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Concourse 2

Teaching, remembering and using lexis


You'd be wise to work through the guide to lexical relationships before you follow this guide but if concepts such as synonymy, antonymy, hyponymy, metonymy and so on are familiar to you, read on.


Other languages

Much is made of things like false friends and the fact that your learners' first languages may interfere with their ability to acquire lexis in English.  To an extent, that is true.  For learners with an Indo-European language spoken in Europe or ex-European colonies in other continents (i.e., excluding the Indo-Iranian branch), however, there are many more true friends than false.

Cognate words

cognate words

Words which have a common origin and, therefore, look, sound and mean alike are called cognates (from the Latin cognatus (blood relation)).
True and false friends are often cognate words.  For example, the English word night has cognates in French (nuit), German (Nacht), Dutch (nacht), Swedish (nat), Polish (noc), Spanish (noche) and so on and these are all true friends because meaning is unchanged but the form is recognisably related and that makes the items easy to learn.


True friends

Briefly, the list of languages with many true friends will include:

  1. The Romance languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian etc.
    There are many words, especially those of Latin, Greek or Norman-French origin which will be recognisable in English to speakers of these languages.  These particularly occur in technical and 'intellectual' areas but also include large numbers of very common words.
    Speakers of these languages sometimes show a tendency to select familiar, cognate words rather than the more stylistically appropriate English words so we get
        I entered the house and extinguished the fire
    instead of
        I went in and put the fire out
    which is also neatly avoiding the phrasal verb, of course.
  2. Germanic languages fall into two categories with similar vocabularies (and much else).  North Germanic or Scandinavian languages and West Germanic languages which include English (allegedly – there are those who prefer to call it a North Germanic language), Dutch and German as well as a host of small dialects and languages.
    There are many thousands of cognate words across these languages.  Many of these words refer to some of the most basic concepts such as land, day, hand, old, young, many, good, glass, gold etc.  The languages also share scientific and 'scholarly' terms.
  3. Slavic languages exhibit far fewer recognisable cognate words (although there are, in fact, very many hidden by orthographic and phonological changes over the centuries).  Recognisable words in English for speakers of these languages will mainly be scientific and scholarly terms of the sort shared by other European languages.  These languages are also rich in borrowings from English.

Other languages (i.e., most of them) will not exhibit any significant overlap in lexemes.  The implication is clear: learners from most language backgrounds will encounter significantly more difficulty acquiring English words than their more fortunate European colleagues.  They will need more time, more recycling and more patience.

sense and sensibility

False friends

This is not the place to list false friends for all the languages in the world.  There are numerous websites that will do that for specific languages.  Another good source is The Cambridge International Dictionary of English.

It is, however, worth noting that false friends come in a range of falseness.  Many are only false friends in certain circumstances.  This includes words which are restricted to some contexts in certain languages, e.g., angst in English is borrowed from the German word meaning anxiety but only used in psychological senses.
It is often noted, for example, that the English word sensitive is problematic for speakers of many European languages because of confusion with a word similar to sensible in those languages.  However, sensibility is used in English in the same way and refers to sensitivity of feeling.  That's how Jane Austen used it, incidentally.
The English sensibility is rendered in German as Sensibilität but the English word sensitive may be translated as sensibel.  For example, the two words sensitive and sensibility are translated in French as sensible and sensibilité, in Spanish as sensible and sensibilidad and in Italian as sensibile and sensibilità.
There is a separate guide to cognates and false friends on this site, linked at the end of this guide.
There are also some exercises on this site concerning false friends in the section for learners.  Click here to go there.


Storing and remembering words

You are going to see three sets of pictures.  For each, write down a one-word description.
Click when you are ready.


Aids to memory

Now you are going to look at some words and try to remember them.  Here's what to do:

  1. Show the words by clicking on the open eye symbol: eyeopen
  2. Look at the words for no more than 10 seconds
  3. Click on the closed eye symbol eye closed and try to write as many as you can remember.

OK?  Here's Set 1

Click when ready: eyeopen

Click eye closed after 10 seconds and write the words.

