TESOL Connections

Quick Tip: Guiding Student Writing Through "Extended Definition"

by Teresa Dalle and Emily Thrush
Teaching English language learners how to write "extended definitions" helps focus and develop student writing, because they are learning to explain, describe, and compare. This type of activity is especially helpful in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classes.   

Audience: ESL and mainstream teachers

Borrowing from technical writing, teachers can use “extended definition” to encourage and guide student writing. Particularly helpful in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classes, the extended definition focuses student writing in ways that help students explain, describe, and compare. The extended definition can be used for any term or object under study. The student concentrates on responding to the definition using the questions to guide the development of the paragraph.

By writing extended definitions, students are able to accomplish several goals:

  1. They become acquainted with terms in their content areas.
  2. They practice the type of writing they may be asked to do in constructed response type questions.
  3. They develop writing skills in classes outside of language arts.
  4. They construct their own informational texts.

What Is Extended Definition?

As content-area teachers prepare students for Common Core writing standards, they seek pedagogical techniques that support their own subject areas with appropriate writing activities. One such technique is the use of extended definition, which moves beyond a simple definition of a term to include concepts related to it.

The extended definition is used in technical writing as a way of helping a reader better understand the specific item or concept under discussion. For students in STEM classes, the extended definition is a means of showing their understanding of a concept while at the same time helping them develop analytical and writing skills. The guided nature of the questions to which the writer must respond is particularly helpful for ELLs.

What Does Extended Definition Look Like?

The extended definition requires students to define or describe something by beginning with the simple sentence:

“A ___________ is a(n) ____________.”

Example: A butterfly is an insect.

First, students fill in the term (generally provided by the teacher) in the initial blank and then complete the second blank with an appropriate category. Students may work in pairs or individually on the same term, or each may each take a different term to expand.

From there, students provide specific information about the item by responding to as many of the following questions as they can.

  • How does it work? (operation)
  • What are its parts? (description)
    The life cycle has four parts: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult.
  • What does it look like? (description)
    It has two colorful wings, a thorax, and six legs, and an antenna.
  • What does it do? (process)
    It flutters from flower to flower during the day to eat nectar.
  • Can it be compared to anything familiar? (comparison)
    It is similar to a moth.
  • How is it used? (purpose)
  • What is its origin and background? (history)
  • What is it not like? (comparison)

Sample student written response:

A butterfly is an insect. It has four parts to its life cycle: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The larva stage is the caterpillar stage. The insect then forms a chrysalis in its pupa stage. It changes to a butterfly with colorful wings, antenna, a thorax, and six legs. The butterfly flutters from flower to flower during the day to eat nectar. It is similar to a moth.

In order to respond to the questions, the students must familiarize themselves with the item or term, discuss it, and do some research. Once they are comfortable with their knowledge, they write out the definition following the guiding questions.

Extended definitions are an excellent way for students to review content-area information by pulling the key facts from a text. The extended definition reinforces the use of academic vocabulary and can also be an effective way to give students a chance to write on topics of interest to them.


McMurry, D. (n.d.). Extended definition: How can you define it? Prismnet.com.
Retrieved from https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/def.html.


Dr. Teresa Dalle focuses on TESL and applied linguistics at the University of Memphis. She works closely with local school systems to support mainstream teachers in adapting teaching approaches to accommodate ELLs.

Dr. Emily Thrush specializes in both technical/professional writing and TESL at the University of Memphis. She is a coauthor of Interaction Access: Speaking and Listening, published by McGraw-Hill.


2014 TESOL Advocacy & Policy Summit Participation Increases

The 2014 TESOL Advocacy & Policy Summit had the highest rate of attendance yet as more than 60 TESOL members, affiliate members, and other TESOL professionals gathered in Washington, DC, for 2 days of education, discussion, and advocacy.   

In June, TESOL hosted its ninth annual 2014 TESOL Advocacy & Policy Summit in Washington, DC. The event was sponsored, in part, by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. Attendance at this year’s summit was the highest to date. More than 60 association members, affiliate members, and other TESOL professionals joined the 2-day event. Participants came from across the United States, and a few came from other countries.

