Listening for needles in haystacks: how lecturers introduce key terms

This article reports on a corpus-based study of the discourse of university lectures, which aimed to identify linguistic patterns that could help EAP / L2 students with note-taking. It finds some ‘standard’ formulaic expressions, as well as other discourse markers used by lecturers to highlight key terms or concepts.

Martinez, R., S. Adolphs & R. Carter, ‘Listening for needles in haystacks: 
how lecturers introduce key terms’, ELT Journal , Vol. 67/3, July 2013. doi:10.1093/elt/cct020


Lectures where the professor/teacher speaks quite freely and spontaneously are quite frequent at universities in English-speaking countries, making it necessary for students to be able to recognise both relevant and less relevant (maybe anecdotal) information in order to take good notes. Martinez et al note that little corpus-based research has been done in this area which can be particularly problematic for EAP or L2 students. While working to create a course on listening skills for EAP students preparing to study in the UK, this gap in the research became apparent, and thus the current study was conducted. The qualitative analysis of corpus findings identified a key function in the discourse of lectures – introducing/defining a new term or concept – which then became the focus of the study. This decision was also based on the fact that, as shown in the corpus data, different lecturers use different ‘word strings’ (i.e. phrases of 2-6 words) to fulfil this function – as the authors put it, there’s “a ‘haystack’-like complexity that [they] believe may make recognizing when new terminology and concepts are being defined particularly challenging for EAP listeners.” (p.316)


The study of a corpus containing 1.7 million words of recorded lectures on Business topics at UK universities showed that more ‘obvious’ markers to introduce a new term or concept were comparatively rare (making it likely that L2 students may miss them!). Most of the most frequently used markers were actually more subtle and nuanced.

A couple of fairly transparent markers were identified, such as those including ‘signal verbs’ like ‘call’ or ‘mean’. For example: what we call …, what are called …,. the so-called …, or  what I mean by this is …, by which I mean …, what that means is that

Where ‘call’ is usually cataphoric, ‘mean’ is often used to make an anaphoric reference to a term previously mentioned, and could therefore be more challenging for students taking notes, unless the lecturer repeats the term after their definition.

Some of the more common, though less obvious or transparent, markers did not use these signal verbs, but rather adverbs like ‘basically’ and ‘essentially’.  For example, …are basically …, … is basically the view that …, so it’s essentially …, which essentially says that … Unless L2 students are made aware of this function of these adverbs, they may not notice that a definition of a term/concept is being given.

Other potential problems that were identified (the ‘haystack’) regarding the langauge used to fulfil the function of introducing new terms/concepts include:

  • the lecturer arriving at a definition after a deviation or digression.
  • the lecturer paraphrasing a definition – often, paraphrases were linked by lecturers with ‘or’ which implies an option / choice of definition, rather than a paraphrase.
  • the lecturer using several linguistic devices in combination, which can be confusing for L2 students.
  •  the lecturer illustrating the concept, defining it by example, but without a succinct, outright definition.
  •  ‘back-loading’ of information, with the definition given at the end of a train of thought, with other information separating the term or the name of the concept and the definition.


Although research in this area is still in its infancy and this study cannot be considered comprehensive, the authors make some pedagogical suggestions for EAP classes. They advocate, for example, explicit noticing activities and analysis based on authentic lecture transcripts, highlighting the importance of students practising this noticing while listening, not only reading. Students need to be made aware that lecturers introduce and define key terms and concepts in a number of, often subtle, ways so that they can work on identifying their own lecturers’ discourse style.

Another point the authors mention considers the use of presentation software and slides in lectures. ‘Good presentation practice’ discourages large amounts of text on visual aids, but in this case these good intentions might actually be less helpful for students if they miss the connection between the content on the slide and the explanation given orally by the lecturer. The authors suggest that research could also be conducted, and shared with lecturers, into how more explicit markers of such connections could be helpful.

They also highlight that this study doesn’t say anything about the impact understanding the discourse markers they have identified here actually has on students’ uptake of information from lectures. Still, this report will hopefully prompt lecturers to consider how they present new ideas or terms in their lectures, and also give some direction to EAP tutors aiming to prepare students for dealing with the complexities of note-taking at university.


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Clare Maas
Lecturer in EFL and EAP at Trier University (Germany)
Clare holds post-graduate qualifications from the University of Wales and Trinity College London. Before moving into tertiary education, she taught English at German grammar schools, and English for Specific Purposes at several language academies in the UK and Germany. Her professional interests include EAP materials development and CPD for teachers. She also blogs at

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