Set 2

eye closed

Set 3

eye closed

Set 4

eye closed

In theory, this task should have been getting easier as you went along.  Why should that be?
Set 1 contained nonsense words and they are harder to remember because you have no meaning to attach to them.
Moral: we all need meaning to help us recall words.  This is what your students have to do if you don't make meaning clear.
Set 2 contained real words but with no meaning connections between them.
Moral: disconnected words are difficult to remember.
Set 3 contained a set of hyponyms for hat.
Moral: words connected to each other because they fall in the same set are easier to recall.
Set 4 was a short narrative with lexis embedded in it.
Moral: words which appear in some kind of narrative are easy to recall because of the context and we can visualise what happened.


What does it mean to know a word?

That sounds an easy question but, apart from the simple denotational meaning of a word, what else do we need to know about it to be sure that we can deploy it accurately?
You have probably already thought of any connotation the word may have in certain cultures and for certain people.  What else?  When you have made some notes, click to compare your list with this one.


Semantic space

In addition to the nine points above, learners also need to grasp what is known as a word's semantic space.  This concerns what prototypical features of a word determine the limits of its use.  Children, learning their first language, often make errors in this regard, calling, for example, all four-legged creatures horses or all adults apart from mother and father, uncle and so on.  Quite rapidly, children learn to identify the prototypical features of lexemes and limit their use to within conventional, culturally determined boundaries.  This goes on through life and most native speakers are frequently faced with uses of words outside the fields in which they have previously been encountered.
Unfortunately, semantic space varies across languages and adults already have a set of prototypical features which they employ frequently to distinguish, for example between a cup and a glass (using ideas such as with or without a handle, transparent or opaque, porcelain or not etc.).
For example, in German, the word vegetable does not include the term potato and in Swedish, the word wood for the material and for a small group of trees is not the same although it is, for example, in French.
Applying the conventional prototypical features that one has acquired with one's first language to a second is, therefore, often perilous.
Moreover, determining the boundaries of closely connected words such as railing and fence, shade and shadow, job and career, position and post and so on is difficult and requires repeated exposure to the lexemes in context.  Even native speakers may disagree about the determining features which distinguish a tree from a shrub or a leaflet from a tract, for example, and the distinguishing features of such terms are very unlikely to be parallelled in the learners' first language(s).  This is not a phenomenon confined to nouns and the distinctions between stroll, saunter and wander and chilly, cool and fresh are not immediately apparent from context.
The core meanings of railing and fence are virtually identical (involving concepts of a barrier delineating spaces) so only secondary features (such as the materials from which it is made, the purposes to which it is put and its design), which may not always be present, can be used to disambiguate.  Hunting the internet for images of either will often throw up the same images in different categories.
For more in this area, see the guide to semantics, linked below.


Choosing what lexis to teach

When you are deciding what to teach in terms of lexis, what factors do you take into account?
Make a list and click here.


Active vs. passive knowledge

The distinction between active and passive vocabulary use is one that is probably familiar to most of us in our first languages.  In English, for example, a word such as nomenclature is probably known to most speakers of the language but few will have the need, the ability, the confidence or the will to use the word actively in everyday speech.  Many people would be able to assert that the word has something to do with naming things but few would be able to provide a succinct and accurate definition (i.e., that it refers to the body or system of names used in a particular specialist field).  The reason is simple: most people do not need to use the word so precisely and will have little difficulty understanding it in context.  Most users of the language do not need, either, to see the word as also meaning the act of devising a system of naming or, indeed, the procedure for doing so but both these extra meanings are in a dictionary definition of the lexeme.
As Pooh has notably pointed out:
    For I am a bear of very little brain, and long words bother me.
    AA Milne (1926), Winnie the Pooh

Learners of a language have traditionally been held to have larger passive vocabularies than is optimum for communication so a good deal of effort and thought has gone into ways to make passive vocabulary active.