The first day featured full a day of issue briefings and activities around education legislation and advocacy, and on the second day, the newly trained advocates visited congressional offices on Capitol Hill. By the end of the event, TESOL members had visited the offices of more than 100 senators and representatives.

The goal of the summit, however, was not only to lobby members of Congress on issues relevant to English language teachers and their students. “The Advocacy and Policy Summit is at its core an educational opportunity. Participants come to Washington, DC, and learn how to effectively advocate for English learners,” noted TESOL Associate Executive Director John Segota. “The goal of the program is not only to educate attendees on key policies but also to empower them to take action in their local school districts and workplaces.”

The issue briefings kicked off on Monday morning with speakers Carlos Martinez and Emily Davis from the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). Martinez provided a general overview and update from the Office of English Language Acquisition, and Davis, an ESL teacher and a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, discussed teacher preparation and USDE’s teacher quality initiatives.

Other presentations included a discussion from the U.S. Department of Justice on the civil rights of English learners, a Student & Exchange Visitor Program update from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, an overview of Common Core State Standards and ELLs, and an update on programs for adult English language learners from the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education.

After the briefings, the summit focused on advocacy. Participants engaged in a series of activities to help them learn more about advocacy and prepare them to meet with their members of Congress. To maximize the impact of the summit, participants were also encouraged to meet with key members of Congress serving on the education and appropriations committees, and participants from the same state were encouraged to meet with legislators in small groups.

On Tuesday, the advocates went to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and their staffers. After their meetings, the advocates shared their experiences.


“Coming in to the summit, I was hesitant about my potential efficacy because of my lack of experience in advocacy,” noted Yurimi Grigsby, a first-year advocate from Illinois TESOL. “I found that my actual professional and life experience were enough for what I needed…to share the stories of the English learners I work with every day. Feeling connected to a wider community fighting for the same better world was exhilarating, especially coupled with the excitement and electricity on Capitol Hill.”

Beverly Good, a returning advocate from Ohio TESOL, said that that she left the 2013 program feeling energized. When she returned to Ohio last year, she initiated advocacy-oriented conversations within Ohio TESOL and visited Ohio state elected officials, most notably the Ohio Latino Commission. “Ohio TESOL has done more for advocacy in the last year than any time since I've been involved with the Board,” Good wrote. “Everything that we have done is a direct result of attending the 2013 and 2014 Advocacy and Policy Summits. You showed us how to get started and stay with the program. Keep up the great work.”

Read TESOL President Yilin Sun’s blog for her account of the event. For information on the 2015 TESOL Advocacy & Policy Summit, please visit the event page on the TESOL website.

See more event photos
on TESOL's Facebook page

Practitioner Research in TESOL: 7 Ways to Get Started

by Sue Garton
Always been interested in research, but not sure how to move from classroom teacher to researcher? Find out how here, with seven easy ways to get started. 

Recently, I’ve found that TESOL members are increasingly feeling the need to become more involved in research. In some cases, that may simply mean having the tools to critically read and evaluate the numerous research articles that are published in our field, but more and more practitioners feel the need to carry out research themselves and for a number of very good reasons.

Research in TESOL*

I firmly believe that all practice should be based on sound underlying principles, and these principles are not necessarily established only by academics working with large research grants. Practitioner research, or classroom-based research, is fundamental in establishing a knowledge base for TESOL, and teachers are the ones who can really make a difference.

Research in a field as diverse and multifaceted as TESOL can be approached in a variety of ways: cognitive theories are well-established but social and critical perspectives have become much more prominent, while a relatively narrow view of second language acquisition is being replaced by more consideration of multilingualism. Theoretical diversity is reflected in the many valid approaches to research in TESOL:

  • quantitative, qualitative, and mixed method
  • descriptive and critical
  • large scale and small scale
  • cross sectional and longitudinal
  • observational and experimental
  • research conducted by university researchers and by teachers in their own classrooms

Therefore, research within TESOL can move from both theory to practice and from practice to theory as knowledge is constructed through means that have more recently become known as practitioner research or classroom-based enquiry.

