Bite-size TD at the ELTC

Teacher development is a key part of working life at the ELTC and the team who are in charge of it this term recently rolled out a new initiative, “Bite-size TD”. The idea is to build up a collection of recordings done by teachers of short talks on a range of topics, that other teachers can watch when they have 15-20 minutes spare and fancy a bit of CPD.

I volunteered to do a whistle-stop tour of www.wordandphrase.info/academic which is a corpus tool. Without the /academic part of the web address, a general corpus of texts is analysed, with the academic part included, it analyses a corpus of academic texts from a range of disciplines. Both sites work in exactly the same way, so what I talked about today could equally be applied to the general version. My powerpoint was adapted from one that I used with my ESUS (English Skills for University Study, which has since undergone a few changes and been renamed) students last term, with the aim of introducing the site to them through the medium of guided discovery.

My talk worked in two ways: a) For teachers unfamiliar with the site, I suggested they use the pause button a bit and try to do the activities on the site as they went along, to understand better how it works. b) For teachers who were already familiar, and for the teachers in a) once they were familiar, it modelled my approach to introducing students to the site and provided some example activities that they could use with students.

I suggested that as well as using this approach in class with the students as an introduction, it’s useful to reinforce it by:

  • modelling use of it yourself in class if students ask you something about a word/phrase. (Particularly if you can project it)
  • using it in tutorials based on students’ written work, to guide error correction
  • encouraging students to use it before submitting a piece of work, to check their use of key language

Here is the powerpoint I used (click to download):

I’ll add the recording later if the link is a public one, but you should be able to follow what to do via the powerpoint, it’s step-by-step and the answers are included.

Do you use wordandphrase.info(/academic) with your students? How? Would love to hear about your approach/ideas for using it via the comments box below. ūüôā

Happy weekend, all!

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Chatting in the academy: exploring spoken English for academic purposes (Mike McCarthy)

Another addition to my collection of¬†write-ups based on the talks recorded by IATEFL Online and stored on the website for everybody to access. What a wonderful resource! This one is by Michael McCarthy, and, as you would expect, is based on corpora and vocabulary – this time in the context of academic spoken English…¬†

MM starts by saying it is easier to study academic English in its written form and much more challenging in its spoken forms. His main point is that there is no one single thing that we can call Spoken Academic English. His talk will draw on information from corpora and show how it can be used in materials. He is going to use a corpus of lectures, seminars, supervisions and tutorials from the humanities and the sciences, the ACAD, and a sub-corpus the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English, MICASE. He is also going to be using from the CANCODE corpus the sub-corpus of social and intimate conversations. This is the data that MM used.

Corpora are widely known and accepted in our profession, so MM didn’t need to introduce what they are and why we use them. He looked at a frequency list of words, the simplest job you can do with a corpus. You can also do keyword lists, which tells you more than just if something is frequent: it tells you whether it is significantly statistically frequent or the opposite, significantly statistically infrequent. We can also look at chunks and clusters, the way words occur together repeatedly. We rarely go beyond 5 or 6 words, due to the architecture of the human mind. Chunks are most common in the 2-4 word chunk-size. Dispersion is another thing to consider, in terms of the consistency of words being used, to know whether a particular text or genre is skewing the data.

In the spoken ACAD, in the top 50 frequency list, there are lots of the usual conversation markers, lots of informality, lots of you, I, yeah, er, erm. There are lot of familiar discourse markers, such as¬†right¬†and¬†ok, and response tokens, i.e. the words or sounds used to react. The most frequent two word pragmatic marker in ordinary social conversation is you know – 66% of the¬†occurrences of the word ‘know’ are in the form ‘you know/y’know¬†and the picture looks the same in the academic corpus. This, however, is not the whole picture. We have something like everyday conversation but when we go into the keyword analysis, things become a bit more interesting. The top 20 keywords in spoken academic data are:

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Now, a lot of familiar conversational items are present but also some that if your friends used them with you in everyday conversation over a cuppa, you’d lose the will to live. So there are words here that don’t have the informal conversation ring. Not least the preposition within which is right up there in the top 20.¬†We will come back to which, terms and sense later.

Keywords tell us more than just what is frequent – they enable us to have a greater, more nuanced picture of how words are functioning in the data. We can find some interesting differences between conversational and academic spoken English: If we do a straight frequency count, the discourse marker “ok” comes out higher in a keyword list than the frequency list, in the academic spoken English corpus.

