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?! 🙂

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.

Quizlet for learners: a step-by-step guide

Quizlet  is a website that enables anybody who wishes to learn anything to make flashcards related to that topic. In the case of English language learners, it is a very useful tool for learning and revising vocabulary.

Using Quizlet, learners can make their own sets of flashcards, then use these flashcards in various modes for studying, testing themselves and playing games to improve their recall of the vocabulary. I have just finished making a step-by-step guide to Quizlet, so that my learners can try using it themselves at home.

My materials contain step-by-step instructions and screenshots, showing learners how to:

  • find Quizlet(!)
  • sign up
  • create sets
  • use the different study, test and game modes
  • monitor their progress

Of course, if you, as a teacher, are unfamiliar with this website, you could also use these to help you get to grips with it, so that you are more comfortable recommending it to your students!

In my upper intermediate class, out of ten students only one had ever heard of Quizlet and he wasn’t sure enough how about it worked to be able to tell anything about it – he was just vaguely aware of it. Not all students use it already, then, so it can be helpful to introduce them to it, as another tool to support their learning. This is the class I have made these materials for, though I plan to use them with other classes too.

As with all my learner autonomy-related projects, I will be bringing Quizlet back into the classroom regularly, via discussion and use (along the same principles discussed in this post on scaffolding autonomy), to maximise the chances of learners using it regularly and independently, of their own volition.

Here is a link to the materials I have made: Using Quizlet!

I hope these are useful to you. (Of course I would be interested in any feedback from you or you on behalf of your learners, with regards to how user-friendly they are etc!)

I will write a follow-up post in due course (there’s a surprise! 😉 ), to let you know how my learners got on with Quizlet and these materials.

Coursebooks in the language classroom: friend or foe?

I have written a second blog post for the British Council Teaching English website, as one of their  TeachingEnglish associates – a name that has been given to us since I wrote my initial post! I feel rather out of place on a list amongst such experienced, knowledgeable teachers but honoured to have the opportunity to be there and happy to be able to share my ideas.

My post, which was published today, can be found here and looks at ideas for making the course book a friend rather than a sworn enemy, through:

  • evaluation
  • adaptation
  • personalisation
  • looking for opportunities to use the content as a springboard to fostering learner autonomy

You could also have a look at Rachael Roberts’s post on the same topic, here – it turns out we both tend to look on course books as cookery books rather than strait-jackets! 

Thank you, British Council Teaching English!

 

Laila’s Story: the next instalment of my materials (listening, language focus and pronunciation) at last!

Months ago (erm, late September to be slightly more precise!), I started uploading instalments of the unit of materials I made for the assessment component of my Materials Development module at Leeds Met last year. Life, a new job, the IHCYLT and everything else took over, and I didn’t get any further than the reading section. At long last, then, here is the next instalment!

This is the listening section of the aforementioned unit and is based on a recording I made of “Laila” telling me a story about something life-changing that happened to her at school as a child and the effect she feels it had on her as a person. This instalment includes:

  • a listening sequence which uses  Vandergrift and Goh’s (2012) metacognitive approach
  • a language focus on features of spoken narrative
  • a pronunciation focus on contrastive stress

All activities draw out different elements of Laila’s story. You can find the following materials  on the Materials Page of this site:

  • Student book pages
  • Teacher’s book pages (including the transcript of the recording)
  • The recording of Laila’s story (for personal use with students only, not for reuse in other materials or websites)
  • The pronunciation tracks

If you use these materials, I would be interested to hear about how you used them and you/your students’ response to them. So, please do comment on this post or on my Materials Page and let me know! 🙂

Coursebooks and Cookery

I read this post about the coursebook as guidebook a while back, and found it an interesting metaphor. I wondered what my own metaphor for coursebooks would be, but then forgot all about it amidst the million other things I had to think about… Then, last night, when I should have been falling asleep but instead found myself hostage to a buzzing brain, it finally came to me in spades: For me, the coursebook is a cookery book. A recipe book. I have divided up my metaphor into sections but there is plenty of overlap between them…

asian recipes

A recipe book ready for use! (Taken from Google advanced search: labelled for commercial reuse with modification.)