One of the criticisms of practitioner research is that it lacks rigor. But does that have to be the case? I would argue most certainly not. The TESOL Research Task Force, which recently drew up the research agenda for the field for the next few years, took a broad view of research and defined it as systematic investigation that contributes to the knowledge base that provides a principled basis for making decisions about policies, plans, and actions. Practitioner research can most certainly do that.

All research that has “systematic investigation” at its heart has the potential to help members of the profession improve the conditions, processes, and outcomes of language teaching, learning, and assessment. It also can help the profession address urgent social and political needs around the world, improve the materials used in language teaching, as well as clarify debates and debunk myths regarding L2 issues.

Getting Involved in Research

So how can you get involved in research? Firstly, by reading research carried out by others with a critical mindset, and asking what relevance it has to you and your learners and what you can take from it, if anything. Secondly, by carrying out research yourself, in your own classroom. The most daunting aspect of this can be knowing where to start. The TESOL Research Agenda has lots of suggestions for possible areas in the field where research is needed.

The TESOL Standing Committee for Research (SCR) was recently asked what advice it would give to a practitioner who wanted to start researching. Here are some practical suggestions:

1. Learn How to Research
Get guidance on how to carry out research from good “how to” books and articles on practitioner research such as Doing Action Research in English Language Teaching: A Guide for Practitioners by Burns (Routledge, 2010). This is a very practical and accessible step-by-step guide to doing action research. Dick Allwright’s work on exploratory practice is also useful.

2. Read About How Others Researched
Read relevant publications such as TESOL Journal, ELT Journal or TESOL’s Language Teacher Research series to see how other people (teachers) did their research; you can learn a lot from how others have carried out their projects. Moreover, don’t be afraid to contact authors to ask for more information: Most authors are only too happy to share their experiences.

3. Get Research Insight at the TESOL Convention
Attend the TESOL annual convention. In addition to the research-related academic sessions, there is the SCR preconvention event, which has a practical focus on doing research for both novice researchers and those with more experience. This event looks at how to get started in research as well as collecting and analyzing data. Guest researchers who have shared their experiences in recent years include Suresh Canagarajah, Michael Legutke, and Anne Burns.

4. Keep a Journal
Start keeping a journal to record significant moments every week or month to reflect on them—such reflections can make a good starting point for identifying a topic but can also constitute data in their own right. A very good book that has suggestions on how to start reflecting on your own practice, conduct research, and develop professionally is Pursuing Professional Development: The Self as a Source, by Bailey, Curtis, and Nunan (Heinle, 2001). 

5. Collaborate
If you can, get a group together to work on joint projects, rather than do it alone. Apart from being able to pool ideas and share the load, you can motivate each other and keep each other going. Try to set up group of colleagues in your own institution, or join your local language teachers’ association. You can find more ideas about collaborative action research in Collaborative Action Research by Anne Burns, which is now available online.

6. Participate in Research-Focused Professional Development
Participate in a course or program (online or face-to-face) that recognizes the importance of research as part of professional development. Many distance learning TESOL master’s programs in my U.K. context, for example, are based on course participants carrying out their own small-scale research projects. Well-known courses are those offered by the universities of Aston, Birmingham, Exeter, and Manchester. These universities will also offer certificates and diplomas if you don’t feel ready to launch straight into a master’s degree.

7. Join a Professional Community
Join professional communities (online or face-to-face) that value research as a crucial impetus and means for professional growth, and stay connected with like-minded professionals for mutual assistance in research. One example is the newly established TESOL Research Community Group; the group plans to allow members to:

  • find links to useful resources for getting started with or developing your research skills
  • connect with like-minded TESOL members who are interested in the same areas of research
  • share information about opportunities for research
  • discuss research concerns and issue.

To join, simply visit the group and click on "Join Now" in the upper right part of the screen.

Sharing Outcomes

Finally, once you’ve done your research, find ways of sharing what you’ve done with fellow professionals. Generalization is not the goal of this type of research, but don’t underestimate the power of practitioner research to resonate with fellow professionals—that is where its wider value lies. Sharing within your own institution is one way. Presenting at an event or conference is another. But why not publish your work in one of the many journals that value practitioner research? TESOL Journal, English Teaching Professional, and ELT Journal are just some journals that welcome accounts of practitioner research.