However, in common with many dichotomies in the field, this one between active and passive use may be too simplistic and unsustainable.  There are three views, in essence:

  1. Passive and active vocabulary are distinguishable by whether a learner can use a word orally and in writing or simply understand it when it is seen in its written form.
  2. Passive and active vocabulary exists on a cline from understanding a lexeme in a familiar context when seen through to complete mastery of its form, use, grammar, pronunciation and orthography.  This means, for example that at various stages in the trek to full mastery, a learner may be able to recognise a word in written contexts, spell it successfully, pronounce it acceptably and (usually later) recognise it when it is heard.  Later, the learner may become aware of any of the word's metaphorical uses, its connection to other words in the same field of meaning, any cultural connotations the word may have and so on.  Finally, the word becomes embedded in the learner's personal lexicon and is used at will with very little thought and delay in retrieving it from memory.  In other words, the learner has achieved native-speaker-like mastery of the item.
  3. A lexeme exists as part of a learner's passive vocabulary until enough about it has been acquired for it to make the qualitative leap from passive to active use.  Where exactly that point is is not clear but, anecdotally, learners will often point to a time at which the item became so familiar that they quite suddenly began to use it easily and without a great deal of searching and effort.

The view taken here is that the second definition makes the most sense for the practicalities of classroom use because the focus can be on extending learners along the cline from wholly passive to masterfully active use of a lexeme in stages rather than making an effort to leap directly from wholly unknown to full usable lexemes.  The third view is compatible with that, of course, because the aim is precisely to reach the point of take-off from passive to active use.  The view is, however, not compatible with the first assumption.

The other issue with the dichotomy concerns the assumption, often made, rarely shown to be true, that learners' passive vocabularies always exceed their active ones.  While this is intuitively the case, it may not be as clear cut as it seems.  It can be the case, for example, that a learner can use a word in one sense actively and with little effort at retrieval but may be confused by the same item when it appears in a different setting and is used with a slightly different meaning or used figuratively.  So, for example, while the verb in:
    I packed my suitcase
may be readily used and understood, the same verb in:
    The theatre was packed
may constitute an unknown blocking item in a text.


Processing depth 

The assumption, and it is often just that, is that the greater the depth of processing that is asked of learners, the more secure will be their understanding of a lexeme and the more likely it is that they will be able to use it in their production (i.e., make it an active item) rather than simply understand it when the hear or see it (i.e., leave it as a passive item).

A good deal of research has been done on the ways in which new words are understood and learned.  Mostly, the research has focused on cognitive processing phenomena and revolves around the concept of depth of processing.  The concern is to discover what depth of processing and what cognitive effort is involved in moving a word from passive understanding to active use.
Thornbury (2002:25) puts it like this:

The more decisions the learner makes about a word, and the more cognitively demanding these decisions, the better the word is remembered.

However, we are not only looking for a word to be well remembered; we are also trying to make sure that a word is available to a learners for active use.

A distinction needs to be made here between incidental and explicit learning of items.
Incidental learning is the major way in which children acquire the lexicon of their first languages.  It is rare for carers to provide explicit teaching of any words (although simplification is often observed).
Explicit learning, on the other hand, involves the deliberate focus on the meaning, form and use of lexeme.
It should not be assumed that we are only focused on explicit learning of the lexis.  Incidental learning also plays a classroom role and it has been shown that frequent exposure to an item even without an explicit focus on meaning and use can often result in acquisition into passive and active vocabulary.  The spelling and pronunciation of lexemes are, for example, often acquired incidentally while the main focus may be on comprehension followed by use.
What is done with a newly encountered item, the theory goes, is crucial to whether the item is more or less immediately forgotten, remains as a passively understood lexeme or enters the learners' active production store.
For example, if one encounters a new item in a reading text, looks it up in a bilingual dictionary and then moves on, it is unlikely that the word will be remembered, although it may if the event happens frequently enough.  If, on the other hand, you are required to use a word to say something personal and important about yourself and communicate the thought to others, the word will probably have a much greater chance of remaining in your active vocabulary.
Again, annoyingly, it is difficult to identify activities and tasks which are easily consigned to one category or another because depth is, of course, a relative phenomenon.  A deep puddle is rather less deep than a deep chasm.
When we look at activity types, then, we can place them on a cline, like this:


Diagrams like that one are helpful as an aide memoire but do not tell the whole story.  Much depends on how the techniques are used.
People also think and learn differently so a technique that works for one learner may not be effective for another.



