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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Learn English Prepositions with Photos

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

Who is the English language student’s enemy number 1?


Acadia Center intensive English course students on top of Mt. Battie in Camden Hills State Park.

Acadia Center intensive English course students on top of Mt. Battie in Camden Hills State Park.

Prepositions are small but pugnacious, refusing to fade into the background.

Prepositions laugh at translation (that’s laugh at, not laugh with, because it’s not a friendly laugh). Depende de in Spanish. De = of or from in English. So, it depends of the context, right? Wrong. It depends on the context.

The choice of preposition can be based on the word before and the word(s) after. You work in an area of expertise, for a company, with colleagues, and on a project. You work, for example, in pyrotechnics, for Up in Smoke, with your fellow pyrotechnicians, and on the Great American Fourth of July fireworks display.

Prepositions depend on other words for meaning, and yet, in what are known as phrasal verbs, if you change the preposition, you totally change the meaning of the verb that precedes it. Sadly, when it comes to (talking about, referring to) prepositions, no one has yet come up with (invented) a magic spell to instantly know them all, or come across (find, often when not actively searching for something) a secret key to unlocking their mysteries.

Prepositions are proudly defiant of our awkward attempts to master them, like wild mustangs.

So how do we learn them?

There are only two types of prepositions that can be easily corralled by grammar: prepositions of place and time, and prepositions of transportation (stay tuned for future blog posts). The rest is vocabulary!

Acadia Center student at helm of schooner Olad in Camden, Maine.

Acadia Center student at helm of schooner Olad in Camden, Maine.

And what is the best way to learn vocabulary? Not from a list. Leafing through several pages in the dictionary trying to learn all the phrasal verbs using the word get will get you nothing but sad, mad, and bewildered. Much better to learn them in context, reading (or listening to) things of interest to you, and observing how prepositions are used in the real world.

To illustrate, let’s look at six selections from one of The Guardian’s gallery of amazing photos from around the world, and see how prepositions – free spirits that they are – roam into and around the captions.

Mumbai, India: Rose petals and coloured powder are showered on a huge idol of the elephant-headed Hindu god Lord Ganesha during the 11-day Ganesh festival.

On can have the physical meaning of on top of.
Of follows the idea of representation as in a picture of, a copy of, etc.
During with an event: during the concert, during the meeting. Use for, not during, with a time period: We stayed there during for two weeks.

Kunming, China: A butterfly perches on a boy’s face at a butterfly exhibition.

On: the physical meaning of on the surface of something.
At: during is also possible with an event, but during can emphasize something of relatively short duration (like the shower of powder in the first photo) occurring in the context of an event of much longer duration (an 11-day festival). For another example, see the use of during Catalan elections in the next caption.

Barcelona, Spain: A dog waits outside a booth at a polling station during Catalan elections. Pro-secession parties say they will push for independence within 18 months if they win a majority in the 165-seat parliament.

Outside: Opposite of inside the booth, where the dog’s owner is voting.
At: A specific geographical location.
For: The go-to preposition for purpose or objective.
Within: No longer than. To indicate the maximum time period from now into the future.
In: In a group.

Fribourg, Switzerland: Guillaume Rolland, a professional mountaineer, balances on a highline on top of the Moleson mountain at 2,000 metres above sea level.

On: Physical meaning (see above).
On top of: Physical meaning.
At: For a specific point on a scale, as in Water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius.
Above: Above and its opposite below are used for numbers on a vertical scale.

Brussels, Belgium: A statue is silhouetted against a supermoon.

Against: Indicates contrast or opposition.

Zhodino, Belarus: Up to his eyes in muddy water, a man takes part in an extreme run competition.

Up to: As high as.
In: Physically inside a substance (muddy water), or in an event with the emphasis more on participation than time.

Comic Strip English – Doonesbury

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

A great way to practice English is to read the comics – they’re short and funny, they feature everyday English vocabulary that you can really put to use, and like movies they give you plenty of visual clues to what’s going on.

A classic American comic strip is Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury. in circulation since 1970 and featuring such legendary charactes as Duke, whose exploits on the sketchiest fringes of the diplomatic world make for witty political satire; BD, the football star and army vet who never removes his helmet; and Alex, the daughter of the strip’s title character, “a true child of the media and searcher for the Killer App.”

Check it out, and if you have any questions about the vocabulary in the strip, let us know and we’ll help you out!