And if you get your work published, consider applying for TESOL’s Award for Distinguished Research, which aims to recognize excellence in any area of research on language teaching and learning.

I hope that has whetted your appetite for research and given you some ideas on how to get started.

*Most of this section is based on the TESOL Research Agenda

Download this article (PDF) 



Sue Garton is director of postgraduate programs in English at Aston University, UK, where she also tutors in undergraduate and graduate TESOL programs. Her research interests are in the areas of classroom interaction, language teacher education, and language-in-education policy and practice. Her most recent publication is International Perspectives on Materials in ELT, with Kathleen Graves and published by Palgrave. She is currently chair of the TESOL Research Committee.

Tongue Twisters in Thailand: An ESL Adventure

by Tim Torkildson
Tongue twisters are a great way to warm up a cold ESL class: They are fun and interactive, and they're also a great motivational tool.

One steamy tropical afternoon, as my classroom full of 12-year-old Thai public school students struggled to both stay awake and stay interested in our English conversation module, I had a break-out moment. Tired of drilling them on Mr. Brown’s interest in knowing what time it was and where students lived, I suddenly turned to the nearest pair of students to ask: “Do you know Sally?”

There was a stir of interest in the classroom; the teacher was departing from the textbook! This didn’t happen very often in Mathayom (Grades 7–12). I repeated my query, and the nearest pair of students, who had been reciting textbook English conversation to each other in a bored monotone, made bold enough to say in unison, “No, we do not know Sally!”

Now the fat was in the fire. I had abandoned the standard text to ask about some mysterious Sally, so now what would I do? I took the plunge, with the old American tongue twister.

“She sells sea shells by the sea shore!”

My students were transfixed by my unprecedented struggle to spit out that ancient tongue twister. In Thai culture, the teacher cannot make a mistake or show imperfection, or, rather, cannot admit to making a mistake or being imperfect— but here I was tripping all over my own tongue, in my own language! A few of the boys in class gave a clandestine giggle, and I decided to press forward into unknown (for me) territory.

I wrote on the board, “Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers” and let the students absorb the words for a few seconds before repeating the phrase slowly and carefully. Then I asked them to repeat the phrase, which they did with perfect ease; Thais have no problems with voiced bilabial stops. When I tried saying it at a faster cadence, I completely blew it, and my students, who a moment before were wilting with disinterest in the English language, were now politely demanding what was the meaning of “Buggy” and “Bumpers,” as well as pleading with me to teach them some more. This class was a 45-minute block, and we had but a scant 10 minutes left, so I abandoned my lesson plan to revel in my own childhood games of alliteration and shibboleths. First we did:

“How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”

Then we moved on to:

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

The bell rang, and my students gathered up their papers and textbooks, happily telling each other about Peter Piper’s pickled peppers as they exited.

Tongue Twisters for Motivation

For the rest of the school year, I had a great motivational tool at my disposal. I promised my ESL students that if we finished our regular lesson early, we could spend the extra time learning new tongue twisters. I rarely had to nag the children to do their set lessons after that. They were anxious to try their young tongues on “Roberta ran rings around the Roman ruins” or “There was a minimum of cinnamon in the aluminum pan.” It was always stimulating to see who would stumble first, one of my students…or me! Tongue twisters not only helped their enunciation but really expanded their vocabulary.

Following is a list of tongue twisters, in order of their difficulty, for you to try out on your class of ESL learners:

  • Lovely lemon liniment.
  • I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.
  • Six slippery snails slipped slowly seaward.
  • An ape hates grape cakes.
  • If a black bug bleeds black blood, what color blood does a blue bug bleed?
  • Lesser leather never weathered wetter weather better.
  • A skunk sat on a stump and thunk the stump stunk, but the stump thunk the skunk stunk.

