Monday, 31 October 2011

Book Review: 'Oxford Learner's Thesaurus' - Editor: Diana Lea

Oxford Learner's Thesaurus
a dictionary of synonyms
Chief Editor: Diana Lea
Oxford University Press 2008
ISBN 9780194752008

Publisher's Website
From the blurb: "No two words are exactly the same. This is the learner's thesaurus that explains the difference."

My mind was so strongly drawn to the phrase 'a dictionary of symptoms' from a frequently referred to  childhood volume as I read the title of this book that I had to do a double take. Such is the power of collocation and association. This book deals with synonyms, however, and does so very competently.

It's probably the first of its kind I've had the chance to look at in detail, and like its Advanced Learner's Dictionary big brothers, it puts the language student right at the centre of the user experience. Everything is designed to allow learners get to the heart of the difference between any two given words of scarily similar meaning. Let me take you through more of the back cover blurb before I go any further.
"Essential or indispensable? See which words are used most frequently and choose the most appropriate."
Each head word is followed by a list of similar words in order of frequency across a ranges of contexts.
"Choice or selection? Take your pick! Choose the words that are right for the context: formal/informal, written/spoken, approving/disapproving."
The descriptions include plenty of useful hints to help learners get just the right word, and there are two or three real English examples to illustrate their unique features.
"Reap the benefits - Understand which words go together and use them correctly."
There's a very useful list after each group of near synonyms showing what can collocate with what, a notorious problem for learners.
"Important or significant? Use the 4,000 notes to identify the exact difference between pairs of synonyms."
Lots of little blue boxes describe in clear prose the subtle differences between particularly tricky groupings (try studious, learned and scholarly, for example).
"Is there a better word than 'nice'? Find the words to express exactly what you mean - and make your writing worth reading."
The danger for word-lovers like myself with a book like the Oxford Learner's Thesaurus is that you'll never get anything written, as you go of on wonderful tangents of tangents, making lots of lovely serendipitous discoveries that have nothing to do with what you're actually supposed to be getting on with!

Marvellous. Just as it should be, but let me finish with a few comments on what I particularly like about this book.

First of all, it's clearly aimed at scholars, or let's say seriously studious types who have the time, and more importantly the inclination and level to search through the vast web of interconnections to try to move their English up to the next level, and quite an exalted level it could be too, if they manage to uncover the precise meaning they're looking for.

The little blue box notes already mentioned are very helpful, and you experience that strange feeling when learning about the underbelly of the language you actually know perfectly well how to speak and yet can help  being interested in the explanation anyway.
 NOTE  GREET OR WELCOME? You greet someone when you say hello to them, usually, but not always, in a friendly way. You might greet sb in the street or when they come to visit you. You welcome sb when they come to visit you or when they return home after being away for a long time. You make a special effort to show them that you are happy that they are with you, and to make them feel happy to be with you, or to be home.
The Thesaurus Trainer is a really good feature to get you in the mood for using the book by not only explaining how it works but giving teaching you through actual exercises which are interesting in themselves for any logophile. It's nine solid pages long, introducing you to all the main concepts covered in the dictionary, including frequent words, phrasal verbs and idioms, synonym scales, patterns and collocations, meaning, grammar, register, use, opposites, derivatives and so on.

It suddenly occurred to me that only one word in each synonym group actually had a headword entry. What happens is that you look up your main word in the back and get directed to the appropriate synonym group in the main body of the book. Easy.

Tucked away at the back are a series of 'study pages' based on themes like green issues, work and jobs and travel and tourism, with lots of exercises to beaver away at. Do people ever actually do these things (is a question I always ask myself) I wonder, but they're there if you want them.

Then comes a series of 'topic maps' showing how words on various topics like sport and leisure, the media and fact and opinion fit together, along with a page of exercises for each one. I've always felt that these supplementary sections which crept into traditional dictionaries a few years ago are always a bit arbitrary, despite certain dictionary publishers trying to convince me otherwise. Be that as it may, it's nice to have a bit of light relief, with a few pictures and boxes and stuff.

You get the answers to the exercises, logically, and a topic index for the headwords tie up the print part of the package.

Because guess what, internet friends..? There's a CD-ROM with the whole dictionary on it, and in case you haven't had enough of them already... another 250 exercises to get your mouses into.

If I had more minutes I'd amuse myself by looking up all my favourite smutty arcane words and seeing what they have to suggest, but alas time does not allow. So suffice it to say that I love this book and for those enthusiasts who need to take their English to the next level of sophistication, the Oxford Learner's Thesaurus should definitely be on the shelf just above their desk.

Probably the biggest compliment I could pay, and I also tend to say this about advanced learner's dictionaries too, is that I far prefer these books to those targeted at native speakers, for their clarity, modernity and user-friendliness.

To sum up, this book is great, cool, fantastic, fabulous, terrific, brilliant, tremendous, awesome and... wicked - take it from the OLT!