If it is true that vocabulary expands incrementally beginning with recognition and passing through stages at which an item becomes more and more familiar and more is known about it, including word class, spelling, pronunciation, collocational characteristics and so on, then there is a clear case to be made for recycling vocabulary frequently.
Some have claimed that a new word needs to be encountered 6 or 7 times before it can be committed to long-term memory and used at will.  Nation, cited in Schmitt (2000:137) suggests that up to 16 repetitions may be required for a word to be learned.  The nature of the repetitions is, however, not described.
The most obvious implication for teachers is that the introduction of a new item should not be a one-off event that is then forgotten about because the item itself will be almost instantly forgotten.
What this does not mean, naturally, is that repetition of the same event is effective.  Simply writing a word seven times in a notebook may be an effective way of learning its spelling (especially if it is very irregular) but adds nothing at all to the learner's ability to use the word and does nothing to increase the sophistication of the learner's understanding of the item's characteristics.

When a word is first encountered, it may be enough for it to be addressed quite shallowly with reference only to its meaning (via translation in some circumstances) and its word class.  A rule-of-thumb procedure for the nature of the recycling events might look something like:

  1. Inferring the items' denotational meaning via co-text, visual stimuli, L1 cognates or the use of reference texts.  Noting word class.
  2. Encountering the item in a memorable context: songs, poems, stories, relevant texts etc.
  3. Searching for synonyms, co-hyponyms, constructing paraphrases, matching exercises, comparing ideas with the teacher and colleagues.
  4. Pronouncing the item acceptably and spelling it correctly.
  5. Pronouncing and spelling derivatives and stems.  Considering affixation, conversion (word class) and compounding.  Using a mind map and identifying derived words or stems, categorising the item with others in the same word family or lexical set.
  6. Word grammar analysis.
  7. Identifying the items' connotations (if any) and figurative or metaphorical uses (if any).
  8. Categorisation exercises with other known items incorporating the new item(s).  Transferring the item's meaning to a visual or physical representation.
  9. Connecting a word with personal experiences and relating them to others.  Using the word in simulated or real communicative events.
  10. Revising the word at a later stage and constructing tests for others.

Things do not need to happen precisely in that order, of course, and it is unlikely that opportunities to deploy all these procedures will occur in a single lesson (although they might if the target set of items is small enough).

If you prefer a cut-out-and-keep diagram:



Strategies for learning and remembering lexis

Here are some strategies commonly used by learners divided into those which may help to unpack the meaning of unknown items and those which may help to consolidate learning once the meaning is known.
Some of the following are exemplified in the teaching ideas which follow.

  1. Unpacking meaning
    Most of these are at the shallow end of the spectrum because they are identification rather than learning approaches to lexis.
    1. Word class
      Identifying word class is a small help to understanding meaning and a greater one in deciding whether it is important to understand the word or not and can be done in two main ways:
      1. By using the co-text:
        For example
            any word which appears between a determiner and a noun is almost certainly an adjective as in, e.g.:
                that horrendous storm
            any word which immediately precedes or follows a verb is almost certainly an adverb, e.g.:
                she promptly left
      2. By using word shape and an understanding of affixation and compounding.  For example:
            prefixes almost always change a word's meaning, e.g.:
                productive → counterproductive
            suffixes almost always affect word class but not meaning, e.g.:
                courage → courageous
            English is right-headed so the right-hand word signifies word class and meaning (usually), e.g.:
                a doorman is a type of man not a type of door
                a fencepost is a type of post, not a type of fence
            only nouns and verbs inflect in English so, e.g.:
                an -s or -es ending is either a plural noun or a verb in the third person singular and an -ed ending on a word usually signified a past tense or past participle while -ing signifies a progressive form
    2. Cognates
      Some cognate words are instantly recognisable but others require a little understanding of the patterns.  Cognate words between languages often follow simple rules so a final 'd' in German is often a final 'th' in English and the ending- ion in English will usually be -zione in Italian and -ção in Portuguese.
    3. Using pictures and other graphics helps to:
      1. Recognise the register of a text and predict the kinds of lexis that it will contain
      2. Recognise how words such as, e.g., pass, score and goal are being used
    4. Gaining an understanding of gist by skimming a text helps to get a sense of the author's purpose and likely meanings so one is able to predict whether, e.g., adjectives are likely to be positive (as, in an advertisement, for example) or negative (as in an argument against something, for example).
  2. Consolidating learning
    Many of the techniques and activities to the right of the diagram above fall into consolidation strategies.
    1. Personalising words to connect them to one's own experience.  A learner may, for example, understand the word delightful but until they can apply it to something they personal found delightful, it may remain as a passive item with a rather distant meaning for them.
      Affective factors play a role here, too.  Some words are simply more appealing to some learners, either because they connect them with pleasant memories or because they simply like the sound and shape of a word.
    2. Using hyponymy and meronymy helps to fix words in terms of meaning so knowing, e.g., that both buses and cars are type of vehicles and that they both have steering wheels, tyres, windscreens and so on creates a web of associations.
    3. Using antonymy and synonymy can also help to fix a word's meaning by what it is similar to or not.
    4. Testing others on meaning and use is a powerful consolidation strategy because it requires the learners to face up to whether they have really understood and can use an item themselves and also requires evaluation of other people's use of the item.
    5. Focusing on collocation can involve quite deep processing because it requires active use of an item bearing in mind word class, meaning, style and register simultaneously.
    6. Writing words down is a well-known aid to memory and writing two or more sentences or short clauses to show the word's meaning is even better.  Simply writing down a word is not enough.
    7. Using a word freely in a spoken activity is a powerful aid because it automatically requires the learner to make it active and at the same time focus on meaning, pronunciation and appropriacy.
    8. Mentally or aloud repeating a word may help to fix it in the memory.
    9. Organising vocabulary notebooks by categories of meaning rather than word class or spelling is effective for some learners.