Enunciation Difficulties

Of course, each native language has its own unique sounds and enunciation standards. This can make for some difficulties when using tongue twisters, if you are not careful to examine them prior to classroom use for difficulties. For instance, the Thai language includes the consonant “ng,” which non-Thais find very hard to use initially. And the Thais, in turn, find it all but impossible to pronounce the letter “z.”

One way to overcome this difficulty when teaching ESL students is to have several inexpensive hand mirrors available in the classroom, so the students may watch themselves forming the letters and words in English. I have also found it useful to assign certain individual words to students to take home with them and repeat to themselves 10 times in a row every day for a week. This has helped my Thai students with enunciating words like “zoo,” “buzz,” and “bazooka,” Bazooka, for the Thais, is a tongue twister all by itself!

Tongue Twister Activities

Drum Beats
Designate one student as the drummer. He or she sits at the front of the class with a stick and hollow container that can act as a drum. The drummer sets the cadence for the class (and the teacher) to declaim the designated tongue twister— starting slow and gradually beating a faster tattoo. You can divide the class into boys versus girls, or tall versus short, or in any other way that you want to create competitive teams. When one team can’t keep up with the beat, it is the other team’s turn to see if they can repeat the tongue twister even faster.

Tongue Twister Round Robin
Prepare a stack of cards with tongue twisters on them of varying complexity. Form the students into two circles, either sitting or standing, and give one card to a single student in each circle to start; when the student has said the tongue twister, he or she gets to point out the next student in the circle to receive the next tongue twister. That student, in turn, when he or she has successfully said the next tongue twister, points out the next reader in the circles. The object, outside of repeating the tongue twister, is to see how fast the students can make the cards go around the circle; the circle that has everyone repeat the tongue twister first wins.

Tongue Twister Songs
Help students find native tunes to sing the tongue twisters to. This shouldn’t be too hard if you already have an open rapport with your pupils. In Thailand, we put “how much wood could a woodchuck chuck” to the tune of a popular Thai folk song about elephants. To get them used to this activity, you can start with an old American vaudeville routine, singing the words “George Washington Bridge” to the tune “Over the Waves.” This will introduce your students to what it is you want them to do with tongue twisters.

Tongue Twister Composition
Have students write their own tongue twisters. Results can be hilarious, as well as educational. One of my classes in Bangkok came up with “Twist your tongue so teacher talks too!”

I have found that tongue twisters are a great way to warm up a cold ESL class, and, once the students have bought into the game, it’s a great, and greatly relevant, motivational gambit to help students of all ages get through their assigned lessons.
You can bet your “toy boat” on it!



Tim Torkildson received his TESOL certification in Thailand, where he taught ESL for 5 years. He currently works at Nomen Global Language Center, in Provo, Utah, teaching ESL and handling social media.

Using Metaphor to Teach Second Language Writing

by Ha Hoang
Learn three ways to implement insights from metaphor research in the L2 writing classroom, and help learners with idea development and word choice.

In the middle of the 20th century, metaphor started to be connected to human cognition. In 1980, Lakoff and Johnson published Metaphors We Live By, a seminal work which used evidence of daily speech to point out that metaphor is pervasive in everyday language and, more important, that metaphor can structure thinking. According to Lakoff and Johnson, “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (p. 5). This definition stipulates that metaphor is conceptual, that is, it has to do with the mind, not just with language. Our basic daily life experiences with our body, senses, food, and so on shape the way we perceive the world, and give rise to conceptual metaphors, which are re-represented in different modes, one of which is language. For example, we say

It is difficult to digest all this information at the same time.
His points are hard to swallow.
He devoured the book.

because ideas are conceptualized as food. So here we have a conceptual metaphor—IDEAS ARE FOOD (conceptual metaphors are capitalized according to cognitive linguistics convention)—and a number of expressions that we use to manifest this conceptual metaphor.

The application of metaphor to language teaching is situated in the cognitive linguistics paradigm. The elicitation of conceptual metaphor has been employed as a powerful tool to study teacher and learner beliefs. Raising learners’ awareness of metaphor has been found to aid comprehension and retention of unfamiliar figurative language. In addition, researchers study the patterns and dynamics of the linguistic metaphors in texts to investigate ways to help learners master the process of making meaning via metaphor.