Sab Will is, or has been, a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, director of studies, ELT writer, fanatical blogger, Facebook freak and website weirdo. He is also a well-known street photographer, abstract artist, poet and Paris city chronicler. The 'well-known' bit only applies to those who know him well, however.
Hotch Potch English: 'The ELT Resources Review Blog' ~ Book Review: "Oxford Learner's Thesaurus"
© 2011 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Book Review: 'Practical Grammar Level 3' by John Hughes & Ceri Jones

Practical Grammar
Level 3
John Hughes & Ceri Jones
Heinle Cengage Learning2011
ISBN 9781424018079

Publisher's Website
From the blurb: "Practical Grammar is a three-level British English Grammar course for self study or use in the classroom. The series takes students through key aspects of English grammar from Elementary to Upper Intermediate levels."
I'm happy to see level 3 of Practical Grammar from Heinle coming out at last, but I'm not sure how to review it. Having covered levels 1 and 2 in some depth a few months ago on this very blog, it's a little tricky to find an original angle and the temptation is to just quote the back cover blurb or simply file it on the shelf and review a more original title instead.

But that would be betraying my hard won reputation for reviews which spit syllables in the face of other boring ELT web site critiques, so let me think about this for a moment...

No, on second thoughts I'll just quote the back cover blurb and file it so I can get on with reviewing a more original title instead.. ;-D

I loved the first two books in any case, and this one is equally pleasing. Apart from being a welcome alternative to the venerable Murphys, Hewings and Swan & Walters of this world, Practical Grammar is fresh-looking, well thought out, and full of funny coloured illustrations, which gives it a ton of brownie points in my book.

What often happens as grammar books mount the echelons is that they get wordy, weighty, dense and terribly dry. Whilst no doubt purists and pedants will claim that the depth and substance isn't there in PG3, I'm always sceptical as to how many people actually plough through every last example in these things anyway.

So to the blurb. There are 100 double spreads, divided into groups of five, with every fifth unit being a test of the last four. And just for that I like this book a lot.

Each set of five units covers a specific area of English grammar, such as adjectives and adverbs, if clauses, verb + something or other, modal auxiliaries, reported speech, passives or prepositions. And the fun doesn't stop there either! At the back of the book you'll find ten more progress tests covering ten units each, with is a real boon for teachers. And as Stephen Fry so rightly said in this seminal sketch, 'We're always on the lookout for enormous boons'...

Back to the blurb though, as I desperately struggle to keep this 'review' on track... the language is presented through realistic conversations, newspaper articles and the aforementioned ubiquitous cartoons. And is the language 'natural', as the back cover claims? It's not bad.

The level of this member of the Practical Grammar series is given as 'Intermediate to Upper Intermediate', B1 to B2 in the Common European Framework system, and corresponding more or less to the Cambridge FCE exam. The first two levels covered the KET and PET exams so I'm detecting a pattern here.

Apart from the usual carefully structured series of examples, explanations and exercises given in each unit, what else is there that might potentially make Practical Grammar Level 3 stand out from the crowd?

Well there are two audio CDs which are great for listening practice and pronunciation work, but probably the most interesting 'extra' is the exciting pin code which 'allows access to MyPG for extensive additional online practice for use at home or in self-access centres'.

OK then! I'm sitting at home on the sofa on a rainy Sunday evening and I'm going to see with you, as I type, if this thing actually works, here I go!

22.12: Open front cover and peel away label to reveal pin code. First attempt FAIL! I succeed in removing the first layer of the label, which is what I thought I was supposed to do, without revealing any pin code at all. Will now attempt to peel off the remaining thick and jolly well stuck part without destroying the book completely in case the secret code is lurking there.

22.16: SUCCESS! It was there right underneath the whole thing! Shall now try to find the web site address.

22.19: Have discovered that the instructions are on the inside front cover just above the label, having scoured the rest of the book for them. What a silly place to put them, I ask you...

22.21: I've made it through the first part, entering as an independent student, but am now faced with a rather scary form to fill in; good job I'm an upper-intermediate student, what? ;-)

22.26: SUCCESS. Err, kind of. I made it through the password creation and secret question and all that stuff, but a rather worrying message is now telling me that System Check has found some problems with my browser - Safari (Version 535.1). 'We're sorry. The system check of your computer has identified one or more items that need further attention before you can enjoy all of MyELT's features. Don't you just love computers. Aparently I need to update my version of Mozilla. Which is strange considering I'm currently using a product called Google Chrome. Oh well, I'll click the button marked 'Enter MyELT' anyway and hope for the best...

22.42: SUCCESS! I got in all right in the end despite the doom-laden message and had some moderate fun sampling bits of the exercises based on the first five units. And they're not bad at all. It's all fairly straight forward stuff, but that's probably exactly what learners want. And I was pleased to find both listenings and opportunities to record your voice, with a much appreciated absence of totally useless voice oscillation graphs: you just listen to an example, record your voice and then compare it to the original - much more sensible.