Some ideas for teaching lexis

There's nothing earth-shattering here but this may remind you of some techniques and material types to use when the focus is on lexis.


Focus on collocation

Odd-one out:

Adjective – Noun Tall – person, mountain, tree, wall?
Torrential – rain, water, river, downpour, snow?
Rain – gentle, heavy, strong, hard, tough?
Problem – large, strong, difficult, big, heavy?
Verb – Noun Make / Do – homework, money, a mistake, an effort?
Catch – cold, meaning, idea, bus, lift?
Path – wind, turn, twist, coil, spiral, twirl?
Wage – pay, earn, settle, gain, give, achieve?

Word grids.  Students work with dictionaries and/or a text to put a X in the right boxes:

  frozen food your heart out relationships into tears sugar ice chocolate
thaw X              

Matchers.  Students draw the lines and end up with something like this:


Gap fills.  Students work together to see what can naturally go in the gaps:

We …………… the …………… path up the mountain until we …………… the summit.
The view was quite …………… and we …………… for over an hour just …………… it.

Selections.  Students choose the right collocations:

The tasteless / foul / bright hotel was in a dirty / unclean / polluted alley.
The receptionist was so abusive / cruel / spiteful that we felt undesirable / unwelcome / objectionable from the outset.


Focus on inferring (not guessing) the meaning from context

In these examples, the assumed unknown word is in red.

There’s a really noisy bash going on next door.  The music is far too loud.

Students work together to decide:

  1. What kind of word is it? (a noun)
  2. What describes it? (noisy)
  3. Where do you find it? (in houses)

So it must be a kind of gathering.

He has an unpleasantly raucous voice.  It's like a drill.
  1. What kind of word is it? (adjective)
  2. Is it positive or negative? (negative [unpleasant])
  3. What else could it describe? (machine noises, animal calls, a party etc.)

So it must mean unpleasant to listen to.

There's a really noisy party taking place next door.
  1. What kind of word is it? (verb)
  2. What does it? (a party)
  3. What else could do it? (any kind of event)

So it must mean happen.

The disco was so deafeningly loud it made my head ache.
  1. What kind of words are they? (adverb + adjective)
  2. Is it a positive or negative thing? (negative [it made my head ache])
  3. What else could they describe? (machines, all noises, discos etc.)

So it must mean extremely loud.


