.

Some advice

  • Make sure you know which form of the word you are looking for. There are different entries in the dictionary for the noun, verb etc form of each word. You can find a box like the one below underneath the ‘search’ box in the top-left corner of the page.
    Search results
  • Try to learn words from a context, not from a list. This will help you to remember them, but more importantly, it will help you to decide which definition is the one that you need. For example, there are thirteen definitions including the phrasal verb ‘put up’, and without a context it would be impossible to know which one to choose.
  • When you take notes about new vocabulary, use the dictionary to help you write a definition in English, as well as an example sentence. This is a much more useful way of recording vocabulary than just translating it, and because it takes you longer, you are more likely to remember the word/phrase.

Do you have any other advice? Do you know about any other online dictionaries for English learners? Feel free to share in the comments.

Postcrossing

You can listen to this post while you read:

What is postcrossing?

Through the Postcrossing website you can send postcards to people all over the world, and get them in return. Here are some of the postcards I have received through the website:

Examples of postcrossing cards

They come from several countries, including the USA, Russia, Australia, Germany, Finland and China.

It’s a great way to practise reading and writing in English with real people from around the world.

Joining postcrossing

To send and receive postcards, first you need to join the website, like this:

  1. Click ‘Sign up’Postcrossing sign up
  2. Complete the information, including your full address. If you don’t normally use the Roman alphabet (like the English alphabet), you need to use it here so that everyone can write to you, not just people with the same alphabet as you. Don’t forget to include your name and your country! When you have finished, click ‘sign me up’.
    Postcrossing sign up form
  3. Next, you can edit your profile to say something about you. Don’t forget to include ‘English’ in the list of languages which you speak! You shouldn’t include your address on this page. For example, here is my profile:
    My postcrossing profileThe mailbox map is automatic, but only shows the town you are from. Only people who will send you postcards will be able to see your address.

Sending a postcard

Once you have joined, login and click ‘send a postcard’

Send a postcard

Read the information, then tick the box at the bottom and click ‘request address’.

Tick box

Postcrossing will give you an address for you to write to. When you first join the site, you can only send 5 postcards at one time, but as you send more your limit will increase. This is what you will see:

Postcrossing recipient information

At the bottom of the page you will also find information from the other person’s profile, normally telling you what kind of postcards they like. This can help you to choose something to send them.

The most important things are the address and the postcard ID. Don’t forget to write this unique number on the card you send!

Then, sit back and wait for your postcards to arrive. When the person you send a postcard to registers it, another postcrosser will receive your address and send you one.

Receiving a postcard

When you get a postcard, go to postcrossing.com and click ‘Register a postcard’

Register a postcard

Write the postcard ID and a short thank you message to the person who sent it to you, then click ‘Register postcard’

Registering a postcard

That’s it! Happy postcrossing 🙂

My students replying to postcrossing cards

My teenage students replying to postcrossing cards

Podcasts

(You can listen to this blog post while you are reading. Just click below.)

Part 1:

Part 2:

podcast (noun)

a recording of a radio broadcast or a video that can be taken from the Internet

  • To listen to the podcast, click on the link below.
  • I download podcasts of radio shows and listen to them in the car.

[Definition from the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary]

Although the word podcast was originally taken from ‘iPod’ and ‘broadcast’, you don’t need an iPod to listen to one. In fact, you don’t even need an mp3 player; a computer with internet access is enough. They are freely available from a wide variety of sources, some designed for native speakers and others for language learners.

mp3 player and headphones

Image by @carlaarena from http://flickr.com/eltpics

Why should I use podcasts?

As you listen to more and more English, you will understand more. Podcasts give you the chance to listen to English from around the world, including both native and non-native speakers. Even if you are not concentrating 100% on what is being said, your brain is becoming familiar with the rhythms of English and you are learning without noticing. You will improve your language ‘instinct’ and get a better feeling about what sounds right.

How can I use podcasts?