Want to Expand Your English Vocabulary? Read.

Friday, July 30th, 2010

The best way to learn new words in English is to read something challenging. Read articles in an online magazine like Slate, or choose a book that interests you – probably non-fiction unless your English level is very advanced.

Acadia Center English immersion course student reading Julie & Julia by Julie Powell in the Acadia Center garden on a summer afternoon.Avoid getting frustrated by the difficulty of the reading by following these steps:
1) First try to understand the general meaning of each paragraph and each sentence before trying to decipher the meanings of individual words.
2) Be selective about which words to examine more closely. Skip words that seem obscure, archaic, or unusually technical. (Of course, you have to go partly on intuition with this.)
3) Look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary. Read the definitions (usually there is more than one) and try to identify which meaning is correct in this context. Read the examples of how the word is used in a sentence. If you decide that it’s a particularly interesting or useful word (relying partly on intuition again), copy down not only the word but also the context – the phrase or the sentence that shows how the word is used with other words.
4) Don’t be surprised if it takes you half an hour to read only a few pages. That’s OK. It’s not a race. Getting more familiar with new words requires reading at a pace leisurely enough to allow for comfortable, relaxed, careful consideration of each new word and its environment.

Ivone, a current student at Acadia Center, is a talented chef, so not suprisingly she recommends Julie Powell‘s book Julie & Julia, which inspired the popular movie with Meryl Streep as the endearingly eccentric cookbook writer Julia Child.

Do you have a book in English to recommend? Tell us the title and author by leaving a comment on this post. And tell us briefly why you like the book!

Business English: How to Learn Business Vocabulary

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

To improve your business English vocabulary, read business news articles in newspapers, magazines, and online.What is the best way to improve your knowledge of business English vocabulary? Read. And I don’t mean read business English textbooks, which can be useful in a classroom setting.

Read business newspapers, magazines, and websites. Choose articles that interest you and are related to your business. If you work for a bank, read the latest news about banking. If you’re a stock broker, read about the stock market. If you work in information technology, read about the IT sector.

Maybe you are already in the habit of reading the business news in English every day. If you aren’t – and your excuse is that you’re too busy – consider this: you can make a big improvement with your English in just 10-15 minutes per day.

How do you improve your business English in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee?

If you don’t have time to leisurely unfold the Wall Street Journal while sitting at an outdoor café, go to one of these websites:

The Economist – a venerable British magazine with a very global reach. In the online version of The Economist, Try: Business this week, a weekly summary of the main business stories; People, profiles of people in the news– a great way to learn both business and everyday Acadia Center student and construction company executive studying business English vocabulary.vocabulary; and the Opinion section – whether you agree or disagree you’ll learn new words that will help you explain your position on the issue.

Slate – an exclusively online news magazine with elegantly-written and often witty articles and extensive links. Try: Today’s Business Press Slate‘s daily business news highlights; MoneyboxSlate‘s commentary on business and finance; and Slate‘s Technology column on the latest tech news.

Bloomberg – offering lots of technical information on the business and financial world, and therefore a strong infusion of useful business terms.

Or you can just go to Google News (in English!), enter the name of your country, region, or business sector, and click on one of the many business articles that pop up.

Once you have chosen an article, follow these simple steps:

1) Read through the whole article and try to get a feel for the general meaning. Read the headline (title) and photo captions but don’t give up if they are hard to understand. To save space, headlines omit prepositions, articles (the, a, an), and auxiliary verbs and often use words that are less common just because they’re shorter (eg, vow instead of promise; vie instead of compete). Also, don’t give up if the first paragraph seems very hard. In the first paragraph, the writer is usually trying to catch your attention by saying things in a colorful way or by telling a story or even a joke. Keep reading to the end of the article and chances are it will get much easier to understand.

2) With the general meaning of the article in mind, now go back to the beginning of the article and start to read it againthis time slowly. Take notice of any new words or phrases that are unfamiliar to you. Try to guess at the meaning from context – how the word or phrase is used in the sentence. Look it up in an online dictionary. Because most words have more than one meaning, look for the meaning that best matches the context.

Woman reading, painting by Edouard Manet.In 10 or 15 minutes, you may only have time to read one short article. But if you read it slowly and with care, and search for new words and phrases and look closely at how they’re used in context, in just a few weeks you’ll discover that the dictionary is becoming less and less necessary while you read. And you’ll be happy to find that it is a lot easier to participate in conversations on business topics.