Oh, and you get grades and everything, and can do the exercises as often as you like. And there's lots of them.

So there you have it. My hopefully somewhat less than utterly boring review of Heinle Cengage Learning's latest grammar practice book offering. And I like it. If you're in the market for such an item I think you should seriously check it out. Now where's that funky book on teaching on-line I really wanted to get my darting digits into..?

Sab Will is, or has been, a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, director of studies, ELT writer, fanatical blogger, Facebook freak and website weirdo. He is also a well-known street photographer, abstract artist, poet and Paris city chronicler. The 'well-known' bit only applies to those who know him well, however.
Hotch Potch English: 'The ELT Resources Review Blog' ~ Book Review: 'Practical English Level 3'
© 2011 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Book Review: 'Financial English with financial glossary' - Ian MacKenzie

Financial English
with financial glossary & possibly spiders (2nd edition)
Ian MacKenzie
Heinle Cengage Learning2012
ISBN 9781111832643

Publisher's Website
From the blurb: "Financial English is a language practice book for anyone learning about or working in finance. It is designed for students preparing for careers in business and finance as well as for people already working who wish to improve their English in this specialised field. It is suitable for learners at Intermediate level and above."
Look out - if the mergers and takeovers don't get you, the leveraged buyouts surely will.

Financial English from Heinle Cengage, with or without a financial glossary, was never going to be a sexy English language book, so let's get that idea out of our heads straight away.

Unfortunately, the cobweb-shrouded world of figures and financial data doesn't lend itself to such frivolity as coloured diagrams, daisy-fresh layouts and fun role-plays on every other page.

The book is green. Well, I mean the print is, which is one positive step away from boring old black I guess. And I realise suddenly I've done Heinle a terrible disservice: they have tried to make it sexy: there are cartoons! OK, they're not side-splitting (insurance company manager to secretary: "This letter is brief, clear and concise - do it again!" :-) but the gesture is appreciated.

The guts of this book, though, is serious graft as we chug through the labyrinth of money market terminology,  via a series of pretty hefty texts followed by vocabulary analysis and straightforward comprehension exercises.

I must say, there's no actual language teaching here as such. The passages seem to assume almost complete mastery of the forms of English, concentrating exclusively on language as it relates to finance. The publishers consider this book suitable for intermediate level learners and up. Well maybe, but as often happens we come up against the classic ESP problem: are we teaching them finance or English? Should an English teacher or a market trader be giving English lessons based on this book? And if it's to be used for home study, will the students manage, and will they actually do all of the exercises?

These questions constantly bother me every time a highly specialised book like this lands on my doormat.

Actually I haven't got a doormat, I've got a strange French letterbox which sits in a hole in the fence allowing the postman to insert the object in question into a hole in one side and me to extract it from the other. Only the internal access is extremely hampered by an enormous spider-infested tree-thing which seems to have claimed said letterbox as its own. The result is that to obtain my mail I have to practically become one with the arachnabush, no doubt picking up a few thousand spider's eggs on the way which then come back to scare the living daylights out of the entire family as we sleepily perform our daily ablutions.

I'm sorry, where was I? Oh yes, Financial English (not forgetting the glossary). And it was just starting to get interesting.

Anyway, I've promised myself to write far shorter reviews in future so that I can get more of them out there, so I'll more or less wrap up here, I think you probably get the idea.

As the publishers say, it's a language practice book, not a course book, and as such it contains a large amount of relevant material for its intended audience: those preparing for careers in business and finance or those needing to brush up or Anglicise their lexical knowledge base.

The book would make a good back up for a more interactive course or for homework exercises and supplementary reading, but as the sole support it would be a little... dry. You'd need a dynamite teacher to make this stuff come alive, I'd say.

I noticed there's a unit on the sub-prime crisis, by the way, with a whole bunch of juicily gloomy expressions to gnaw on like credit crunch, housing bubble, collaterized debt obligations, mortgaged-backed securities, toxic debt, trash cash and the like. Shudder. Scarier than spiders for many.

Oh, and did I mention that there's a financial glossary? Twenty four pages of closely woven text for some seriously fun inter-crisis reading.

I'm not knocking the book, mind you. It's going straight onto my language school's shelves and will be a useful resource for my poor teachers who tear their hair out trying to find suitable material to satisfy their demanding (and serious) Parisian banking and insurance students. I'm sure it'll stimulate some discussion. Especially explaining the squashed spiders - I'd like to be fly on the wall in that lesson.


Sab Will is, or has been, a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, director of studies, ELT writer, fanatical blogger, Facebook freak and website weirdo. He is also a well-known street photographer, abstract artist, poet and Paris city chronicler. The 'well-known' bit only applies to those who know him well, however.
Hotch Potch English: 'The ELT Resources Review Blog' ~ Book Review: 'Financial English with financial glossary'
© 2011 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English
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