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MM found that 95% of the “ok” in the data are either response tokens e.g. that’s ok, well, ok or discourse markers signalling phases e.g. “ok let’s go on to look at <something else>“. They are used overwhelmingly by the lecturers or tutors. MM had a PhD student with an annoying habit: after exchanging pleasantries, the student would say “ok, now I want to talk about…” and then once they had, he would go “right, ok..” ¬†– MM thought it should be HIM saying those phrases. Students very rarely respond with “right, ok“.¬†So in academic speaking, we are looking at a different set of discourse roles than in conversational English, that is what the corpus is showing us. The roles are directly related to the language. Some items that are present in the frequency list disappear in the key word list, i.e. fall too far down the list for MM to be prepared to go through and find them e.g. well, mm, er, you. This negative result says that these words do not distinguish academic speaking from any other kind of speaking. However, some of the language is particular to the roles and contexts of the academic set-up.

MM says it takes a long time and a lot of hard work to actually interpret what the computer is trying to tell you. It is dispassionate: no goals, prejudices, aims or lesson plans. It just offers bits of statistical evidence.

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What struck MM when he looked at this list is that on the conversational side, at least 3 and possibly more of these are remarkably vague. It surprises people that there is a great degree of vague category markers that come up to the top of this spoken academic discourse, but it shouldn’t because the student is being nurtured into a community of practice and in any community with shared values/perspectives/opinions, you don’t need to specify them. You can simply say x, y, etc or x, y and things like that. This presence of the vague category markers is crucial – not only do you have to hear and understand them but you have to be able to decode their scope, and know what the lecturer means when they say them. Vague category marking is something that is shared with everyday conversation but the scope is within academic fields.

At no. 18, “in terms of the” – not surprising because in academia we are always defining things in terms of something else, locating pieces of knowledge within other existing/known knowledge – the discipline as a whole or a particular aspect of it.¬†It is much more widely spread in academic spoken discourse compared with conversational:

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MM goes on to look at the consistency, or spread of items across data Рlooking for things that occur in a great number of texts. In social conversational data, the dispersion of I and you is consistently high. The picture in academic spoken English is different:

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The pronouns are reversed – you is more frequent than I. This brings us back to the fundamental business of roles: most of academic discourse is about telling “you” how to do things and become part of the community of practice. Thinking back to the chunks “you can see” etc. A transmissive you. However, we do notice there is quite a bit of I in the academic spoken, it’s not remote. I is generally used by lecturers and tutors. But if we look across events, there is great variation. Even within two science lectures, in one there is a personal anecdote, so more use of “I” (more, even, than the informal guest speaker), in another not:

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Here is a summary of the tendencies MM has covered:

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The remainder of the talk is an advertisement for Cambridge University Press’s Academic Vocabulary in Use book, which draws on what is learnt from the data, trying to capture the mix of chatty conversational items and items that are very peculiar to the academic discourse. The best grip on spoken academic discourse is through understanding the discourse roles of the tutors and the students, which influence how they speak – i.e. differently. They will use certain keywords and chunks, but the labels (e.g. lecture, seminar, supervision) used for speech events are a very imperfect guide of what will be included there.

This was a fascinating talk, one I’m glad I’ve finally caught up on! I always find it interesting to see how corpora are used and what is discovered in the process. Nice to see the “in terms of” chunk in there – it reminds me of my first year at the Sheffield University International Summer School, where during the induction Jenifer Spence – author EAP Essentials ¬†and leader of the theory side of our induction programme that year – spent a fair bit of time hammering the importance of “in terms of” into us: we were always to be asking, and encouraging students to ask/consider, “in terms of what?” in relation to whatever it was that they were writing or saying! I had never considered how odd it would sound in an informal chat though, as per MM’s example “How was your holiday?” “Well, in terms of the accommodation…” ¬†– not really! Unless you felt like being particularly pompous, I suppose…¬†

Helping language learners become language researchers: wordandphrase.info (part 1)

What is wordandphrase.info?

Wordandphrase.info is a brilliant website. Essentially, it is a user-friendly interface for analysing a corpus. (For those of you who haven’t come across this term as yet, a corpus is a collection of texts stored electronically.) In this case, it is the COCA (Corpus Of Contemporary American English) corpus, a 450 million word corpus. It is the largest corpus that is freely available, was collected between 1990 and 2012 and contains texts from spoken, newspaper, fiction and academic registers.

Due to its user-friendliness (colour-coding for different parts of speech in the examples, colour-coding for frequency in text analysed etc.), wordandphrase.info seems ideal for use with students, a tool that could help them become more independent, by providing a means of discovering how language is used, that doesn’t rely on the teacher.