You can download podcasts from some of the places listed below and listen to them as you are doing other things. For example, I listen to podcasts on my way to and from work or when I am cooking. It doesn’t matter if you are not listening attentively and you don’t need to understand everything. You will find that you understand more as you get used to the speakers in podcasts you listen to regularly.

Here are some activities you can do using podcasts if you want to use them for studying:

  • Choose a podcast on a subject you are interested in. Before you listen, read the summary telling you what is in the programme. Predict 10 words which you think will be used/3 ideas which you think will be mentioned. Then listen to find out if you were right.
  • Listen to a podcast. Choose one topic covered to find out more about on the internet.
  • Choose a podcast on a subject you would not normally listen to. Listen and write down vocabulary/ideas that could help you understand more about the topic.
  • Find a short ‘article’ in a podcast (about one minute long) and use it as a dictation exercise. Listen and write what you hear as accurately as you can. You can play it again as many times as you like.
  • Find a ‘study buddy’ and both listen to the same podcast. Afterwards, meet and see how much you can remember about what was discussed.

If you have any other ideas, please share them in the comments.

How do I choose a podcast to listen to?

Look at the list below to help you find podcasts. Try one episode of a podcast, and if you like it, listen again. If you don’t, there are plenty of other podcasts which you can listen to!

You could also ask your friends or your teacher (if you have classes); maybe they have some favourite podcasts which they can recommend to you.

Where can I find podcasts?

Almost all of these podcasts are free to download. You can go to the website, right-click on the ‘download’ link and click ‘Save as…’, then upload it to your mp3 player if you have one. If not, you can listen to the file on your computer too.

For English learners

The BBC Learning English page has a range of podcasts designed for English learners of all levels. Each podcast can be downloaded and also has a tapescript so you can read while you listen.

  • The English we speak is a series of very short 2-3 minute episodes, each looking at one phrase in English.
  • Words in the news introduces vocabulary based on up-to-date news stories. News English Extra looks at the use of words and phrases which often appear in the news.
  • Ask about English podcasts answer questions from learners about confusing parts of English. Grammar Challenge helps you with difficult areas of English grammar.
  • How to… gives you instructions on how to do lots of different things in English, like congratulate people or complain about something.
  • Keep your English up-to-date helps you to understand words which have recently entered the English language.
  • Express English asks short questions to Londoners. You can hear their answers, then add your own.
  • 6 minute English is like a podcast magazine. Each week, the presenters talk about one topic and teach you vocabulary to help you discuss it too.

The British Council also have various podcasts designed for English learners.

  • Elementary Podcasts is designed for elementary learners. It also has activites to help you practise the vocabulary.
  • Big City Small World is a story about a group of young people living in London.
  • Word on the Street looks at the lives of young British people.
  • The Professionals podcasts are designed to help you improve your English for your career and at work.

Other podcasts for English learners include:

  • Listen to English has new podcasts every week, each with a transcript and some linked activities. You can listen by clicking the arrow > at the top of the blogpost, or go to the bottom of the post and click ‘Download’.
  • Podcasts in English and ESLpod: you can listen to the podcasts for free, but you need to pay if you want to read the transcripts or get activities to do with the podcasts.
  • St. George International podcasts: conversations between real English speakers about lots of different aspects of life in the UK.

‘Real’ English

The BBC has a huge library of podcasts taken from their radio broadcasts in the UK and abroad. Some podcasts may only be available in the UK, but most are available around the world. Some of my favourites are:

At the moment, there are 329 pages of podcasts on the BBC, so if you don’t like these programmes, I’m sure you can find something you do!

Some of my other favourite podcasts include:

If you have iTunes you can search for podcasts in their library using the ‘podcasts’ tab in the iTunes store.

iTunes store podcasts

Other podcast ‘directories’ (lists of podcasts) include podbean and podomatic.

Most of the podcasts on this list are things which I listen to, so of course they reflect my interests. If you find other podcasts you like, why not recommend them in the comments?

And don’t forget, if you’re feeling very adventurous, you can even record your own podcasts!

Happy listening!

P.S. Here’s another post I wrote for the British Council called Using podcasts to develop listening skills. It has ideas for teachers and students.