If you have a business news website that you like, or a tip on learning business vocabulary in English, leave a comment here!

Film Notes: Invictus

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Invictus starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.The second in a series, this article provides a preview of a movie you might like to see along with a vocabulary lesson for intermediate to advanced English learners. The selected vocabulary words are in bold and followed by succinct definitions. Sherlock Holmes was the previous article in the series – check back soon for the next.

Clint Eastwood’s new film Invictus tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s first days as president of post-apartheid South Africa in 1994. Morgan Freeman’s moving (evoking strong feelings) portrayal of Mandela’s gentle humor, elegant, old-fashioned courtesy, and fierce intelligence makes for a fascinating (very interestingbehind-the-scenes (theater metaphor: occuring backstage or out of the view of the general public) look at the birth of a new era.

Freeman’s Mandela is continually surprising his advisors and security personnel with his indefatigability (never getting tired) – as he charges out of his house for his pre-dawn (before sunrise) constitutionals (walking for exercise) at the beginning of marathon workdays – as well as with his emphasis on reconciliation (making harmony with your opponents or enemies) rather than recrimination in dealing with white South Africans.

Nelson Mandela.In this spirit, Mandela makes the surprising decision to throw his whole-hearted (full, passionate) support behind the Springboks, the nearly all-white national rugby team that had become a hated symbol of oppression to most black South Africans. And so begins a remarkable turnaround (reversal of fortunes) for a team that seemed destined to make a poor showing as hosts of  the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

If you’re watching the film to practice your English, Freeman’s stately (majestic), measured eloquence as Mandela will give you a sporting (good enough) chance to understand the vocabulary the first time around.

Matt Damon as the Springboks’ captain Francois Pienaar is also not too difficult to understand as he echoes the calm, thoughtful, resilient (able to recover from adversity) tone of Mandela.

President Nelson Mandela congratulating Springboks' captain Francois Pienaar after victory in the Rugby World Cup finals, 1995.The grunting exertions of the rugby scenes are not so lengthy that they risk boring non-sports fans, and the underdog (not expected to win) status of the Springboks makes for stirring drama as their startling (very surprising) success is celebrated with boyish enthusiasm by Mandela.

In a quietly moving scene Damon’s character and the Springboks team visit the tiny (very small) Robben Island prison cell where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner. The song 9,000 Days, the title of which refers to the length of time Mandela spent in prison, by the South African group Overtone with Yollande Nortjie, is featured in the soundtrack (the music in the film).

The title of the film – Latin for unconquered – is drawn from a poem by the 19th century poet William Ernest Henley that in the film Mandela gives to the Springboks’ captain for inspiration. In reality, Mandela did find inspiration in the poem while in prison but instead gave the Springboks’ captain a passage from a 1910 speech called The Man in the Arena by US president Teddy Roosevelt.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Vocabulary from the poem:
(dreadful, cruel)
clutch (strong hold, grip)
winced (flinch, draw back from fear of pain)
bludgeonings (heavy blows or hits)
unbowed (not lowered)
wrath (anger)
looms (action to describe the taking shape of an impending event or the coming closer of something of impressive size)
menace (danger, threat)
strait (narrow – not the same as straight, which means without bend or curve)
scroll (list or roster)

If you see the film, let us know what you think of it!

How to Learn Phrasal Verbs

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Students of English often complain about the difficulty of learning phrasal verbs. Simply put, a phrasal verb is a combination of  a verb (an action word like look, take, set) and a preposition (a short connecting word like up, out, over) in which the preposition gives the verb a new meaning. In this sense, we can say that the meaning is idiomatic – in other words the phrase can’t be translated word by word but only by looking at the phrase as a whole.

Sometimes verb + preposition combinations are not idiomatic, as in the phrase listen to. To is simply the preposition that’s required after the Listening to a prayer, by Norman Rockwell.verb listen if you want to say what it is you’re listening to, as in: She’s listening to the radio.

Sometimes a single phrasal verb can have both a literal, non-idiomatic meaning and one or more idiomatic or figurative meanings. For example, if you want to see the moon you have to look up at the sky. The word up here is used as a kind of adverb (adverb particle is the Illustration of pirates rowing ashore in the moonlight by Howard Pyle.tehnical term) and it doesn’t really change the meaning of the verb look — it just tells us the direction you’re looking.