It provides information like:

  • frequency of word or phrase use (within the top 500 most-used words, 501-3000, 3000+)
  • frequency of word or phrase use within particular genres (spoken, newspapers, fiction, academic)
  • definitions, synonyms and collocates (for which it also provides frequency information, making it a very powerful collocational thesaurus, for phrases as well as words)

It allows you to:

  • input (type in or copy and paste) a paragraph of text and see at a glance (through colour-coding) how frequent words are.
  • search for a phrase from that inputted text, by clicking on the component words and generate examples of that chunk of language in use.
  • look at a list of colour-coded examples and identify, at a glance, what types of words are used before and after the word in focus (nouns? adjectives? adverbs? prepositions?), with a rough indication of frequency (in terms of how much highlighting of a particular colour you can see in comparison to another) too.

All in all, it enables you to gain a  better idea of the meaning and use of a word or phrase, as well as its potential alternatives.

However, when learners first meet it, it might seem daunting:

  • When you search commonly used words or phrases, large numbers of examples may be generated: this may be confusing for learners, especially as the examples are portions of sentences (x number of words around the word being analysed) rather than complete sentences, and are devoid of context.
  • Before the colour-coding for parts of speech can help you, you need to understand what it means!
  • There is a lot of information on the page – it can be difficult to know where to start.

How can we use this website with learners?

This is something I am still exploring. I think it has massive power but the limitations need managing carefully so that they don’t put students off.

I have already created some self-access materials (inspired by a course mate of mine – see below for more details) which guide learners through using the site, through a series of tasks, and help them to discover what they can do with it.¬†My learners (of various levels) have used these materials and many were able to complete the tasks without too much difficulty. Some learners independently shared information they found via using the site, using our class blog. However, for the most part it “gathered dust”.¬†

While my materials address the “how” (at a basic level – there is more that the website can do, that I am still finding out!), they don’t help learners become better at identifying the patterns that are present in the examples generated.¬†Perhaps in order for learners to use wordandphrase.info successfully and really harness its power, in-class scaffolding is needed, in the form of using concordances with learners, getting them to produce word profiles and generally developing their noticing skills. Of course, as teachers we are always trying to help learners develop better noticing skills, but we usually work with texts, complete with some kind of context, rather than with sentence fragments devoid of context. Transferring these noticing skills, then, may not be achieved automatically.

One of my aims in the next couple of months is to create some activities using concordances and other information from Wordandphrase.info and use them with my learners, to give them more scaffolding, and help them to develop their use of the site independently, as language researchers. I hope to integrate it so that learners use it to find out  more about the vocabulary we meet in class, as well as encourage them to apply it to language they meet out of class. What I create and how I get on with this project will form part 2 (and onwards?!) of this series of posts.

Here are the materials I have made:

Wordandphrase.info self access¬† – a guided discovery tour of the website, with an answer key at the end. If you aren’t familiar with the site, these might be as useful for you as for your learners?! ūüôā

These materials were inspired by a course mate of mine at Leeds Met , Jane Templeton, who made some guided discovery materials to help learners use wordandphrase.info ¬†to choose mid-frequency vocabulary from texts they encountered, as these mid-range words provide a useful learning focus, and to find out more about their choices. I wanted to use wordandphrase.com¬†with my learners too, but wanted a more general purpose intro to the features of the site, rather than geared towards that particular purpose. ¬†So it was I made my materials, with the example word “outfit” – which may seem a rather random choice! – taken from the page of compounds learners meet in Headway Advanced Unit 6. Though, one might well question whether guiding learners towards a particular purpose, as in Jane’s materials, might be more useful than my vaguer, more general approach… <answers on a postcard!>

How can this website help *you*, the teacher?

Wordandphrase.info enables you to:

  • copy and paste in a text that you want to use with your learners and see at a glance what percentage of high frequency (top 0-500), mid-frequency (500-3000) and low-frequency¬†(outside the top 3000) words are present in your text and so an indication of what difficulties it is likely to present to your learners.
  • You could use this information to guide you in decisions regarding what words to pre-teach, what scaffolding your learners might need when they meet this text, or perhaps what words to adjust to more frequently used synonyms (something else the site can help you find, as it provides both synonyms and frequency information, as well as examples of use, if you are unsure whether you have found the right alternative) if you feel that would be more appropriate, depending on your goals in using the text and the level of your learners.

Conclusion:

Wordandphrase.info¬†is a site with a lot of potential for language learners and teachers alike. I’m still learning how to use it and finding ways to tap that potential.¬†Please let me know how you get on with using the materials I have uploaded here, and the website, whether yourself, or on behalf of your learners – I would be very interested to hear! I would also be interested to hear any ideas, you have and try out, for integrating use of Wordandphrase.info,¬†in any context, and how it has benefited your learners.