Along the same lines, I will discuss how metaphor can help with a second language (L2) writing class, focusing on how it can aid the L2 learners in writing conceptualization, idea development, and word choice.

Writing Conceptualization

Using metaphor to help learners conceptualize their own writing fits well into the process approach to writing. Teachers can invite learners to reflect on what they think of writing with a simple worksheet that elicits metaphors by asking learners to complete the following sentence:

I think that writing/a writing course is (like) . . . because . . .
After important milestones in the course, teachers can change the worksheet:

After . . . , I now think that writing/a writing course is (like) . . . because . . .
I have (not) changed my mind because . . .

Teachers can also help learners elaborate on their metaphors of writing by extending their metaphors (i.e., using metaphorical entailments, to use the cognitive linguistics term). For example, if a learner sees her writing course as a trip, ask her,

Where are you heading?
How do you picture your destination?
What luggage have you got?
What challenges do you expect to experience along the way?

This elaboration can be part of a peer response session or a group feedback conference. Because metaphor has the power to activate the “known” to prepare for the “unknown,” it can bridge gaps in knowledge and learning, giving both learners and teachers the metacognitive tool to explore the learner writing world. The activity can be incorporated into the learner’s portfolio of the course to track the changes as she develops as a writer over time. As metaphor is usually strongly imageable, to make it more appealing for the portfolio, teachers can have learners sketch their metaphors into artworks. This can work very well for young learners, whose world is often richly visual.

Developing Ideas

As a writing teacher, this has happened to me many times: A learner complains that she does not have ideas or she cannot express her ideas. Metaphor can offer two solutions here for learners to generate ideas and clarify their points. They can use metaphor signaling devices such as A is like . . . , A is B, which/who . . . , A is B because . . . , If . . . to call for the supporting details of the idea in point. Analogical thoughts that come after these expressions are metaphorical in nature. For example, in order to support her point that Literature plays an important role in life, a learner writes, If a person knows everything in the world except for literature, he is building a tower without foundation.While sentences such as this do not exert additional while-writing cognitive load in terms of language structures, their explanatory power is beyond doubt. The metaphorical example clarifies what the writer wants to say, giving weight to her argument.

Another way is to encourage learners to use free writing, especially in the first drafts. A lot of writers’ interesting ideas are lost in their mind as passing thoughts in the writing process while they should be included in the writing product itself. In a study that logs computer keystrokes to track the process of metaphorical word making among second language learners (Hoang, 2013a), I have found that in the quest for words, learners call on different metaphor-related mechanisms such as creative metaphors, mental images, and analogical associations. However, these interesting ideas do not make their way into the writing, leaving the readers with abrupt pieces of thoughts. For the choice of see the world [in books], a student explained,

A literature work opens in front of us just like life. In literature there is sadness and happiness, so we can use those things to perceive and see the world around us.

Another thought that

in modern life, there is a lot of competition and pressure. But if the humanitarian values we read in books remain with us, when we step out into life, we can find good values in life.

But she simply wrote,

They [books] help us understand about life.

The writer-learners thus need to be aware of their own processual reasoning and learn to put down all their free thoughts in the first drafts. When they are better at shaping these free thoughts into supporting details, they can ask self-reflective questions such as Why do I use this word? Do I need to clarify it? and discard unrelated ideas.

Choosing Words

It is relevant to repeat here that metaphor is no longer a mere literary device to add flowery language to texts. Metaphors are indispensable to communication; “there is no division between metaphor and discourse, given that metaphors are both products of discourse and creators of discourse” (Gibbs & Lonergan, 2009, p. 251). On average, in English written discourse, one in every seven and a half words is metaphor related (Steen et al., 2010). The immediate implication for the second language writing classroom, and language teaching in general, is the need to give metaphorical language the attention it should receive. Knowledge of metaphorical word senses is one important aspect of vocabulary learning, reflected in the metaphorical potential of familiar words, the extended metaphorical meanings, metaphorical collocations, and semantic prosody of a word (semantic prosody refers to the attitudinal and functional interpretation of a lexical item in relation to its contextual surroundings). It allows the learners to achieve precision and encourages creativity and flexibility in word choice. Current literature seems to be occupied with vocabulary size, probably because vocabulary depth is more elusive by nature. However, whether a learner can use words correctly and appropriately is as important as the number of words that she knows.