Construct

  •  Recipe books might be divided up into regions for a book dedicated to the recipes from a particular country or parts of a meal e.g. starters, mains, desserts, or any other, while coursebooks are generally neatly divided in some way, for example “units” (Headway), “modules” (Cutting Edge), “lessons” (Choices). For both, there is generally a handy map to help you find what you are looking for (gravies or pastries, roasts, desserts, reading or speaking, grammar, vocabulary)
  • There are recipe books for everybody – vegetarians, students, people who can’t cook, people who only  have ten minutes to cook, children, people who want to make a multiple-course banquet-esque meal – and course books for everybody – learners of General English (Global; Innovations), EAP, ESP, Business English, learners of different ages and levels and so on.
  • You don’t have to start at the beginning – you can choose the recipe that best suits your/your learners’ needs at a particular time. You can select recipes from different books and combine them to make your own special meal. Or you may go through the recipe book in order but not use all the recipes (there’s only so much rice/grammar/potatoes you need with one meal! And the recipients of your cooking may not need feeding up with grammar/potatoes in all lessons/at all mealtimes).
  • Recipe books and coursebooks both tend to be written by people who know what they are talking about and know (from experience and learning) what ingredients work well together. Therefore, they are a useful tool. Neither are intended to be bibles. (Or their authors would have written….bibles!)

Content/Use

  • Recipe books contain a myriad of ingredients and suggestions of ways to turn these into a tasty meal. Coursebooks contain activities and instructions for how to use these as part of a successful lesson. But the more you use the ingredients, and the more you learn about cooking, the more your understanding of what does and doesn’t work grows. You know that certain things need cooking. You know that certain flavours go well together, while others, well, just not happening.
  • This enables you to experiment – to combine ingredients in different ways not specified by the book in front of you. You may base your concoction on a recipe but substitute various ingredients that suits your tastes/needs/stock at the time. Just because you don’t follow the recipe, doesn’t mean your meal will taste terrible. Equally, just because you don’t follow the recipe, doesn’t guarantee something delicious either!
  • Experimentation is a messy business both in the kitchen and in the classroom. Sometimes it works really well, sometimes your version of the cake recipe just doesn’t rise. Of course, even if you follow the recipe to the letter, sometimes the cake just doesn’t rise either. Ingredients can be slightly unpredictable and you might have the amounts ever so slightly wrong. In the classroom, learners can be unpredictable. What works well in one kitchen/classroom for one chef/teacher may not turn out great in another.
  • Experimentation is likely to be haphazard/hit-and-miss if you aren’t doing it from a principled base. If, like I did when I was 8 years old, you attempt to make hot-cross buns by putting every single ingredient on your list in one big mixing bowl at once, you end up with a goopy mess and your mum isn’t best pleased. In the kitchen, we may think we are being entirely haphazard in what we are doing, but that haphazardness, when successful, tends to be informed with underlying knowledge about what does and doesn’t work. (8 year old me hadn’t learnt that bunging everything into one bowl at once does not a hot cross bun produce…)
  • Sometimes, if your experimentation goes really wrong, and you end up with a pan on fire, it’s best to put the fire out and start again! If an activity goes flop, sometimes ending it and moving on is your best bet. Sometimes, perseverance can lead to results – your recipe may look like it’s going wrong but you try a bit of this and a bit of that and the outcome is tasty! Sometimes, changing things around a bit during an activity can be the difference between success and failure. The trick is to know when to stop. If your pan is on fire, this is probably quite a good time to do so… :-p
  • However, despite the dangers, experimentation is also great fun! And the better you understand the principles of what you are doing, your aims, your learners needs (the cake won’t rise if you keep opening the door, you want to make a ginger and lemon cake not a triple chocolate cake, your guests don’t want a roast dinner when they come round for a cup of tea later), the more successful your experimentation is likely to be. You can also learn from your mistakes/successes if you think about what went wrong/right and why when you’ve finished creating.
  • You can be inspired by your recipe books and throw in extra ingredients of your own: they can make a great starting point but the recipes might need some adaptation for your vegetarians, coeliacs, diabetics, fussy eaters who don’t eat x, y and z… out with one ingredient, in with another. The same applies in the classroom – you have different learning styles to cater for and different personalities, both individual and collective class personalities, which requires careful adaptation.