However, when you don’t know the meaning of a word and you look up the word in a dictionary, there’s nothing directional about the word up. Look in this phrase still means use your eyes, but the meaning of the phrase as a whole has a very specific focus – searching for information in a At work in the Acadia Center study center.reference book or online.

There are some grammatical issues with phrasal verbs – can another word come between the verb and preposition or not? – but learning how to use phrasal verbs is best accomplished the same way that you go about learning any new vocabulary.

How to Learn Phrasal Verbs:

1. Read and listen. When you see or hear a phrasal verb you don’t know, write it down. But don’t just write down the verb and the preposition, copy the whole sentence. Understanding the context – how the phrase is used with the other words in the sentence – is what will make it possible for you to use the phrase yourself in the future.

2. Find out the meaning in that specific context. This is where a teacher or native English speaker can save you time, because there is often more than one meaning for each phrasal verb, but if you’re on your own, look it up in a dictionary and decide which definition fits best in context.

3. Practice it in conversation and/or writing. Get feedback from a teacher or native English speaker about whether or not you’re using it the way native speakers do.

4. Study your list of phrasal verbs and keep adding to the list. If you find a phrasal verb from your list used in a new way, write down the new example.

Why is learning phrasal verbs in context better than learning them from a dictionary or book about phrasal verbs? Four reasons.

Poster from the 1949 film The Set-Up.1. You can be sure you’re learning the most common uses of the most common phrasal verbs first. You don’t want to waste your time learning the more obscure uses.

2. They will be easier to remember. has 15 different phrasal verbs based on the verb set (set in, set off, set out, etc.) and 15 different meanings for just the single phrasal verb set up – and the meanings vary widely. If you try to learn them all together, it’ll be too difficult to remember each separate meaning. Take them one at at time, in context.

3. When you’re learning phrasal verbs in context, through reading and listening, you’re learning a lot of other things about English as well, including other vocabulary words and grammatical structures.

4. It’s much more interesting to learn from stories and conversation than from printed lists. And the fact that you’re interested in the context will make it much easier to remember the phrasal verb later.

If you have any questions about the meaning of specific phrasal verbs, or if you have your own tips on how to learn phrasal verbs, leave a comment here!

Take it Easy

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

For intermediate and advanced English students, one of the best ways to learn new vocabulary in English — and get a better understanding of how native speakers put words together — is to read an article that expresses an opinion on a topic that interests you. The nice thing about an opinion article — such as this one in Slate about how to encourage more women to study science at university — is that the vocabulary is precise and expressive, but also informal and colloquial — in other words, it’s like listening to a well-spoken, interesting person at the dinner table. Speaking of listening… you can listen to a podcast of this article as well (scroll down the list of podcasts to June 7).

When you’re reading something difficult, first read through the whole article fairly quickly and try to get a general idea of the the topic and the thesis (the main argument). Then go back to the beginning and read more slowly, looking up words you don’t know and paying close attention to how the words are put together.

For example, in the first couple of paragraphs we find the phrase take the helm – a common expression in business English meaning to take charge, to become the leader of something, in this case referring to Ursula Burns becoming the new CEO of Xerox. The word comes from the nautical world, since helm means the wheel or tiller by which a ship is steered.

Next up is the verb balk (rhymes with walk), which means to stop, as at an obstacle, and refuse to proceed or to do something specified (usually followed by at). Here, Burns’s predecessor as CEO of Xerox, Ann Mulcahy, refutes the idea that Burns would have had a harder time reaching the top if Mulcahy hadn’t broken the glass ceiling at Xerox. Balk is also a term used in baseball, when the pitcher interrupts his pitching motion to fake a throw to one of the bases – an illegal move that allows a baserunner to advance.

This leads into a discussion of the paucity of women in senior positions. Paucity is a noun which means that there isn’t enough of something.

Don’t feel frustrated if it takes you half an hour and you’re still not even halfway through the article. Who cares how many pages or paragraphs you read? The important thing is you’ve learned a few new words in context, and that context will help you understand those words the next time you encounter them in print or on the web.

Bonus article on the topic of women in science: from a science blog, short bios of top women scientists past and present.

Have any of your own tips about learning vocabulary through reading, or about the issues raised in the Slate article about women in science?