It is found that language learners tend to misuse words due to a confusion of different senses of a lexical item or different lexical items that have synonymous senses but different usages, which results in an awkwardness in their writing (Hoang, 2013b). If we take verbal collocation as an example, persistently across four different undergraduate year levels, in a corpus of 396 second language essays, 27.76% of the metaphorical verbal phrases are miscollocated, such as in the following examples:

Reading can bring up your soul.
We should remain reading habit in young people.
Reading widens my mind.

How is this related to metaphor? Metaphor, generally speaking, is realized when there is a conceptual transfer from a concrete domain to an abstract one. When a word is used in a sense other than its primary concrete sense, this conceptual transfer occurs, and a metaphor emerges. For example, in build a relationship, build is not used in its primary sense of “to build something physical”; it is used metaphorically. One way to help learners make meaning via metaphor (i.e., attain depth of vocabulary systematically) is to draw their attention to the motivated nature of language, specifically to the concrete sense of words. The concrete sense refers to an entity which is physically and psychologically real, which makes it easier to understand and remember. When learners can establish the link (or motivation, to use the cognitive linguistics term) between the concrete sense and the extended sense, the target item is easier to remember because the learning process is deep and grounded as compared to mere acceptance of arbitrariness. Boers and Lindstromberg’s (2009) book is an excellent guide for teachers who would like to incorporate this insight into their classroom.

Another way is to use corpus-based activities. Corpora provide a lexical playground where learners can freely explore how a word performs, behaves, and plays in its real contextual environment, especially how it collocates and colligates with other words. Concordance patterns also show affective values and discourse functions of words. For example, when dogs and other animals are used as nouns, they are used nonmetaphorically; when used in the verb forms (to dog, to squirrel, to horse, to weasel), they are metaphors and carry evaluative values (Deignan, 2005). Depending on the learners and objectives of the lesson, teachers can have them work on one or more patterns of a particular word, of words of the same family or same grammatical properties. Such activities can raise learners’ awareness of the extended metaphorical senses of words and their usage patterns. This awareness will help them learn to use words in context and become more efficient writers.

Concluding Remarks

In this article, I have outlined that metaphor can help conceptualize writing, provide materials for the arguments and improve the lexis profile of a piece of writing. It is hoped that writing teachers recognize that metaphor is not the icing on the cake. Metaphor is not a matter of decorating a piece of writing. It is a basic ingredient of effective writing; the writing process starts with metaphorical thoughts and grows with the metaphorical language that writers use.


Boers, F., & Lindstromberg, S. (2009). Optimizing a lexical approach to instructed second language acquisition. Houndmills, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Deignan, A. (2005). Metaphor and corpus linguistics. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Gibbs, R. W., & Lonergan, J. E. (2009). Studying metaphor in discourse: Some lessons, challenges, and new data. In A. Musolff & J. Zinken (Eds.), Metaphor and discourse (pp. 251–261). Houndmills, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hoang, H. (2013a). An investigation into EFL learners’ metaphorical thoughts. Paper presented at the Psycholinguistics Interest Group Workshop, Wellington, New Zealand.

Hoang, H. (2013b). Is it vague and awkward? A text analysis of second language learners’ use of metaphorical word senses in writing. Presented at the 12th Symposium on Second Language Writing, Jinan, China.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Steen, G., Dorst, A., Herrmann, B., Kaal, A., Krennmayr, T., & Pasma, T. (2010). A method for linguistic metaphor identification: From MIP to MIPVU. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.


Ha Hoang is currently a PhD candidate in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. She has taught for several years at the tertiary level in Vietnam. Her research interests are second language writing, discourse analysis, cognitive linguistics, and metaphor.

NOTE: A version of this article first appeared in SLW News (March 2014). Used with permission.