Not suitable for vegetarians – whatever the French may say! (Taken from Google advanced search: labelled for commercial reuse with modification)

Learning potential

  • Some cookery books reflect the idea the people using them don’t know everything about the ingredients/origins/meals in question. Such books contain useful additional information to guide the users or just to broaden their horizons. For example, a book of Indian curries may contain background information about the different spices, rices, chillies, specific origins of different types of curry etc. Some coursebooks are accompanied by teachers books that help the teachers to understand the background/origins of the activities the coursebook writers have used in the student book or background to useful elements for teaching and learning. E.g. Global Advanced has some essays for teachers about things such as developing learner autonomy.
  • Some people who cook may not be able to go on cookery courses to develop their cooking skills. For them, the recipe book (and especially the more informative ones that weave the theory into the procedure etc.) may be the biggest source of learning. We also learn by watching more experienced others cook and seeing what they do/what results.

Creation

  • Some people who do a lot of cooking may start to make their own recipes and recipe books, to share with others – initially through forums/websites etc. and maybe one day being published. They enjoy the process of experimentation, evaluation and creation, they enjoy sharing what they create. Teachers, too,  may enjoy making their own materials and sharing them – on a blog, on a website that curates materials/lesson plans e.g. Onestopenglish and may or may not end up getting published one day.

We all have our favourites… (Taken from Google advanced search: labelled for commercial reuse with modification)

  • There is no limit to the number of recipes it is possible to create. New ways of combining ingredients and, indeed, new ingredients, are always being coined/discovered. People study the art of cooking, the science of tastebuds and their response to different flavours – which are most effective? – and they also study the art of teaching and learning, to discover new ways of doing this more effectively.

Finally, you never really know if a recipe will work FOR YOU/YOUR LEARNERS until you roll up your sleeves and get dirty! There is no substitute for experience. But you could equally spend 20 years making the same recipe, using the same ingredients, in which case, you are living one day of experience 20×365 times… So the trick is to try out new recipes, as well as learn from recipes that are known to be reliable, experiment, reflect, evaluate and broaden your repertoire of what you can do in the kitchen. That way, you will discover many, many tasty dishes that you wouldn’t otherwise have known about. And that keeps life interesting! 🙂

I’ll finish off with a current favourite recipe of mine:

Take 1 helpful, friendly, supportive DoS

A handful of helpful happy colleagues

A few cups of fun

A dollop of creativity

A pinch of inspiration

A large cup of conscientiousness

Lashings of hard work

A tablespoon of rest to be added every so often

Season with regular CPD

Stir vigorously and allow to simmer in a lovely school 🙂

“Itchy Feet!” (Some *more* new materials…)

Recently, Sandy Millin published a blogpost, in which she shared an audio recording, made on request shortly after arriving in Sevastopol, Ukraine, and described a lesson that another teacher (not the one who had made the original request) had made based on this recording after finding it on Twitter.

I listened to the recording and felt inspired to create some materials to go with it. You can find a link to these materials (a student handout and accompanying teachers’ notes, as well as a brief powerpoint quiz about Sevastopol, including introduction to Sandy, and a transcript of the recording) here. (Scroll down to number 3, “Itchy Feet” )

Conveniently enough, the topic links in with a reading text that my learners will shortly be looking at in New Headway Upper Intermediate. I plan to use these materials to spice up the lesson a bit. At higher levels, we have more time to work through the book content, so there is room to do this. Though it isn’t written into the materials, because it would be overly specific for materials to share, I also plan to have them compare Sandy’s experience, and the language she uses to talk about them, with the experiences written about in the reading text and the language used therein. The title of the materials was actually inspired by NHUI, as the phrase “itchy feet” features in a vocabulary activity within their reading and speaking sequence!

For homework, I’m planning to get my learners to pretend that our Edmodo group (http://www.edmodo.com) is a travel forum that they use, and through which they have got to know each other, and have them post from the exotic destination of their choice, to say they’ve moved there to work/study, describing how it’s going so far – positives and negatives. As well as language and content related to this lesson, this will also recycle the informal language usage that they looked at earlier in the unit, in the context of informal letters and emails between friends.