Focus on lexical field

Add to the list
nurse, doctor, medicine, hospital, ambulance, ward, emergency, ...
Spot the odd one(s) out
wet, soaked, humid, drenched, flooded, damp, rainy
Match the verb to the noun
builder, nurse, teacher, detective
treat, construct, arrest, prepare
Divide the list into 2 / 3 / 4 etc.
sweets, sugar, hammers, chocolates, nails, eggs, saws, newspapers, bacon, screwdrivers, glue, paint

Using word clines

Many words (particularly adjectives) live on a cline between a minimal use and a more extreme meaning of the concept.  For example, words which describe size may be set on a cline from very small to very large, like this:
and words which refer to movement can be similarly arranged, like this, for example:
and those to do with the size of entities can be show as:

You could probably draw similar diagrams to express concepts such as heat (freezing up to boiling), light (pitch black up to blinding), wetness (arid up to inundated), feelings (detest up to adore), houses (slum up to palace) and so on.
As a quick way of making the relative strengths of words or the attributes to describe these notions, clines like this are easy to draw on a whiteboard even if you do not have time to prepare them beforehand.

However, there are some issues to consider:

  1. Collocation:
    Not all the words will naturally operate in the same relationships.  For example:
        The mouse ran across the room
    but not
        *The mouse galloped across the room
        A minute speck of dust
    but not
        A minute stone
    and both
        A pretty village
        A pretty hamlet

    but not
        A pretty city
  2. Connotation:
    Some words carry positive or negative senses for most speakers so while:
        We ambled down to the pub
    implies a pleasant, unhurried movement,
        She crawled into the garage
    implies an uncomfortably slow manoeuvre.
    Equally, infinitesimal implies unimportant in a way that microscopic does not.
  3. Definitions and relativity:
    Any two speakers of English are unlikely to agree exactly where on the cline certain words fit and, moreover, many are relative so, for example, while a mouse is tiny in comparison to a horse, it is huge in comparison to a flea.

Nevertheless, dealt with sensibly with due regard to these issues, clines are a useful way to focus on notional categories.


Focus on dealing with lexis in texts

Chasing down lexical chains
Find all the words in the text that describe people
Find all the words connected to medicine
Find three words which tell you he was happy
Provide the definition and get the learners to find the words
Find a word which means very unhappy
Find a word which means a type of house

Some lighter activities

In the manner of
Prepare cards with instructions such as Open the box extremely carefully, Open the parcel frantically
Students mime to each other and try to guess the adverb.
One student goes in the hot seat and tries to guess the category from the example.  E.g., "Things that are hot".  Students in the team call out examples of such things: the sun, a cooker, a cigarette, a car's engine, someone with a fever etc.  Other examples: "Things that are sold in cans", "Things that are yellow", "Things that break easily".
One student starts a drawing on the board and the team members guess the word as soon as they can.  There are endless variations on this.

Related guides
lexical relationships the obvious first place to start with considerations of meaning
semantics for a consideration of theories of meaning 
noticing for a guide to how this key learning strategy works and how it may be encouraged
cognates and false friends for the guide to some key ideas concerning lexis across languages
language interference and facilitation for a guide to how first-languages can affect the acquisition of lexis
word formation for the guide to understanding affixation
inferencing for more on how learners may draw inferences
tense and aspect for a link to four guides to analysing tense and aspect beginning with a consideration of meaning

Campbell, GL, 1995, Concise Compendium of the World's Languages, London: Routledge
Milne, AA, 1926, Winnie the Pooh, UK: Methuen
Proctor, P (Ed.), 1995, Cambridge International Dictionary of English, Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge
Schmitt, N, 2000, Vocabulary in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Swan, M and Smith, B (Eds.), 2001, Learner English, 2nd Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Thornbury, S, 2002, How to Teach Vocabulary, Harlow: Longman
Other references for lexis and vocabulary:
French Allen, V, 1983, Techniques in Teaching Vocabulary, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Gairns, R & Redman, S, 1986, Working with Words: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hoey, M, 2006, Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language, London: Routledge
Lewis, M, 1997, Implementing the Lexical Approach, Brighton, UK: Language Teaching Publications
Lewis, M, 2002, The Lexical Approach, Thomson ELT
Lindstromberg, S & Boers, F, 2008, Teaching Chunks of Language: From Noticing to Remembering, Helbling Languages
McCarthy, M, 1990, Vocabulary, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Morgan, J & Rinvolucri, M, 1986, Vocabulary, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Nation, ISP, 2001, Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Schmitt, N & McCarthy, M, 1997, Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press