Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

A Liar of Teachers: Unlocking Low-Frequency Vocabulary

We welcome back Fitch O'Connell, a longtime teacher of English as a foreign language, working for the British Council in Portugual and other European countries. Fitch considers how a fun exercise in concocting collective nouns could be used as a tool for vocabulary expansion.

It was a Friday evening and some of my younger teenage students were talking about their classes at school that week. They were quite angry about a lot of things, including what they saw as "bad attitude" amongst many of their teachers, and in their fairly emotional state they were finding it quite hard to keep speaking in English but, bless 'em, they really tried. Eventually one of them broke and he thumped his fist on the table top and cried "they are a liar, all of them... a liar of teachers."  I was thrilled and immediately wrote this on the board, using the challenge to collect some more collective nouns about people infamous in the eyes of my students. I was confident that even though I might be included in a group, the very nature of the activity meant that I wouldn't be singled out for humiliation.

This turned out to be a very enjoyable activity, and at the insistence of the students — notably the girls — we moved away from negative types of groups (apart from school, they didn't have many, to be honest) to positive ones. We moved from "a liar of teachers" and "a cheat of politicians" (those 13-year-olds knew a thing or two) to "a heaven of lovers" and even "a butterfly of songs." In twenty minutes we filled the board with ideas. As a vocabulary-generating activity it was very worthwhile, as it gave everyone a chance to contribute something. Even those who were normally too shy to venture complete sentences in front of their peers could manage a word or three, and the sharing process became entirely student generated, and everyone in the room learned something new.

Of course, these students were simply doing what many native speakers occasionally do for some amusement, but it left me with a small problem. Was I going to share with them some of the official collective nouns?  If I was going to do that, then I might be opening up a can of worms and launching into a whole area of vocabulary that was, in general, of low-frequency usage, and what had started off as an enjoyable and highly productive activity could end up as something of a drudge.

I waited until the next lesson so as not to break the spell that this activity had caused, and we then had a look at some of the more common, relatively high-frequency collective nouns occurring in the standard corpus. I had considered deliberately excluding nouns that they had themselves worked on to avoid confusion but, in the end, none of the words they had chosen to work on were on my list so the problem didn't arise. They found some of the official collective nouns almost as amusing as their own, and started little word plays when they found out, for example, that you could have a pack of dogs and a pack of cards (the latter being the more common version in British English).

The whole activity was closely related to a series of situations I sometimes found I was facing as a language teacher. I like words, and I love strange or cunning collocations. I can play around with alliteration, like "sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea" from "Under Milk Wood" by Dylan Thomas. And then there are oxymorons (student teacher, loyal opposition) and reduplicated compounds (higgledy-piggledy, helter-skelter). I hadn't been able to persuade myself that such distractions were worthy of much time spent in the classroom. Their low frequency of use put them beyond the pale.

On the other hand, by not giving students a taste, at least, of these curiosities, was I not depriving them of a glimpse into the richness of the language?  The trick, I found, was to use the constructs not to teach a seemingly endless (and pointless) list of vocabulary, but to use them as vehicles for building confidence in speaking and manipulating language in a shared and communicative way. The activity with the collective nouns showed me the way. It drew on vocabulary already accumulated by the (collective) class but used in new ways that, because they were inventive and weren't subject to the usual rules and straitjackets of linguistic (grammar-based) learning.

A similar activity can be devised with oxymorons, which are useful with higher level groups. Creating one's own oxymorons from an individual list of apparent gaps in vocabulary creates a useful dynamic — for example, which oxymoron would you devise to describe those moments of hesitation in a shop when you repeatedly take an item off the shelf and then put it back, undecided? (Come on, we've all done it!). This dynamic can then be used to explore other aspects of language and is done as an oral activity, frequently working with small groups who then interact with the large, class-sized group. Again, comparison with some of the standard oxymorons that students might come across can act as a useful end activity and, once again, my message to my students is always to learn the ones that appeal to them, and move on from those that don't.

Occasionally a student will ask, "Is this going to be part of the test?" Those wretched tests again; they really do spoil good education. There is always the threat that the student will shy away from the activity if they think it won't be tested and is therefore a useless activity in their eyes (and in the eyes of some of their parents who were paying for all this). My answer has been that they will be tested in their general knowledge and use of the language, and the more confident they feel — and the more adept they are at manipulating the language — the better their chances will be. It seems to keep them quiet, or, I suspect, gives them the reason they were actually looking for to carry on enjoying what they were doing in the first place. And do some fundamental learning in the process.


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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 15th 2011, 11:28 AM
Comment by: Oz (Bloomington, IN)
The most charming name for those collective nouns is "terms of venery," which, originally at least, applied specifically to collections of different species of animals. A book entitled "An Exaltation of Larks" collected many of these and illustrated them with old engravings.
Tuesday February 15th 2011, 11:38 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Oz: The collective nouns in An Exaltation of Larks are entertaining, but for the most part they've never actually been used for non-poetic purposes. As Michael Quinion explains here, they're fanciful coinages dating back to The Book of St. Albans (1486).
Tuesday February 15th 2011, 7:58 PM
Comment by: j3n (Western, MA)
Very enjoyable, thanks.

"The trick, I found, was to use the constructs... as vehicles for building confidence in speaking and manipulating language in a shared and communicative way."

I stink at oxymorons.
Wednesday February 16th 2011, 7:26 AM
Comment by: Chocoholic (New Delhi India)
One question- Is "Happily Married" an oxymoron as well?
Thursday February 24th 2011, 5:02 AM
Comment by: Robert W.
Does anyone know a self-consistent oxymoron?

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Fitch looks at a stumbling block in the English-language classroom: the phrasal verb.
Fitch explores words that appear to share a common meaning across languages.
Collecting Collective Nouns
The website All Sorts brings together creative collective nouns.