Reviewing an Unprecedented Year in Language
2020 was certainly a year the world will not forget in a hurry! While 2021 will present its own challenges, the year ahead still provides a chance for reflection and, as ever, this is something I like to include in my classroom teaching. So, although my classes and I would normally look at setting goals for the forthcoming ahead, or reviewing progress both in and out of the classroom, this year I decided we should start by looking back at the year in language...
In the past, I have often done a start-of-the-year lesson centred on the Word of the Year (for example, see this article I wrote a few years ago for Teaching English for details). With 2020 being the year when so many terms related to public health, environmental, political and social issues entered our daily conversations, it seems a prudent time to analyse linguistic trends and get my learners thinking about how words and phrases enter our active vocabulary.
So, the following is an outline of a 60-minute lesson I prepared for my sixth-form upper-intermediate classes. It could easily be adapted for other age groups at B1 level or above.
For this lesson, I made use of two resources about the 2020 Word of the Year:
- The Oxford Languages Word of the Year 2020 report – while the entire report would not appeal to most learners, the lexical timeline of 2020 on pages 1–2 is a fantastic visual representation.
- The BBC new report: OED Word of the Year expanded for 'unprecedented' 2020.
and extracted the timeline from the first report that I could display on the board or via my shared screen. I made enough copies of the BBC report for each learner – see stage 4 below – and then created a combined list of the words, phrases and special terms mentioned in the reports for use in the fifth stage.
1. Warmer: What words/phrases do you associate with 2020? Begin with this question on display and give the learners 2–3 minutes to list their responses before pooling everyone’s ideas as a class. This may lead to some terms being clarified or added. While the pandemic might dominate in some regions, you should expect there to be other words associated with social and environmental issues as well.
2. Predictions: At this point, introduce the concept of the Word of the Year using the description from the article that it should be a word that captures the ‘ethos, mood, or preoccupations’ of the year. Based on list produced in the first stage, then ask the group to decide on one word that best represents 2020. There will be differing opinions but that, as you will see, is to be welcomed.
3. Exploring the timeline: Next, share the timeline from the official Oxford Languages report. The learners’ task is to check which of their words appear on the list and to insert any that do not into the appropriate month or months.
4. Reading for gist: Then look at the BBC news report on the ‘unprecedented’ year for language that was 2020. The guiding question for this initial reading is Why did Oxford release a list of words and phrases for 2020 rather than highlight a single word of the year?
5. Reading for detail: The next task is to compile lists of the words, phrases and special terms for each of the topics mentioned in the BBC news report. Hand out/share copies of the report to every learner. Point out that some words and phrases are already under the topics, such as The language of Covid-19, Technology and remote working and Social movements and politics. However, The environment has only one word highlighted under it so ask your learners to expand on that topic. Also encourage the class to add in their own topics, for example Education and/or The economy. Once the learners have created their lists, give them time to compare their answers in pairs or small groups (using the breakout rooms if you’re working online) before eliciting some examples from the while class. To finish this stage, direct your learners to make note of any terms they were not familiar with before in their vocabulary records.
6. Focus on language: I chose the BBC news report because it contains a number of idiomatic or non-literal uses of language, an area my classes often struggle with but know is important to reach the top band scores in their IELTS or IB English exams. It is therefore useful for us to examine the following words and phrases – first locating them within the report, then discussing the original literal usage and idiomatic meaning present in the report.
- a slam dunk
- … left us speechless
- loitering in our culture
- a fickle friend
This is a challenging but important stage of the lesson. Quite often when reading, learners may gloss over these terms and not really focus on what they mean. By exploring the use of these words and phrases, they gain a deeper insight into how native speakers play with words to make their prose more engaging.
7. Production: As a final task, ask your learners to produce their own list of 5–6 words that represent their personal experience of 2020. They should give both a definition of the term and a description of how it featured in their own lives. Popular examples from my classes included algorithm and teacher-led assessment, in relation to not only how last year’s UK exam results were decided, but also to the more self-explanatory Covidiots.
During the year, my learners keep records of new vocabulary they encounter in their studies and daily lives, and these records feature prominently in our lessons. We regularly review the new terms they have come across and select some of them to enter into our class word bank. However, an interesting surprise after doing the lesson described above was that our list from last year’s classes turned out to be quite generic and was very light on the words highlighted in the reports and the other words that represented our year!
One of my learners made an astute observation about this. He noted that many of the ‘Words of 2020’ were either new terms, or terms being used in new ways. “We don’t know yet which ones will stay and which ones will disappear when this is over,” he said.
Beyond the aims of reviewing vocabulary and exploring idiomatic use of language, this lesson also allowed us to consider how language evolves, how certain terms enter popular use (the section of the report discussing how news media influences language made for an interesting debate in the follow-up lesson), and raised awareness about how we adapt language and repurpose words to add an element of the familiar to new experiences.
Who knows what words and language 2021 will introduce us to? Hopefully, words related to recovery and returning to normal will feature highly! We’d love to know your word predictions so please share them in the comments below.
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