No doubt I will blog to share how it goes after I’ve used these materials. I’d be interested to hear how you get on with them too! 🙂

Low-level Teens and the Global SIG Food Issues Month (Part 2)

In my first post about the Global SIG’s Food Issues Month, I described the background to my materials, some reflections on using them in the classroom with two groups of low level teenaged learners and the links to the materials themselves. In the two lessons I described, I had not managed to complete all of the activities in the materials. In fact, with each group, we completed two out of the three pages of activities. I also mentioned that I would be very interested to see how much each group had taken in during their lesson.

This post is the next instalment in the story and some reflection on the concept of the Global SIG Food Issues Month: 

So, in the next lesson, we started off with a review of what we *had* done, before proceeding to complete the final activities. I did this review phase in a different way with each group:

Class 1:  I put learners into groups to make a mind-map of what they remembered (modelling with an example on the board first), and then each group contributed to a central mind-map on the board. Unfortunately, I mismanaged this somewhat, so learners referred to their papers from the previous lesson part way through the process and gathering the ideas centrally was a bit laborious.

Class 2: I elicited what they remembered orally, giving them time to discuss in groups before they responded to each elicitation. This worked really well, there was lots of discussion at each point when this was required, and learners demonstrated that they had retained a very substantial portion, the majority, of what we had looked at in the previous lesson, both in terms of content and language (e.g. the vocabulary learnt). I was/am so proud of them! 🙂

The remaining activities involved considering the meaning of the Fair Trade symbol (none of the learners had come across it, but it does appear on some chocolate in the supermarkets here e.g. the Carrefour supermarket own brand dark chocolate, and I had an example packet to show them), how this could help children like Aly (the boy whose experiences are depicted in the reading text that learners had looked at in the previous lesson) and then brainstorming other ways that the children could be helped. This all culminated in learners writing a letter to Nestle, to express anger at the situation of children working on the cocoa farms and asking Nestle to become a Fair Trade company so that their chocolate would no longer be produced by child slaves.

Learners had plenty of ideas for how people in general could help the children (raising awareness of the issue through television/internet/radio, education etc.) and what they, themselves, could do (buy Fair Trade products, talk to their friends at school about it, encourage their families to buy Fair Trade products etc.)

When it came to writing the letter, I scaffolded it with some chunks of language that they were able to use to frame their thoughts/ideas and they managed to produce some good pieces of writing. (Again, very proud of them!! 🙂 )

My reflections on the Global SIG Food Issues Month concept: 

Firstly, I enjoyed the challenge of creating a lesson plan and materials that fit within the parameters of the Food Issues Month and weaving this in to the syllabus my learners are following, to increase the benefits for them. I think ‘events’ like this are perfect for stirring a teacher’s creative juices, which can only be a good thing.

I also thought it was a very interesting idea, to have a month where teachers all contribute ideas/materials/sources etc. on a central theme, taking something that is very bog standard in EFL materials (e.g. food) to a different level; looking at a common EFL theme from an uncommon perspective.

It encouraged me to look for unusual sources to turn into resources, and in the process I, myself, learnt things that I wasn’t previously aware of. In this case, that child workers on cocoa farms are still, today, far from uncommon and do live in terrible circumstances. I think twice before buying chocolate now, and do look for the Fair Trade symbol. So, I think such events also enable teachers to learn, which, much like the challenges and the stirring creative juices, keeps things interesting and fresh for us.

Such an event also provides a good opportunity for experimentation, reflection and evaluation (so, experimental/reflective practice), even if you don’t create the materials yourself: Using materials and resources you wouldn’t usually use, to teach something in a way you wouldn’t normally teach it helps you to break out of any rut you might be in. Even if you are not in a rut, it provides the perfect excuse to try out something new and see how well it works. You can then reflect and evaluate, to decide what you would do differently next time around, as well as what was effective enough that you would do it that way again. Of course, if you did create the materials, the reflection/evaluation could/would be applied to the effectiveness of these too.

In conclusion, then, I think the Global SIG Food Issues Month concept offers both learners and teachers a valuable opportunity: Learners, to break away from the run of the mill treatment of typical EFL themes that they usually meet in class, and teachers a chance for some extra in-work professional development.

I hope there will be another such themed month again before too long! Thank you, Global SIG, for a most enjoyable challenge! 🙂